Where Big Leaps Happen

The Bronze Age was a big leap forward because it was one of the first times humans learned how to make two plus two equal six.

Take copper. Its hardness, measured on the 1-10 Mohs scale, is a 3. Pretty soft. Then take tin. Its hardness is a 1.5 on the Mohs scale. Very soft.

Mix them together. Now you have bronze.

And bronze is hard. It’s a 6 on the Mohs scale – harder than either copper or tin by themselves.

You take two soft metals, mix them together, and out comes a hard metal.

This kind of stuff doesn’t happen often. But it’s a big deal when it does.

Bronze’s hardness – which revolutionized toolmaking – wasn’t unprecedented. Jade, for example, is also a 6 on the Mohs scale. But jade is rare. Copper and tin were abundant enough that you could make lots of bronze. It was the equivalent of making something very rare very attainable. And it pulled us out of the Stone Age.

Few talented people get all their value from being great at one thing. Being so good at one thing that it’s enough to make you extraordinary is rare. More likely are people who are pretty good at a few things and combine those things to make a big leap into something great. Steve Jobs was a pretty good technologist and a pretty good designer. Neither on their own was exceptional. But the combination of the two was extraordinary, creating the bronze of our time. Same with Einstein, who mixed good math skills with a good imagination to create pure genius.

A few other common things that create amazing things when mixed together:

1. Intelligence mixed with good communication.

There are a lot of smart people. There are a lot of good communicators. But there are few of both, and only when the two meet do good ideas gain the traction they deserve.

Academics are some of the smartest people in the world. But have you read most academic papers? Some are unreadable, with density the Mohs scale could not measure. This isn’t a bug; academics write for other academics, in language lay people aren’t used to.

It’s only when a great idea meets a great communicator that ideas take off. Sometimes it’s a great communicator taking others’ ideas and explaining them well. Author Yuval Noah Harari did not break new ground, or even propose a new theory, in his book Sapiens. But he explained stuff so well that the book sold 8 million copies. This has to drive historians who spend their careers making new discoveries crazy. But readers don’t just want a discovery; they want a discovery for the least amount of effort. And a good story reduces the effort required to understand something. John Burr Williams had more profound insight on the topic of valuing companies than Benjamin Graham. But Graham knew how to write a good paragraph, so he became the legend.

2. Investment skills mixed with realistic budgeting skills.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was worth the equivalent of $200 billion when he died in 1877. And then:

Forty-eight years after his death, one of his direct descendants died penniless … When 120 of the Commodore’s descendants gathered at Vanderbilt University in 1973 for the first family reunion, there was not a millionaire among them.

This had almost nothing to do with philanthropy and everything to do with absurd, almost unbelievable, spending.

You can be great investor and still spend yourself broke. Ego is easier to develop and maintain than alpha, so good returns without the psychology necessary to hold onto those returns where money can continue compounding can be defeating. The math of compounding ensures that neither those who earn big returns but spend them quickly, or power savers who settle for low returns, will build meaningful wealth. There are many good investors. There are many good savers. It’s the intersection of both that compounding rules wild and big leaps are made.

3. Ambition mixed with someone to reel you in.

You would never have heard the name Walt Disney if it weren’t for his brother Roy’s ability to tame wild ambition into viable business ventures. Walt had such a singular focus on creating good animation that, if left to his own devices, he’d push every project past its breaking point. His early ventures went bankrupt before Roy joined and hit the brakes.

The same mindset that allows visionaries to see things normal people can’t blinds them to realities normal people understand. If you’re staggeringly good at one thing, your mind probably has little bandwidth for other vital things necessary to make your skill work.

Look around. There are a lot of people with crazy good ideas. But many people with crazy good ideas are crazy, and their idea is an outgrowth of a mind that has little patience for things like employee culture and appeasing investors, so their idea never stands a chance. A big leap happens when a visionary mixes with a sober operator who can tame the worst impulses of an otherwise great idea.

4. Understanding how others think mixed with not caring what other people think of you.

If you can put your finger on what other investors think of the world – what they want, what they expect, where they see it going – your ability to exploit opportunity by being a contrarian is powerful. And I think a lot of people can actually do that. But most don’t, because they care what other people think of them, and taking the other side of a popular view doesn’t make you look smart. Your boss won’t like it. Your friends won’t like it. Your investors won’t like it. Contrarian thinking makes a big leap when it’s mixed with indifference to looking like an idiot.

More on this topic:

Casualties of Your Own Success

Haste Makes Waste

Obvious Things That Easily Escape Attention