Derek Sivers is the successful founder of CDBaby and a person I admire. His book “Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur” is one I highly recommend. I normally respect Derek’s way of thinking, but a recent blog post of his, entitled “Happy, Smart and Useful,” gave me some major heartburn. In his post, Derek makes the argument that “we have the tendency to forget” the value of being “useful” when pursuing a fulfilling life. People who are “not useful,” he says, are those who fail to focus on “doing something that’s really valuable to others.”
What does it mean to be “really valuable to others?” Does it mean creating something that has immediate market appeal? Derek said, “Ultimately you must be lifted by those around you.” Is that the measure of our value, when we are lauded by our contemporaries and peers?
If yes, then all of the unsung heroes whose remarkable ideas made modern life possible are abject failures. In his book “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World,” the brilliant author Steven Berlin Johnson chronicles those who, in pursuit of a unique vision and widely disparaged by their contemporaries, doggedly pressed on toward a goal they alone could see, and upon achieving it, turn the tide of human history. You will not know their names, for they often died penniless and without acclaim. We can only recognize the significance of their accomplishments in the revealing light of history, or as Steven Jobs said more plainly, “We can only connect the dots looking backward.”
It is a rare person indeed who recognizes the names of:
- Ignaz Semmelweis, who was roundly mocked and criticized by the medical establishment when he first proposed, in 1847, that doctors and surgeons wash their hands before attending to their patients. It took almost half a century for basic antiseptic behaviors to take hold among the medical community, well after Semmelweis lost his job and died in an insane asylum.
- Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise-Marcellin Jobard, a 19th Century Belgian who experimented with artificial electric light 150 years before Edison, the so-called inventor whom we were taught to revere in American High School, that bastion of bigoted nationalism.
- Charles Vernon Boys, “one of the worst teachers who has ever turned his back on a restive audience,” and the 19th century inventor of glass thread, the core material in what we know as fiber-optic cable, which is today the backbone of the global Internet.
Then there is Ada Lovelace, pictured above, a 19th century English mathematician and writer known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognized as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. The obstacles against her were many, not the least of which she was a woman in Victorian England. Any student of history knows that alone was enough to keep her down. But she overcame,arguably becoming the first computer programmer nearly 100 years before the computer as we know it was even invented. Even with my 30 years in the software industry, I had never heard of Ada Lovelace until Mr. Johnson, publishing in 2014, recognized her accomplishments. From the closing lines of his book we find a superior description of value (with my parenthetical comments):
If you want to improve the world slightly (be “useful”), you need focus and determination; you need to stay within the confines of a field and open the new doors in the adjacent possible one at a time (in other words, if you want to be “smart and useful.”). But if you want to be like Ada, if you want to have an “intuitive perception of hidden things”— well, in that case, you need to get a little lost.
If anyone ever tells you that “ultimately you must be lifted by those around you,” you may respond with “Poppycock!!! (or expletive of your choice) The game changers, the ones who turn the tide of human history, are often those who press on when everyone around them is putting them down.
Examples of Unsung Heroes Who Never Say Never
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
–Western Union internal memo, 1876.
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
–David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
“A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make.”
–Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
–Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”
–A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
–H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
–Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
“If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.”
–Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.
“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.'”
–Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer.
“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
–1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.
“You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can’t be done. It’s just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training.”
–Response to Arthur Jones, who solved the “unsolvable” problem by inventing Nautilus.
“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
–Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
–Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.
“I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.”
–Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.”
“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
–Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
–Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”
–The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
“But what … is it good for?”
–Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
–Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
–Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.
“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
–Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.
“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction”.
–Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon”.
–Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.
“640K ought to be enough for anybody.”
— Bill Gates, 1981