Chamath Palihapitiya’s Story

The story is as old as the hills, and yet we keep on hearing it.  Becoming very rich can be fun, but it is not enough to be the sole goal in life. Why not? Check out this story.

Chamath Palihapitiya was poor as a youngster. Then he got very, very rich. But

once he finally became rich financially, Palihapitiya says it didn’t really make him as happy as he thought it would

What was wrong?

He says he realized that unless he did something more meaningful with his wealth, and have a “massive impact,” he wouldn’t feel truly happy about being rich.

At least part of this story is that we fantasize about “being” something – rich, famous, whatever. But “being” something does not offer meaning. We create meaning through what we do. And there is more

“The most important thing I realized is you need something superficial like that (being rich) to act as a catalyst initially, so you are motivated to escape whatever you are trying to escape,” he says. “But then you need to use that as a bridge to a more meaningful, long-term, largely unrealistic goal that can keep you focused, grounded and helpful to others.”

Exactly right! We need a “big vision” to get motivated. It can be anything, and getting really rich can do the trick. But once you are motivated, you need a “bridge” to build meaning as you go. The vision fades. Reality gets more interesting.

StoryTelling Workshops

the starting point for great strategy is in narrative. That is because without narrative, there is no movement. Without movement, there is no future.

But how do we see and build narratives that produce great strategy? We must become story tellers. Not professional novelists. But professionals at living out the stories that we create.

Where to get started? We get started by understanding some basics about life stories. Here is one link that discusses this important theme. I will be collecting more. I use this as an anchor for the first section of my strategic thinking curriculum.

Building a Learning Network

We know from Steve Johnson and Matt Ridley that the acquisition of new ideas has a social dimension. It arises from exchanges. So let us ask a question based on this. Where in society are exchanges most lacking?  If we can answer this question, we can see where the most value added possibilities are to build them.

Before thinking deeply about the present, what about the past? I would argue that in the last several hundred years, exchanges were perhaps most lacking between governed and governing. The dividing lines between classes blocked this type of exchange. Democracy — as flawed as it is — opened the door for better exchanges.

Another area was between owners of capital and entrepreneurs. Capital was, in the old days, mostly land based (in the country). Entrepreneurs? Well, they were mostly sailing the high seas. Joint stock companies helped make better exchanges.

These days, we are told that companies are under pressure as never before to innovate. Changes come faster. How do they do this? By attracting and nurturing top talent. So you would expect that we need better exchanges between institutions that nurture talent (schools and such) and companies that use it. And this is starting to develop. For example,

Michael Kris, Middle School Principal at Trinity Valley School in Texas, is a K-12 EdLeader … is leading the way in building these types of connections. This year, he kicked off a project titled, Project 2025: How Teachers Research the Future. As part of the project, he shared three key goals:

Strengthen understandings of twenty-first century skills so that they can connect with the needs of students’ future selves and equip them with the skills they need to face the modern workforce with confidence;

Use this new understanding to augment academic programs and create additional innovative and robust experiences for students; and

Build connections between his school and the external community in ways that might be mutually beneficial.

To achieve these goals, Mike asked teachers to schedule a call with an industry leader outside the field of K-12 education, so that they could learn, “What skills, habits, or mindsets make people successful in your field.” I learned about the project after speaking with one of the teachers. It gave me the chance to share the skills we look for when we hire.

The problem is so obvious that we do not notice it.

Taking a Step Back to Go Forward

Today I got smacked over the head with a lot of meaning. It was an overload that led to some cognitive dissonance.

How did this happen? The day started like any Saturday, with a nice coffee and breakfast. I wanted to rest and I started reading a story about Tolstoy. More to the point, it was a story about people who are fascinated by searching for the hidden meanings in Tolstoy’s great stories and “Tolstoyanism”. The story pulled me in and I found myself connecting with the characters. The more crazed they became, the more I found them to be sympathetic. I was drawn emotionally into the absurdity of the moment. In a sense, I was there at the absurd conference at Tolstoy’s manor.

I enjoyed the experience, and It got me thinking. But not thinking in a constructive way. My mind started racing around and dredging up lots of memories of people I have known over the years. What a tremendous amount of energy I could feel! Not energy to do anything in particular. But energetic challenges about whether there was meaning in my own life. What was meaningful and what was not?  The analytical (left side) part of my mind kept suggesting that there was no meaning. That I had been a fool.

This happens to us all, and it can be a bit frightening. It can disrupt your plans. Overturn schedules.

What to make of it? It is like weather in the outside world. You need to step back and marvel at yourself. Watch and sympathize and allow yourself time to see some of the disparate elements that go into “you”. Later on, you can try to make sense of it all and do something about it. Later on you can strategize about what to do. But not yet. Step back first and watch the fireworks!

I found doing the dishes and the laundry also helped a great deal.

Execute or Innovate: That is the Dilemma

The 20th century was a time of incredible learning on how to execute a business model. Mass production and mass consumption relied upon steady improvements in execution to reduce costs in order to make purchases affordable. It was an incredible achievement.

But the 21st century will not be a copy of the one that came before it. The next step is not further improvements in execution: more and more efficiency. The next step is about addressing the underlying value proposition. Better questions and answers about why we do things, not just how to do them cheaper and faster. This is what drives thinking in innovation. Not just how to use technology, but what problems to address via technology.

Steve Bland and others have made the sensible point that thinking about improved execution and thinking about innovation are inherently opposed to each other in business modeling. On the personal level, this means that they occur at different stages of the learning cycle. They are two different iterative questions. Iterative because each must be answered in ways that enrich thinking about the other. This is at the heart of strategic learning.

Three Cheers for Serendipity!

Steve Johnson’s new book gives us a fantastic glimpse at how “serendipity” works.  You never know what value added a new idea will lead to. So Gutenberg’s press led to design of better reading glasses which in turn led to the invention of the microscope and micro biology.

The same serendipity applies to space exploration. Some moan and groan about paying to send rockets into space. But, the learning from this has led to a huge amount of serendipitous value added. Here is perhaps one moer

The company’s founder, Elon Musk, announced that SpaceX would be designing a fleet of low-orbit satellites to bring wi-fi to the entire planet. Take that promise as a taste of the real-world benefits of funding modern space travel beyond just saving our lives. Who wouldn’t want worldwide free wifi?!

Here is the thing — you learn stuff every day as you get better at what you do. But where does the serendipity go? That is a strategic problem!

Managing Expectations

In order to develop strategic ideas, you need to be looking ahead. I call this future thinking, and it is something that humans are just not that good at . When we do it, we tend to think in terms of expectations  For that reason, you often hear that it can help to “think big”. I remember one piece of advice —-  “why think about starting a $1 million business when you could be thinking about starting a $100 million business?”

There is something to this, that I discuss in my strategy course. But there is a downside to it as well. It is every easy to get carried away by unrealistic expectations that eventually destroys motivation.  This happens all the time when people try to lose weight. It also happens when folks make new years resolutions.

How to avoid it? You don’t avoid it by getting rid of great expectations.  You do, however, need to separate out your expectations (which are abstract — and should stay abstract) with reality.  Gamifying reality helps us do that.

Space Invaders


I had a fun thought last night. It was about space. Not outer space, though I do have a lot of thoughts about outer space. It is about the space that we perceive around us. The space that we occupy. One more clarification. Shen I say “space that we occupy” I don’t just mean the physical space. I mean the overall physical and psychological space.

It is fun to think of identity that way. We are a physical and psychological space displacement. Ok.

But that is not all. There is an interesting aspect to this space. We see the physical side, or at least we see what we want to see when we look in the mirror. But the psychological space is largely invisible to us. That is very interesting.

One reason it is interesting is that in this psychological space, we are not alone. We invite others into our space. Like family and friends and lovers and  enemies. Everyone who we connect with, one way or another. And sort of via auto pilot, we exclude everyone else.

So — if you feel alone as you walk down the street in a crowd, it is not really an illusion. No one around you is inviting you into their psychological space. In that dimension, you are indeed alone.  And this has a tactical implication.

If we want to build connection, we need to invade the psychological space that other people occupy. We cannot wait for an invitation. That won’t come. We need to develop strategies to get in there and get a reaction.

When I say “invade”, I don’t mean that we do nasty stuff. I do mean that we use skill to occupy the space of others. That is how we learn to connect. And you can learn that here.