In his preamble to “The Theory of Relativity,” Einstein implored his reader to, “set aside your proud certainty” because he was about to present something quite revolutionary, iconoclastic, and, as he discovered for many years after publication, challenging to be broadly accepted. Of course, his insights would be vindicated, and would soon be considered one of the leading minds of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the great minds in scientific history. Einstein knew things that everybody else was ignorant of and was ignorant of things that everybody else knew. That was probably the key to his great thinking – he assumed no knowledge and didn’t confuse himself with the trivial or unimportant. Always explore, race to keep up, clear the field, and let other vibrant minds pass. It is the spark of human creation, analysis, and understanding that gives us a glimpse of nature’s fundamental beauty. We only touch a small fraction, and our hardest work and most diligent thinking expose a little bit more – and that is one of humankind’s most worthwhile pursuits. Set aside proud certainty; be indifferent to your failings and the cacophony of critics. See, question, verify, and question again.
Predictions usually end up being nonsense. We simply draw a trajectory from what we know today. But innovation is a discontinuity. Things are unpredictable because innovation does not come from consensus thinking. It comes from small groups and individuals with a spark of entrepreneurship, intelligence, and vision. One of the fundamental tenets of predicting technology is that most forecasters get things spectacularly wrong.
The rewards for innovative success have become enormous and unpalatable, especially among the five technological giants (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) forcing these firms to spend absurd amounts of money on lobbying in Washington DC. It’s an expensive and wasteful distraction, but essential in this brave new world. If nothing else, it clogs innovation. It is to our detriment – and the world is literally burning while politicians fiddle – and even more disastrously – impede innovative activity. Applying friction to free thinking and new ideas never ends well.
Brilliance combined with quirkiness and rule-breaking perpetuates an image of daring entrepreneurs and risk-taking capitalists generating outsized wealth. This simply doesn’t happen unless what is created matters. While we might question how much one needs to play a videogame or interact with social media, an advanced society needs advanced solutions to the intractable problems it faces. As John F. Kennedy said, “Our problems are man-made, mankind can solve them, as well.” Perhaps. The harsh reality is that brilliant, hard-working entrepreneurs and thoughtful investors lose much more often than they win. We need their risk-taking and willingness to lose. It’s how we win. We need the benefits technological innovation delivers even if we don’t understand that innovation’s ultimate purpose.
Risk is higher. Markets are more unpredictable, and valuations more volatile. So, when anyone says “this time it’s different” it usually makes good sense to stop listening. However, these days the markets have given us more frequent and intense volatility. The NASDAQ is down almost 30% so far this year, and shocks from the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, massive central bank interest-rate maneuvers, and China’s zero-covid policy, are all ongoing inputs for turmoil that will continue for some time. Persistent uncertainty creates higher costs of capital and less affordability, weakening business investment, slowing GDP growth, and reducing investment returns. Hyperbolic “this time it’s different” statements are turning out to be true. This time days look darker, uncertainty greater, economic growth lower, vulnerability to additional shocks higher, and investors fear many more dark days to come. More frequent and intense volatility will not be calmed anytime soon. It really may be different this time.