Usually, when you make a decision in life, unless you have access to parallel universes, you can’t truly judge how right that decision was. – Tibor Fischer
I was reading Small is possible by George McRobie, a book about how you can help people help themselves in many parts of the world.
It’s based on the work of E.F Schumacher who wrote Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered and came up with the idea of intermediate technologies.
People in the developed world often find themselves facing two choices – either the latest thing or a classic thing. It’s like middle things disappear.
You can see this in bookshops, he said. You can get new books or classic books. The stuff that was published in between has disappeared.
Schumacher’s argument was that people in developing countries didn’t need either of those things. Or, more accurately, they couldn’t afford the latest things and the old things didn’t help them enough. It’s often the choice between a spade and a tractor – while what they need is something in between.
Schumacher called this intermediate technology and it’s a big thing now.
The thing was, I wondered, what made Schumacher so brilliant? How did he get these ideas that were so far ahead of their time and start a movement that persists to this day?
What made him special?
I was conscious, as I asked that question, that I was probably asking it the wrong way.
It’s circular, really.
Schumacher’s work was novel and had impact – and so I thought it was special and unique.
But, was it because I had heard of him, read his books that I felt that way?
Was it good ideas that led to success or his success in being heard that led to his ideas being considered good ones?
Now, the good thing about where we are today is that the middle is reappearing, at least when it comes to books.
I’ve mentioned the Open Library before and I went there to look for answers to my question and found a book called Our own devices: The past and future of body technology which gives you an insight in the first page.
It suggests that things are created as the “outcomes of a ceaseless interplay of technology, economics and values.”
Now that’s interesting – because the first is the thing we’re most familiar with.
People are always inventing new things, from electronic toilets to aircraft safety devices.
Some of those things make sense – they have a payback that is less or more.
But the thing that makes things take off is the values in the air, the values of the population involved, whether large or small.
Before we go on, the Open Library is an example of a reappearing middle – it has books that you would never find elsewhere – and that’s an interesting shift to spreading knowledge, both old and new.
But getting back to the point, the green movement, for example, has been around for a long time.
I remember going to Switzerland and being looked at as if I had just murdered a kitten when I asked for a plastic bag at the supermarket.
I had travelled there from the UK and this was before we had started to move away from them.
I felt quite put out really.
But now, if someone uses a plastic bag in a supermarket I feel a little put out, a little resentful that they’re destroying my children’s planet.
So I suppose when I come to answer my question at the start of this post – the point is not that successful people have brilliant ideas.
They probably have about the same number of ideas as the rest of us – some bad ones and some good ones.
The first thing that lifts some ideas out of the mass of the rest is whether they make economic sense or not.
Do they have a payback of some kind – would someone invest in that idea?
And then, what makes ideas fly is if they fit with the values of the time.
And those values can be ephemeral, fleeting.
Like crypto-currency a few years ago, and something else now.
But, if you’ve got those three things aligned – a good technology, good economics and a supportive value environment, then you’re set.
Which is why they say timing is everything.
Although, people probably have that wrong.
It’s not about calling the timing right.
What’s important is to be ready for when the time comes.
And then you can also be brilliant and successful.