pierre qui roule

There's a small list of thinkers whom I pay especially close attention to. These people include: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Nassim Taleb, Paul Graham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kendrick Lamar, and a few more.

Venkatesh Rao is also on this list. He recently shared via social media a great African proverb:

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

A superficial reading of this would interpret the proverb as encouraging "together" at the expense of "alone." But I don't think that's completely right.

Going alone and going fast is important when you're starting something new. People are generally skeptical and scared of anything new and untested. What if it fails? What if it's not so great? No one wants to be on the wrong side of history. Besides, there's so much other crap out there that promises to be great, but turns out to be terribly mediocre. So there's little incentive for the average bear to try a new brand of honey.

I don't think trying to build consensus on Day 1 when grappling with a big idea is a strong move. In these cases, going fast and going alone (and seeing who's willing to run to keep up) is crucial. Most ideas die during this phase. Either they sucked, or the right people weren't leading it.

Once the idea has eclipsed a certain threshold of noisemaking, value creation, and curiosity inducement, that's when it needs to transition. No longer is the idea a wild man's pipe dream -- people now recognize it as important. This is where "go far, go together" comes in. 

The transition from "fast and alone" to "far and together" seems to be where revolutionary ideas and products either make it or break it. Geoffrey Moore calls this transition a "crossing (of) the chasm." You've made it this far, but it won't lead to anything enduring if you can't successfully make this jump.

A few examples (both successful and unsuccessful):

1. Facebook/Twitter/Airbnb/Uber
2. Civil Rights Movement and Black Power
3. Protestant Reformation
4. Zionism
5. Arab Spring
6. Marriage Equality

These ideas in practice have roughly taken the following trajectory: 

a) Most people find the idea strange and creepy at first
b) Leaders refine the mission to have a more resonant core
c) Noisy and influential early adopters tell their friends about the idea
d) The movement tweaks its shape to allow for more people to join
e) The movement catches fire and grows exponentially

However, after e) is where we see many of these stories diverge. 

While a small minority of them actually sticks around for a while and succeeds, many die. 

The transformation from niche focus to mainstream adoption is always awkward and frustrating. Based on critical accounts I've read about the Civil Rights Movement, that's where these revolutions stumbled ultimately. They made it through the crucible of getting off the ground, but as the mainstream takes notice, there's a new crucible to go through:
  • Dealing with powerful, deep-pocketed people who don't want the idea to succeed.
  • Responding to cycle-determined media coverage (they'll love you, then hate you, then love you).
  • Creating space for more people to join without overly diluting.
  • Maintaining the heart and soul of the movement.
  • Letting the movement flourish in the absence of the founder.
  • Avoiding too much internal politicking and turmoil.
(Pierre qui roule n'amasse pas mousse.)
2 responses
Its the perseverance of those that stick through the time when something is in its infancy; the "go alone" but when the threshold of it being exponential is crossed then everyone jumps on "go together". We see this happening in many fields of technology today, Bio-tech, AI, 3-D printing (which people are realizing and "getting together" for). To get to the threshold where others will join is ultimately the point up to which either you go fast or slow. Going fast you should go alone, according to the statement. But if you were going slow would a few others not join you and incrementally grow together when the threshold point is reached?
"But if you were going slow would a few others not join you and incrementally grow together when the threshold point is reached?" Yup, I don't think the proverb says anything against this! The proverb is only comparing "fast and alone" to "far and together" But I do think that when you're starting something new, you often have to go it alone (or at the very least seek out a small handful of people who are just as excited by the idea as you) instead of trying to build consensus w/ everyone right off the bat. You can go slow if you want, and I think in many domains, going slow works (ex. tech = 37Signals/Basecamp, ex. history = countless cultural revolutions took time to incubate)