Inventors and Investors

Since the last 5 years, I have been fortunate to rebuild my career as a product designer. During this time, I was also fortunate enough to invest in two startups, both doing fairly well.

This led me to quite a few interactions with the ‘creative types’ and the ‘business types’. One being focused on feeling, intuition, and deep reflection, the other being rigorous with scholarship and analysis.

This is how, and why they differ.

The Creators – using the mind’s eye

Creative people enjoy thinking intuitively. And not only in art, literature or design, but also in science, their intuition helps them arrive at novel insights. This is also termed ‘mental imagery’, ‘visual thinking’, or even ‘mind’s eye’. Or if you are a physicist, ‘thought experiment’.

Here is an example of how Einstein thought:

Einstein’s first great thought experiment came when he was about 16. He had run away from his school in Germany, which he hated because it emphasized rote learning rather than visual imagination, and enrolled in a Swiss village school based on the educational philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize concepts. While there, Einstein tried to picture what it would be like to travel so fast that you caught up with a light beam. If he rode alongside it, he later wrote, “I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest.”

– Source (The Light Beam Rider)

Einstein imagined how it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light. And this thought experiment sowed the seeds for his later discoveries in the field of Relativity.

Creative people exalt this intuitive, visual capacity because it helps them to create new things. They don’t worry about being wrong, they worry about being boring.

But you should never hire a creative to manage your portfolio.

The Investors – turning the gaze outside

Now let’s look at the investors. They warn against intuition and gut-based thinking. They study mental models to guard against the pitfalls of intuition. To them, it’s just guessing, and one should decide with data, and not opinion.

They don’t mind being boring, they just don’t want to be wrong. Thus they care more about getting an accurate picture of the existing world, rather than putting something fundamentally new in the world.

Statistics and probability are their key tools for thinking.

Here is how Charlie Munger, the partner of Warren Buffett, puts it,

“If you don’t get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”
– Charlie Munger

Investors have a strong liking for reading. Which is just a way of gathering as much objective information as possible about the outside world.

Here is Charlie Munger again,

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

But most investors, even the successful ones are rarely known for their inventions. You really cannot go to them for creating a fundamentally new product or design.

All this is wrong, but useful

Of course, this classification, like all models, is wrong, but might be slightly useful. It is quite possible to have both skills, like it is possible to know two languages to varying degrees of expertise.

The usefulness lies here – when dealing with creatives, understand that they do not care much about the external world, their internal consistency is more important, and while it may lead to some sub-optimal decisions, their way of thinking is needed to get to breakthrough ideas.

Similarly, the investors or mathematical thinkers will not give subjective experience a priority over objective facts. They will know the price of everything but may come across as ignorant about the value of things. But their skills are needed to guard against biases in decision making, and the human brain is a bias-ridden machine.

All this to say – if you lean on one side, you will do well to spend time with people who lean on the opposite side.

If you are more intuitive, you can read books on data and statistics. Start with ‘Black Swan‘ and ‘Factfulness‘. If you are too mathematical, I suggest you read biographies of people like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein and just consume more creative content – literature, music and visual art.

Ultimately, you want to lead a complete life – with deep human experience and the right big decisions which enable that experience.

Lady with Ermine
Lady with Ermine: by Leonardo da Vinci

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