In the Middle of Difficulty

Three rules of work:
Out of clutter, find simplicity.
From discord, find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
—Albert Einstein

Back in June, The New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s review of “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton) by Jeremy Adelman. I’ve reread the piece a number of times and have found so many references of interest in it that my first recommendation is to simply click over and read it.

Worldly Philosopher

One of the characteristics of failing fast that I find compelling is that it provides direction in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty, particularly in those early stages of a project or effort during which we lack the information or context to make effective decisions, and I believe this is why the fail fast model has been adopted with such apparent uniformity (perhaps, at this point, even dogmatically) in the entrepreneurial world, as evidenced by the pivot becoming the favored strategy when feedback on your original concept informs a change in direction. However, what I found enlightening about the Gladwell piece, and the stories, that Hirschman used in his own work—such as the Hoosac Mountain tunnel and the Karnaphuli Paper Mills—is that these were not situations in which there was any perceived ambiguity in the way we readily acknowledge it in other contexts. The experts felt that blasting through the Hoosac was a tractable and relatively inexpensive problem, and Karnaphuli Paper Mills operators specifically built in an optimal location, near existing bamboo forests. However, in the middle of the projects, at that flexing tipping point that breeds a pivot, it turned out that their plans were built on assumptions that didn’t hold or expectations that didn’t match with reality. The creativity required to build out of that situation is what Hirschman highlights in his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand:”

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

That last sentence is thrilling. Misjudge the nature of the task in order to bring out our full creativity. That feels right.

Later in the essay, Hirschman writes:

The Hiding Hand is essentially a way of inducing action through error, the error being an underestimate of the project’s costs or difficulties.

I’ve never conceived of deliberately underestimating a project’s difficulties as a way of inducing action, and I can’t say it is clear that Hirschman is suggesting that either. But, in the same frame of mind as “having a bias for action” or “getting fast feedback,” this does suggest that when you find yourself in a situation in which your back is against the wall and success seems less clear than when you set out, taking this new information and either failing and moving on or pivoting into a new future is the right approach.

Hirschman published these ideas in 1967. And he was an economist. An amazing guy who lived to be 97 and was, in Gladwell’s words, satisfied to “circle the globe and be content to conclude that he couldn’t reach a conclusion—for a long time, if ever. He was a planner who really didn’t believe in planning.”

In my mind, this echoes Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:

Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

Don’t assume you know where you’re going. Get in the middle of difficulty and invent a way out. Fail fast and prosper.