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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Live: Inventing on Principle, Part I

I know indisputably successful people. I'm not going to drop names, so you'll just have to believe me when I say you see some of them on the front page of the New York Times or on the lists of winners of Important Prizes.

And I've read a lot of books about success. I know you'll trust me on that.

The books, and the successful people, all sing the same tune: money isn't the object, because money is not a real motivator. One old friend who has become very successful says his goal is to try and make the world a little better. One Important Prize winner says that people place too much emphasis on Success, meaning on it's outward trappings, and that the best thing to have is work that feels meaningful.

And Stephen Covey says if you center your life on money, you've placed it on a false center.

Another successful friend sent me this video, which is worth the viewing, about yet another successful guy who says it's not about the money. Actually, he never says that. Indeed, if you listen to him here, you won't hear him mention money. For him, it's about the principle.

Bret Victor. But he doesn't mean principle the way Stephen Covey means principle. Bret Victor is a computer scientist. He means a principle of invention.

Bret Victor: Inventing on Principle

Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

For example, if you watch the video, which gets a little techie in the middle, you will see some very awesomely cool things Bret Victor has invented, which are all based on his operating principle: people should be able to get immediate feedback on what they create.
Bret Victor mentions some of his role models who also invented on principle. One was Larry Tesler, who worked at Xerox in the 1970s, and who was key in inventing the way we interact with computers. Tesler and his colleagues sensed that personal computers, which were new then, had transformative potential. Except that they were not user friendly.

Tesler's principle was "no modes" which has something to do with programming computers. "Don't mode me in" was his mantra, his principle, his obsession. He had t-shirts made up that said it. He was obsessed.

To what did his obsession lead? Well, to the development of "click and drag" and "cut, copy, and paste" which are now so universal that we imagine they sprang fully formed from Zeus's forehead.

Victor says that this way of looking at work is much more than work, it's "a way of living your life." It's about seeing or understanding something amiss in the culture and feeling the necessity of fixing it. For him, ideas are of the utmost value, so when he finds people stifled in their ability to bring them to life, he feels it's morally necessary to help.

Do you know anyone like this, my dozens of readers?

Now, let it be said that people like Bret Victor can be a little, um, trying to be with. They tend to be monomaniacs. They are obsessed. And that can be boring for those who don't share the obsession. But these people are terrific, too. Because they see problems that aren't actually identified, and then they solve them, and make the world a lot more interesting, and probably better.

How to develop this principle? Bret Victor says it comes from thought, maturity, and from the ability to see an injustice or something missing from the culture.  He says it's the inventing mindset, always looking for new ways.

According to Victor, the world tries to define you by a skill. He sees three possible paths through adulthood. One is the path of the craftsman or artisan, on which you develop your skill to excellence.
Another is the path of the problem-solver. The problem-solvers are the academics and the entrepreneurs. Both of these paths are skill-dependent.

The third path is the path of principle. It requires an activist mindset. You have to choose this life. It takes time, time to discover what you stand for and time to experiment and analyze what problem you need to solve.

My only beef with Bret Victor is that he extols the inventing principle above all others. He claims it almost as a higher lifestyle. We need our inventors--especially in this era of global change and climate warming--but we also need our artisans. They are our perfectors. How about the researchers who improved the polio vaccine? They didn't invent it, they figured out how to make it safer and more effective. How about Shaker furniture? They didn't invent chairs, but they made them simple, strong, and beautiful. These are examples of working with principles, too. I'm not saying he's wrong. I'm saying there are other principles worth living by besides the principle of invention.

The important lesson for all of us is that an internal driving principle is key to motivating us towards  our goals. Worldly success is incidental for the successful.


  1. Dear Hope,

    While internal driving principle is the key to motivating an individual , that alone may not be sufficient to satisfy his/her's ambition for success.

    Consider someone who has been mentally challenged or physical deformed and has all the available inner drive but cannot successfully complete their job because of their deformity. My experience and what little I have learned of life says that the core driving principle in human life is eternal hatred for the way of life you have at the moment.

    People who are sick and tired and are outliving themselves, those that cannot sleep at night because they are unsuccessful , those that are desperate and will go to any ends to do what is required for success usually have a better inner drive than others. It is the hatred for what they have at the moment that usually drives them.

    Great read although.

    1. Hi Ajay,

      Interesting view--if a little bleak! But yes, I agree, there is no guarantee that just because you're motivated you'll succeed. The upside is that when you're doing something intrinsically motivating and rewarding, you're not so concerned with fruits of your labor as you are with the pursuit of it.