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Class of 2013: Seek a Journey to the Unobvious


A quick quiz—perhaps the last one of your life, at least for those of you without graduate school ambitions:

Q: What country, on a per capita basis, is the largest consumer of YouTube?
A: Wrong, it is Saudi Arabia. The largest audience there, by the way, is women; the largest content category they watch is education.

Q: Where is the largest collection of fresh water in the world?
A: Wrong, again! It is under the Egyptian and Libyan desert. As we speak, entrepreneurs are using innovation in solar power to pump it with the hopes of creating farms out of the desert.

Q: What was one of the largest tech initial public offerings, where big, successful (for the most part) companies sell stock on the stock exchanges?
A: You are 0-3. It was in Iraq, the leading mobile phone provider.

While I'm at it, did you know that the largest country in mobile payments is—Kenya?

This is a brief look at my journey in the last year to "the unobvious," a very different narrative of tech innovation and startups in the Middle East in the midst of great uncertainty and instability. But it reminded me how important seeking the unobvious is—a journey, I pray, you create in your own way throughout your lives.

Because, I caution you, we are both wired and trained to gravitate to the obvious.

We are, structurally, a narrative animal. We love a good story, we love to distill complexity to a simple tale, and we are jarringly unable (and unwilling—I will come back to this) to readily embrace other stories that counter our truths.

The provocative global investor and consultant Nassim Taleb wrote a wonderfully titled book on this called "Black Swan." For centuries, the science of ornithology believed that swans could only be white. The world got complicated, however, when scientists discovered thousands of black swans in the hinterlands of Australia.

Taleb points out that history is made up not of "all things being equal," but is punctuated by black swans almost never predicted in part because we get caught in our own narratives. The "unobvious"—terrorists flying planes into buildings, or real estate bubbles causing near systemic collapse as examples—are only obvious in hindsight.

This does not merely reflect an absence of imagination (though it is that, too). It is also a structural bias and a not inconsequential amount of our own innumeracy.

Here's a thought game. Which would you bet $1,000 on?

A. that there will be an earthquake in the U.S. that kills 1,000 people in the next decade
B. that there will be an earthquake in San Francisco that kills 1,000 because it is situated on the San Andreas Fault? 

More than 90% of Americans choose B. When you think of it is crazy, as the San Andreas fault is in the United States so A encompasses it.

Taleb would argue we should always beware of the word "because," because— sorry about that—it means a narrative is coming. And we are a narrative animal. And we risk being taken in by the story over the truth in front of us.

To mix metaphors, and steal from the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in defining orthodoxy—it is when we are unsure that we become doubly sure.

And in wanting a good story, wanting to distill simplicity from so much complexity in our lives, we then do something that further compounds our narrative bias. We hang out in our own echo chambers. Our narratives are self-confirmed.

The Unobvious Seems Obvious in Hindsight

I had my first aha moment here when I ran all the operations of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. I was (and am) as rah-rah as one could be by the power of having almost all of the world's collective knowledge at our fingertips almost for free online. We will be smarter than ever! We will be forced to hear other perspectives! We would become the greatest aggregators of truth in human history!

And then a professor from, I think, Berkeley visited me with an analysis of You know how they have that wonderful "those who read this, then read that" tool? He wanted to know if people who read conservative books read liberal books and vice versa.

Putting aside that we can all reasonably argue about what is a "conservative" or "liberal" book—just take it as a directional index—he found that for well over 90%, the answer was a clear: No.

Think about who you follow on Twitter; what blogs matter to you; what video you watch on- or offline. Any of you MSNBC fans spending much time on Fox? No. You're not. Because you choose not to. Me too. Because we are narrative animals, and we like our stories and, by gum, we're going to stick by them.

If history has taught us anything, our world is shaped more by the unobvious and by people who actively seek to move beyond conventional narratives. And—this is the best part of all—almost always, the unobvious seems obvious in hindsight.

Think about this one for a second. Within a decade, there will be 5 billion smartphones on the planet. These are not merely "phones" or "broadband entertainment"—though they are those. They are supercomputing capacity—literally, the capacity that put a man on the moon—in the hands of two-thirds or more of humanity. What bottom-up solutions and innovation will come from this? What corners of the world will become hubs of innovations we here give barely a second thought to (or have written off for its poverty, corruption, and political instability)? Most of it is unobvious. Or is it obvious?

Resist "How the World Works"

You will have bosses, mentors, parents, and friends who tell you "how the world works." They will share how their paths are the only paths to success. You will see classmates who do the same—and might even feel they are "passing you" (whatever that means) in their pursuit of the obvious. Good for them.


Never in history have we had more opportunity through technology to disassemble the unobvious. Never have we been able to see for ourselves firsthand how other parts of the world think and act—to, as Atticus Finch said, walk around in another fellow's shoes. Never have we been able to share and co-author creativity and innovation in new and unimagined ways.

Here's a little add-on for your parents' fears—a journey to the unobvious will even make you better lawyers, bankers, consultants, and doctors, God help us all.

Last fall in the midst of the terrible attacks on Benghazi—you'll remember our embassy in Cairo was attacked as well—a journalist called me to question my unobvious exploration of tech startups in the Middle East: "There is no ecosystem for tech there for decades. Give up."

I asked him, "How many people were involved in those attacks?" He noted around 2,000 (we now know it was probably around 250).

The previous spring I had been in Beirut for the annual MIT Arab Enterprise startup competition. About 5,000 startups representing 13,000 entrepreneurs from North Africa to Yemen competed. Is this narrative less true?

Which one would you rather bet on to support? Which is on the right side of history?

The answer in a way is both are true—both coexist if also conflict. And this is the most exciting part of the journey to the unobvious. We must juggle many narratives, and be light enough, open enough, to constantly check our biases; to get out of our eco-chambers and, I hope, build things that were not there before and live the richest of lives.

Bon voyage! And thanks for listening.

Originally posted on LinkedIn on 5/21/13


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