Doubt conventions

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, "We've always done it this way." — Grace Hopper

Steve Jobs in an interview – "I would always ask why you do things and the answers you would invariable get are "Oh that is just the way it's done"". The interview – watch the next 2 minutes.

Elon Musk in an interview – "People assume too many things to be true. Analyze things from first principles not by analogy or not by convention". The interview – watch the entire thing, it's one minute.

The examples above were thought-provoking for me to dig deeper.

The emojis at the start of each paragraph mean:

  • 😄 Advantage of the idea
  • 😡 Disadvantage of the idea
  • 💭 Comment (neither positive nor negative)

😄 Potential for innovation. I am basing this argument on the Paul Graham essay General and Surprising. If you read the essay you will understand the power of discovering something that is both general(knowledge that applies to a big area) and surprising(things others don't expect to be that way). When both conditions are met there is an opportunity for big value creation. Discovering that a convention is wrong is both general and surprising.

😄 Increasingly more important. The world is changing rapidly. The last 100 years were packed with more changes when compared to the previous 100. These changes cause a lot of conventions to get outdated cause conventions are true only in specific contexts and environments. However, our brains and culture haven't evolved to this idea and we haven't changed the speed with which we change our minds. This means that we change our minds as often as our ancestors did but we end up more misguided. Conventions also increase in count. As the world gets more complicated we rely on more fundamental knowledge we don't question so we can build on top of it.

😡 Heresy. "If you discover something new, there's a significant chance you'll be accused of some form of heresy." That's the beginning of the Paul Graham essay Novelty and Heresy where I recognized my own idea when I was reading it. Read the entire article is spot on.

😡 Doubting the wrong thing. Conventions aren't doubted by default because statistically, they are correct most of the time. Which makes for a high chance of choosing something that is correct. When doubting something have the feeling that you have some advantage in the knowledge you have compared to other people so you increase your chances.

😡 It's hard. Advocating against an established approach can be quite challenging. People will doubt you unless you prove them wrong. Entrepreneurs are doubted by default, entrepreneurs that question established conventions experience extra pressure. This may seem fine at the beginning but try withstanding years. We are evolutionarily designed for acceptance – in tribal times rejection meant dead. When trying to figure out the difficulty of being an opposition it's easy to mistake the percentage of those who quit especially when we only have information for those who succeeded – exactly what survivorship bias is.

💭 I have a theory that being more or less isolated from other people gives you the freedom to question a little longer and a little deeper than usual. You are just not pressured by all the others that continue on the path of least resistance – which is the convention.

💭 If you have heard about thinking from first principles you can think about doubting conventions as a subset of that idea – First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking for Yourself.

💭 The Five Whys can be useful for checking if a convention is true or not. Asking either why the convention exists or taking an example where the convention can be applied and asking if the example can be done differently.

Update: I wrote this article one year ago. Here is an update after realizing a few stuff during this time: