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Finding True North: Don’t confuse the “what” with the “how” of your vision

Thought Leader
by Mark DeSantis, CEO of RoadBotics In the 2012 Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” the President, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is trying to get the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery – a goal that was far from certain in the closing days of the Civil War. The movie makes clear the President would use and did use every means at his disposal to do so. In one particularly memorable scene Lincoln explained his reasoning to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) as to why he was so willing to use such dubious methods to achieve so noble a goal. “[A] compass … [will] point you true north from where you are standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If, in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp…, [then] what’s the use of knowing true north?” Every entrepreneur (hopefully) has a vision for a better world that relentlessly pulls and pushes them forward through thick and often a lot of thin. Henry Ford saw a world where anyone could have affordable personal transportation in the form of a “horseless carriage,” at a time when automobiles were very expensive luxuries. Steve Jobs saw a world where the complex and cumbersome computers of his early days would be replaced by extremely powerful and “outrageously” easy-to-use tools capable of doing incredible everyday things. Two threads run through Messrs. Lincoln, Ford and Jobs’ respective ambitions for a better world. The first is that they cared foremost about the what of their visions. The driving motivation of the President to prosecute a war against his fellow countrymen and do whatever it took to pass the 13th Amendment was a vision of a nation where everyone lived better lives once free of the tyranny of slavery. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs believed affordable transportation and accessible technology, respectively, would enhance and improve our lives. The second, though less obvious, thread was that they cared less about the how of their respective visions. For them, legislation, automobiles and computers were means to an end and not ends in themselves. That is not to say they lacked passion for how they did what they did. On the contrary, Abraham Lincoln saw politics as a noble calling and democratic politics, in particular, as the only way for society to make effective collective choices. Likewise, Ford was a fanatic about cars (having raced them for several years) and saw easily affordable automobiles as the best way to democratize this new technology. Jobs saw the emerging computer technology as the leading edge of a transformative tsunami of technological change about to sweep through the world. It is too easy to confuse the what with the how of a vision and easier still not to care about that distinction, which is unfortunate. Upon first meeting, a typical exchange between entrepreneur and investor might look something like this: “Well we spent five years developing this deep learning technique and we can do some very interesting things with it,” says the enthusiastic tech entrepreneur. “That looks very, very interesting. Let’s chat again once you find an interesting problem or two you can solve,” says the enthusiastic investor. At first, this conversation doesn’t appear to have the promise of the next Ford or Jobs. But it could be the beginning of an alchemic mix of a deep awareness of the availability and capability of new tools and technologies: a keen sense of when to introduce new thinking into the world and an overwhelming desire to have a large impact. Ford and Jobs both had a passionate understanding of the leading technologies of their respective times, an awareness of the larger changing world and incredible ambition. Abraham Lincoln had an understanding of the art of the possible of his day, a sense of the terrible, changing times and an incredible compassion for his fellow citizens that gave him and our nation a true north.
“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” George Washington Carver