Deciding to make things happen

Last Thursday—after my last day of classes ever—one of my classmates, Sung Cheul Hong and I found ourselves in an interesting conversation at a local craftbeer bar. At one point I asked him, “What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree? Not necessarily from school, though it could be.”

He thought for a moment, then answered: (this is from memory, a beer and 3 days later)

I think it was… that you can just kind of decide to make things happen. I wanted to make a positive impact on campus, and I had this idea for a Product Vision Club to educate students about product management, with companies giving talks and students building and executing on their visions.

I didn’t have anyone on board, I just wrote a one pager, like what this club is about and what we are going to do this term, and made a facebook group and a public announcement… and people rolled in! An exec team, guest speakers, and of course members.

I just had an idea and a high-level plan, then I publicly announced the plan as if it were happening regardless, and… Bam!

What Sung said probably wouldn’t’ve been my answer if someone had asked me the question, but this is a thing I’ve been learning. I wrote last year in my post about self-authorship, about how I realized I had no birthday plans, and just decided that I would have a cuddle party, announced it, and it happened. This year, I one-upped my past self and had a cuddle and dance party, with blacklights and a friend of mine DJing with professional equipment. I don’t even know what next year will bring! (but I am stoked)

Stone soup and space ships

I relayed my story of birthday parties to Sung, and we shared a bunch of “Right?! It’s so easy to make things happen when you put the word out.” We both noted that you have to do it in a certain way. Some phrases that don’t work very well:

  • I want to do X
  • let’s do X
  • wouldn’t it be cool if we did X?

Suddenly I exclaimed, “Oh! It’s like Stone Soup!” then told him about the classic folktale. It’s worth reading a full version of the story but my synopsis is basically this:

A bunch of stingy villagers are unwilling to share their food with a hungry traveller. The traveller then fills a pot with water and rocks, and goes door to door, saying, “I’m making stone soup… it’s going to be delicious but could really use some {carrots} for the garnish. If you give me some then I’ll share the soup with you when it’s done.” Gradually the stone soup becomes, well, an actual soup, and is enjoyed by the whole village.

The lesson here is that the traveller needed to already be confidently doing a thing, in order to get help from the villagers. I was familiar with this tale from my childhood, but hadn’t thought of it in years until recently, when it was mentioned by Peter Diamandis on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. I was jogging around listening to it. Peter is the creator of the X Prize, a $10million award for the first non-governmental spacecraft to make two trips to space with three people, in just two weeks. He conceived of it because he wanted to go to space, and realized that no matter how smart he was or how hard he worked, the odds of that happening with NASA were around 1000:1.

The problem was, he didn’t have the money. He tried to raise it, but only got to $500k. Still, he reasoned, anyone (with a spare $10M) would be happy to sponsor the prize it once someone had won. So he spent the bulk of the $500k on announcing the prize. He had a huge press conference, got a bunch of astronauts up on stage, and just announced the prize as if it were already a done deal. Oh sure, he probably mentioned that they were looking for more sponsors, but that it would happen was never under question.

And it did happen: they got the money. Teams built ships. Peter Diamandis went to space.

SpaceShipOne, the machine that won the X Prize "Flight 16P taxi pre launch photo" by D. Ramey Logan (WPPilot) — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

SpaceShipOne, the machine that won the X Prize   (“Flight 16P taxi pre launch photo” by D. Ramey Logan)

Levelling up at the skill of deciding to make things happen

It appears there’s a massive differential here in terms of ability to decide things into reality, between say my friend Sung and Peter Diamandis. I think it’s actually not as big as it looks. Most of the difference actually comes along other dimensions, such as Peter having 7 years of experience and connections working at space-related companies. That resource isn’t what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is actually less of a skill and more of a realization:

I can make decisions that will create opportunities for people that they will take.

Granted, there still are some skills & capacities required in order to handle doing sophisticated things with this realization. Delegation, planning, clear communication, confidence, organization, and more. So to make this work, you’ll need to train those too. The great thing is that as you train them, you’ll reinforce your understanding of how powerful this approach can be.

Brienne Yudkowsky explored the idea of a curriculum for the skill of “coordination of arbitrary groups of humans” in her post trade shoes with a stranger, which suggests a series of challenges one could take on that starts with “Trade shoes with a stranger” and ends with “Cause a silent rave to happen at all 12 Big Ten universities simultaneously.” She also notes that there are other subskills. I wouldn’t recommend follow her list exactly, for three reasons

  1. it’s pretty rough: I don’t think she spent very long trying to come up with the best 6 things
  2. the gaps are too large: you probably want to do extra training between each of them
  3. perhaps most importantly: these are probably not things you actually care about. You want to build the affordance for thinking “it would be nice if X” and going and making “X” happen.

Your birthday parties are kind of like training wheels for practising this, because you already have an excuse to throw basically whatever kind of party you can imagine. Granted, it needs to be something that your friends will actually want to attend, but beyond that a lot of the details aren’t that important and it’ll still happen anyway. They’re suboptimal because they only happen once yearly.

Reflecting on this, I’ve created a new beeminder goal to run at least one event monthly, as measured by creating an event on facebook and inviting people to it. The next one is a Rationality mini-workshop, drawing on my experiences at CFAR. I’m totally not prepared… but I will be by the time it happens.

Motivation and momentum

A brief counterpoint: a substantial amount of research has suggested pretty strongly that in certain circumstances, telling other people what you’re going to do makes you less likely to do it. (Article by Derek Sivers on the subject) I think it’s pretty clear that that doesn’t apply here.

Announcing vague, personal intentions like “I’m going to start going to the gym more!” is probably bad. However, announcing specific, interpersonal intentions like “I’m going to have a game of ultimate frisbee on this date” is going to be an excellent motivating factor, both (a) for you to show up and (b) for you to make sure there are enough people for a game.

It goes further. Kik founder Ted Livingston, an entrepreneur I really admire, talks a lot about momentum when he’s giving advice to budding young wantrepreneurs. I’ve seen him give several presentations, and one story he almost always mentions is this: (again from memory)

Hire a co-op student.

If Kik hadn’t hired a co-op student, we probably would have failed. The founders had a huge disagreement one day early on, and we were all kind of grumpy and didn’t want to talk to each other. But the next morning, our co-op student came in as usual, and said, “Alright, I finished the thing yesterday. What’s next?” and we realized, “Wait, we’re running a business here. We can’t just stop overnight because we couldn’t agree on something.”

A more personal example, also in the realm of business: of the new Complice paying customers from the last couple months, about a third have purchased the yearly subscription plan. Which makes me pretty committed to ensuring its success!

By sharing not just vague intentions but explicit plans that others will organize their lives around, you’ll find that you follow through way more.


Does this sound intimidating? Or like it’ll take a lot of work? Start really small: find some event you want to attend (a movie, whatever) and announce that you’re going, with the intention of getting at least two friends to come with you. In the spirit of Brienne’s post, I’m going to collect suggestions for slightly harder challenges that people can do in series.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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