“If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet,” comedian Joe Rogan asks, “how long before you could send me an email?”
What, like, 8,000 years?
We didn’t go from spears and hatchets to email overnight. Maybe the hatchet people couldn’t ever develop email. But maybe the email people wouldn’t have figured out anything useful to do with the hatchet and would have died of exposure.
We’re a cooperative species, and also one that grows on incremental improvements with occasional breakthroughs. When we figured out metal tips for our spears and arrows, we could suddenly do a lot more damage than we could ever do with wood- or stone-tipped spears and arrows. That was a breakthrough. for sure. But then our spears and arrows got incrementally better with the development of new metals and plastics, and our archery systems today would still be recognizable to someone 8,000 years ago, but the power would seem other-wordly.
Tim Ferriss and Peter Thiel discussed the future of products, and one thing Thiel (author of Zero to One and an entrepreneur himself) says is that he’s not looking for products that are incrementally better, but those that are, say, 1,000 times better than what came before.
That’s fine, but not everything can be a breakthrough. If it were, we’d be stuck with a rusty old infrastructure waiting on something brilliant to come along.
In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller outlines a major innovation that came as a series of incremental improvements: the water wheel. We took the basic concept of a lever, and then we put a bucket on it. Then we put a bunch of them together in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, and then we hooked some gears up to it, so that the bucket lever arms would turn the gears and do some other work.
It took a lot of incremental changes to make that major innovation happen, and if someone hadn’t developed one of the incremental steps, we wouldn’t have come to the major breakthrough that made powering machines with falling water a viable operation.
The lesson here, I suppose, is not to sit around and wait for breakthroughs. If you see some incremental improvements that need to take place, those are important, too, and can lead to the breakthroughs eventually.