“Don’t worry about trying to look corporate; the product is what wins in the long term. And launch as soon as you can, so you start learning from users what you should have been making.” -Paul Graham
If imagination were a coin, there would be two sides.
The first is individual imagination. This refers to our ability to conjure ideas, anticipate problems, predict the future, and visualize the possible. We typically regard individual imagination as the primary wellspring of creative ideas.
The second is what Richard Feynman called “the imagination of nature.” For Feynman, this concept seemed to refer to nature’s ability to confirm or falsify our imaginative speculations about what works when we put them to the test. From an entrepreneurial vantage point, I like to think of it as the crowdsourced feedback we get when we try to get other people to use our products or put our ideas into practice.
When you launch your creative projects early, you move your ideas from the realm of individual imagination into the imagination of nature. This gives you the advantage of thinking about what’s possible and seeing what’s wrong in a way that extends beyond your personal worldview. This is a good thing because it makes it easier to see past your blind spots.
The tendency of some creative thinkers is to protect their ideas from scrutiny, rejection, or misunderstanding by doing all the work at the level of individual imagination. Then once the finished product is ready, they share it publicly with the hope that their work will be received with open arms. The problem with this approach is that they’re trying to create something for the world without using information from the world’s imagination.
If you’re creating a phone app, for instance, you want it to be user-friendly. If you only work at the level of individual imagination, then you end up with an app that’s only friendly to those who think about apps in the same way as you. It’s only after you launch the app that you begin to learn how frustrating it is for others to use. Some of these frustrations will be disagreeable, of course, (ie. people will criticize your product and you’ll be tempted to condemn them for not properly using it) but they’ll nevertheless be useful.
This approach doesn’t work for everything because sometimes we’re motivated to create things for reasons other than serving humanity or solving problems. But if you’re trying to create something that’s useful to someone other than yourself, you need to rely on a type of imagination that’s bigger than your own.
On the surface, this seems to contradict the sense of rebelliousness we’re told we need to have if we wish to do entrepreneurial work. The quote often attributed to Henry Ford comes to mind: “’If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This quote captures an important truth. Namely, if you want to be inventive, don’t ask the world for permission. The starting point for creative ideas is your own sense of what’s interesting and worth working on. But that’s only the starting point. If you want to end up with something that others are passionate about using, you have to quickly move from your starting point of “this is what I think is worth working on” to the user’s finishing point of “this is doing a good job of solving the problem it’s designed to solve.” And the only way to make that move is by getting the imagination of nature involved as early as possible.
Starting early isn’t just about being courageous. It’s about being creative. Individual imagination may be the source of great ideas, but the imagination of nature is the substance. Creativity starts with the inspiration that comes from within, but it’s sustained by the information that comes from the world. If you want to produce creative ideas that are useful to someone other than yourself, imagine an imagination that’s bigger than your own.