I have presumed to comment on Bill Gates and Microsoft on a couple of occasions. I take this as one of the rights of a share holder. It may look like presumption. It may even walk and talk like presumption. But I prefer to think of it as a way of protecting my investment.
Alarming news recently in the Wall Street Journal. Twice a year, Bill seeks refuge in a modest waterfront cottage for one of his “Think Weeks. No one may disturb him, not his family, not his fellow managers. For these seven days, Bill contemplates the future of technology.
No, he doesnt. He reads white papers till he cant see straight.
He starts the morning in bed poring through papers mostly by Microsoft engineers, executives and product managers and scribbling notes on the covers. Skipping breakfast, he patterns upstairs in his stocking feet to read more papers. Noon and dinnertime bring him back downstairs to read papers over meals at the kitchen table
On a Think Day in February, Bill has read 56 papers by Day 4. His record is 112 for the week. Sometimes he reads till 2 in the morning. Sometimes he reads around the clock. Often he reads till giddy. (In one poignant moment in the WSJ story, Bill is so exhausted that he begins to vocalize the words he finds in a report on speech synthesis.)
Dude, this is not the way a man of great power and intelligence spends his time. Two words: “executive summary. Hire very smart people to read and precise these papers. Your job, if I may presume to say so, is to imagine how all the bits and pieces go together. Your job is to imagine the most potent configurations all these possibilities might take.
Most managers, academics, and creatives are in the “pattern recognition business. They hire us for this, that or the other thing, but the place we create value is in those moments when suddenly we see a pattern that briefly configures all the buzzing confusion out there into something that is perhaps a plausible future. It might be wrong, but in a time of great dynamism, error (thoughtful, well grounded error) is much to be preferred to confusion.
Can we engage in pattern recognition when we are giddy with exhaustion, when we have read the fine detail of a great piece of engineering, when we have devoted ourselves to 60 closely worded pages on “identity theft on the internet? No! Pattern recognition takes a little perspective, a bigger picture, a little distance, and time to think.
And this happens only when we turn things over to the extraordinary powers of the unconscious mind, a device so powerful it makes the conscious mind look like the original rule bound, bureaucratic, bean counter. When we are stuffing our heads with 112 reports in a week, these deeper powers simply fall quiet. They spend all their time sorting and filing. There is no time for re/re/reconfiguration.
This is the favorite technique of the unconscious mind. I can hear my own obsessing in its search for a pattern. “What about this? “What about this? “What about this? It is configuring and reconfiguring and configuring again. Occasionally, the conscious mind will say, “actually [it likes to patronize the unconscious mind shamelessly], thats pretty good. We can work with that. The unconscious mind does not take umbrage. It has gone back to its obsessive search for that more perfect pattern.
Sometimes, this happens happen. There are moments when the unconscious moment knows that its got something and then it comes in triumph. (This is the moment it replies to patronizing attitude of the conscious mind with its own “cant touch this arrogance. And, yes, my unconscious likes to quote badly dated hip hop song and dance men like MC Hammer. Its sad, really. Im sure your unconscious mind is a little hipper.)
There is that Svaha moment when we know we have an idea, but we dont know what the idea is. We can feel it rising (funny that it always feels like rising, like the mind actually buys the Freudian, and not just Freudian, notion that it arranges vertically) and the rising only takes about, oh, 2 second, but those two seconds are joyful. We have it. It will be marvelous. Hey, presto, it is marvelous. Cant touch this.
Its as if Bill is cramming. What is the point of reading till exhausted, till the text swims before his eyes. We cant cram for the future. All those white papers are nothing if not a tower of babel, each of them its own carefully worded, brilliant executed concept of the new, all of them together a blinding set of competing assumptions and discordant points of view. The “fine print here will kill you. We have one option: to go with our strength, the deepest powers of pattern recognition at our disposal.
My advice: Dude, get out of the cottage. Stop reading, start walking. We know how Hollywood would do this. You are walking on a rainy, wind swept beach (creativitys objective correlative). One of Beethovens late quartets supplies the music under (to show the rigor, beauty and power of the thought within). You are accompanied by a happy golden retriever who really wants to fetch that stick Bill is carrying. But his urgings go ignored. For Bill is sightless with contemplation. The gaze has turned within. Things figure, configure, and reconfigure. Patterns form and release. Form and release. Then “You know, that could be something.
There is something eerie about this image because, cue the idealists, what is happening in this head is not merely a contemplation but a construction of the future. When you are Bill Gates, what you decide, finally, is the future has, of course, a pretty good chance of becoming the future.
Just so. As a share holder, I am obliged to say that reading yourself weary does not bode well. Less is more. Figures (literary ones, that is) are better than facts. Patterns better than papers. The future belongs more surely to those who give it a chance to form.
Guth, Robert A. 2005. In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsofts Future. Wall Street Journal. March 28, 2005.