Over the years the organizers of the Dent conference have hosted many gatherings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and this year is no different.
Many remember our 2012 dinner at the Stirling Club, when we were honored to have Greg Grunberg as a guest. Greg is widely known for his ongoing role as Matt Parkman in the TV series “Heroes” and is now being seen by millions on the big screen making his own “dent in the universe” as X-Wing Pilot “Snap” Wexley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
We are happy to announce that Greg will be joining us again during CES at a small, private, invite-only dinner for those who have registered for our 2016 Dent Sun Valley conference, along with select press and other VIPs in Las Vegas.
This Dent dinner comes courtesy of our long-time partner Sphero (coincidentally, whose creation BB-8 can also be seen in The Force Awakens.) As a special bonus, Sphero will be providing The much sought after BB-8’s as a gift to our guests.
Truly great visionaries have mastery over their domains. They have spent the time and the effort to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity in the problem they are working to solve, and they have the ability to share that now-simplified understanding with everyone else.
Getting this right is really hard. One of the big challenges is that once you’ve spent the time mastering the topic yourself, you suffer from the curse of knowledge, and find yourself repeating the obvious ad infinitum.
It is surprisingly difficult to imagine that what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to everyone else. During a presentation I gave recently, I added a quick verbal tick before a story I had included in the talk: “you’ve probably all heard this one before,” — and afterwards, several folks told me the story was entirely new to them.
It can be annoying, when you know something well, to have someone present an “obvious” aspect of it to you as though it were new and exciting. So it’s easy to say “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to be that speaker.” And then you forget to include the obvious, or you include it with no enthusiasm, and it deadens your vision.
Many public advocates, CEOs, politicians, and others who cause change work to effect it through years or decades of effort. In this kind of work, the advocate must always speak to the level of culture in general. That’s a lot of repeating the obvious. It’s harder than it seems — but it is also an opportunity to refine your craft.
John Maeda, designer and technologist, has written a book called The Laws of Simplicity, and in it he shares his experience of this realization:
A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it.
Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.
All of the great masters of communication do this. Steve Jobs makes a good example because there’s so much video of him available on YouTube. Here’s an example of Steve explaining computers through an analogy, in 1980:
Then a decade later, he tells the same story in this interview (it answers the first question — starts about a minute in). Note that he gets halfway through it, and then asks to do it again a little better:
Denter Pete Avondoglio is Professor Emeritus at Umea Institue of Design in Sweden, and has been instrumental in developing their Advanced Product Design (APD) program. In 2008, Pete described how he saw their program as possessing a unique identity — one of identifying problems and solving them:
We see a growing demand for innovation and conceptual thinking, as well as the emotional aspects and the concept of experience design. Industry today usually has marketing people, technical experts and production know-how – and a major need for most is innovative product development – the identification of problems and the development of products and concepts to solve them – a good area for industrial designers.
That emphasis has helped the school reap a new award. In November, at Umeågalan — the Swedish entrepreneurial event of the year, the Umeå Institute of Design was the winner in the “Best Brand” category.
Kudos to Pete and his team for the well-deserved recognition.
This past April, Denter Mark Pearson’s audiobook startup Libro.fm launched their book club with a nonfiction title called Mindset, by Carol Dweck. I purchased a copy and listened to it on my commute to and from work, and it’s one of those books with a straightforward central insight that, if you don’t already run it natively, can massively change your approach to success.
Dweck separates people loosely into two mindsets, which she terms the “fixed” mindset, or the “growth” mindset:
The fixed mindset describes a belief that “your qualities are carved in stone,” that things like your IQ score are measured and, crucially, not possible to improve.
The growth mindset applies to people who believe that growth is possible in all aspects. That failures are not a referendum on your innate abilities, but a necessary step in learning.
Fortunately, modern research stands thoroughly behind the growth mindset:
Scientists are learning that people have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than they ever thought. Of course, each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, But it is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.
Robert Sternberg, the present day guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise, is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagements. Or as his forerunner [Alfred] Binet recognized: it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.
For 20 years my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be, and whether you accomplish the things you value.
One of the core beliefs behind what we do at Dent is that greatness is not prescribed at birth by a lottery — Marie Curie, Ronald Reagan, Gandhi, J.K. Rowling — there is nothing they’ve done which is not accessible to most other people with a sufficient amount of well-directed effort.
Success and failure are often separated by teams that work well together and teams that don’t, yet building a team has often been considered a soft science. An activity that great leaders could be intuitively better at, but that people screw up on more often than not.
But professors Anita Woolley, Thomas Malone, and Christopher Chabris have conducted (and published) some research that shows there are some reliable links between how you construct a team and how it performs:
The smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.
First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.
Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.
Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men.
They followed this study up with some additional research that shows this dynamic applies to teams that work remotely as well as teams that work in person.
I remember learning about Theory of Mind in introductory psychology class in college:
Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.
Which of course is not quite right — we are looking for people who have empathy, which is something you develop to a greater or lesser degree based on your theory of mind and your life experience.
Another interesting twist is that team smartness was not correlated with how intelligent the team members were:
We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group’s success.
In other words, if you want to build a team that can dent the universe, pick people who have a lot of empathy, and if you lack a better barometer for it, pick women.
In the video above, Kevin Rose elicits a great example of how reasoning from first principles led Tesla to manufacture their own batteries, and therefore capture the profit margin of other battery makers as their own savings.
Musk points out that reasoning from first principles is a physics kind of idea. And in fact, the famous physicist Richard Feynman can show us first principles as applied to ordinary life. He penned an autobiographical book called “Surely You’re Jokeing, Mr. Feynman,” and no further in than page 19, we get a wonderful example of living by first principles.
As a boy, Feynman found work repairing radios:
As the repair jobs got more and more complicated, I got better and better, and more elaborate. I bought myself a milliammeter in New York and converted it into a voltmeter that had different scales on it by using the right lengths (which I calculated) of very fine copper wire. It wasn’t very accurate, but it was good enough to tell whether things were in the right ballpark at different connections in those radio sets.
In order to do this kind of thing — in order to modify a milliammeter, designed to measure electric current in milliamperes, into a device that measures volts — you need to have a functional understanding of the first principles behind the device. If you understand electricity well enough, then you understand what the device is doing to measure it, and then you can change it.
Radio circuits were much easier to understand in those days because everything was out in the open. After you took it apart (it was a big problem to find the right screws), you could see this was a resistor, that’s a condenser, here’s a this, there’s a that; they were all labeled.And if wax had been dripping from the condenser, it was too hot and you could tell that the condenser was burned out…So it wasn’t hard for me to fix a radio by understanding what was going on inside, noticing that something wasn’t working right, and fixing it.
This goes for all kinds of modern things, too. If you understand the way computers work on the component level (so hard drives, processors, graphics cards, etc), it’s not such a big deal to open one up and move things around, or replace others. This is repair work.
First principles is a tricky concept today though, because things are so complex. Is knowing how to move components around inside a computer really first principles? Or is that a false understanding, because you need to also know how those components are put together?
For practical purposes therefore, I think that you can call it first principles if you fully understand things at least a layer down from what you’re trying to work on. If it’s a computer, components are good enough. If it’s a battery, material costs are good enough. If it’s a program, the programming language is good enough.
Living by first principles can help with the boring stuff as well as the important stuff. I have a Harmony remote for my TV and all the related gadgets, which mostly works, but sometimes doesn’t. If you take the effort to understand what the remote is doing (mimicking the signals from each individual remote in sequence) then it’s often not hard to know what went wrong and how to fix it. If, however, you don’t know what it’s doing, then it’s easy to get frustrated by it.
The point is that first principles applies well beyond the areas of science and invention. It often takes a little extra effort, but if you build a habit around it, you will be approaching what you do in life with a distinct advantage, from the television to the future of transportation.
Back in June we announced that for the first time in 2016, we would be offering a scholarship program to bring to Dent people who would otherwise not be able to attend. The scholarships are funded through the sales of “Alchemist” registrations to Dent.
We are now happy to welcome our four selected Dent Scholars for 2016. They’ve each recorded a short video to say hello and share what they’re excited about for Dent 2016. Those are included below.
Kavita Bali serves as Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships at CARE. In her role, Kavita draws on her public and private sector experience to engage corporations in collaborations that align with CARE’s mission to serve the poorest communities in the world.
Prior to joining CARE, Kavita was with Pfizer Inc in the Corporate Responsibility division where she worked to improve healthcare for underserved populations and improve access to medicines. She also spent time at Doctors of the World (DOW) and the Averting Maternal Death and Disability (AMDD) program at Columbia University and has worked in emergency and post-conflict settings.
Kavita is passionate about organizational culture, education, and enabling people to realize their full potential.
Ryan K. Louie
Ryan is currently a Psychiatry Resident Physician at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Hawai’i. He is a graduate of the Medical Scientist Training Program, and has M.D. and Ph.D. (Molecular and Cellular Physiology) degrees from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Ryan specializes in “the psychiatry of entrepreneurship”, focusing on the mental health issues of entrepreneurs during the startup venture formation process. Ryan believes that mental wellness is a core element of innovation. By learning from and being inspired by the empathy of our creative communities, Ryan hopes to build new dialogues about startup mental health.
Creator of Alphanista®, award-winning author of 7 books by a major publisher and tv/radio social commentator, Maryann Reid has been featured by countless media outlets including USA Today, Essence, Glamour, The CBS Early Show, and The Wendy Williams Experience.
She is an expert wordsmith and has a plethora of connections with women all over the world from her travels to Europe and The Caribbean. Maryann is also a popular guest lecturer at colleges, where she has taught her writing and business skills to groups who want to lead their ideal life on their own terms.
Maryann has been profiled in The New Yorker, Newsweek, Oprah.com, and NBC Nightly News for her innovative approach to life and solving its complex issues, including creating the uber-landmark event Marry Your Baby Daddy Day. This event originated from her third book, Marry Your Baby Daddy (St Martins Press) that was optioned by Hollywood actress Holly Robinson-Peete and Dolores Robinson.
Kevin Neilson is a student-entrepreneur at Dartmouth College. He’s passionate about apps, having coded and published his first iPhone app as a freshman in high school in 2010. Kevin believes in the power of a positive attitude, and the importance of serving. He leads an Alternative Spring Break for Habitat for Humanity and volunteers teaching kids how to code. Kevin also serves on the student board of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network and represents Google as a student ambassador.
Kevin is in his junior year of study pursuing a major in computer science and economics. This past fall, Kevin completed Draper University, a 7-week entrepreneur mentoring program.
The Dent conference explores the magic and science of visionary leadership and groundbreaking success. Request an invitation here.
12/1 UPDATE: As a special bonus, astronaut/aquanaut Cady Coleman (@Astro_Cady) will be joining our group of divers, press and other VIPs to teach the participants about her time as an Aquarius resident during her NEEMO expedition. If Cady’s name sounds familiar, it could be from her work as a special advisor to Sandra Bullock for her role in the film “Gravity.” Or maybe just because she’s been to space three times, the last trip being a six month stay at the International Space Station.
After our successful “Aquaman” themed session at San Diego Comic Con in July, and our ongoing editorial collaborations with our friends at NASA, we have been working with Thomas Potts, the director of Aquarius Reef Base in Florida in hopes of organizing a Dent “field trip” to tour and learn about this amazing facility, and to see first hand how astronauts use the base to train for voyages in space.
High resolution footage of a NASA mission to Aquarius:
Aquarius is an underwater habitat located several miles offshore near Key Largo. It is deployed on the ocean floor next to deep coral reefs 62 feet below the surface. Aquarius is probably best known as being the location for NEEMO, (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) where astronauts, engineers and scientists live undersea for up to three weeks at a time in preparation for various space exploration expeditions.
We are excited to announce that during the week of January 17, 2016, we will be taking a handful of divers down to tour the base (inside and out) to learn about the facility and the work that the NASA aquanauts perform there.
Invited divers will have the opportunity to spend one day diving Conch Reef with Aquarius staff to see a lunar lander mock-up frame used for NASA expeditions and instrument platforms used by industry to testbed sensors and materials. Divers will also board Aquarius for a 50-minute visit.
This exclusive outing is open to select “Denters” (2016 conference attendees, sponsors, supporters) by special invitation only. Members of the press may request an invitation (a few slots are available for non-divers) by emailing: press at dentthefuture dot com.
The following is required for all guest divers:
Copy of a certification card from a recognized diving agency (e.g., PADI, NAUI, ADCI, military)
Completed FIU liability waiver
Completed participant information form indicating that guest is covered by a major medical insurance policy or a worker compensation policy
Personal dive gear: mask, fins, swimsuit and thermal protection (Note: mask, fins and snorkel are available for rent; price is based on published program rates).
Three days after reading the vintage post (2003) by Joel Spolsky titled “Fixing Venture Capital” I was treated to a remarkably similar essay by David Heinemeier Hansson titled RECONSIDER.
In both cases, we see respected software engineers/architects who have built successful businesses and who appear to be highly skeptical of the notion that taking venture money is the optimal choice for entrepreneurs to make. (Note that Spolsky ultimately did take significant venture money for a post-2003 venture he started.)
One of the many similarities between these two essays is the discussion of misalignments between what a founder wants and what a funder wants:
“Specifically, founders would prefer reasonable success with high probability, while VCs are looking for fantastic hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark success with low probability. A VC fund will invest in a lot of startups. They expect about seven of them to fail, two of them to trudge along, and one of them to be The Next Netscape (“TNN”). It’s OK if seven fail, because the terms of the deal will be structured so that TNN makes them enough money to make up for all the losers.”
“In the abstract, economic sense, a 30% chance of making $3M is as good as a 3% chance of making $30M is as good as a 0.3% chance at making $300M. But in the concrete sense, you generally have to make your pick: Which coupon is the one for you?
The strategies employed to pursue the 30% for $3M are often in direct opposition to the strategies needed for a 0.3% shot at making $300M. Shooting for the stars and landing on the moon is not how Monday morning turns out.”
Heinemeier Hansson indicts the unbridled ambition of the “disrupt-o-mania” mindset and references our favorite Steve Jobs phrase (emphasis mine):
Part of the problem seems to be that nobody these days is content to merely put their dent in the universe. No, they have to fucking own the universe. It’s not enough to be in the market, they have to dominate it. It’s not enough to serve customers, they have to capture them…
He ends with this:
A dent in the universe is plenty.
As one who has cofounded and ultimately sold a successful company that didn’t take over the world, but did allow for the founders to enjoy what Heinemeier Hansson calls “attaining the tipping point of financial stability” and having a “a life beyond work”, I appreciate the way Heinemeier Hansson puts this. As an econ major I’m not so sure about his fervent indictment of people who prefer more to less. Should everyone have the same indifference curves that I do?
On a related note, I frequently cite the fact that Michael Arrington netted more on his $30 million Techcrunch sale than Arianna Huffington did on her $315 million exit.
Given this, what does the Dent community think? Is anything less than what I call the “achievatron” pursuit of world domination a cop-out?
Each year Dent brings together a diverse and fascinating group of people who are “putting a dent in the universe,” ranging from entrepreneurs to artists, VCs to designers, and a little bit of practically everything in between. The power of Dent comes significantly from putting the right people in the same place for four days running, allowing us all to build relationships that go beyond the boundaries of the conference.
For the first time this year, we started offering an “Alchemist” registration to Dent, which is priced a little higher but helps underwrite the cost of offering free attendance to folks who otherwise would not be able to attend.
So far, Alchemists have funded four full registrations to Dent 2016, and all Alchemist registrants will have the opportunity to help select the recipients. That number will continue to climb as more folks register as Alchemists.
Scholarship applications will be competitive; we’ve got more than five times the number of applications as there are (currently) spots to hand out, but the deadline to apply for a scholarship to Dent is October 1st. So go apply today — or if you know someone who should really be at Dent, send them the link.