(By Doug Sundheim)
“We tend to think that the problems we see are so obvious that people smarter than us must already be working them—so why waste our time thinking about them? But often that isn’t the case. There are countless reasons why seemingly obvious problems go unsolved. One of the biggest reasons is that people best positioned to solve them often have vested interests in not solving them.“
Anyone would be inspired by the story of Nick Woodman, the CEO of GoPro, a $2.5B company that makes wearable HD video cameras. The highlights:
In the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, Woodman blows $4M of VC money on a failed venture called funBugs.com, an ultimately ill-conceived loyalty, sweepstakes, and entertainment website. In 2002, unsure of what to do with his life, he takes off to surf in Indonesia and Australia. He wants to capture live-action shots from his surfboard. The only cost-effective way to do this is by strapping a disposable camera to his wrist with rubber bands. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work well.
Back in the US, unable to find a suitable camera wrist strap, Woodman sets out to develop one himself. He quickly realizes it would make a better product to include the camera too. Meanwhile, he has no knowledge of cameras. It takes him two years to find and prototype the right camera. He bankrolls his efforts by selling shell necklaces and getting a small loan from his mother. The first camera comes out in 2004. He sells it door-to-door to surf shops. It’s a hit. He then develops a video camera that debuts in 2007. It’s also a hit. In the years that follow, he develops increasingly cool yet affordable cameras with pro-like, wide-angle HD video. By 2013, GoPro, with a mission to “capture life’s most exciting moments,” has the best-selling camera in the world and around $1 billion in yearly sales.
I love Woodman’s story. Beyond its obvious compelling arc, it reminds me of how important it is to live the questions right in front of us—and not waste time looking for big ideas “out there” somewhere else. The questions that annoy, frustrate, or bother us are our greatest opportunities. They poke us and get under our skin. We’re naturally motivated to solve them.
To live a question is to commit to it—to explore it even though we’re not sure where it will take us. We explore it because it’s interesting, meaningful, challenging, and often fun. We also explore it because we know that even if we fail, something good will come from it. We’ll learn something important. Or at least have a great story to tell.
Of course, to get better at living interesting and meaningful questions, we have to get better at identifying them. Inspired by Woodman’s story, I decided to exercise this muscle. Over the course of one day I jotted down all the potentially interesting questions that occurred to me. I didn’t judge or censor them, I just captured them. Here’s my list:
- Why are children’s car seats so tough to install?
- Why do so many consulting firms underwhelm their clients?
- Why has that beautiful building on such a desirable corner been abandoned for so long?
- What’s really going on with the massive vacant waterfront in my town?
- What’s the connection between poetry and great leadership?
- How come every time I write marketing copy, it sounds boring when I look at it the next day?
- Why can’t I find a stylish, warm, winter coat without a hood?
- How can I find more time to read?
It’s not an earth-shattering list, just simple seeds of ideas. That said, the exercise turned out to be far more insightful than I had anticipated.
First, I didn’t realize how many questions cross my mind each day. I was micro-brainstorming all day—and probably have been my whole life. I’d just never noticed before. Second, the process changed how I saw the questions. The mere act of writing them down reframed them from random thoughts into potential opportunities. It pulled me out of a problem orientation and put me into a solution orientation, which is a more powerful way to live.
For example, I didn’t have to just complain about car seats; I could explore mechanisms for making them easier to install. There might be good reasons why the process is such a pain in the neck. But then again, there might not be. After all, before Woodman developed a wearable camera, there wasn’t a good reason why that didn’t exist yet.
We tend to think that the problems we see are so obvious that people smarter than us must already be working them—so why waste our time thinking about them? But often that isn’t the case. There are countless reasons why seemingly obvious problems go unsolved. One of the biggest reasons is that people best positioned to solve them often have vested interests in not solving them.
Perhaps above all these questions is a larger one—how do we choose which questions to pursue? If I wrote eight questions a day, that would be close to 3,000 a year. You can’t do anything with 3,000 questions. But here’s my hunch: patterns in our questions show up over time. We keep wondering about the same or similar things over and over. And those patterns are gold because they point to our motivation—and quite possibly, our next great exploration.
So here’s my plan. Over the next year I’m going to take 10 minutes per week to write down the interesting questions that cross my mind. At the end of the year, I’ll review the 52 lists for patterns and themes. And by January 2015, I’ll see where I end up. Maybe I’ll have something worth working on.