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Too Young to Know It Can’t be Done (steveblank.com)
180 points by icey on Oct 13, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

Great subject. Of all the things we talk about here at hn, sometimes I think this may be the most important. The best lesson my mentor ever taught me was, "I didn't know that I couldn't do it, so I did it." I think that this attitude, as much as anything else, helps us accomplish great things.

I've always had a problem, though, with the implied correlation between this attitude and age. I imagine we all have lots of counter-examples: younger workers who don't believe something's worth trying and older workers who are relentless in trying new things.

OP mentions lots of 20 and 30 year olds with can-do attitudes on very ambitious projects. From this he infers that older workers don't think the same way.

Let me suggest an alternative conclusion: anyone in the 40's or 50's with such a can-do attitude is probably extremely successful and therefore, less available. Most of the workers I regularly encounter in their 40's and 50's have jaded attitudes. The go getters are still out there, just harder to find. So when you do find them, you've struck gold. Heavy experience and great attitude make a formidable combination.

My personal feeling as an early-30s who has seen numerous "impossible" projects come and go is that it does help to know what has come before you and to have an idea of why you're going to avoid the way your previous people failed. From what I can see, when people who didn't know "it" is impossible succeed, it isn't because of tenacity or persistence per se, it's because they, in their ignorance of the accepted "right way" to do it, end up trying something new that ends up working.

And of course it should be pointed out that the way it becomes accepted wisdom that "it" is impossible is usually young idealistic people who don't know it is impossible trying it and failing repeatedly. The narrative that you can overcome that sort of problem by sheer persistence is very tempting but also very dangerous; you can lose years, decades, or even entire careers trying to follow it.

As a concrete example, one that comes up a lot and I try to offer a, err, "calming" voice on is the persistent idea that there should be some sort of purely-visual programming language. The advice I offer is not "don't do it"; the advice I offer is go out and look at the immense amounts of work already done, learn why they failed, then explain why you will not suffer from the exact same problems and fail in the exact same way. If you come up with such an explanation, go for it! No sarcasm, no joke, go for it with my blessing. But this particular area has been richly covered and extensively explored already, and especially if you think you want to make money with this idea it behooves you to take advantage of the nearly-free research you can do simply by looking at others.

After all, you might succeed. Tablets were an "impossible" project pretty recently, until Apple succeeded. Times do change, processor power has continued to get cheaper and cheaper (one of the reasons tablets have succeeded now, IMHO, you can still have a decent experience on them), server infrastructure is cheaper than ever, programming languages have continued their slow-but-steady march towards having more power than ever, etc.

The amount of things that need to be known is infinite. Everyday you learn new things, but 1 + 1 is as far from infinity as 1 is. You've all read what Paul Graham has written about blub programmers? (http://www.paulgraham.com/avg.html). To some extent, we are all blub programmers, all the time. In Graham's example, there is a programmer who does not know of a powerful programming language that could help them, but if you happen to know the most powerful and perfect programming language in the world, there is still an infinite realm of things you do not know that would be helpful to running a business - facts about accounting, changes in the tax codes in all the different countries where you'd like to operate, the languages spoken by humans in those countries, the culture of those countries, and the changing behaviors among young people, old people, and those in the middle, facts about the law, torts, libel, what is and is not allowed in advertising, facts about management and human relations, dealing with diverse work forces, integrating cross functional teams, the right way to motivate, facts about sales and the psychology that prompts people to buy or not buy, how to close, facts about large organizations, navigating their hierarchy, discovering the right person to contact, facts about personal motivation, avoiding burn out in yourself and in your employees, balancing the changing needs our bodies and minds present us with, facts about larger trends in our industries, facts about whatever chemistry or physics underlies the work we do, and possibly impacts it... I could go on forever, because the list is pretty much infinite.

My point is, we are all infinitely ignorant and therefore we fall into the category of "didn't know that I couldn't do it". I think what matters is ambition. Motivation counts more than knowledge or lack of knowledge. One figures out what one needs to along the way.

I feel like Steve Blank is talking more about how much time people have been in an industry than how old they are. He writes:

"Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination."

This wouldn't really apply to people like me who switch careers when they hit 30. The tech industry was all bright and shiny and new to me when I first took an interest in it at age 31. Steve Blank is conflating age and time spent in an industry.

"recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination"

Anyone who thinks like that should read some Karl Popper on the weaknesses inherent in inductive reasoning.

I agree with this and think it also offers a way to reset. Work in a new field or industry and bring "newcomer's eyes" to the established problems, re-purposing what worked in your original field where appropriate.

I'm 45 and I've spent a lot of time persuading folks in their 20s that something is possible - almost always by coming up with a basic implementation of an approach. Honestly, the number of times I've heard "I didn't know you could do that".

Very few things motivate me more than someone asserting "that can't be done".

I'm 45 too, and there is theoretically no 'Can't be done' in my book either. Everything can be done, given enough time and resources.

I like your way of proving that something can be done by demonstrating it with a 'basic implementation'. I prototype a lot too, and I call it 'proofs of concept'. I always do proof-of-concepts when I have to use a new technology to prove to myself and to my customer that it can be done.

Often the reason they have jaded attitudes, is because they did the impossible, and watched others get rewarded for it.

I didn't become jaded. I learnt my lessons -- and promised myself not to let others grab the rewards of my own creativity and efforts. I started and run my own company.

Prometheus won't succeed unless he chooses to unbind himself.

You do realise that this can only happen if your an employee? Where you work your butt off and you still get paid your regular salary even if your product is a huge success in the market.

And in a corporation this is still a minor cause of pain. The politics, stupid rules and pointy haired bosses are a much bigger cause of "jadedness".

I think anyone who starts their own company doesnt have the time to get jaded.

From my observations, it is more common in academia than in business. Most companies try to accurately identify productive people because they are aware of gaming issues, and, when there is an issue of rewards, want to continue benefiting by rewarding the correct person. On the other hand, I have seen several claims that the majority of work "produced" by senior academics was actually done by grad students - though I think their claims of how often it happens are probably exaggerated.

I disagree.

In many, many successful startups, the people who make the money and the people who did the work are only loosely correlated. In particular early employees who were duds get paid well, and later employees who were key to the success get only modest payouts.

> I think anyone who starts their own company doesnt have the time to get jaded.

Just beware the investors! The less you own, the less control you have.

You don't think inferior products sometimes win in the marketplace? Ever hear of FUD?

I'd tend to agree. I only have anecdotal data, but I've definitely met far more "can't-do" people in their 20s and early 30s than those with a "can-do" attitude. Many of the former end up dropping out of the field in some way or another, which should counteract the effect hypothesised in the article to some extent.

I'm also pretty sure lack of experience also stops you from thinking you could do anything, at least up to a certain level. I think it's combinatorics, really. If you've done N wildly different projects, you have O(N²) possibilities of combining the experiences of 2 of those to produce something novel and good. I have a hard time working with people who are too focused in their domain (e.g. nothing but web apps) because they can't think outside their box.

So have I. In fact, most of the "can't do" folks in their 20's and 30's that I've had to deal with were failing to solve easy problems. My peers and I had encountered these in the past, we had solved them, and didn't care to waste time trying to come up with new solutions to them. The ones who failed were too arrogant to listen to the voice of experience, and as a result they failed miserably.

That said, I've also encountered peers who were too set in their ways to change, and continued to fail in almost exactly the same way over and over again, refusing to learn from their own experience.

It goes both ways, but age has had very little to do with it in either case. It's usually been arrogance instead.

I think it's mostly just lack of caring, not arrogance, at least in my experience. Sure, some people react badly when you try to coax them out of their comfort zone. Could be a cultural thing - Americans seem to be more confident overall, which could well manifest itself as arrogance in this situation.

I come across the issue occasionally as a contractor - where my work needs to be integrated with the help of employees who are totally out of their depth with it. In addition to making it all happen you get a second objective: not embarrassing them or otherwise pissing them off.

I think you're right, it does seem like a cultural thing. If you find something that's easy for you, you can choose to either stick with that one thing, or you can push your comfort zone and grow. Most americans these days are trained early on to stay in their comfort zone rather than growing, and it's getting ingrained into them.

I think there's a certain amount of serendipity. However, you'll never find it if you're not searching.

Voted up. This is even stronger than Pasteur's famous, "Chance favors the prepared mind" - if you are not actually working on a problem, there is no possible way to benefit from serendipity.

Visible examples of this in practice are actually legion.

One such is in nature photography, a passion of mine. Back when I was a total newbie, another photographer shared an image during a class on photography. His photograph had, in addition to an excellent composition, a stunning sky, and perfect light.

One person's response to the image was something like, "Wow, you were very lucky to get a sky like that for that shot!"

The photographer explained that it hadn't been luck. He had found the spot already, and knew what he wanted to get, knew what time of day would give him the highest likelihood of getting the right light to match his vision, and kept going back to that spot at the right time until everything came together.

Luck is what happens when experience meets opportunity.

He put himself in the right spot, and had the vision and skills to take advantage of an opportunity that he would not have gotten without being in the right place at the right time.

This concept isn't unique to photography obviously -- it's just more visible. :)

I think it's largely an issue of who has the imagination, and how they weigh the cost benefit. As you get older, that profile shifts radically, so not only are they less available, they are, rightly, more risk averse. But if they have the right idea, and if they see the value as paying off then you get an incredible mix.

When I was younger I thought I couldn't solve the really hard problems because I lacked experience, now that I have some experience I realize it is more about mindset than naivete or ability.

Just speaking as an engineer, not as a entrepreneur-in-training:

Saying "it's impossible" to any decent engineer should be like swinging a steak in front of a hungry german shepherd. I don't care how old they are.

If they shrug and accept the "impossibility" of a technical hurdle without due diligence, those same people will be susceptible to "do it this way, trust me, (I have EXPERIENCE|I'm the ARCHITECT)." Those people should always be able to at least give a modicum of explanation or proof as to what reasoning is in play to make something a good or bad idea.

Indeed. Now I understand (and can justify) my reaction when someone says "it should be simple."

"One of the traps of age is growing to accept the common wisdom of what’s possible and not."

Only if you accept it.

The trouble is, most of the time (i.e. almost all the time), it's more efficient to assume that the common wisdom is correct. If you don't accept this wisdom, you'll end up making noob mistakes long after you "should know better".

It also doesn't help that society almost colludes in this. People are more forgiving of youngsters making mistakes; they are far more likely to dismiss the same when the person is older, as they infer that since that person hasn't learned by now, they're clearly not very bright / good at what they do / whatever.

Point taken - but are we talking about "common wisdom" in general, or "common wisdom of what's possible"?

I think the common wisdom of what's possible is only broken by breaking one of the links in the chain of reasoning that makes people think it's impossible, and all those links form common wisdom in general.

Usually, when you think something is impossible that turns out not to be, it's because one of your assumptions was incorrect. But looking for the bad assumption is usually like looking for the bad stone in a pyramid - each assumption is in turn held up by other assumptions, and so on. And it's made more complicated by cross-relationships which can add an exponential aspect to the problem.

Usually, the bad assumption looks obvious in retrospect, but it's seldom that way before the insight.

That being said, I just pulled some stuff out of my code that I really shouldn't have :) Thought I was going to start a revolution there.

Most people do. That's the point.

Why do we adulate the young who are too naive to know it can't be done, but demonize the stupid managers who are too stupid to know it can't be done?

Because the young people, in question, go out and do it themselves, the stupid managers try to make others do the work based on a vision of things that the people actually doing the work don't share.

I upvoted you because there seems to be a dichotomy there, but let me offer a solution: Managers aren't "wrong" in their knowing what can be done and what can't - it's the corporate "structure" prevents it from taking place (design by committee, no ownership of projects, not enough latitude in design by the people "on the ground", etc.)

The ability to invent has NOTHING to do with age.

Steve Wozniak was a genius at electronics. He had more "experience" in electronics than anyone else 20 years older than him. He succeeded because he had the motivation to build something and the knowledge to execute it.

The same is true for every example that he cited. The inventors, in each case, had much more "experience", within those fields, than anyone else. They used this to create something new.

The younger you are (ie no family), the more time you have to tinker with things. And I think this plays a big role.

You can rattle of hundreds of counter examples: Oprah, JK Rowling, Mark Pincus ...

This reminds me of the anecdote about the math student who showed up late to a lecture and saw three equations on the board; he assumed they were homework, so he copied them down and worked on them. When he came to the next class, he said, "The homework was really hard; I could only solve one of the equations," to which his professor replied, "Those weren't homework--those were three of the most renowned unsolved equations in the field of mathematics." I forget where I read this, but I have always chosen to believe that it is true, because, damn... that's awesome.

It was only a single problem in statistics. The professor's name eludes me. He's still alive and teaching.

2 problems. George Dantzig got them both.


Blank suggests that youth brings on this attitude, but there are other ways. For instance, Dr. Fred Jelinek[1] (tragically, recently deceased) made huge innovations in the field of speech recognition by diving into the field from a different direction and applying statistical methods where people thought the only path forward was phonetics and linguistics. It's the total revolution that underlies huge amounts of speech and language technology we take for granted today and was only possible by the introduction of a wildly unexpected idea to an impossible problem.

A implied moral being to tackle problems you really shouldn't have any reason to, I suppose. It might be life changing.


"I once asked Ivan, 'How is it possible for you to have invented computer graphics, done the first object oriented software system and the first real time constraint solver all by yourself in one year?" And he said "I didn't know it was hard." -- Alan Kay on Ivan Sutherland.

Some of my favorite quotes/comments on the topic:

"Fools go where angels fear to tread" -- "Maybe god is just waiting for a fool." -- (something I read somewhere, I think)

"Impossible means it just hasn't been done before." -- (something my youngest son says -- he may have read it somewhere)

"There is always a first" -- (from the Kung Fu TV series, the old master indicating they will accept him into the priesthood even though he is not full-blooded Chinese)

"Ignorance is bliss" -- (something I often say about overcoming the long list of problems my oldest son had/has, in part because no one gave me the long list of frightening and prejudicial labels he qualifies for until well after I had done all kinds of things other people say cannot be done)

"While they were saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done." -- Helen Keller

"What? Like it's hard?" -- Elle Woods/"Legally Blonde", in reply to her ex-boyfriend expressing surprise that she got into Harvard law school (the even bigger punchline is she finds out later he was wait-listed and his daddy had to make a call whereas she got in on her own merits)

"Too Young to Know It Can’t be Done"

I think more common than this is that young people don't understand that just because you have a good product doesn't mean you have a good business. So they'll build a bunch of crazy stuff with no business model, or start a business with 10% margins, and 99% of them will fail but occasionally one of them will work out.

This is exactly how the Helium-Neon laser came about. At the time there were published articles on how infeasible a gas based laser was to create. The researcher who came up with them didn't know about the papers and hadn't done a full literature search. He just plugged away. Now they're widely used and adopted for most everything.

"And if they’re really strategic older founders hire engineers in their 20′s and 30′s who don’t know what they’ve been asked to do is impossible (exactly the strategy of my partner Ben at E.piphany.)"

That sounds a lot like age discrimination to me. He should be careful saying things like that, because it's illegal to hire based on age in the US.

He's probably advocating that for the same reason that EA and Amazon prefer junior developers: they're more willing to tolerate being treated like slaves than seniors.

I think the fairly widespread use of interns is the de facto way of doing age-based hiring, without it officially being age-based hiring. Any company that tries to recruit from college campuses is, at least in part, doing age-based hiring.

While I agree with this, it should be noted that unfortunately many of these young people fail. And sometimes they can't recover from their failures.

Accumulated experience can at times become an obstacle in thinking creatively.

And other times it can be an aid. Many good ideas need time to circle around in one's head until they meet the right inspiration. See the popular talk, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU

I'd say that not knowing something cannot be done isn't always the best approach. Those instances where it worked out seem serendipitous at best. One cannot rely on ignorance to get them through the day, surely.

I read in the Code Book that this was how Clifford Cocks ended up inventing asymmetric cryptography. In fact, I recently took my books out of storage and put them on some shelves, so I can quote exactly.

"For the next three years, GCHQ's brightest minds struggled to find a one-way function that satisfied Ellis's requirements, but nothing emerged. Then, in September 1973, a new mathematician joined the team. Clifford Cocks had recently graduated from Cambridge University, where he had specialised in number theory, one of the purest forms of mathematics. When he joined GCHQ he knew very little about encryption and the shadowy world of military and diplomatic communication, so he was assigned a mentor, Nick Patterson, who guided him through his first few weeks at GCHQ.

After about six weeks, Patterson told Cocks about 'a really whacky idea'. He outlined Ellis's theory for public-key cryptography, and explained that nobody had yet been able to find a mathematical function that fitted the bill. Patterson was telling Cocks because this was the most titillating cryptographic idea around, not because he expected him to try to solve it. However, as Cocks explains, later that day he set to work: 'There was nothing particular happening, and so I thought I would think about the idea. Because I had been working in number theory, it was natural to think about one-way functions, something you could do but not undo. Prime numbers and factoring was a natural candidate, and that became my starting point.' Cocks was beginning to formulate what would be known as the RSA asymmetric cipher. Rivest, Shamir and Adleman discovered their formula for public-key cryptography in 1977, but four years earlier the young Cambridge graduate was going through exactly the same thought processes. Cocks recalls: 'From start to finish, it took me no more than half an hour. I was quite pleased with myself. I thought, "Ooh, that's nice. I've been given a problem, and I've solved it." '

Cocks did not fully appreciate the significance of his discovery. He was unaware of the fact that GCHQ's brightest minds had been struggling with the problem for three years, and had no idea that he had made one of the most important cryptographic breakthroughs of the century. Cocks's naivety may have been part of the reason for his success, allowing him to attack the problem with confidence, rather than timidly prodding at it. Cocks told his mentor about his discovery, and it was Patterson who then reported it to the management. Cocks was quite diffident and very much still a rookie, whereas Patterson fully appreciated the context of the problem and was more capable of addressing the technical questions that would inevitably arise. Soon complete strangers started approaching Cocks the wonderkid, and began to congratulate him. One of the strangers was James Ellis, keen to meet the man who had turned his dream into a reality. Because Cocks still did not understand the enormity of his achievement the details of this meeting did not make a great impact on him, and so now, over two decades later, he has no memory of Ellis's reaction."

Note that it wasn't just his naivete that helped, it was also his deep knowledge of a field incidental to where the solution was thought to lie. You gotta know some shit, too.

Let's take the probability distribution of how much money people make with their projects. I think if we take the set of young people then this distribution has extremely big variance. I think that this distribution for experiened people has much smaller variance and I guess it has a bigger expected value.

I can higlight it with a game industry example: for every John Carmack there are thousands of young programmers who start their game engines but fail. And even if John Carmack was quite young when he became successful, he was not inexperienced.

Those thousands who cannot make the extremely big hit become more experienced and try to optimize for bigger expected values. And I think they are right. We have only one life. Taking risks is essential to success, but you can very easily live your life without success if you take only huge risks all your life.

tl;dr: 'Is it possible to do that?' is a bad question. What is the probability to successfully do that? Is better. And experienced folks have much better answers for the latter question than inexperienced folks.

It's really naiveté. More experienced "smarter" people will know how difficult some task really is and may not even start it. Someone young is likely naive, perhaps over confident in the simplicity of a task, and will drive head on into solving it. Of course once progress is made that becomes motivation to continue.

This doesn't mean that being naive is perfect. The majority of the people who try the difficult task will probably still just crash and burn, but the naiveté compels more than normal numbers of people to risk it in the first place.

Young or old, people often suffer "analysis paralysis" and cannot take that first step.

I think this old joke sums it up.

A woman prays every day, "Oh lord, please let me win the lottery." Months go by, years go by and still nothing. No matter how often, how loud or how hard she prays, she still doesn't win the lottery. Finally one day in tears she cries out, "Why won't you let me win the lottery? I've been good, I've been faithful..."

A voice booms out of the clouds... "First You Have To Buy A Ticket!"

TL;DR If you don't put yourself into the game you cannot lose, but you cannot win either.

Totally agree that accepting the conventional wisdom that something is impossible, or getting trapped in looking at how everybody else has failed to accomplish it, is a boat anchor on creativity.

On the other hand, realizing that a problem is trickier than it seems on the surface, and leaning from others’ attempts to solve it (including what worked as well as what didn’t) is hugely valuable.

It’s a choice everybody makes for themselves, independent of age.

This is an overly sentimental and nostalgic treatment rather than an objective view of how things get done. It would be more insightful to consider the effort, connections, training and education, and no doubt stubbornness and how they can affect an outcome rather than focussing on some fanciful, spooky notions of a rose-tinted world where travelling to the moon isn't rocket science.

No one remembers the people who scoffed at those who said it was impossible, only to discover it really was impossible.

Also, keep in mind that the boy genius entrepreneur is a stereotype that really doesn't apply outside of the software industry, if it even applies there. The average entrepreneur is over 40, and the average age of successful entrepreneurs is even older.

Actually the meme that the "average entrepreneur is over 40" comes from a Kauffman Foundation report that is a great starting point for a discussion. However, it needs to be read very carefully.

The founders referenced in the study are not the typical venture/angel funded technology startups. According to Krisztina Holly, one of the reports authors, “only 11% and 9% for VC and angel financing.” It’s those 20% that I would classify as “Scalable Startups” and where I am really interested in understanding the founders ages.

The rest of the enterprenuers fall into a category I would call “small business.” Nothing wrong with that, but it makes the age comparison an Apples and Oranges discussion.

In summary, the Kauffman report, which lots of people now use to point to the fact that entreprenuers average age is 39, may say that. But it may not. There is not enough information in the current report to understand the founders age in technology startups who get risk capital.


I believe part of the issue is what was not possible previously is now possible due to better tech, faster processors, more available memory, cheaper development than in the past. So, yes, a younger generation may give it a go anyway not fully understanding that 10 years ago writing a larger query like that was probably a bad idea.

Some of my best brainstorming sessions turned out to be things that weren't technically "legal" but damn were they fun ... this article is oh so true. As a youn tech professional I know how true this can be and how refreshing a younger mind can be at times .... great article

One way around this is to change careers, or at least your subspecialty, at least once a decade.

Duplicate, flagged.

You should post a link to the story this is a duplicate of rather than just posting "Dup!".

The dupe in this case is kind of interesting - this submission is in fact the second submission, and the URLs look identical. It appears that the dupe detection is case sensitive. I have more details here:


I'm sorry.

It's not too bad, I just thought you'd like to know why you were getting the downvotes :)

I've learned my lesson ;-) Thanks!

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