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Obvious to you. Amazing to others. (sivers.org)
244 points by sahillavingia on Nov 21, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

This is why it annoys me when someone posts a link to some advice on HN, a bunch of commenters are talking about how they had never thought of it before and how useful it is, and then someone has to leap in saying "This stuff is old hat. Everyone has heard of this before. I thought of it myself back in 1843."

Because everyone has to learn some time, and what is obvious to one person isn't obvious to the next one. And anything which helps people realise something true is worth repeating from time to time.

someone has to leap in saying "This stuff is old hat. Everyone has heard of this before. I thought of it myself back in 1843."

Aside from the last part of that, I have some sympathy for people who make such comments. Often ideas are presented as "new" which are covered in any basic undergraduate textbook in the field; if someone working in the field isn't aware of these ideas, it simply means that they didn't do their homework.

There's a place for brilliant new ideas, but it generally comes after reading a book (or doing a google search) to check if a problem has already been analyzed to death.

At first I agreed with what you said, but then I realized that not only is it an elitist sentiment, it also misses the mark.

I graduated from a university that is known for its CS department. I can still remember most of the concepts that were introduced. I can also imagine that if you work with a narrow slice of that curriculum for 10 years after graduation, you might forget or get rusty on a good number of unused algorithms or ways of thinking.

But I have also seen a lot of cases where different universities focus on different things in their curricula. For example, my university did not mention the phrase "functional programming", although that concept was well-known for over 15 years before my attendance. I was blissfully unaware of first-class functions. This is not new stuff, but several years after I graduated, I discovered it for the first time.

And imagine my surprise and glee when I discovered over six years after my graduation first-class classes, multimethods (or generic methods), and the like. Suddenly, languages like C++ and Java -- which a lot of universities force-feed their students -- seem very restricting. Yet all this is fairly basic, just different ways to think about and approach our problems.

The reality is that college can give you only so much, and you must accept that others coming from other colleges have been exposed to a different array of concepts and know about those more than you. You have to continue your career forward where the college left off.

And it sure helps when a place like Hacker News can occasionally bring up these various subjects. On the one hand, it exposes different people to new ways of thinking, and on the other hand, it might encourage other readers to join the field.

This stuff is old hat. But mentioning that and that you thought about it back in 1843 is a meaningless ego massage that, no, does not deserve sympathy. In a significant system, you cannot develop alone. Bring others up to your level, and learn from them, too.

This stuff is old hat. But mentioning that and that you thought about it back in 1843 is a meaningless ego massage that, no, does not deserve sympathy.

I agree -- I did say "aside from the last part".

I think for those of us that know this stuff, it is important to understand there is a marketing and sales aspect to education.

While I'm a fan of Ruby per-se, I'm a fan of the Ruby mindset that is bringing out new concepts that educates a larger base of developers. I appreciate JavaScript for the same thing, especially node.js for bring continuation passing to the eyes of new people.

The problem is that there are far too many fields to master in any one lifetime. You can't simply Google away any question you ever have; that's why people like Derek Sivers who go out of their way to give little highlights, even if they're "simple", are so important.

One man's "obvious" is another man's "stunning discovery".

Perhaps the "this is old hat" people are just saying they only heard of it themselves yesterday or perhaps - as is very common - something is indeed obvious after you've heard it for the first time.

There is quite a difference between something being obvious to one reader and not to another reader and something that you create and you think is such an obvious thing and the reader thinks is genius. The post was about the latter.

Actually, if you thought of something being discussed on HN today in 1843, then you deserve some recognition for age and incredible foresight.

Of course. I just thought it was funny to point out. No reason to downvote...

FWIW, I didn't (and won't) downvote you. And humour hit-or-miss at the best of times, especially on the internet, especially on HN. You can't please everyone. (even after realising it's supposed to be a joke, I still fail to find it funny, sorry)

> I'll bet even John Coltrane or Richard Feynman felt that everything they were playing or saying was pretty obvious.

No, Feynman specifically said it takes a lot of effort and top quality understanding to explain stuff well enough for it to seem obvious to others. He didn't think it was automatic.

He further thought, for example, that being a good physicist takes a lot of imagination to come up with new and different ideas. In other words, physicists have to think of non-obvious stuff.

It's weird to assume someone who had lots of new and important ideas, and who put tons of effort into being a clear explainer of ideas, would be someone to just assume their ideas are obvious.

A sibling comment discusses people who don't do their homework before writing. I think people should not talk about public figures without doing their homework -- if you don't know what someone is about just stick to the topic instead of invoking his name.

Great point, and I totally agree. I recklessly picked Coltrane and Feynman as two extreme examples without knowing their thoughts on their work.

Sometimes little tiny essays like this can be too vague if they use no examples at all. The examples are never the point, though, and it's assumed the example will just get translated in the reader's head into their own more personally-meaningful example.

But FWIW the Feynman interview that I was trying to find was his moment of seeing the spinning plate, which I think led to his Nobel prize-winning work. I couldn't find that interview, but I thought I remembered him saying that it seemed obvious at the time.

The point of the anecdote with the spinning plate is that he was surprised by the physics of it, once he worked it out. That is, what he thought was obviously true turned out to not be true.

That kind of playful work - done for the fun of it after a long period of burn out - got him back on track for the work that eventually led to his Nobel. Interesting anecdote, but I don't think it's related to your thesis.

Oh, hi. Thanks for taking criticism well! That's something a lot of people could work on.

Actually, if you read enough about him, you'll find Feynman did actually think some stuff he did that was quite original was obvious; to the point that he didn't publish it and someone would come in later seeking his opinion on their original research only to find out he'd already already happened upon the idea and moved past it.

I have read about his notebooks with ideas. I don't think people write stuff down b/c it's super obvious to them...

His motivation for not publishing all of it is hard to guess. You suspect it's b/c he didn't know that other people were ignorant of it, but he never stated that. My first guess is it's b/c it'd have been a lot of work to help others but not himself. When you have millions of great ideas, writing them all up for publication would be a huge chore and it's more fun to just work on more new ideas. Feynman cared a lot about fun.

> I don't think people write stuff down b/c it's super obvious to them...

Sure they do, if it's a thought in a chain of thoughts leading to something. People make mind maps all the time full of obvious ideas because it helps the find the non obvious ones. Hell people write down obvious stuff just to organize their thoughts.

Also, I do recall him stating that he hadn't considered publishing some stuff because he didn't realize it was original until someone else got credit for publishing it. I wish I had a reference, but I don't, I've read a ton of his stuff and couldn't pinpoint where I read it if I had to.

Knowing what ideas are original is very hard. I have many ideas I consider far from obvious, which I don't know if they are original or not. It's a separate issue.

Hit songwriters, in interviews, often admit that their most successful hit song was one they thought was just stupid, even not worth recording.

A lot of times, hit songs don't have much depth to them, even if they're catchy on the surface. A musician is probably perceiving the lack of depth more than the catchiness, whereas the listeners who make it a hit song perceive the catchiness long before the lack of depth catches up to them.

Maybe that's true of "pop" (whatever the heck that means) music, but I think it's a legitimate statement on musical quality. For example Springsteen just released an entire album of songs that he wrote back in the 70's but never published, even fellow songwriter Steven Van Zandt basically said he has no idea why they weren't released.

Brian Eno wrote talked an unreleased album of his, My Squelchy Life, in an interview:

    What happened was, I finished a record and as nearly always 
    happens to me, in finishing the record I started to get a 
    glimpse of the next step. There's always a cutting edge and
    a trailing edge to what you are doing. Well, when I 
    finished that record, I knew what the cutting edge was. 

    The record was due out in September 1991. And so I went
    straight back into the studio and had begun working on some 
    new material, which followed what I felt was the cutting 
    edge of this soon-to-be-released record.

    Then the company said, "Well, September is a terribly bad 
    time to release; can you leave it to February?" And I said, 
    "I don't mind leaving it to February, but I won't release 
    this record then. I'H release what I've finished in
    February, which is likely to be quite a lot different." 
    So that record just disappeared in the mist of time and I 
    carried on working with the new material, and that's 
    what became Nerve Net. 


Tangentially related: when you stop yourself from creating a product because, after hours of research, you find "something out there already that does it". But, if that existing site/product is so obscure that it took you hours of research to find it, then they've failed.

It may be obvious to you, because you're doing market research, but it may be totally obscure to an actual consumer looking for the solution.

The catch is that while this might apply to some specific brilliant ideas, most ideas you might come up with are probably not new and not amazing. The risk is in your own bias of your assessment in the other direction.

Although as startups go, we know that it is all in the execution.

Additionally, things you or I may find easy are often difficult for large quantities of people who would be willing to pay for it. I've recently become more self-aware of this, after seeing lots of examples of successful companies created to solve problems I thought were easy to solve. I'm a sysadmin, so things like Git repository hosting seem easy to me, but are certainly seen as genius by GitHub's thousands of users.

I've been thinking about this a lot after I began working as a programmer. I think my ideas are pretty obvious and simplistic.

But after reading a bunch of books and blogs over the course of a couple of years. I have come to realize that stating the obvious is pretty hard. And only a few, will think of the obvious for the many.

We thought WhiteyBoard.com was pretty obvious, but now it's killing it! It's true, you are your own hardest critic. Let your users decide for themselves whether your idea is awesome or not. Then listen to your users, because they will help you make your idea go from obvious to amazing.

It's a fair (well trodden) point, but of course, let's not forget that often things that seem obvious to me seem that way because quite frankly they are obvious. I mean this anti-gravity machine I've got sitting here, who would want that...?

Are you holding back something that seems too obvious to share?

Well, yes and no. My problem is that other people find it so "amazing" it moves it into "incredulous"/incredible...ie "I don't believe you and think you are lying" territory. :-/ Still working on figuring out how to talk about my ideas without going down in flames, being called names, yadda yadda. Phooey.

(And, yes, I still think some of it is terribly obvious and is based in part on things that are "common knowledge", so I remain somewhat baffled by the strong reactions.)

I think the convention is that it's "ok" to be amazed by material goods and observable feats, but it's not "ok" to be amazed by lifestyles, philosophies and moral codes, or speculative experiments.

A: "How did you make so much money, B?"

B: "I got up early every day, worked hard, kept learning and stuck to my principles."

A: "But there must be some kind of trick. How did you _really_ do it, B?"

Ego also comes into play, since people lacking self-respect will see themselves as a static entity seeking outside validation, not a work-in-progress that grows through achievement. Suggesting otherwise attacks their blind spot, and they'll tend to react to it as a threat.

It seems to me my biggest issue is with individuals who are doing substantially better than expected and have been amazing other people for some time but whose achievements fall far short of mine. These individuals are typically defacto social gatekeepers. It is a catch-22 because offending them alienates a large number of people but kowtowing to them in order to stay on their good side would involve agreeing with them at times when I really don't.

Hah. They have enemies. Find them and explain.

If you're talking about Bill Gates, sell to Larry Ellison "Here's how I'm going to put a thumb in his eye." Or at a more accessible level, tell the same thing to Calcanis as regards Arrington.

Nice idea but I don't think it applies in this situation.

In those cases you have to build it first. (Although that's still no guarantee, since some things have to be believed to be seen.)

My son and I have basically gotten well when the world says it cannot be done. I think that should be "proof" enough. Apparently not. Still trying to figure out what more there is to build to prove something to others and whether or not I have the skills (or interest, after so much bashing) to do that piece of it.

Recent example: Try explaining web app session stealing (to other web developers or management) two months ago versus now. Two months ago you get blank stares or outright disbelief, but now you get "oh, to protect against firesheep? yeah, let's use SSL everywhere."

It was just as obvious two months ago as today, but now people have a one word conceptual model to use without needing to understand cookies, browser requests, proxies, broadcast domains, or cross site issues.

Obvious to us. Amazing to the normals.

Hmmm. I agree with your conclusion, but I wouldn't say that Firesheep is a "one word conceptual model." Rather, it's a concrete instance, not a model.

That was the problem with before: in order to understand the threat, you needed to have a sophisticated mental model to be able to convince yourself "Yes, while I am unaware of any actual threats that use this, but I can see the potential for abuse." You needed to be able to deduce a threat from first principles. But once an actual threat exists, you get a shortcut; you can work backwards from the known threat rather than forwards from the system itself.

This is encouraging to those looking for ideas for startups, it basically means that someone will find your idea 'amazing' or 'genius'.

The trick is, not just finding 1 person, but many people who think it. And not only that it's amazing, but so amazing that they'll pay you for it.

On the plus side, this should mean that for any reasonable idea, given the size of the internet, you should be able to find at least a small bunch of people that will pay for your 'genius'.

This is so obvious to me that I'm amazed that anyone finds this idea amazing. Pretty meta.

I think his advice is correct but doesn't matter in practice. People post stuff online when they learn something and when they are excited about it (some people try to keep blogs just for marketing purposes and usually it doesn't work). If you are a good writer and happen to be slightly ahead of the mainstream, your stuff gets popular. If you are far ahead or with the mainstream, or behind - then it doesn't.

I dunno man, I have a whole bunch of stuff I'd write up, but the soon as I sit down, I dispair that anyone would think it was interesting because it was so obvious. It's happened to me a whole bunch of times. This advice helps in practice because it's way better to just spit stuff out until you hit upon something cool than bury it all. The stuff that will last will last.

If the stuff you'd write seems obvious and boring, you probably waited too much after you figured it out. I'd say write it up immediately, even if it's unpolished.

I suffered from this. I have a couple of ideas that I did not think much of, only to have it (or a facsimile) go IPO/public about a year later to much fanfare. I still remember my "private payments between friends" idea which came along before PayPal. The concept came about after lunches where someone would pick up the tab for someone else due to "forgot my wallet" syndrome. For me the trust barrier seemed too high - but ventures like PayPal prove that people sometimes part with information easier than I assumed. And I never imagined the size/transaction volume that PayPal would grow to - props to them.

In the end, execution is the key and it does not have to be perfect on day one. Half baked can be made 3/4 baked and so on...

Quite a true piece, this is. Often we feel like this, but what I find more awe-inspiring is when I feel an idea that I have come up with is great, I meet someone with a rather similar idea.

I have the exact opposite. I take a long time and much effort to come up with an idea, and then find out that it has already been found a long time ago, and it seems obvious.

That sounds like the same phenomenon, actually, not the opposite. Just flip 'you' and 'others'.

This is a great article but I do wonder if it isn't merely trying to produce more wantrepreneurs (a term I learned while lurking on HN)

I think almost everyone would feel enlightened by the title but the way the article is written, it seems it's tailored to inspire those who cannot build but would want to dream rather than those who can build but feel like the implementation of a concept is obvious enough and requires no extra polishing.

I like trying to see where things that are obvious to me aren't to my clients.

I was recently working on building a mobile app for a web service, and I suggested to my client that he could open the API and give out the documentation. He didn't understand why, so I said developers might build more apps on their platform, or make little things like widgets.

It blew his mind, but it seemed totally obvious to me, so obvious that I almost didn't suggest it.

I'll bet even John Coltrane or Richard Feynman felt that everything they were playing or saying was pretty obvious.

This is probably true, yet largely irrelevant. Whether someone's ideas are obvious to them or not matters little compared to how much impact those ideas have.

It may be irrelevant in the big picture, but I think it's quite relevant and interesting from a psychological point of view that talented individuals sometimes have difficulty judging their own work because, from their perspective, it was easy and obvious.

It seems particularly relevant for mental or theoretical work where choosing the right approach has a great deal of leverage. If "all" you have to do is "just" look at a problem in a certain way, or examine the equation like so, or frame the issue from a particular viewpoint, then the resulting breakthrough may simultaneously be quite stunning to people who didn't think of it and quite obvious to people who did. Changing your viewpoint is as easy as deciding to do so - it's a task that doesn't even require the mental effort of, say, memorizing the dictionary, or similar feats of mental and memetic agility. But knowing that you can change your viewpoint, and choosing exactly the right viewpoint to use, is an extraordinary ability that not everyone has.

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