One of the very first steps of successful entrepreneurship, in any context, micro or macro, is to envision new possibility. Possibility of something that has not yet been created; something that adds a new dimension or element to the status quo; and every so often, something fundamentally different that topples an old paradigm and ushers in a whole new era of capability.
This requires a trick of the human mind to span multiple timescales at once. To stand in the present, reach into the past to access one’s accumulated knowledge and experience, and churn this into something that looks beyond to the future. This is perhaps one of the most remarkable feats that distinguish human beings from other species. To imagine a new context and future is certainly not sufficient to guarantee its realization, but without it the chances are virtually non-existent. It is the first seed of change.
Here in India we are a country of largely subsistence entrepreneurs, ‘entrepreneurs’ who operate at micro scale in India’s subsistence cash economy. These folks outnumber the population employed in the formal economy by 3:1. The subsistence paradigm virtually by definition is about short timescale, immediate survival. It’s about today and perhaps tomorrow but rarely next year or even next month. Are these folks envisioning possibility but simply failing to execute on it due to lack of resources? Or is the problem more fundamental than that?
Envisioning a possibility in the future is essentially an abstraction, which has been defined as connecting related concepts as a group, field or category or a thought process where ideas are distanced from objects. Over the last few years we have interviewed several thousand microentrepreneurs to understand what abilities predict their success, and the ability to abstract is one of them.
At the core, envisioning something new entails the ability to step into a context that is different from your own experience and different from your current moment in time. Our field experiences have offered startling insights into this kind of abstraction. Many folks, we found, even though educated until the 10th standard, struggled with simple questions like this If you make 10 samosas and sell them for 2.50 each, how much revenue will you make? This was a curious thing, especially since they were not struggling with the numerical operation of 10 X 2.50. However, as we probed, we realized that the difficulty was posed by the context. As one person revealingly said, but I don’t make samosas. If samosas were instead replaced with tea, which he did make, the problem became simple. It turned out that a larger percentage of people were able to solve ‘in context’ word problems than one’s that referenced objects or situations out of their realm of experience. It is not trivial to ‘suppose’, to dissociate the ideas of selling and the particular numerical operation from the object itself (here the samosa). And yet, it is ‘supposing’ that creates the future, and is the very centrepiece of entrepreneurship and human progress itself.
The big question is what gives us the ability to ‘suppose’, and can it be acquired? The brain is an open system with enormous potential for plasticity. What this means is that it is constantly sculpting itself in response to the barrage of sensory input that it receives each day. The ability to abstract is likely to be a reflection of the possibilities of pathways that have been created in the brain’s network and is a core aspect of what people have called lateral thinking or fluid intelligence. Some companies believe that they can you train you in it with games that require a working memory of diverse events N steps back in the game. However, games like this are no substitute for real life and we have found that the ability to abstract in an entrepreneurial context relates strongly to the diversity of experience that the person has had. Not more of the same but new places, new contexts, new circumstances, new situations. The more you experience, the more a particular object gains multiple associations, and opens up new pathways of possibility, within the brain and for your life. How then do we get more of that, as an individual and as a country?
Retitled as ‘Create something that challenges the Status Quo’ in Entrepreneur magazine