Against Conventional Wisdom


Deconstructing a talk.

You gotta love the title of the talk. Vinod Khosla’s talk in Bangalore was positioned as a contrarian viewpoint on startups, creativity and entrepreneurship. Vinod was definitely sage like in his talk - sharing war-stories from his portfolio companies and giving a perspective on his investment philosophy e.g. large bets on significant technological improvement to solve hard problems (in clean tech, AI, machine learning, mobile health etc.). There was also the usual dollop of what it takes to be an entrepreneur - people first, solve big problems, fail often but small, patience, do not get caught up in herd mentality and so on.

In the spirit of the title, here are my two contrarian viewpoints on the talk itself.

First, Vinod’s analytical thinking and engineering mindset was very evident when he talked about solving technological problems e.g. solar panel efficiency. However, his very vocal dislike for english majors, that it is a wasted college degree and it is better to learn a useful skill (e.g. engineering) at college, did not appeal to me at all. It is not surprising given his strong views that he talked about the future of education through a technology lens like using MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and that his non-profit CK12 focuses only on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Management) education.

But, I think it represent a pretty narrow view of what education really stands for, especially more so when we talk about it in the Indian context. A child walks in to a school, full of ideas and ready to tackle any problem. But he walks out of the school, already soaked in math-logic and completely filled with second-hand knowledge. Putting this distinction between being smart in the sciences and being gifted in the arts is an antiquated but conventional wisdom of intelligence and an harmful one at that. I have come to believe that creative problem solving requires cultivating the whole of the mind and not only the left-side. As I like to phrase it, for a lot of us the real challenge is - how do we get the ‘right brain’ to school and work? How do we shift the focus from numbers to visuals, from analysis to synthesis, from logic to empathy, and from arguments to stories?

Secondly, it just didn’t feel contrarian enough. There is no denying that Khosla Ventures’ strong value-based investing approach as evident in the clean-tech sector is different from the typical VC herd mentality. But a lot of what was talked is now the conventional wisdom about startups and entrepreneurship. The treadmill of conventional wisdom moves much faster now, courtesy the internet. These ideas are already getting filtered through to us faster than before and we are getting jaded listening to them again. Or maybe I was just reading the wrong book - Rework before the talk and its essays on staying small, bootstrapping, scratching your own itch, inspiration is perishable and so on, felt a lot more counter-intuitive, contrarian and compelling to me.

I attend talks because I am interested in the speaker. I did a real-time sketchnote, to capture the essence of the talk for myself. I am attaching it here with all its imperfections and mis-spellings. All I can say is that I really enjoyed the process of listening, synthesis and sketching - even if the talk was more conventional that I expected.

05 September 2013