Anyone with an even cursory knowledge of how our minds work knows that we are far less rational than we’d like to believe. Everything from cultural norms to confirmation biases throw us off the path of logic. But there is one particular mental quirk which may be the source of Silicon Valley’s greatest advantage: The way we calculate, or more appropriately, the way we delude ourselves into believing probabilities.
Instead of actually considering odds, we tend to calculate probability based on the ease with which we can imagine something. And whether or not we can imagine something is often determined by specific details that create subsets, thereby lowering the actual probability of it occurring. I know that’s a bit confusing so let me give you an example.
When people were asked how likely they were to die in a plane crash caused by a terrorist attack, compared to people who were asked how likely they were to die in an unspecified plane crash, significantly more people believed the odds were higher in the terrorist attack scenario. This, despite the fact that an airplane crash caused by terrorism is a small subset of all total crashes.
In other words, let’s say there are 10 plane crashes per year, only one of which is caused by terrorism. Mathematically, you only have a 10% chance of dying in a terrorist airplane crash vs. an unspecified airplane crash. But because people can more easily imagine a terrorist attack, they believe it is more likely to happen.
What does any of this have to do with Silicon Valley? I think it’s safe to say that entrepreneurs have vivid imaginations. If you’re going to create the future, you better be able to imagine it. And that simple fact — the ability to imagine things — is what makes you believe in its probable outcome. Your actual odds of success are likely only marginally better than the odds of me marrying Britney Spears. But real odds be damned, because imagining it will make you think it’s possible.
Delusion is rarely a good thing, and I’m surprised at myself for even considering that it is, but in this case it might be. The tech community is notoriously confident in its ability to overcome any problem through imagination and ingenuity, a self-confidence that can appear absurd to outsiders. But along with this ability to imagine seemingly impossible solutions, comes a willingness to have faith against all odds.
While not unique, I believe this attitude is more prevalent in the Valley, certainly when compared to cultures that more strongly stress humility and pragmatism. This ability to conceive the inconceivable may be Silicon Valley’s ultimate advantage.
I have no doubt that this “culture of possibility,” strangely driven by the illusion of imagination, is the secret sauce that makes Silicon Valley what it is. For those who live outside of Northern California (including myself), I use the term “Silicon Valley” not as a geographical description but in the context of a shared belief system, one that embraces imagination and ignores the probabilities of failure.
From a logical standpoint, discounting the odds is a dunce’s game, and you can thank your imagination for getting the better of you. Or to paraphrase Steve Jobs, you can thank your imagination for making you one of the crazy ones.