visionary_finalI just returned from the inaugural Dent conference where a session by Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith started me thinking about how true visionaries see the future. Smith explained that in 1979 — when he and his collaborator Ed Catmull started working with the Computer Graphics Group at Lucasfilm, which would eventually be spun out to Steve Jobs and become Pixar — the computing power required to do what they dreamed about wasn’t anywhere close to being a reality. They were working with tools that didn’t exist and staking their future on the faith that Moore’s law would catch up to their imagination and make it all possible.

After Smith’s talk, I kept thinking about this idea of working with tools that don’t yet exist. Technology entrepreneurs love to talk about how they’re creating the future, but the vast majority of them are working with today’s tools. This creates a limit on what they can envision and therefore a limit on what they can create. It confines them to only seeing what’s next.

But true visionaries such as Smith see the future two steps ahead instead of one. They think about what the tools of the future might look like and then imagine what they can build using these non-existent technologies. This intermediate step in their thought process allows them to dream on a scale exponentially greater than the typical entrepreneur.

Here’s an example. Imagine you’re living in the very early years of steam power. Steam technology is starting to be employed in factories but construction is still being done with hand tools. Construction with only manual labor keeps most buildings relatively small. A “regular” land developer would consider what is possible based on the hammers and nails available at the time and build accordingly. But a visionary would look at the steam driven factory and speculate that steam power would soon be used for construction equipment.

After imagining the new tools, they would then imagine what they could build using these non-existent steam shovels and cranes. Compared to what could be done with hand tools, the possibilities are so fantastic they can hardly be believed — skyscrapers, subways, and bridges that literally change the face of our cities and how we live.

In hindsight this kind of vision seems easy, but in practice it is extraordinarily difficult, because we don’t know what technologies will advance or at what rate. Moore’s law has been fairly reliable, but even then we don’t know when it will be ready for what we need it to do. Smith and Catmull were about a decade too soon. Even after Steve Jobs bought the group from Lucasfilm, Pixar struggled for years, eventually burning through half of Jobs’ fortune before Disney gave the green light to “Toy Story.” After 12 years of pioneering computer animation technology, Smith would leave Pixar before “Toy Story” and wasn’t able to take part in his vision becoming a reality.

On the Internet, countless people bet on online video and lost millions before broadband caught up to the dream in 2005. In hardware, Apple bet on tablet computing with the Newton almost 20 years before the technology was truly ready with the iPad. In non-computer related fields it’s even harder to predict what tools and advancements will become available. As Peter Thiel likes to remind us, we were promised flying cars, but transportation breakthroughs have been almost non-existent in the last 50 years. In energy, technologies we thought would come to fruition, such as solar power, have been slow to develop while hydraulic fracturing is unleashing a new era of oil production.

Envisioning the future one step ahead is already a difficult challenge, seeing two steps ahead is almost impossible. No amount of market research, lean startup customer development, or data mining will show us what will be possible two steps forward. This is the rarified realm of true visionaries, a realm with dreams that are multiple orders of magnitude beyond what most of us can comprehend. Self-proclaimed visionaries who can’t imagine anything greater than mailing things in a box need not apply.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]