The Freedom of Ignorance

What you don’t know is often as important as what you do

“He did not know he could not fly and so he did.” – Guy Clark

In early 1991, a twenty-one year old student at the University of Helsinki began working on a new programming project. By August, he sent out an email with a working version of his operation system nearly ready:

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready.

Many teams had tried before. For years, Richard Stallman advocated using the Mach microkernel as a basis for GNU. Others tried to adapt Trix with poor results. The GNU Hurd developers had begun their own challenging journey. If our lone programmer had gone through any of these experiences, he might have scrapped his project totally.

The student, Linus Torvalds, didn’t know that junior developers are not supposed to create OS kernels. He wasn’t aware of the number of people who had failed doing the same thing. Instead, his ignorance led him to try something daft—and transformational.

The freedom of ignorance is a simple observation: what we don’t know is sometimes as important as what we know.

Why Knowledge Sucks (Sometimes)

Almost universally, society sees knowledge as a positive and ignorance as a failing. And in many cases it is.

But in entrepreneurship, ignorance has value. Why? Whenever you gain knowledge, you can’t help using it. What you know then shapes how you solve the problems in front of you, even when it’s counterproductive.

Imagine if Torvalds had seen the failure of competitors as a reason not to attempt his own operating system. Vivid failures can shape how a whole generation of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists think.

For example, Webvan, a dot com grocery delivery service, famously flamed out after raising hundreds of millions of capital. Anyone who lived through the experience could easily take the lesson that online delivery of groceries was unworkable. To many, online grocery delivery became shorthand for the excesses of the dot com boom.

In reality, the lesson was much narrower, as Instacart later showed: Webvan’s warehouse model was expensive, less flexible, and too early to leverage the ubiquitous Internet access brought on by the mobile phone.

Webvan and Instacart: Grocery Delivery a decade apart

These lessons seem obvious when there’s a counterexample, but many entrepreneurs “overlearn” from their failures. For example, one friend worked at a failed electric car company, and was convinced that electric cars were unworkable in this decade—until Tesla happened.

There are many structural reasons for this sort of thinking. Business leaders are educated in business schools where case studies are sacrosanct. Top venture capitalists see themselves as pattern matching algorithms, taking what has and hasn’t worked over the last decade, and divining what is to come. As humans, we’re hardwired to take experiences and apply them to future events.

But what happens if isolated examples from the past are a poor guide to the future?

Mistakes with knowledge

In entrepreneurship, you can end up overemphasizing the past to your detriment. There are several ways that this happens.

You can overfit on the lessons from your profession. If you took young would-be entrepreneurs and put them through law school, you’d force them to confront downside risk at every turn. They’d become too paralyzed to take risks that are the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. You’d also make them highly aware of the exact laws that govern whatever they invent, which would dictate what they built.

If Tim Berners-Lee had been forced to learn about copyright law, the Internet might never have been invented. If the Bitcoin creator had read the E-gold legal case study, s/he might never have created the blockchain.

The Bitcoin Whitepaper

You can overweight your values. Engineers brilliant at scaled systems can have a terrible time with “hacky” startup stacks. Simply being in an environment where thinking many steps ahead is necessary and valued makes it challenging to then be in an environment where premature scaling is devastating. Up is suddenly down, and most can’t make the shift.

The founders of MongoDB, the often maligned NoSQL database, benefited from the knowledge they lacked. The team prematurely launched their database even though it contained poor defaults, obvious security risks, and scaling challenges.

Despite my criticism of their marketing, they also created a widely used database and are now a public company. If database experts had tried to build a database, their first version would likely require years of effort to get to their desired quality level, and it would never have reached the escape velocity required for database survival.

Finally, you can know too much about the journey ahead of you.

Startup journeys are much harder than anyone expects. The less entrepreneurs know about the challenges ahead, the more likely they are to embark on the journey.

As the creator of Myst says:

“We had this weird naiveté that just kept us oblivious to … the fact that this might not work at all. What a weird thing to think that’s what saved us, I don’t know if we even would have taken on [Myst] if we didn’t have that.”

Nearly every entrepreneur has their version of this statement: if they knew what was in store, they wouldn’t have started.

Even the misinformation from fawning media coverage of entrepreneurs plays a role in creating this positive ignorance. New entrepreneurs are fed stories of glory, not pain, which makes them more willing to dive in.

In short, rather than worrying about what you don’t know, realize that ignorance is its own strength.

Cultivating Ignorance

Of course, lack of knowledge is powerful in some contexts and debilitating in others.

At its worst, cultivating (entrepreneurial) ignorance means slowly relearning valuable lessons. After all, the power of knowledge is that it lets you make quick decisions based on experiences gleaned from others, rather than having to slowly learn the lessons yourself.

Still, entrepreneurs should lean towards ignorance, especially in nascent industries.

This mode prizes experimentation, primary research, and continually asking “what if.” Rather than blindly misapplying others’ knowledge in situations where they don’t make sense, it encourages self-discovered solutions to problems.1

So many entrepreneurial journeys are tightly coupled to the entrepreneur’s proclivities, their early customers, and the stage of the market. In such a world, it’s daft to apply the experience of a different person in a different time.

It’s especially true in new industries—the early internet or early social media or cryptocurrencies or decentralized finance. Those lacking knowledge have special power in these environments that have never existed before.

An ignorant entrepreneur in these spaces benefits from optimizing around what the space needs rather than bringing decades of experience to bear.

As a result, outsiders—sometimes young, sometimes from outside the industry—are so important for disruptive innovation. They haven’t been inculcated in the old system. They don’t have much of a historical dataset to draw from. They don’t know that their proposal is the “wrong” way to do something, and so explore paths that no one thought were possible.

Rather than worrying about what you don’t know, pick problems where you think this lack of knowledge is an asset. After all, ignorance is its own power.

  1. The freedom of ignorance is closely related to education’s curse of knowledge, where too much expertise renders a teacher incapable of empathy for their students.(fn)
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