Searching for Pencils

Sometimes it pays to keep things simple (even though people insist on making things complex).  Take for example this old joke about NASA:

In the early days of the space program, NASA discovered that using ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity.  NASA scientists — some of the best and brightest people at the time — spent a decade and a billion dollars developing a pen that wrote not only in zero gravity but on almost any surface, at very low temperatures, and in any position the astronaut happened to be in.

The Russians, not to be bested, did something a lot smarter: they used a pencil.

This story illustrates a couple of things: (a) keep it simple and (b) solve the right problem!  It’s also a good story because it’s a memorable way to learn vicariously through the mistakes of others.  Two quick thoughts:

  • People naturally like to make things more complex than they need to be.  Maybe it’s an ego thing, complexity is sometimes related to importance, and who doesn’t like to work on important stuff?  This is especially true of intelligent people (or at least people who think they are intelligent).  The truly wise ones are the ones who can see how to make things simple, not complex.
  • Engineers and technical people usually get carried away in their craft.  Architecting an elegant solution, digging deep into the details, and handling all the corner cases is second nature (and fun!) to them.  This, however, does not lend itself well to an on-time and on-budget project.  The most creative solutions are usually time and budget constrained (not the opposite!).

I think it’s fun learning vicariously through others (less so when it’s my own mistake).  One of my favourite people, Charlie Munger, has one liner about that:

“If people weren’t wrong so often, we wouldn’t be so rich.”

Have fun!