Sunday, May 11, 2008

Success Secrets: DARPA and Success

I have been downloading a couple dozen PDFs from Darpatech, a symposium where DARPA (the government’s futuristic science arm) meets with and presents ideas to outside scientists and companies.

These PDFs are actual speeches given at Darpatech that both explain what DARPA’s current objectives are, and are also clearly intended to inspire and excite scientists and engineers to join in the work they are conducting.

The DARPA programs of the past and present are awe-inspiring. DARPA has literally re-invented our world since is inception in 1958. The Saturn rocket, the Internet, Stealth, night vision, cell phone and gps components, and UAVs are just a few of the extraordinary results of DARPA research. In the amazing PDFs available on the symposium site, new ideas are described that will continue to revolutionize all of our lives: a 90% reduction in the cost of Titanium, autonomous vehicles that drive as well or better than you or I (especially “I’), and even “programmable matter”.

The PDFs are an incredible read, but there is another reason I am mentioning DARPA on this blog: DARPA deliberately makes the impossible possible. And that is, at its core, what this blog is all about. Darpa has proven time and time again that imagination routinely becomes reality. DARPA is not a motivational organization. Darpatech is not a “feel good” seminar. DARPA creates new realities, out of “thin air”, every day. And not only that, their mandate is to go for “new concepts and systems whose feasibility is still unknown and risky”, in the words of Dr. Tony Teather the current DARPA director. He goes on to say that “We search for those ideas world-wide that may make a tremendous difference, and whose time has come to bring them to the near side as fast as possible”. In short, they aim to make the impossible possible.

So here is the paradox. In most of our daily lives, we aim for reasonably achievable goals (career advancement, recognition, financial security, the solution of various home, family, career, or life-logistics problems). We work at these problems every day. We probably get reasonable success, and, through reading and studying books, tapes, websites, etc we can measurably improve or output.

But DARPA has chosen much more challenging problems, has an incredible batting average, and has changed the world, not by selecting easy problems, but by selecting the hardest problems that exist!!! We’re scrambling to get a home business started, or get 10% in our IRA, and they’re trying to invent tele-robotic surgery!!! And succeeding better than us!!!

There are deep lessons to be learned from the “idea” of DARPA. Lessons that impact our personal success.

1. It is crucial to remember in a world of discouragement, often filled with dream-killing people and heart-breaking setbacks, that far more ambitions goals than ours are being routinely accomplished on a day-to-day basis.

2. An ambitious, “outside the envelope” – type goal attracts higher quality minds, organizations, and solutions than an incremental , current-technology goal. Just reading the speeches of the DARPA directors makes it clear that they are utilizing the inspiring quality of a revolutionary project to bootstrap the project itself from fantasy to reality.

3. When viewed as a problem of “personal leverage”, if we really though about it, we might only work on high-risk/high-reward projects!! Clearly the results of 2 years spent on a 2X goal would be vastly less significant than 2 years spent on a 100X goal. The same two years goes by. But if the goal is even partly attained, the outputs of even a failed 100x might dwarf those of the 2X goal.

4. Even if the 100x goal is not specifically achieved, there is an overwhelming possibility that new connections (human, technological, conceptual, methodological, and more) will more than repay the time spent on the 100x goal.

5. The DARPA method works incredibly well. Its results have been so outstanding that we may well question ourselves as to why we spend even a minute on any incremental, uninspiring, humdrum project. The DARPA method may work better than any other goal-setting method in the history of mankind. By consciously focusing on inspiring outcomes that could create vast and profound effects, and yet have no known methods of achievement, DARPA has arguably instantiated more positive change in our world in the last 50 years than in the previous 5,000.

I am going to end this post with a theorem. Perhaps I will call it the Task Magnitude Theorem. It states: Achievement is more dependent on task selection than ability. I repeat: Achievement is more dependent on task selection than ability. I will be returning to this topic. It is the essence of what DARPA does, and what we all can do. I am not saying it is true. But what would be the personal implications if it were true?

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