KITSAP/ UPDATE—There are two kinds of secrets: secrets of nature and secrets about people. Natural secrets exist all around us; to find them, one must study some undiscovered aspect of the physical world. Secrets about people are different: they are things that people don’t know about themselves or things they hide because they don’t want others to know. So when thinking about what kind of company to build, ‘there are two specific questions to ask: What secrets is nature not telling you? What secrets are people not telling you?
It’s easy to assume that natural secrets are the most important things: the people who look for them can sound intimidating authoritatively. This is why physics PhDs are notoriously tricky to work with—because they know the most fundamental truths, they think they know all facts. But does understanding electromagnetic theory automatically make you a great marriage counselor? Does a gravity theorist know more about your business than you do?
Secrets about people are relatively underappreciated. Maybe that’s because you don’t need a dozen years of higher education to ask the questions that uncover them: What are people not allowed to talk about? What is forbidden or taboo?
Sometimes looking for natural secrets and looking for human secrets lead to the same truth. Consider the monopoly secret again: competition and capitalism are opposites. If you didn’t already know it, you could discover it the natural, empirical way: do a quantitative study of corporate profits, and you’ll see they’re eliminated by competition. But you could also take the human approach and ask: what are people running companies not allowed to say? You would notice that monopolists downplay their monopoly status to avoid scrutiny, while competitive firms strategically exaggerate their uniqueness. The differences between firms only seem small on the surface; in fact, they are enormous.
The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom. So you might ask: are there any fields that matter but haven’t been standardized and institutionalized? Physics, for example, is an actual major at all major universities, and it’s set in its ways. The opposite of physics might be astrology, but astrology doesn’t matter. What about something like nutrition? Nutrition matters for everybody, but you can’t major in it at Harvard.
Most top scientists go into other fields. Most of the extensive studies were done 30 or 40 years ago, and most are seriously flawed. The food pyramid that told us to eat low fat and enormous amounts of grains was probably more a product of lobbying by Big Food than natural science; its chief impact has been to aggravate our obesity epidemic. There’s plenty more to learn: we know more about the physics of faraway stars than we know about human nutrition. It won’t be easy, but it’s not obviously impossible: a field that could yield secrets.
If you find a do you keep it to
It depends on the secret: some are more dangerous than others. As Faust tells Wagner:
The few who knew what might be learned,
Foolish enough to put their whole heart on show, And reveal their feelings to the crowd below, Mankind has always crucified and burned.
Unless you have perfectly conventional beliefs, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything you know.
So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more. In practice, there’s always a golden mean between telling body and telling everybody—and that’s a company. The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.
As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings:
The Road goes ever on and
Down from the door where
Life is a long journey; the Road marked out by previous travelers’ steps has no end in sight. But later on in the tale, another verse appears:
Still, around the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
The Road doesn’t have to be infinite after all. Take the hidden paths.