Naftali Harris

Desperation Motivated Creativity

July 25th, 2016

I am not the strongest climber. Some of the people I've climbed with are so strong that they can do a one-arm pull-up, and then--while locking off with one arm--sing the "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" song and use the other arm to do the corresponding dance. This is not in my future anytime soon.

One time, I was working a hard boulder problem marked as a V6 with a group of these folks. None of us, and especially not me, could get past the first move, which required you to lie horizontal while supporting yourself with one arm on a very thin hold. We all repeatedly tried it, with much grunting but without much success. Eventually, the others gave up.

I was still interested in the problem. I recognized, though, that if those other much stronger climbers couldn't do the first move that way, then I would have very little chance either. Therefore, my best prospects of success would be to try something different.

The approach we had been trying on the first move was the "obvious" one. That left just the wacky ones. So I started putting myself in various upside-down and sideways Twister positions, and falling on unusual body parts. After messing around like this for a few minutes, looking fairly stupid, I stumbled upon a bizarre sequence that let me successfully complete the first move.

(Amusingly, the others had gone on to work on a different problem, and it took me a bit to convince them to watch me--a significantly worse climber--do the first move in my new way).

Now, I don't tell this story as some kind of "brains over brawn" trope. I don't think I was any smarter than the other climbers, who I'm sure would have eventually found my sequence as well had they been as interested in the problem as I was. Rather, the point of this story is that my lack of strength made the original, obvious approach we were all trying completely impossible for me, whereas they were sufficiently strong that they could plausibly have succeeded at it. Thus, I was required to resort to unconventional approaches to solve the problem; they were not.

It was actually lucky that in this case there was an alternative solution to the first move. Typically when I try unusual bouldering moves I just spend several minutes falling awkwardly and looking like a fool, and then have nothing to show for it but odd looks and a bunch of chalk over my clothes.

So the observation I want to make is that "desperation motivates creativity", and sometimes leads to success if there turns out to be a creative solution to your problem. Knowing that it's impossible to succeed conventionally leads you to unconventional approaches, which usually don't work but can sometimes be much better.

One prominent example of this phenomenon that's top of mind for me is when startups compete with larger companies. Startups have less money, fewer employees, and less institutional experience than more established companies. As a result, if they wish to compete then they often--by necessity--need to try wacky, unusual approaches. And generally it doesn't work, resulting eventually in the failure of the startup. But sometimes it does, letting the startup build a competitive or even superior product.

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