For Peter Diamandis, space is both the first and final frontier.
Since 1987, Diamandis has founded more than a dozen space related businesses and organizations, starting with International Space University, which he launched while still in medical school. His latest shoot-for-the-stars start-up is Planetary Resources, co-founded with Eric Anderson. Planetary Resources will deploy robotic spacecraft to mine water and rare minerals from asteroids: Diamandis calls it “the most audacious mission ever.”
Diamandis is not only a chaser of dreams but also a minter of dream-chasers. In 1996, he created the X Prize Foundation, which challenges teams to tackle Goliath-scale projects, such as building a private spacecraft or sequencing 100 human genomes in 10 days or less. (Future X Prizes will reward efforts to save the oceans and preserve biodiversity.) Singularity University, which Diamandis co-founded with Ray Kurtzweil, equips future leaders to dramatically accelerate progress by applying “exponential technologies” to humanity’s greatest problems.
Diamandis talked to Inc. about thinking and acting on a grand scale.
Is your fascination with big ideas a function of your interest in space--because space is a wide-open frontier? Or were you drawn to space because of a natural tendency to think big?
My passion for space started as a child, inspired by Apollo and Star Trek. Initially I thought I would become an astronaut. After I realized that was unlikely to materialize I decided to pursue space in the private realm.
Space is an inspirational concept that allows you to dream big. A lot of people in the commercial space industry come to it after having already accomplished very big things. Elon Musk with PayPal revolutionized banking. Paul Allen with Microsoft revolutionized the software industry. Richard Branson did it with airlines. When you’ve been so successful on a global scale, space can be where you test your mettle.
Many entrepreneurs and innovators have responded to your Grand Challenges. What distinguishes people who think on this scale from the more iterative minded?
I think the folks who go after grand challenges are impatient. They’re pissed off. They’re sick and tired, but in a passionate way. I’m tired of the water problem or education issues or energy. Screw it I’m going to try to do it myself. There’s a DIY mentality. They’re driven by a fire in their bellies to make a difference. That energy-;if it’s coupled with intelligence and skill and sometimes coupled with capital--allows them to do extraordinary things. And of course if you want to achieve a large-scale breakthrough you have to be willing to take big risks. Otherwise you’re stuck in incrementalism.
Do big thinkers frame problems differently?
The difference is that they are not constrained in their thinking. A lot of them aren’t experts in the areas they are attacking, because an expert will tell you why it can’t be done. The day before something is a breakthrough it’s a crazy idea-;if it wasn’t, then it would be an incremental improvement. So they are willing to try something completely new and says, why can’t we do it ten times cheaper? Why can’t we do it 100 times faster? Why can’t we do it with one-tenth the number of people?
How do exponential technologies influence our propensity to dream big?
We’re living in an age when exponential technology-;computers, cloud computing, AI, robotics, digital manufacturing-;is allowing very small teams of individuals (a person, two people, a half dozen people) to do things that only governments and large companies could ever do in the past. So we’re empowering what at my Singularity University I call “10-to-the-ninth-plus thinking.” How do I impact a billion people positively in this decade? Because that’s what I want my graduate students to strive for. We’re living at a time where if you build a platform or a great product or a service, you can touch a billion people. It happens over and over and over again. And if you can create something that will positively impact that many lives, why would you want to do anything less?
I think people are dreaming big because they have the tools to dream big. I hope that people are dreaming big because it makes them feel good about their lives. In my book, [Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, 2012], there’s a great quote from Google co-founder Larry Paige that I’ll paraphrase: ‘If I ask who is out there trying to change the world, 99.999% of the people are not. But you should be.’ Put differently, we’re living in a time where the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest market opportunities. And that’s a very significant situation. Hunger. Health care. Water. Energy. And you can become a billionaire at the same time that you help and you get the gratitude of the planet. Alignment now exists between the world’s grand challenges and the world’s biggest business opportunities.
Is innovation virtually always built into big ideas?
Not necessarily. You can have large government or corporate big ideas be done with brute force, which is not about innovation. It’s about throwing dollars and money at it. I don’t think the space station is innovative. Going to the moon was innovative because we had no idea how to do it. We’re setting a bold ambitious goal and not knowing that it’s considered impossible or crazy and then figuring out how to make it happen versus we’re just going to do what we’re doing right now only we’re going to do more of it.
Super-ambitious goals tend to be unifying and energizing to people-;but only if they believe there’s a chance of success. How can the leader convince them?
If you want to do something bold or audacious in the world, how that idea is announced matters. Everyone evaluates a new idea when they first hear it. You hear me talk about asteroid-mining and you may dismiss it out of hand. It falls below the line of credibility. But when you hear me announcing asteroid mining and I’ve got Larry Paige, Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr., Charles Simone and James Cameron as my backers, you say, ‘Oh my god, that’s incredible! When are you going?’ When visionaries announce bold, ambitious goals to their employees, to their shareholders, to the world, they must announce them not just from above the line of credibility, but from above the line of super-credibility.
Suppose you don’t have the track record to debut above the line of super-credibility?
Then you start with something that you can do. And you accomplish that. Then people say, oh look. She accomplished that. That was great. Now she says she is going to do this next thing. And then you do that one. I tell entrepreneurs, when you are embarking on a bold, ambitious goal it’s important to have two parts of that. First you need to have the big dream, the big long-term vision that hits the heart of everybody you speak to. They go wow, that would be so cool and so impressive if that could be achieved. That part pulls your heart forward. Then you need the very first step that can be accomplished with your funding, your skillset, your relationships. So there’s the initial step that people cognitively believe you can accomplish, and the nth step that inspires people and that they want you to accomplish.
Lots of people dream big and talk about big bold ideas but never do anything. I judge people by what they’ve done. The ratio of something to nothing is infinite. So just do something.
What big ideas currently inspire you?
What Elon Musk has done with SpaceX and his visions of making Falcon 9 reusable and getting people to Mars I think is extraordinary. I wish Jeff Bezos would stop tinkering with Amazon and start focusing on space as well, which is his original passion. But he’s sort of gotten stuck in the weeds of building a large consumer business. The work that Larry Paige has been doing with autonomous cars, and some other work he’s doing that I can’t talk about. A lot of the work that’s being done about how to plug the Internet into the brain is extraordinary.
Is it hard to return to more human-scale goals after achieving something huge?
I think you just go on from success to success. I’ll never forget when the Ansari X Prize was won, I had this very vivid image that I had just climbed a mountain peak, after ten years of hard work. And as I looked around all I saw was other, higher peaks. And I thought, this is just the beginning.