Whenever I contemplate starting a new venture--or even an audacious initiative within an existing company--I ask myself these three simple questions:
- Why this?
- Why now?
- Why me?
Don't be fooled: These are deceptively deep, soul-searching questions that have the power to completely realign your life, amplify your purpose, and impact the lives of many people. Let's take them in turn.
Certainly, there is no shortage of problems in need of solutions. There is an overabundance of problems. And every problem comes with opportunities for new solutions, yielding a never-ending stream of opportunities--and never-ending reasons for hope and optimism. My fundamental belief is that everything is possible, and the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.
Before you decide on any project ask yourself:
Assuming that this venture is successful, will it help a billion people live better lives?
If a successful venture doesn't move the needle, then it doesn't really matter. So, imagine your venture's impact on the world before you begin it.
This brings us to the very essence of moonshot thinking: thinking big. Now, in thinking big, ask yourself will my project help a billion people live better lives? If the answer is yes, then you have found yourself a venture that will have potential to create a $500 billion valuation. Making money is a byproduct of creating things that help improve people's lives, so always focus on how to do bigger good in the world and ultimately that's what will help you find things that will allow you to do well for yourself.
If this sounds crazy, let me tell you something even crazier. Launching a moonshot, while certainly challenging, can actually be easier than starting a smaller company based upon a less ambitious goal because, for one thing, it's easier to recruit the best talent. After all, the smartest people want to work on the toughest problems and successful people want to work on things that create legacy. And, for another, it's easier to get funded. No one wants to miss out on the next big thing that has potential to change the trajectory of humanity will live in the future.
What's more, what many people dismiss as "crazy" might actually be well within reach. Always remember that the day before a true breakthrough it's always a crazy idea and the day after the breakthrough everyone will believe it to be an obvious idea.
What, then, is the industry that you want to disrupt?
Let me give you an example. Our raison d'être at Viome--a company I started with an unequivocally audacious mission--is to make illness optional by preventing and curing chronic diseases including cancer and aging. Our goal is to educate and inspire people the world over to take control of their health. People buy our services because they are tired of the current medical industrial complex that financially benefits when people are sick and makes no money when people are healthy. People also want to understand what's causing them to be sick and they are willing to change their lifestyle if they believe that the recommendations are personalized to them and are based on real science and not opinions.
Our customers also value the fact that Viome's mission is bigger than just making a profit: hundreds of thousands of people who have signed up for our service not only benefit by becoming healthier themselves, but they also help everyone else become healthier as they contribute their health data to our A.I. engine that can help it predict the onset and progression of chronic diseases and cancer before they happen. Viome provides highly personalized and precise food and supplement recommendations to individuals to stay healthy, but we are able to use massive molecular data from every individual on an anonymized and aggregate basis to understand the underlying causes of chronic diseases. In the end, billions will benefit as Viome is able to identify the root causes of such conditions as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, cancer, and even aging.
If you'll approach global challenges with this kind of mindset, then you'll begin to think about solving audacious problems.
Think back on just the past couple of years and take stock of the amazing technological advances that have happened. Now flip the scope and look ahead to the next few years. What can we expect to see that will enable the kinds of solutions to grand challenges that we couldn't even contemplate just a decade ago? Here's a paradox: We can begin to "use" the technologies of tomorrow to solve today's problems at scale through the very surprising and deceptive nature of exponential technologies.
Consider this little thought experiment: I offer you two choices: 1) take $100 million right now, or 2) take just $1 today, but then double it each day for the next 30 days. That is, on day two, the sum is $2; on day three, $4, and so on. Which option will you choose? Most people will take the $100 million. But guess what? If you chose the second option, after 30 days, you would be a billionaire.
Does this surprise you? The problem is that our minds are geared to think linearly, and consequently, we miss out on the impact of exponential advance over time. Even a relatively short period of time.
The effect of doubling a technological advance over 30 years will produce a billion-fold increase in capability.
The fact is technology is available to us right now to create, leverage, and deploy the technologies of tomorrow that will solve the world's great problems in innovative ways--multi-billion-dollar problems that impact billions of people.
What has changed in the past one to two years, and, more important, what will change in the next three to five years that will allow this problem to be solved at scale in the next five to ten years?
There is no question that we'll see surprising developments in the next couple of years that will enable you to solve your chosen problem. Does that mean you wait for it? Not by a long shot.
At Viome, a world free of illness is not something we ever thought we could do in a year or even five years. To address such an ambitious challenge, we needed to do three things: 1) digitize the human body, 2) decode the human body, and 3) decipher the human body. Now, for digitization and decoding to be feasible, the cost of sequencing had to come down significantly. When we started, sequencing the human genome was a $1,000 proposition, but it had come down from millions of dollars in the past decade. We expected it to drop to $100 over the next few years. Today, we can do it for about $25. So, while it looked like we were optimistic that the cost would improve by 10 times, it turned out that we were really 4 times too pessimistic!
After digitization, the next challenge was the cost of decoding these massive troves of digital data. We were certainly aware of the advances in cloud computing, but we were still paying close to $50 to process the digitized information for every individual. We expected the cost of decoding the data to drop to $10 over the next few years. What surprised us--again--was that the cost actually came down to about $1. And once again, even our optimistic outlook turned out to be 10 times too pessimistic. And this is largely thanks to the dramatic drop in the cost of computing--a rate of improvement that has actually outpaced Moore's law. What very recently required a supercomputer to execute at great expense can now be done cheaply on a networked desktop.
Finally, in deciphering the data, we also knew that there would have to be equally significant improvements in A.I. to process the tens of thousands of algorithms operating on petabytes of data--and do so efficiently. That, too, has come to pass, and the algorithms are improving daily.
But here's the point: Even in the early going, we had everything we needed to get the ball rolling. So, we got started. Yes, there were still many unknowns, still much research to do, and we needed additional technologies that did not yet exist. But we knew where this was headed, which allowed us to project the point at which the necessary technologies would intersect so that we'd be there to meet them when they did. That was enough for us to begin to build the stack with existing technologies, but with hooks built in that would anticipate the missing pieces.
Your imagination is the only limit to what you can achieve. Begin it now.
The old saying is everybody wants to be unique--just like everybody else.
What questions I am asking that are different from what everyone else in the industry is asking?
Questions you ask are the problems you solve.
Your naivete and your mindset that defines a unique you also translate to a unique way to approach grand challenges--and to the kinds of questions only you will ask when thinking about them. Let me give you couple of examples.
Moon Express is my private enterprise venture to create a multiplanetary society beginning with settling on the moon so we can save humanity from potential extinction if our spacecraft were to get damaged from a large asteroid strike. Yet when we talk about building lunar outposts, everyone asks the same question: "How are we going to grow food on the moon?" Well, let's flip this with a very different kind of question--a "crazy" question. Rather than asking how we'll grow food, instead we should ask, "Why do we need food?"
Here's the import--and the power--of this approach: If we ask only the first question, then every potential solution is directed toward finding ways to grow food in a hostile environment. If, on the other hand, we ask the second question, innumerable possibilities are suddenly available. Even radical possibilities. Let's follow this through.
We eat food because we need energy and nutrition. So, let's reframe the issue from how we will grow food to what it is we actually need. We need food for providing our bodies with the energy and nutrients it needs. What are the different ways we can get energy and nutrition?
It turns out that there are microbes that are not only able to survive exposure to radiation, but thrive in it, actually consuming radioactive waste as their energy source. They literally eat radiation for breakfast. Among them is the Deinococcus radiodurans--the world's toughest "extremophile bacterium." So, let's think about this. Suppose you could take genetic material from this bacteria and use Crispr to modify human bodies to not only survive in high radiation but also use radiation as a source of energy. What about extreme cold temperatures in the new environment. Well, if you happen to be an astronaut--or aspire to become one--you might want to choose the tardigrade Dsup protein. Tardigrades, if you don't recognize them by that name, are also known as water bears--the near-microscopic animals that look like a cross between a flea and a manatee. Tardigrades are tough little critters, surviving temperatures down to near absolute zero. They also exhibit extraordinary tolerance to radiation and other physical extremes. That's tough! Might their DNA be just what the lunar doctor ordered?
Now, let's bring this kind of thinking--and questioning--back down to Earth. First, challenging the status quo begins with by daring to ask, What if? Now, when you ask a big What if? question, what you are asking is fundamentally different from what everyone else is asking. And that difference makes all the difference.
When I began to think of the company that became Viome, I said to myself, "Imagine if there were a world where illness was truly a matter of choices we make and not a matter of bad luck"--essentially, what if "illness was optional?" What if that world could be created? Wouldn't you want to be part of creating that world?
When we surveyed the health care landscape, we discovered that everyone in the space was addressing the problem by asking essentially the same questions. The questions everyone else are still asking concern 1) one's DNA and 2) the composition of the microorganisms in the human gut. In other words, by virtue of the questions they're asking, they're seeking to understand human genetics and what organisms exist in people who suffer from chronic diseases, and what organisms exist in those who don't. In short, their questions assume an equating of genetics and microbiota with illness.
In my world, these were the wrong questions. Why? One's DNA or our genes don't change when we become obese; they don't change when we become depressed or diabetic or develop heart disease or Alzheimer's or autoimmune diseases. In fact, they don't even change after we die. Think about it--our DNA can't even tell if we are dead or alive let alone if we are healthy or sick.
But because we also know that people develop chronic diseases, we asked, could the mechanism be gene expression and not the genes? If that is true (it is), then you could be loaded up with all the bad genes in the world, but if they're not expressed, it wouldn't matter for any diseases other than some rare genetic diseases! Think about it. Let's assume there is a gene identified that's likely to cause Alzheimer's. You are born with those genes, so why does it take 60-70 years before you develop Alzheimer's? Do these genes just wake up one day and say, "We are tired of waiting and it's time for us to wipe out host memories?" Well, it obviously doesn't work that way, so what's the trigger that causes these genes to express differently? If you could prevent them from ever being expressed, then the presence of these "bad" genes really would be irrelevant to one's health.
It's easy to see, then, how this "unique" perspective completely reframes the issue. If our mission is to prevent and reverse chronic diseases, then we need to look at what does change. And that is gene expression. The right question to ask, then, is what genes are being expressed in the human host as it begins to develop chronic disease? Likewise, with respect to the microbiome, the question we asked was, what genes are the microbes expressing, rather than simply identifying what they are? This matters because multiple microorganisms can produce the same toxins that will cause us to be sick. Likewise, the same organism can produce completely different products based on its ecosystem environment like your gut.
Let me encourage you to take nothing in hand without deliberate purpose--your very unique purpose. To this end, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, "A man's true delight is to do the things he was made for. He was made to show goodwill to his kind, to rise above the promptings of his senses, to distinguish appearances from realities, and to pursue the study of universal Nature and her works."
What, then, were you made for? What is it that gives you the strongest sense of sailing True North? If it is something that resonates strongly with that sense, then it is a good thing and may in fact be your thing, a calling--the very unique calling you answer with your life. Do you know what it is?
If you are unable to answer that question just now, don't worry. All it means is that you have an exciting time of discovery ahead of you. But you do need to be deliberate about it. To be on this journey is really the greatest thing you can do for yourself and others. And only you can do it.
Finally, there's one other important component to the "why me?" question, and that concerns your dedication to solving your chosen grand challenge.
Am I willing to dedicate my life to solving this problem?
In other words, find something that are you willing to die for and then live for it.
Here is a bonus question. When you're satisfied with your answers to the first three, ask finally, Why not? Indeed, the harvest is great, but the workers are few. So, if not you, then who?