Incremental moonshots

Standing in front of a sprawling image of planet Earth at Google I/O, Larry Page seemed more benevolent world dictator than tech CEO. He made a surprise appearance at the end of a marathon keynote address and offered conference attendees a few Sermon on the Mount-style closing remarks about the state of the tech industry. But some of Page’s doctrine isn’t as innovation-friendly as he chalks it up to be.

The CEO made grandiose statements about the past and future of technology, waxing eloquently about its impact on the human race. He even went so far as to propose the creation of a new lawless country to beta-test his ideas for changing society. There was, however, one thing in particular that Page said during the Q&A session that caught my attention. It’s something he’s repeated multiple times since taking over as CEO in 2011:

I try to discourage incremental thinking.

Larry Page fancies himself a “moonshot” kind of executive. He aims to invent the unimaginable and bring to life the impossible. Think Google’s self-driving cars, Google Glass, and whatever other products his mad scientists are building over at Google[x]. And Page is not alone in his approach. He’s just one of many big-time entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk who share a similar ideology.

Moonshot thinking is an almost inescapably attractive philosophy; it’s the mantra of visionaries, the catchphrase of those who invent the future. When Musk says his goal is to make human life “multi-planetary,” you can’t help but want to hop on his inspirational bandwagon. No one wants to be accused of thinking small or being behind the curve.

But there’s something fundamentally wrong with the notion that moonshot thinking is for everybody, and Page shouldn’t be so quick to categorically dismiss the power of incremental innovation. At bottom, moonshot thinking is “go big or go home” dressed in Silicon Valley rhetoric. It’s an intellectual luxury, a philosophy that only the rich and successful can afford to adopt.

At school, I’m part of a student organization called Design for America, which tries to make a positive impact on the local community through interdisciplinary design. We have a slogan that I’ve grown quite fond of over the last few months:

Aim for the smallest change that will have the biggest possible effect.

The group has been able to accomplish some great things, but we would’ve only felt paralyzed if we were told to take on moonshot projects.

Moonshot thinking works for those in positions that offer them astronomical opportunities. But for the rest of us aspiring innovators, the approach can be unhelpful at best, and crippling at worst. Moonshots are the wrong message to be preaching to up-and-coming inventors and developers, who simply don’t have the resources to make them happen. When you’re not a billionaire or an executive of a massive corporation, innovation happens in small steps. Paul Graham echoes this idea in his essay “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas”:

If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I’ve discussed, don’t make a direct frontal attack on it. Don’t say, for example, that you’re going to replace email. If you do that you raise too many expectations … Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things.

You’ve got to aim for your own ceiling before you can shoot for the moon.

This post was originally published on Medium.