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Poke the box, dammit

Last night before bed I decided to buy a book on my Kindle (iPad app) that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. It’s called Poke the Box and it’s by Seth Godin. It’s a short read and it’s meant to be that way. You could easily read it in one sitting.

The book is about taking initiative. Taking action. And drawing your own map. It’s about not being scared of failure and realizing that failures are how you learn. It’s about poking the box, which is a computer programming reference. Programmers learn by poking the box (computer) and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.

As I read through the book I’m reminded of something that venture capitalist Ben Horowitz wrote a few months ago on his blog:

“Every employee in a company depends on the CEO to make fast, high quality decisions. Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision.”

Both Godin and Horowitz are, in a way, talking about the same thing: You have to keep moving. Make decisions. Start stuff. And stop worrying so much about being wrong, because it’s virtually impossible to know how things will eventually play out in the future.

A perfect example of this is Starbucks.

The first Starbucks in Seattle didn’t sell brewed coffee. It sold beans. And had it continued along this path, it certainly wouldn’t have become the brand that it is today. In fact, it may have failed completely. It wasn’t until Howard Schultz saw what they had started and combined it with what he had learned in Italy, that the Starbucks experience of today was born.

The important thing is that somebody (Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker) took the initiative to start and build a Starbucks. It didn’t matter that they got the recipe wrong, they poked the box and it ultimately lead to something magical.

The same reluctance to poke the box can also be found in city building.

Here in Toronto we spend a significant amount of time debating and vacillating around transit decisions (as well as many other things). Should we build LRT? Or should we build subway? What should we replace the Scarborough Rapid Transit line with?

But we’ve fallen into analysis paralysis.

The original Transit City Plan was announced on March 16th, 2007. It’s now 2014. And transit still sucks. Imagine if we started and finished, say, 2 kilometers of rapid transit each and every year. Forget worrying if it’s LRT, subway or a horse drawn space ship. We just kept moving.

Something tells me that we’d be better off, even if we did make a few mistakes along the way.

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