In life, there are truths and there are mysteries.

Truths are what is known. It is something everyone knows (or should know). For instance, the earth revolves around the sun. That is a truth.

Mysteries are the unsolvable. It is something that we don’t have an answer for. For example, no one knows if there are aliens out there in the universe.

What’s in between truths and mysteries

In between truths and mysteries is what Peter Thiel calls, secrets. In his book, Zero to One, he has this to say about secrets:

Something important and unknown, something hard to do but doable.

1. Secret: something hard to do but doable

When we say something is challenging, we effectively mean something is hard to do, is difficult, is demanding, but doable.

Quitting smoking is hard to do but countless people have done it. Lots of people have made money on the Internet, despite it being a challenge. Waking up early is notably difficult but it is doable, even for the night owls.

  • To successfully compete in the hospitality industry is extremely challenging. But AirBnB did it.
  • To enter into a heavily unionised industry such as transportation is extremely challenging. But Uber did it.
  • To penetrate into a market where track-record and referrals are the way to get more business is extremely challenging. But LINE Consulting did it.

Just because something is incredibly challenging, doesn’t mean it cannot be done. That is unless…

2. Why are people not looking for secrets?

The reason companies like AirBnb and Uber are celebrated as disruptors of their industries is because many people, including the incumbents, did not expect them to do it.

In those industries, people have come to accept what they get as the norm, as the way it is. As a result, please stopped questioning how to do it. In short, people stopped looking for secrets in those industries.

As long as people stopped looking for secrets, things will remain the way it is. That is until someone comes along.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. ~George Bernard Shaw

3. How do we look for secrets?

But how do we look for secrets? The answer, as suggested by the Apostle Paul is by renewing your mind. So even before discussing the techniques to look for secrets, let’s begin with the renewing of your mind.

First, you must believe that there are still secrets left to be found. In less mythical terms, you need to believe that there is a better way.

You need to believe that you are able to improve your current state of life, even if it seems challenging now. You need to believe that there is a better way to scale your business, even if it seems challenging now. Because, without that belief, you wouldn’t even start.

And here’s the good news:

If there are many secrets left in the world, there are probably many world‐changing companies yet to be started. ~Peter Thiel

4. Three ways to look for secrets

This is where looking for secrets and design thinking collides. The first stage in design thinking is inspiration, which is to identify and learn about the challenge, i.e. look for secrets.

Some people just seem to have the natural ability to identify challenges; whereas others miss them altogether. In the Bible, Jesus said, do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?

By adopting the three techniques Tim Brown proposes in his book, Change by Design, we can use these three ways to look for secrets:

Insight: Learning from the lives of others.

In the Design for Extreme Affordability course jointly offered by the Graduate School of Business and the School of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford, students learn to design products and services to make an impact on the lives of the world’s poorest citizens.

One of the projects involved a group of students looking to design a better incubator for the developing world. Once they recognized the high infant mortality rate is linked to the fact that most infants never made it to the hospital at all, they quickly understood that the challenge is not in designing a better incubator.

But it is to design something to wrap and keep the infant warm while transporting the infant to the hospital. Clearly, without learning about the conditions facing the rural Nepalese, the team would have never created the Embrace Incubator.

Observation: Watching what people don’t do, listening to what they don’t say.

Here’s an example quoted from Brown’s book. When Shimano hired IDEO, the team first focused on individuals who ride bicycles. Naturally that would be the first group of people to approach simply because they are customers to begin with.

However, by observing that 90% of American adults rode a bike when they were kids but stopped doing so when they became adults, the team shifted focus.

Instead of talking to people who ride bicycles, they turned to those who don’t, even though they did when they were young. By understanding their fears (Lycra-clad athletes who serve as sales staff) and frustration (danger of cycling on the roads), the team was able to create a whole new category of bicycle called Coasting bikes.

Empathy: Standing in the shoes of others.

To improve the patient experience in the Stanford emergency department, Stan Nowak, a physicist played the role of a father bring his daughter into the emergency department after an automobile accident.

Instead of searching for ways to improve from the perspectives of the medical professionals, the team of 14 participants put themselves in the shoes of patients and their family. Through this experience, the participants get to empathize with the patients, and then using that perspective to design and test ways of improving patient experience.

5. Are you looking for secrets in your life?

By default, we tend to accept our circumstances and adapt to our environment. As we age, we accept that we get tired easily and we also tend to forget things easily. In order to grow our wealth, we have to sacrifice time for money. But does it have to be that way? Are these the “truths”? Or are these the secrets that we haven’t looked hard enough?

Join me and the community of The Creative Influencers, where our goal is to turn life’s uncertainties into opportunities so we can design and live a better life.

Published by Melvyn