Celebrate the childlike mind

STEVE JURVETSON is a partner at DFJ (Draper Fisher Jurvetson), one of the top venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Steve has been honored as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, and as “Venture Capitalist of the Year” by Deloitte. Forbes has recognized Steve several times on the Midas List, and named him one of “Tech’s Best Venture Investors.” In 2016, President Barack Obama announced Steve’s position as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship. He sits on the boards of SpaceX, Tesla, and other prominent companies. Steve was the world’s first owner of a Tesla Model S and the second owner of a Tesla Model X, following Elon Musk.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Gift #1: The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik. I give this to any fellow geek about to have their first child. Gift #2: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. A gift to all of my Apple ][ programming buddies from high school and Dungeons & Dragons comrades. So many of the geek references from the early days of personal computing brought back a Rush 2112 of Proustian 16K memories, from the Trash-80 to cassette-loading games.

Most influential books on me:

Out of Control by Kevin Kelly. Introduction to the power of evolutionary algorithms and information networks inspired by biology.

Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. What Moore observed in the belly of the early integrated-circuit (IC) industry was a derivative metric, a refracted signal, from a longer-term trend, a trend that begs various philosophical questions and predicts mind-bending futures. Ray Kurzweil’s abstraction of Moore’s law shows computational power on a logarithmic scale, and finds a double exponential curve that holds over 110 years! Through five paradigm shifts—such as electromechanical calculators and vacuum tube computers—the computational power that $1,000 buys has doubled every two years. For the past 30 years, it has been doubling every year. In the modern era of accelerating change in the tech industry, it is hard to find even five-year trends with any predictive value, let alone trends that span the centuries.

I have been maintaining this graph ever since I read Kurzweil, and I show it in every presentation I give. Here is the latest version:

I would go further and assert that this is the most important graph ever conceived. Every industry on our planet is going to become an information business. Consider agriculture. If you ask a farmer in 20 years’ time about how they compete, it will depend on how they use information, from satellite imagery driving robotic field optimization to the code in their seeds. It will have nothing to do with workmanship or labor. That will eventually percolate through every industry as IT innervates the economy.

Nonlinear shifts in the marketplace are also essential for entrepreneurship and meaningful change. Technology’s exponential pace of progress has been the primary juggernaut of perpetual market disruption, spawning wave after wave of opportunities for new companies. Without disruption, entrepreneurs would not exist.

Moore’s law is not just exogenous to the economy; it is why we have economic growth and an accelerating pace of progress. At DFJ, we see that in the growing diversity and global impact of the entrepreneurial ideas that we see each year. The industries impacted by the current wave of tech entrepreneurs are more diverse, and an order of magnitude larger than those of the ’90s—from automobiles and aerospace to energy and chemicals.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
The Whole30 diet. After the 30-day cleanse, I have removed bread and [non– naturally occurring] sugar from my diet and have more energy than ever before, I sleep through the night, and I dropped back to my high school weight.

And now, having tasted synthetic meat, I believe it will accelerate the development of human morality, much like an economic alternative to slavery helped society acknowledge the horrors of slavery. When we look back 2,000 years, we can see how much we have changed as culture matures. It’s much more difficult to identify something that we do in our current lives and the mainstream considers moral, but our future selves will consider immoral. As a meat eater, I can now see that in myself for the first time. I believe that in a few years we will look back and marvel at the barbarism and stunning environmental waste (water consumption and methane production) of meat harvesting today.

Our circle of empathy generally expands over time . . . but sometimes as a retrospective rationalization. We don’t typically discuss the meat industry in polite conversation because we don’t want to face the inevitable cognitive dissonance (because bacon tastes so good). We don’t really want to know why almost all USDA meat inspectors become vegetarian. I think all of that will change when viable meat products are grown from cell cultures, not in the field. We will switch, and condemn our former selves.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Launching big homemade rockets with my kids and collecting Apollo space artifacts. (I have converted DFJ into a space museum.)

If you could have a gigantic billboard with anything on it, what would it say and why?

“Celebrate the childlike mind.” From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a childlike mind. They are playful, open-minded, and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure.

What is so great about the “childlike” mind? Once again, I highly recommend Alison Gopnik’s Scientist in the Crib to any geek about to have a child. Here is one of her key conclusions: “Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new. . . . They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do

experiments. . . . In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally.”

Much of the human brain’s power derives from its massive synaptic interconnectivity. Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute observed that across species, synapses/neuron fanout grows as a power law with brain mass.

At the age of two to three years old, children hit their peak with ten times the synapses and two times the energy burn of an adult brain. And it’s all downhill from there.

The UCSF Memory and Aging Center has graphed the pace of cognitive decline, and finds the same slope of decline in our 40s as in our 80s. We just notice more accumulated decline as we get older, especially when we cross the threshold of forgetting most of what we try to remember.

But we can affect this progression. Professor Michael Merzenich at UCSF has found that neural plasticity does not disappear in adults. It just requires mental exercise. Use it or lose it. Bottom line: Embrace lifelong learning. Do something new. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.

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