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The Invention Equation
Tiny thoughts on validation from the life of Alan Turing
This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here:
I started my weekend with a movie night.
The plan I had with one of my friends was to watch a movie while being mildly intoxicated—a different touch to my typical weekends. After much deliberation, we decided to watch The Imitation Game, which neither of us had seen.
What followed after the movie was fantastic: two intoxicated young men sitting side-by-side critiquing and analysing different characters and events in the movie while trying to keep their eyes open. How incredible!
Mid-conversation though, I whipped out my phone and started frantically writing in my journal a few tiny thoughts that came to me. Those thoughts are the cornerstones of this week's piece.
If you haven't seen The Imitation Game, it’s a movie about Alan Turing, a founding father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
The movie told the true life story of how a wimpy gay math prodigy and cryptography genius went on to become a renowned mathematician who built the very first ‘thinking machine’ that contributed to the end of World War II.
As a young boy, Turing was bullied a lot by other boys for being different. On one occasion, in the movie, he was ‘buried’ alive beneath the floorboard of his dorm room. I remember getting teary as I watched that scene.
Through that and many other similar tragic experiences, including the death of his close friend Christopher, Turing realised from a very young age that only he could encourage himself and push himself forward.
Despite his achievements as an accomplished Cambridge-educated mathematician, Turing was often underestimated and shoved aside because of his social quirkiness. But his life ended up being a manifestation of something his friend Christopher told him earlier in the movie:
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
The rest of the movie shows how Turing used methods that were unconventional at the time to solve a problem that nobody else could—cracking the Enigma code used by the German military to encrypt strategic messages.
While everyone else selected to work on the top secret project of cracking Enigma was thinking about attempting to crack each message one at a time, Turing was thinking differently. He set out to create a machine that could, by itself, crack each encrypted message every single time with 100% accuracy. He believed that only a machine could crack a code created by another machine.
Despite strong criticism from fellow cryptographers and being on the brink of being fired because the early version of his machine wasn’t delivering results as quickly as the UK military would’ve liked, Turing persisted.
He ended up succeeding at building a machine that changed the course of history and inspired further technological inventions that we enjoy today. That’s the fragment of Turing’s life that was portrayed in The Imitation Game.
After watching the movie, I got thinking about his invention process and the different ingredients that make any form of invention possible. That’s what my conversation with my friend was about.
The life of Alan Turing showed that for anything revolutionary to be created, the process must begin with someone or a tiny group of people brave enough to challenge the status quo and think differently.
It reminded me of a quote by Margaret Mead, which is one of my favourites:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
But it seems that beyond such people having the initiative to think differently in order to change the status quo, they must also be comfortable with being ridiculed or considered foolish for their ideas, which are often outlandish at the time.
That’s where most people struggle.
Most of us are not comfortable with shame or ridicule because we thrive on having our ideas and opinions validated by others, especially people we look up to or consider to be experts. Not many people have the courage to be unpopular or outrightly disliked for their ideas.
It takes a unique kind of person to silence the loud criticism outside and fight for the ideas they believe in, even if everyone else around them tells them that it’s stupid. But that’s the kind of person that Alan Turing was.
He was told by some of the brightest minds in the country and a military commander who reported directly to the UK Prime Minister that his idea was bollocks and “will never work.”
Not many people will be able to continue with their idea in such a situation. They’ll accept the opinion of others and move on. But Alan Turing didn’t.
He was able to resist their votes of no confidence because he had an internal source of validation, unlike most people who get their validation externally from friends, mentors, or others.
Most people believe in their own ideas only as firmly as others do. They trust the validation of others more than their own.
However, as was shown in the life of Alan Turing and many other inventors who were ridiculed for their ideas, an internal source of validation is a prerequisite for invention as it’s the foundation of conviction, which is the first component of my equation of invention.
Invention = conviction + ambition + curiosity
Conviction is the unwavering belief in our ideas in spite of criticism and ridicule that is backed by data or some form of analysis. Developing and maintaining conviction isn’t easy because it requires us to build confidence in our own analyses and the strength to resist the temptation to shut down our own ideas just to appease those around us.
Ambition is the desire to consistently reach the high standards we set for ourselves. To achieve this, we must believe that we are deserving and capable for more. We must believe in our power to achieve great things and act on that power accordingly.
Curiosity is the craving to advance our knowledge and to apply them to new fields and problems. This requires a hunger for truth and self-betterment. It demands that we work through the limitations around us to improve ourselves and expand our skill sets. Curious people like Turing seek out difficult problems and are still able to rise to the occasion when presented with a new challenge.
A challenge for you
Think through the lives of the greatest inventors or entrepreneurs you admire and identify how their journey towards building a new technology, product, or business aligned with the equation above.
If you find one that doesn’t align with the equation, please reply to this via an email or a comment so I can modify my thoughts on this if necessary.
Also, think through your own life and how you can develop the conviction to pursue your ideas, the ambition to not settle for anything less than what you’re capable of, and the curiosity to keep searching for new solutions and ideas that could change the world.
P.S. if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend that you watch the movie.
Currently reading 📖
Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius – Ryan Holiday & Stephen Hanselman (still reading)
A song I’ve been playing on repeat this week 🎶
I Want You – Luke James
An article that got me thinking 📜
The Dating Market Is Getting Worse – Ashley Fetters & Kaitlyn Tiffany