The Compass of Absurdity

October 3, 2018

One rule of thumb for any entrepreneur trying to do something that has never been done before: Be ready to get laughed out of the room. Anything sufficiently wondrous, fantastic or incredible, and not yet achieved, will become a magnet for ridicule, doubt, and perhaps a dash of envy. It’s almost a law of the universe.

Why is this?

Partly, it’s because for something to be truly “in”-credible, it must also be absurd. Every failed attempt at greatness often seems absurd in retrospect. History abounds with such examples: Nikola Tesla’s plan to develop free, boundless energy. Isaac Newton’s unshakeable faith in alchemy and the ability to transform lead into gold. Genghis Khan’s quest to conquer the entire known world. Such fantastic missions, while sometimes partially successful or tangentially fruitful, seem woefully absurd from our perspective, and must have from that of many historical contemporaries. 

Yet, not entirely so. In fact, many such figures inspire massive and passionate followers. How can this be? How can fantastic promises inspire true believers? Freud might argue that this is because of some kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. While that may be partially true, I’d argue it’s because often, the seemingly-impossible is made quite real, indeed.

One example of this is of the late, great pilot, Amelia Earhart. Earhart sought to do what only one person had done before - to pilot a solo flight across the Atlantic. At the time, flight was a very new concept to humanity, hitherto only a dream – not to mention dangerous, challenging and complex. Only Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot and celebrity, had ever successfully flown across the Atlantic, an awesome achievement for the time. Considering the cultural mores of 1920s America, it was thought that very few men could accomplish such a task, let alone a woman. 

Yet Amelia Earhart sought to do just that. She knew that many thought her quest absurd, quixotic even. She was told that she could not possibly do it, in 1928 or ever. But as ambitious entrepreneurs can sympathize with, the very outrageousness of her quest, the desire to win big and prove her naysayers wrong, propelled her all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said something really apropos her quest: “(She) acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely the absurd that (she) as the single individual is higher than the universal.” 

In other words, it is often by going against the flow, seeking to prove a point, to do the impossible, that we find our highest elevation as individuals. Amelia Earhart, so self-possessed and confident, elevated beyond the humdrum and the everyday through her quest and her voyage.

To entrepreneurs looking to do something unique, powerful, and ambitious, I recommend one use this metric, the double-edged sword of absurdity and magnificence, as a kind of compass, a north star. The more absurd and magnificent your goal, the higher the chance that you are doing something worth devoting your life to. The more you are told you can’t, the better. 

True to her mystique, on Amelia Earhart’s final voyage, the first female solo flight all the way around the world, she disappeared without a trace. More than 80 years later, some bones were recovered on an island in the pacific that may be hers, but one cannot say with certainty. It may well be the case, being so free in her thinking, that she simply decided to drop out of society altogether, to live with the Pygmies or the koalas and kangaroos. 

When the spirit of adventure flies high enough, anything is imaginable.


This post originally appeared on Social Starts and was written by Robert Cohen - a friend of DevHub.