Tom Chi is a business leader and innovator who started out doing astrophysical research at 15, and whose business pedigree includes executive roles at Yahoo, being a key influencer in the design of Microsoft Outlook, and shaping Google X and Google Glass. When working at Google on the self-driving car, he started asking himself questions about why he was creating things that only the few percent could afford. “Who’s going to do anything for the two billion people living on less than $2 a day?” he wondered. Tom thinks big, universally big, and his latest ventures deal in how we can rapidly prototype collaboratively, to pioneer solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. He focuses on the ways we need to think together to get to a sustainable planet. He is currently the founder of Rapid Prototyping LLC, an innovation consultancy that works with some of the biggest names in the world and combines learning, empathy and experimentation skills to increase the value of innovations to end users – ultimately, to all of us.
I spoke to Tom about competition versus collaboration, the myth of right and wrong, how companies are the primary interface between business and nature, and why he creates with a timeline of 1,000 years. In the process, he blew my mind.
What’s your view on conscious competition?
The whole notion of competition versus collaboration is a false dichotomy. People often say that the natural state of nature is competition, but that’s completely incorrect. Everything that is a living being, through its lifecycle, improves the viability of life within the entire ecosystem. One quality of life is that it improves the potential for all other forms of life in the process of living its own life.
The fact that we consider competition and collaboration to be opposites is a completely human construct.
This is just us identifying two attributes of the natural world and pretending that they’re in opposition. In truth, both these things coexist effortlessly as part of a single thing, but this single thing is harder for us to identify because it has so much nuance and dimensionality to it. Our conceptual models do not fit it very cleanly.
You’re into very practical ways of innovating and doing things. Why is this so important?
The reason we prefer analysis and theory instead of the practical is that analysis gives us ego safety. When we feel that we can understand a thing and that it can be fully controlled by us, then we feel safe. But a lot of our analytical models don’t actually map properly or work practically. We need to trade safety for efficacy, but most people are not willing to do that. We also need to trade safety and certainty for creativity and self-iterating blossoming and evolution. But because it feels less controllable, people are not able to wrap their heads around it either. They still want to hire the McKinsey’s of the world to get the perfect business model or have a perfect quarter-to-quarter plan.
We need to trade safety for efficacy and certainty for creativity.
You have an interesting relationship to time! Tell us about that.
In my life, I think two weeks ahead. I have two timeframes: right now, plus or minus two weeks, and 1,000 years. I do the things that are practical right now, but I do them in the context that if everybody were to do this for 1,000 years, the world would end up being much better. When you think on the scale of a thousand years, then you are thinking on the scale of major shifts in civilisation.
So how does this translate to business?
A thousand years from now, the disparity we’re experiencing will only be accelerating, unless we do something about it now. In 2011, the richest 268 people had as much collective wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion, the poorest half of the world. In 2015, it had narrowed to the richest 66 people. This is a very unstable trajectory. The work that I have been doing is about trying to change the fundamental nature of companies because right now companies are the primary interface between humanity and nature. I want to reconstruct business in such a way that humanity becomes a net positive to nature. Because only in that world would the addition of hundreds of thousands of years make the Earth richer.
Right now companies are the primary interface between humanity and nature.
What matters the most are the verbs that drive the nouns, for example, in companies our verbs come from a set of beliefs about what is and isn’t worth doing in a company right now: we need to make our targets, are we making our targets? We need to look into the beliefs that drive our verbs and the way we’re employing them. This is the point of highest leverage for us, from which we can change all other things.
So, for example, I’m interested in how would you construct an organisation and the incentives within it, or a way for people to interact, that changes the way companies work. I launched a company that launches a new company every ten weeks. Every one of those companies has alterations in the DNA of how it operates, how it’s legally structured, how the team members are recruited and incentivised etc. Each of these is an experimental vehicle that allows me to see whether these types of tweaks in DNA lead to better, more constructive behaviour in the company, and in the relationship between the company and society. We are taking the results of those experiments and publishing them out every six months because every six months we’ll have a good roll-up, about 30 – 40 experiments. Then, we’re open sourcing the legal documents, the operational playbooks and some open source code to help people to replicate this.
What happens to ownership?
We’ve published a new approach to ownership. The normal thing that happens is, if you work for a company, everything that you think, do and say related to the company, and sometimes not even related to the company, belongs to them during the time that you’re employed by them. And there is something about that which didn’t strike me as correct. If our experiment were to work, then we trade off benefit to the company with benefit to society or benefit to the individual. In our approach to ownership, we don’t own anything you’ve done: you’ve granted us an unlimited license to use what you’ve created, but you retain the ability to do whatever you want with the things you create.
As soon as you share this approach, investors say, what happens if one of your employees does something brilliant while they’re working for you, and then they leave your company and start their own company with that brilliant idea? Would that be allowable? I say, absolutely.
If they beat you to market or capture the market share and get it out to society faster, then the net effect is that society benefits faster, right? That’s the point of entrepreneurship.
A small tweak like that changes a lot of things for the better. If we’re not going to do something with an idea, I would encourage our employees to leave and make a company that uses that intellectual property so that everyone can benefit.
Your perspective is truly vast! I watched you talk at a conference about a near death experience you had that radically changed how you thought about things. How did this happen?
That moment was very critical. It made me rethink everything about what it meant to be a leader, what it meant to create things, what it meant to serve in the world at all. Most people walk around incredibly afraid of death for their entire lives. When you get that close to death then you’re not afraid of it anymore, because you’ve basically experienced it and the actual experience of it was not a fearful experience. The experience of it was a sense of returning (whatever the hell that means!).
My thought process on what it might mean is we’re these particular instances of consciousness, but these instances of consciousness come from a universe that can’t help but create consciousness. So, we’re kind of like the apples on the apple tree, and even if your apple falls to the ground, it nourishes the tree and the tree can’t help but make more apples. It doesn’t really end, no matter how much you think it ends. Of course, the atoms that are within you have been around for 10 billion years. They’re immortal. So, all the stuff you’re made out of is immortal. There’s just a temporary time period where you take the form of an apple and you get to be able to see through a particular window of consciousness.
What that means to me is that every other human being is a unique window of the universal consciousness.
We see a lot better through everybody’s eyes than anybody’s eyes.
The whole idea of ‘my viewpoint is so much better than yours’ or ‘I’m going to beat you down and defeat you’ or even the concept of ‘I’m absolutely right and you’re definitely wrong’ – these are such normal concepts, we use them everywhere, we don’t even consider them to be a choice, but the choice of labelling things in this way is really a form of insanity.
What is actually happening is a smaller consciousness is railing against the larger consciousness.
Our smaller consciousness is railing against a subset of different sets of smaller consciousness, when in fact, the larger consciousness is the collective viewpoints of all the eyes that consciousness can see through, including plants and animals and all other life in the universe.
If we were to pause for a second and expand the scope of what we see to 10,000 people instead of just ourselves, or to 1,000 years instead of next quarter, which are all within the ready scope of the larger consciousness, then we’d be like, oh shit, I’m doing something completely moronic!
Do you actively strive to raise the conscious awareness levels of the teams who work with you?
It’s a mixture. We just work together and I don’t push strong concepts of right and wrong.
Whether something went awesomely or terribly, the question remains: what did we learn and how does it change what we do now?
So, you don’t need to label it right or wrong in that process. If you work with me you’ll just get more and more of that over time, whether by example or just by the way we talk about things. Sometimes I’ll do a concrete challenge.
For our marketing teams, I wanted us to go and do all our marketing without employing fear, scarcity or shame.
I told them to go and work it out. They had to look at what it means to go to market and speak to people in a way that doesn’t invite those three things, which is 95% of marketing today.
There are times when you need to go hustle to make something happen. But it’s not because things are scarce.
If there’s anything that’s scarce, it’s that you only have so much life to live in this form in this universe and it’s a different kind of scarcity to ‘I’m going to get it and you’re not going to get it’.
How do you create the future? Do you think it’s created from scratch or from what’s already available in the universe as something that encompasses everything?
I don’t believe it’s all available per se – there’s analysis and there’s creation. A lot of people get stuck in analysis because they want the safety of having the provably best answer before they do anything, and the safety that this is definitely going to work. That doesn’t exist, especially in creation. Creation really is something that is new, something that is added to the world. 8,000 years ago it was impossible to be a concert pianist because a piano had not been invented. At some point along the line, 500 years ago, someone made a harpsichord and people were like, oh, that could be a thing, and nowadays there are people where a good chunk of their brain is constructed around being a concert pianist.
This type of creation was truly not possible before. I don’t even believe it was in the universe and somebody just found it.
There are these conscious acts of bringing things together in service and in new combinations of service that have never been seen in the universe before, that all conscious beings have access to as a tool, and we actually choose in our lives what percentage of our lives are spent on that tool and what percentage of our lives don’t get anywhere near it. We also get to choose when we apply the tools of creativity, and at what scope of compassion and consciousness do we do it at? Do we try to do it for 7 billion people for 1,000 years, or do we do it for ourselves or a smaller set (for our company for this quarter – very micro). It’s actually even more micro – most people do it to serve a subset of their ego, not even their full ego. Our normal operating size is usually smaller than one person!
How do you get to keep your ego at bay and keep your perspective on the larger whole in mind?
It’s fine to have an ego, just like it’s fine to have attachment. My mom is a Buddhist and I believe that it’s not that you need to eliminate ego and attachment, it’s that you need to have a particular relationship to it. You can’t have it own you. It’s a thing that’s part of your life experience, but it doesn’t need to own you. The suffering comes from the belief that this thing that you’ve created is permanent for all time. That is the illusion that’s associated with attachment.
Ego is a tool in your psyche to serve you and the illusion is that your life is there to serve it.
People get into a perfection narrative around the elimination of those things and I don’t think they need to be eliminated if they have a useful role, and by tempering their role they take their rightful place.
How do you view synchronicity?
People treat synchronicity as if it’s a belief. It’s a priming function of the reticular activating system in your brain which allows you to notice things more. The noticing of things – whether you call them coincidences or not – against a primed intention tends to just be a useful thing. If you notice the thing that would be helpful to you and put yourself in the position of being around a lot of stimuli your chances of accumulating a lot of useful inputs is very high. If you don’t do those things the probability becomes very low. I think that what people call synchronicity or the law of attraction is really a mathematical function of the reticular activating system and the number of exposures that people put themselves into.
To build on this view, I’ve compiled these next paragraphs from talks that Tom gave at TEDxTaipei and Mindvalley. They are inspiring enough to me to want to include them in this article. See below for links.
Whenever I hear people mention this phrase that we are all connected, they do so in a way as if it’s something they believe was true. Like it’s something that’s abstract, esoteric, unprovable, but they really just wish that the universe was like that. In fact, everything is so deeply interconnected that every iron atom in your blood cells went through the same five supernovas that everyone else’s did. You can’t be more connected than being the sons and daughters of the same five stars.
What if every breath that you took contributed to the possibility of countless lives after you, lives that you would never see, lives that we are all a part of today?
It’s worth thinking about that maybe the meaning of our lives is not even within the scope of our current understanding.
We’re born into this life and we have the ability to make this unique painting with the colours of being that are around us at that particular time. We have the ability to make a new colour – a self-driving car, a piano, a computer – from the way we express ourselves as a human being.
Each one of these ways of being, these things that we put out into the world, with the creative processes of all the other things that existed at the point that we were born, allows us to expand the palette of being for all of society and for all of humanity after us.
The way that we are in our lives begins to change the way that our friends and family are able to paint in the future, how communities affect society, how society affects its relationship to the biosphere, the way the biosphere affects the physical planet and the universe itself.
We’ve been given this amazing gift of consciousness, and because of this, we’re able to deeply understand our connectedness. Over time as a society, this deepens our levels of consideration, expression and understanding for each other.
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Watch Tom Chi in action:
TedX Taipai: “Everything is Connected: Here’s How”
Awesomenessfest: “The Democratization of Genius”