Eric Weinstein, Managing Director of Thiel Capital, doesn’t see the journey from excellent to extraordinary as being a continuum, exactly. You don’t get better and better and better and then suddenly — pop! — you’ve become outstanding, a prime mover in your field. There’s a chasm between the two states, and a dangerous leap to be made. In his Big Think+ video “Become a Prime Mover,” Weinstein explains what making this transition is like, and how to know if you’re ready to attempt it.
Caterpillar to butterfly
It’s a lovely image: the unremarkable caterpillar who one day emerges as a magnificent butterfly. It’s nature at its most poetic, and also its most radical: Wooly bear to goo to butterfly. Weinstein sees many of us as caterpillars.
“In general, most of us get to a position of being a business leader in my opinion by being a very successful caterpillar,” says Weinstein. “We do a good enough job to advance up a ladder. And we find ourselves usually stuck.”
If we have a desire to get to the next level, we’re confronted by a profound question Weinstein puts this way: “Do the techniques that got us to this successful caterpillar stage really suffice to complete our mission?” The answer’s likely to be no, and if that sounds terrifying, it is. “You’ll have to stop doing whatever it was that you did that got you here,” says Weinstein. It means giving up a formula that’s served you well.
Weinstein says you have to decide if it’s time to say the things you think, and that you’ve never dared say before — to stop hiding, and to go ring some bells that can’t be un-rung. It takes real courage, since there’s real risk, but, like the caterpillar, “if you’re really dreaming of doing something great, realize that you’ll have to spin a chrysalis.”
Taking that step is not as impossible as it seems because, as Weinstein bluntly puts it, “In fact, what you don’t realize, what most of us don’t realize, is that the only thing that we have to say of any interest to anyone is the thing that we’ve never heard and strongly suspected.”
The slow clap
In his video, Weinstein explains the moment of making your move. He invokes a well-worn Hollywood trope to make his point, and it’s perfect. It’s the “slow clap,” and here’s how he describes it:
[It’s] where somebody says something that is absolutely against the grain of whatever social milieu they find themselves in. And there’s usually a period of several seconds of dead silence in order to build the tension. And then you hear one person clapping slowly, and the key question is will anyone follow suit? And that goes on for several seconds. And then a second clap, the third clap, and then it becomes an avalanche of applause.
This scenario is actually an example of “preference falsification,” a phenomenon developed by Turkish economist Timur Kuran, says Weinstein. “We need prime movers who are the ones who say the thing that maybe is on everyone’s mind, but everyone is afraid that if they say it, they will be found to be the only one thinking it.” But maybe there is someone else who’s brave enough to be your first clapper. Watch that person, too. Weinstein predicts, “If you see yourself as the speaker or the first clapper or the second clapper there’s probably something glorious in your future.”
If you don’t feel that you have some brilliant unspoken insight, it may be that you’re more destined for excellence than for greatness — which, let’s face it, is not a bad place to be.
If, on the other hand, you’re ready to go for it, says Weinstein, think first. “One should not do this lightly,” he warns, “but, in fact, one has to realize that the people you envy, who have achieved and made it to levels of success that you would find satisfying, are often people who have endured the pain of saying something before anyone else was willing to reify that statement by saying, ‘Yes, that person is correct.’”