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April 2006
May 2006

2006-04-29 »

The Spark

There are some people who just can't help it - certain things just go better when they're around. I write about design a lot, but you can lack design ability and still make things better. And it's not really about motivation, because it can happen despite your every intention to stay out of the way. It's not even about raw skill or talent - there are lots of people with great talent who go nowhere because they don't use their talent for anything. A combination of design, motivation, and talent can be a powerful one, but that's not it either; that's just a good substitute, in case you don't have it.

Let's call what I'm talking about the "spark." Think of it sort of like a nuclear reactor in a person's core, spewing energy and radiation everywhere. Sure, you can direct the energy and do amazing things; but even if you don't direct it, or you consciously try to contain it, the excess energy has to go somewhere. It leaks out, or it explodes.

I have great respect for motivated, talented people. Plop them into a well-defined engineering or business process, and good, useful things get produced pretty efficiently. That's nice.

People with the spark aren't quite the same. They might also be motivated or talented or both, but they might not. The spark isn't exactly an object of respect - it's more an item of curiosity. People with the spark are interesting. People without it, however nice, or useful, or productive they might be, aren't.

The spark is hard to isolate, because its symptoms are mostly the same as symptoms of other things - motivation or talent, for example. I make a game of trying to see if it's there or not. This turns out to be a useless skill by itself, because a spark, by itself, is uncontrolled energy that will mostly just randomly change things. To actually accomplish a major goal, you need more than just a spark; you need the motivation to follow through, and the talent to be able to fill in all the extra details.

Still, there are reams of books written about how to keep people motivated, and how to train people to improve their skills, and how to identify people's key talents. All those things can be added on later. But I don't know how to generate a spark that's not there.

The most interesting people to me are the ones that have the spark, but are failing to get anything out of it. They have the energy, but they don't know how to control it, and the leaks are just random. With just a few little tweaks, you could get something much bigger, much more useful, and at least a little bit less random.

The most reliable way I've found to identify people with a wasted spark is this: they keep producing small, good things, but can't explain why, and can't seem to sustain something bigger. Some entrepreneurs have the spark, but many fail because they lack dedication or the right skills. Some artists have the spark, but many just have enough skill and dedication to fake it convincingly to the untrained eye.

I'm convinced that all the really interesting things in the world come from one person's spark; the tragedy is how few of those sparks actually go anywhere in the end.

I'm CEO at Tailscale, where we make network problems disappear.

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