(Non-)Masonic Book Review: Little Bets

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims is about the character traits, methodology, and style of thinking that have led many great people to success. The core premise is that we can test our ideas or assumptions in small, low-stakes ways to gain insights that lead to additional or better-refined ideas, and that sometimes the best plan is not having a plan, but knowing how to test potential paths as you go.

Luck and Innovation

There’s a great section in the book about the nature of luck and lucky people. One of the primary characteristics of people who seem “lucky” is that they tend to maintain social connections with larger networks of people, and tend to include in that network people of different, and varied backgrounds, demographics, and interests.

“Luck” is what occurs when an opportunity is presented and we have the presence of mind, or sufficient information to recognize the opportunity. Many opportunities come from those we maintain connections with. This of course jumped out at me in relation to Freemasonry because of all the men I now call friends who I never would have met outside of lodge. Of course, the same can be said of any group one might join, but it does seem to me to be particularly true of Freemasonry given the diversity of economic class, religious background and affiliation, political beliefs, and other differences between brothers, not to mention the relationships made when traveling.

Masonry units men of every country, sect, and opinion, and conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise remain perpetually at a distance.

I was “lucky” myself in this respect. I met my professional mentor through the lodge. He is not a brother, but the father of a brother. He is retired and a technical expert in the field I was just endeavoring to enter. I can’t imagine how I possibly could have ever come to know him if not for the connection to his son in lodge. Likewise, I can’t begin to imagine how much more difficult my professional progression would have been without his mentorship.

Little Bets also discusses how innovation tends to flow from taking in differences in perspective, often gained by learning from those who have that other perspective. Innovators tend to seek more interactions with those who differ from themselves. I can’t help but wonder if this may be a component of why there were so many innovators among early Freemasons.

New Ideas

To paraphrase from the book – The fear of complacency must be a strong motivator. Also, “success hides problems.”

If your lodge keeps doing what it has done, it will continue to get the same results. If your lodge is successful that’s great, but there could be room for improvement that you’re not seeing because you’re not looking for it. Don’t be complacent.

As for unsuccessful lodges – Try new things. Make little bets. If a program hasn’t been working and there isn’t much hope, scrap it. When working on a new idea or trying to revamp something that may still have some life in it, tackle it incrementally, watching for what works and what doesn’t. Treat an incremental rollout as a series of experiments. Don’t worry about the things that don’t work, think of them as education, just make sure you don’t throw good time or money after bad. Fail early, fail often, and learn from it.

While there are lodges so small that there may not be outliers, in most lodges you’ve probably got one or more malcontents, or black sheep, who have ideas that haven’t gained any traction. Maybe they’ve given up and stopped coming to lodge? These are the people most likely to bring you actionable ideas. Even if they sound radical, hear them out and make an honest effort to digest the ideas and make some portion of them workable. The ideas that seem divergent may turn out to be valuable – and why not give them a shot if you’re out of other ideas?

Followup

Think about a lodge meeting after some major lodge event – the brother in charge of the event stands to be recognized, is given the floor, and gives a report about the event and how it went. Some other brother stands and adds a few remarks. The Worshipful Master makes a few remarks, thanks the brothers for their work, and business moves along.

If the event was a failure, maybe there’s some discussion about whether or not the event should continue as a tradition or what can change. More often than not, if the event was anything but a bust, the remarks will be positive, and few problems mentioned.

No matter how successful an event is, we need to make it part of our lodge culture to discuss the failures – what aspects of an event or program didn’t work, or what worked, but could have gone better? Maybe the event was perfect, but we could have gotten the word out better. Maybe attendance of the public event was great, but skewed towards a different demographic than intended. Or perhaps the program worked well but the background music could use some tweaking.

There is often a lot of pressure to build each other up, and rightly so, but we need to remove the stigma of discussing the problems with our work and treat them as opportunities for improvement, and free of personal judgement. In cases where it was a particular brother’s failing, there may be times to do this in private rather than in lodge, but if the failing was with the plan and not the execution, this should seldom be the case.

Final Thoughts

This was a great book. While drives home the fact that it is not presenting a methodology to follow, it does a good job of communicating the mindset of extraordinary people. These people not only treat failure as training and as an opportunity, but actively seek opportunities to fail with low stakes so they can gain that education more quickly, and capitalize on the few things that work. It isn’t throwing out ideas and seeing what sticks, it is an iterative process of self-improvement and education.

The idea of this (Non-)Masonic Book Review series of posts is to take a look at books from all sorts of genres and see what can be extracted and applied to Freemasonry, or how the ideas can be coupled with those from Freemasonry for an enriched Masonic experience or personal development. In most cases the ideas in the books are extrapolated upon from my own personal experience in the craft. These reviews are not necessarily endorsements of the books (as tastes may vary), but are an attempt to extract value from them for a Masonic audience. This content is my own and is not endorsed by nor necessarily representative of my or any other Grand Lodge or other Masonic body.

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