One of my earliest recollections of an experience that surprised me in an unexpected way happened when I was a child. I was alone on my bike in the strip mall in my neighborhood, I think I had just finished delivering my papers. Sometimes I would go there and stand in front of the door to the pharmacy to sell the couple of extras I had to people about to walk in to buy the paper. I could have been 12 or 14. An older gentleman approached me, and asked me to read for him a document he had been given. In his demeanor and appearance, he seemed very modest and humble. After a few seconds, I realized he had asked me this because he did not know how to read. This had never happened to me, I was shocked, and I helped him out. At the time, I had never met an adult who could not read. The island in which I grew up had gone from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing and banking based economy in the previous 40 or so years. This man could have been 60. Based on his unique circumstances, the world around him had changed faster than he could learn how to read.
I moved to Miami in the mid 90’s. The startup I co-founded had landed a joint venture deal with a big media company with roots on a Mexican conglomerate. We were very lucky to hire a very talented oceanographer / meteorologist who had escaped Cuba some one or two years prior during a stopover in Miami while on his way to Louisiana on a government sponsored trip to a big science symposium. It took him years to get in the good graces with the right people in the power structure to be allowed a trip outside. He and I became good friends mainly because we were the same age and because he represented who I could have been had my parents not left that island 35 years before. He defected in the Miami airport. He snuck out to a bathroom and was very nervous, trying to make the right contacts to achieve his goal. He went to a sink and did not know how to operate the faucets that you press down instead of turning. For a short while he had to wait for someone else to come in and wash their hands so he could learn how operate the hardware on this sink. Through the years we worked together, we had long conversations with topics he brought up that went from how he learned, by careful observation, to operate a gas pump to pump his own gas like everybody else does, or the huge return on investment on the couple of dollars the Sunday paper cost because of all the supermarket deals in it, or the marvelous ingenuity of American TV advertising. All these things were new to him as a free man in a free society. Based on his unique circumstances, the world outside had changed faster than where he got to grow up and become an adult, and he had to adapt and learn quickly in his new circumstance.
In fluid dynamics, there is this dimensionless value that you calculate called the Reynolds number. It is a measure of the ratio of inertial forces to the viscous forces, in other words, it is the ratio of the resistance to change the current motion of a fluid to the resistance to its gradual deformation by shear or tensile forces acting on it. Stay with me here for a minute.
When the number is low (low numerator / high denominator), it means the resistance to deformation is larger than the resistance to change the current motion dynamic, so the fluid tends to maintain the direction and velocity of motion without incurring deformation. In other words, it flows in a laminar fashion; it goes by “smoothly” as if it was made up of a set of fluid sheets riding along, one on top of each other without mixing across sheets. When the number is high, it means the resistance to change the current motion dynamic is larger than the resistance to deform. The flow becomes turbulent, and eddy currents form, the flow becomes less efficient and energy is used up in larger amounts which sometimes cause vapor bubbles to form producing cavitation – the proverbial banging of the pipes.
For a given measure of viscosity or resistance to deformation, the faster the velocity of the fluid, the larger the diameter of the pipe, or the higher the density of the fluid, the higher the Reynolds number will be and the closer we will get to the point where we go from laminar to turbulent flow.
Eddie Obeng, founder of the Pentacle Virtual Business School, has a captivating Ted Talk which I show the Startup NOW Accelerator Bootcamp participants. In it he provides a graphical explanation of the phenomenon I describe and expand above, as he tells the story of the experiment he was shown during a physics class in which water was pumped through a clear pipe, and a needle with a green dye was stuck in the middle of the pipe. At low flowrates, the dye coming out of the syringe formed a thin green line that flowed straight down the pipe at a constant level along the diameter, and you could make it out as it travelled downstream. At high flowrates – turbulent flow – the dye dissipates and forms swirls close to the needle and becomes invisible as it travels diluted in the water down the pipe.
Obeng explains that at some point in the beginning of the 21st century, where the exponentially growing curve of change due to technology overtook the rate of human learning, we went from laminar to turbulent. This happened because the scale, the velocity and the density all increased exponentially over the last half of 20th century and brought us here. In my mathematical mind I figured that the scale is like the diameter of the pipe – any business that we could start now has access to a global audience, because of the internet. The velocity of technological progress increased dramatically powered by semiconductors. Furthermore, the density of human interaction has gone through the roof, as we doubled our population in 40 years and concentrated half of it in cities, vigorously increasing and forcing our interactions.
On average, as we face the fast changing, global and densely related world we live in today, we are like the green dye injected into the pipe. It used to be that you could ride straight in your sheet, without much banging around and confusion and change. As the world shifted into turbulence about two decades ago, we now get sucked into an eddy the minute we are injected into our environment, and we move downstream constantly pulled apart by shearing and tensile forces. This is the entrepreneurship environment we live in. But think again, this is on average. Are you average?
All of us – at least those of us who are paying attention and are striving to build the future –, if not awake, we could become the older gentleman who never learned how to read, or my exiled friend who left a 30 year old past one day to step into my developed world’s present the next. We are lucky to be here – we have available to us the freedom and abundance of opportunities that no past generation in humankind has ever had. The environment may have seemed turbulent for those unlucky two at the beginning of my story while it was really laminar for the rest of us, and we were just cruising along like the average, because you could build the world staying close to the average.
However, in the 21st century, if we do not keep our speed of learning – at least in the domain in which we make our living, or build our life to be fruitful – we will get sucked into an eddy and get stuck in the past like the unfortunate illiterate man, or my friend – although it arguably happened to them through no fault of their own. We, in contrast, have no excuse.