thinking about moonshots

Published on May 10, 2020

Thinking about moonshots is a good way to nurture your ambition.

Earlier today I was reading about the X factory, which operates under the Alphabet company. The premise of the factory is simple: it wants to experiment with big and bold ideas that could eventually become their own companies.

Operating at the intersection between business and science, the lab wants to render innovations -- moonshots -- that could be commercialized in the long term. One way of thinking about X is that they are a modern interpretation of Bell Labs or PARC, which inspired many of the great innovations which surround us today.

In reading about the moonshot factory, I started to think about my own ambitions. Am I being ambitious enough? Then I realized that thinking about moonshots in itself is a good way to promote your ambitions, and to encourage you to think a little bit bigger.

The idea of using balloons to boost access to the internet around the world may seem out there -- and, indeed, it is a bold idea -- but that does not mean it is outlandish. What makes me so interested in the premise of the moonshot is that it encourages you to think outside of the box -- you need to be bold, otherwise your idea is just another idea.

This type of thinking time and time again has led to innovation. For instance, the ARPANET network, an antecedent for the internet, was developed in a U.S. Government lab at DARPA.

Perhaps the biggest reason why this technology was able to exist was because it was insulated from commercialization from its inception: the government did not need to make a profit immediately.

In my daily life, I think I need to start entertaining more moonshot ideas. When you go to work in a traditional job -- even one at a startup who aims to “change the world” -- it’s easy to lose your sense of ambition. It’s easy to get caught up in the nine-to-give “grind,” or the idea that the only way to progress through your career is through advancing up a ladder.

By thinking about moonshot ideas -- big innovations that are just crazy enough that they might work, and if they do, they could change the world -- I can exercise my mind in a new way. I can encourage myself to look at the world from a new perspective, and get out of the habit of ignoring ideas that may sound a bit ridiculous.

If anything, this type of thinking is more prudent today than ever: coronavirus has shown how much our existing systems have been unable to serve us, and it's our responsibility to make them better.

The moonshots I am thinking about right now are how to expand access to a reliable internet connection for more people -- especially those in rural areas -- and also how we can improve democratic governance, especially at a local level. I am not sure where these threads will take me, but I am glad that I have started them.

I am starting to research these areas in more depth not because they are going to lead to some tangible value in my career, but because: (i) they are both interesting and; (ii) they are both big fields with no clear solutions to the various problems they face.

Thinking about moonshots is a good way to retain your ambitions, even when you operate within traditional organizations. And, while my experience here is limited, I am almost certain you can gain value from this exercise without even building something with your ideas: simply thinking bigger and asking “how could this moonshot work” can promote more creative thinking.

Think big. Encourage yourself to dissect how a moonshot could work.

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