When Marc Andreessen wants to think about deep issues like the state of the economy and technological change, he mentally spars with the likes of Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Larry Page — the people he says are the most audacious people who have worked in Silicon Valley. “I have a little simulation of Peter Thiel. He lives on my shoulder right here. I argue with him all day long.”
Imaginary arguments, he says, allow you to sharpen your thinking against people smarter than you. “You want to kind of construct a model of how they think and be able to be very objective and fair — where you can think things through from their standpoint,” he says. “Then you have your own view on things. Then you try to run through in your head what you know of them and say, OK, here are the conclusions that they would reach. If you put enough time into that, you start to be able to have these conversations with yourself. People might look at you funny while it’s happening, but you get to engage in this dialogue.”
During a View From the Top talk with students at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Andreessen shared insights and advice about the role of technology in a changing economy, how to capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves throughout a career, and why the best ideas are likely already out there waiting to happen.
Tech Isn’t a Job-Killer
“There are more jobs around the world than ever before,” Andreessen says, and income levels have never been higher. “So if technological change were going to cause elimination of jobs, one presumes we would have seen it by now.”
The more pressing question, Andreessen says, is how to harness the constant state of flux in the economy. Self-driving cars, for example, could potentially put 5 million people involved in transportation jobs out of work. And creating 5 million new jobs for them seems impossible with net monthly job gains typically in the hundreds of thousands. “Five million jobs seem like a lot of jobs. It is a lot,” Andreessen says. But looking at the big picture shows that “every year in the U.S. on average about 21 million jobs are destroyed and about 24.5 million are created,” Andreessen says. “So the real answer to how do you replace 5 million jobs is, we already replace that in less than a quarter [of a year] today.”
Starting from the point of view that jobs are going to change — rather than disappear — means you can focus on more important questions. “How do we set people up to be able to take advantage of the change? How do we have change work for people? How do we expand opportunities?” he says. “The conversation I think we ought to be having is on the things we could do to have more people have access to all the opportunity that the new technology in many cases is creating.”
Be Ruthlessly Open-Minded
Over the course of a career, you’re going to make a sequence of bets, Andreessen says: “You’re going to make those bets of the places you choose to go and the people you choose to work with. You’re going to screw some of those up.” And just like in the VC business, it’s wise to understand the difference between two types of errors. Mistakes of commission — losing everything you invest in a company — can be tough, but you’ll get over them in time. Errors of omission — not investing in the first place — will scar you for life. “Every highly successful VC has made mistakes of omission, really big ones, of companies that they had the chance to invest in, they should’ve invested in, they didn’t invest in,” Andreessen says. “Take the bet, lose 1X. Don’t take the bet and possibly miss on 1,000X.”
Why do we make those mistakes of omission so often? “It’s almost always because we have some theory for why something’s not going to work,” Andreessen says. “You develop an idea, and then you look for all the evidence that supports it and ignore all the evidence that disproves it. You get locked into your ideas.” That mindset works against you, Andreessen warns, because what didn’t work in the past might work now. “Just because MySpace didn’t reach Facebook levels of scale didn’t mean Facebook wouldn’t be able to. So you have to be ruthlessly open-minded and constantly willing to reexamine your assumptions,” Andreessen says. “You have to take the ego out of ideas, which is a very hard thing to do.”
Predicting the Future
Most of the good ideas are obvious, Andreessen says. They just might not work right away. Before Apple’s iPad was a huge success, for instance, the Newton was a dud. Instead of spending time overanalyzing whether something will work, he advises, try asking what happens when it does.
“Let’s just assume for a moment that self-driving cars actually work,” Andreessen says. “What are the consequences of that?” Cars fundamentally changed our idea of the geography of home and work. Before cars, people lived in the city to be close to their jobs. Then cars created the suburbs, and hence the commute. “We all sit here 80 years later wishing that nobody had thought of that,” Andreessen says. “We all hate it. It’s all a waste of time.”
But self-driving cars can reclaim that time. “All of a sudden you can have the idea that an hour-long commute is actually a big perk because instead of driving and having to sit and focus and lurch through traffic, what if your car is a rolling living room? What if you get to spend that hour playing with your kid or reading the news or watching TV or actually working because you don’t have to worry about driving?”
This opens up a whole new set of questions. If you can grab a chunk of your sleep time in a car, the geography of daily life changes and urban environments can become much, much larger, Andreessen says. If a car can be a rolling office, “what would be the consequences of that in terms of how these companies get built? What would be the infrastructure to support that kind of thing? What kind of early signals show that that kind of thing is starting to happen or not?”
Start seeing those questions, Andreessen says, and you can begin to “chart some view of how the future will unfold.”