Competence, Creativity, Mastery, Genius: The Essential Role Of Risk

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

When risk vanishes, so does creativity.

Which characteristics lead to success? Which lead to greatness? Let's start by pondering companies that were once dominant in their respective fields: Microsoft and Nokia. Microsoft recently bought Nokia's mobile phone business, once valued at $240 billion, for $7.2 billion. Nokia's share of the global smart-phone business is around 4%. Microsoft's share of the global smart-phone software market is less than 1%, despite spending billions of dollars developing and promoting its mobile software.

Bill Gates created a powerhouse based on two principles--monopoly (getting a lock on the PC market as the default operating system) and copying and/or buying successful competitors. MSFT would then slowly increase their market share with two strategies: integrate the new software into their Windows/Office monopoly and keep adding features. In the case of web browsers, this was a successful strategy, as Microsoft's IE (Internet Explorer) overcame Netscape Navigator and its offspring, Mozilla, to dominate the browser market.

In the gaming space, Microsoft took on the established leaders with XBox, using its cash flow to develop the platform during the initial money-losing years--losses that would have doomed less well-funded companies.
Under CEO Steve Ballmer, these strategies have failed spectacularly. Microsoft has continued buying companies left and right, and spent a reported $10 billion trying to compete with Google in search. Its search engine, Bing, remains an also-ran. MSFT also spent billions attempting to dominate the mobile software space, but the results have been catastrophic: MSFT's share of mobile software has declined from around 10% to 1%.

Microsoft's tablet is also an also-ran. Its plan to leverage the XBox platform into the convergence-TV space has also come up short of expectations.

Microsoft's core monopoly continues to generate billions in profits because it is the tech equivalent of a utility: anyone who buys a PC has to pay MSFT $100 for the operating system, and if they are in any sort of business or job that requires computers, then they also have to pony up $300-$500 for Office.

But MSFT's core monopoly is under threat as Google's free operating system Chrome expands from mobile phones to tablets. As PCs lose their dominance, so too does MSFT. If Chrome is good enough to power tablets, why not PCs? Google already offers Google Docs as an alternative to Office. If someone comes up with Word-Lite and Excel-Lite which can open Office docs, MSFT's last bastion of monopoly will face real competition.

Here is an interesting quote on the tone-deaf corporate culture that leads to systemic failure: (Nokia Deal Marks a New Chapter for Microsoft)

"It is hard to stress the importance of culture for a technology company; after all it is a transit system for creativity. In an industry that was moving fast, Microsoft became fat and slow. Its products suffered. This brings us to Windows 8. I installed a preview version of Windows 8 on my computer a few months before it was officially released and was shocked at how horrible the product was. I am a computer geek, but I could not figure out how to use that product. Windows 8 was not just buggy, it was thoroughly terrible. 

To be effective and well compensated (within Microsoft), employees don’t need to be good at their jobs, they need to be good politicians. This turned Microsoft from a technology company into the U.S. Congress and therefore its software products started to resemble legislature by Washington’s finest — bulky and full of pork."

Tech darlings Samsung, Google and Apple are also huge companies with plenty of political jockeying and wasted resources--it goes with bureaucratic bloat. Even back in 1983, a few years after Apple went public, Steve Jobs had to physically and managerially sequester the Macintosh development team from the bureaucracy of Apple.

Nokia and Blackberry both squandered dominance and have shrunk to irrelevance. Microsoft is heading down the same path. On the surface, the management of all three firms was competent; but competence doesn't spawn Creativity, Mastery and Genius; competence in a no-risk environment leads to failure.

I think we can draw several conclusions from the MSFT/Nokia story.

1. Doing what worked spectacularly in the past is not guaranteed to keep working.
2. When risk vanishes, so does creativity.

When management and employees alike feel the security of dominance and near-monopoly, they are free to indulge in bureaucratic infighting and loss of focus.When risk has been vanquished, there is no compelling need to keep in touch with the market and customers: dominance/monopoly means they have to take whatever we provide and like it.

Without an awareness of risk, even competence disappears. Creativity, mastery and genius either fall on parched, dead soil or are ruthlessly suppressed as political threats.

I think the same is true of individuals and nations: competence can be reached with practice, but Creativity, Mastery and Genius all require space for spontaneity and risk.

I came across the 1982 obituary of Arthur Rubinstein, one of the 20th century's most famous pianists. I think his story illustrates the limits of practice and competence.

Rubinstein was a bon vivant, and this persona masked the type of practice he undertook in his 20s to acheive mastery. The cliche is that 10,000 hours of practice yields mastery, but this turns out to be false: only practice with the express purpose of getting better has any effect. For Rubinstein, getting better meant being technically good enough to become expressive and spontaneous. 

What Mr. Rubinstein offered, above all others, was the ability to transmit the joy of music.
In a recording session for RCA Victor Records, in Webster Hall here, he would play and replay a piece until he was satisfied that it was his best; and before a concert he would practice, particularly passages that he thought he might have difficulty with. Nothing less than perfection was tolerated.

Practice for its own sake, however, was not Rubinstein's notion of how to extract music from the printed notes. "I was born very, very lazy and I don't always practice very long," he said once. "But I must say, in my defense, that it is not so good, in a musical way, to overpractice. When you do, the music seems to come out of your pocket. If you play with a feeling of 'Oh, I know this,' you play without that little drop of fresh blood that is necessary -and the audience feels it." 

On another occasion he explained in his tumbling English his philosophy this way: "At every concert I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew." 

Another ingredient of Rubinstein was an unusually fine ear that, among other things, permitted him to spin music through his mind. "At breakfast, I might pass a Brahms symphony in my head," he said. "Then I am called to the phone, and half an hour later I find it's been going on all the time and I'm in the third movement." 

In his late 20s, he began to take stock of himself as an artist. The result was the end of his days as a playboy and intensive study and practice - six, eight, nine hours a day. In the process he brought discipline to his abundant temperament and intelligence to his grand manner."

Perhaps Competence, Creativity, Mastery and Genius form a sort of matrix. Creativity is limited without basic competence, but competence alone is not fertile ground for creativity. Technical mastery does not lead to genius unless the creativity born of risk and spontaneity is allowed to bloom.

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Atomizer's picture

Micro$hite NSA Office 365 - Where your dreams & ideas become ours.

outofideas's picture

You should see my management who can't wait to find a way to migrate everyone to 365. Not only do they not understand cloud services, or care about the NSA debacle, they actually want to pay MORE for a LESSER service then what we currently run in house.

The real problem here is not risk or innovation, is that operating systems are very mature and for the average user they don't really add much value. We've been treading water for nearly a decade, searching for something new, and tablets aren't it. They are cool and everything and useful but they are nowhere near replacing full size computers yet.

Occident Mortal's picture

There are two kinds of companies in the world.

1). Market Leaders
2). Everyone else

The shareholders of market leaders are keen to protect the status quo and they choose their board accordingly,

The shareholders of everyone else are clawing to be disruptive and they choose their board accordingly.

And as we all know... The culture of any organisation flows down the hierarchy.

This is why big companies make poor innovators. No incumbent company in the world is going to disrupt their own marketplace until they have booked the depreciation on all their plant and production.

geewhiz's picture

Shumpeter would be proud of you for that insight.

texas sandman's picture

Yeah, but if you eliminate risk you become richer than everyone else and get a cool pair of Presidential cufflinks to boot.

kaiserhoff's picture

Probably a lot of truth in this.  Look what happened to Germany, both East and West, after the war.  Risk and reward both vanished, and a culture which had traditionally been in the forefront of medicine, chemicals, aviation, physics, construction, etc, has produced almost nothing genuinely new since.

Soul Glow's picture

When you wrote, "After the war", you probably meant after WWI, because it was WWI that led Germany down the perverbial black hole.

kaiserhoff's picture

Not in technology.  During the Second World War, Germany invented jet aircraft, modern rocketry, the best tanks by far, and without some timely sabotage, would probably have been the first with nuclear weapons.


logicalman's picture

I think (could be wrong, it does happen occasionally! :-) - not often) but I think Frank Whittle had the first design, but Heinkel had the first flying example.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

Strangely, they never put nukes on a very high priority - I think 'the Nazis might get it first' was a reasonable fear, but mostly unfounded - I've done a lot of historical research on this one, but again, I'm open to correction.


MeelionDollerBogus's picture

Hitler & Mussolini had nukes.

History Channel aired footage of a test. I didn't find it but I did find this.

0b1knob's picture

"Microsoft's IE (Internet Explorer) overcame Netscape Navigator and its offspring, Mozilla, to dominate the browser market."

Browser share:

Chrome 43.92 %

IE        23.24%   (less than 25% is dominating?)

Firefox  18.95%

Microsoft is so yesterday.     Bloated junk spyware with a hundred NSA backdoors.   Once freeware windoze emulators get started its curtains for MightGrowSoft.    The WINE windows emulator for linux distros will get there eventually.

flapdoodle's picture

B.S. on most of you pro-German spiel.

German tanks were far from the best during WWII, the T-34 Soviet tank with the Christie suspension was far, far better and had a major role in stopping the German advance. Panzer rounds during the initial invasion of USSR tended to just bounce off the T34. The Soviet tank was a really, really unpleasant surprise to the Nazis.

The fabled "Tiger" later in the war was a tank equivalent of a hanger-queen and had to be shipped to the front on railroad cars as the engine required major overhaul every few hundred kilometers. Even the horrible US tanks had excellent reliability and could be driven for hundreds of miles to the front...

Kursk was supposed to be the Tiger's great introduction and it was mediocre at best at that point in the war and partially as a result Kursk was a major defeat for the Germans and sealed their fate.

As for jets, the Italians and British (Whittle) independently both had jets even earlier than the  Germans (even the Japanese had early jet engines), but the Germans had better metallurgy to handle a high speed turbine blade, hence their jets were actually faster than prop planes. Same for rockets... Goddard was no sloutch and neither were the Russian scientists, starting with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

As for nukes, the Germans were *really* far behind - the sabotage is a really lame excuse. Building a bomb required *really* good science management and teamwork, and the German were hampered by racial prejudice against "Jewish Physics" and of course the Allies ended up with all the Jewish scientists.




Skateboarder's picture

Mr. Charles, are you seriously advocating the usage of Sploogle's direct-to-web document/spreadsheet/operating system over standalone products that perhaps are not so direct-to-web? (I still don't know if every word doc I've made ended up at Microballs or not)

Here are the three man-made barriers to free human expression:

a) Accreditation
b) Regulation
c) [Unwarranted] Taxation

Papasmurf's picture


Here are the three man-made barriers to free human expression:

a) Accreditation
b) Regulation
c) [Unwarranted] Taxation

d) apathy

Musashi Miyamoto's picture

Get accredited news now:

Legitimate news from accredited writers

Skateboarder's picture

Now that's what I'm talking about, MDB's own accredited satirical news site. Perfect name for it too.

Musashi Miyamoto's picture

MDB is the Shakespeare of satire.

logicalman's picture

Don't do that.

I clicked the link, started reading and immediately felt like throwing up.

Please put a warning label on all future posts.

Thanks in advance.

Musashi Miyamoto's picture

My apologizes for the discomfort. Older, and, hopefully, wiser than yesterday.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

That site is a joke site started by MDB

logicalman's picture

Think Adobe.

I'm in the graphics business.


MeelionDollerBogus's picture

when I think of Adobe I think of Adobe Connect.

I think of how your company uses it to run conferences and how much it crashes so the conferences start late or not at all.


I think I'll stick with opensource.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

d) copyright : stop copyright, it's information terrorism

Xibalba's picture

UBUNTU, bitchez! 

Zero Point's picture

Yup. Linux (whatever flavour, I prefer Mint myself) is excellent, especially for office type tasks.

Libre is every bit as good (or bad depending on how you look at things) as Office, and in fact is better at some things.

Add into that, Gimp, the free Photoshop, and I often wonder why any office would bother paying MSFT.

I must admit to not liking Thunderbird, but you can't win 'em all.


malikai's picture


Unless you get 10,000+ emails a day.

That could be a problem, as it is for me.

Zero Point's picture

I'll chuck that on my notebook, and give it a whirl. Thanks!

Most of the cool shit on my machines I discover thanks to posts like yours.

I probably only get a thousand or so, so I should be OK, heh.

logicalman's picture

I do a lot of 3D modelling - Blender, open-source amazing!

Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus, Libre Office.

Not much you can't do with the above mentioned programs.


ebworthen's picture

Gimp is a great image editor.

Photoshop is a gigantic pain in the ass.

The best image editor I ever used was Paint Shop Pro version 5 but it was bought out by Corel and they have progressively fudged it up since.

ronaldawg's picture

I've engineered an entire ISP with NetBSD and OpenBSD.  It worked verywell for years.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

I actually really like Thunderbird.

What I don't like is how hard GIMP is to use at first.
That program seriously needs a good tutorial video & HTML docs to go with it, not just a man page & guessing.
However, once you master it you can pump out things on par with WilliamBanzai7 or just about any corporate graphics for advertising, etc.
For the extreme to ensure no pixelation yet lots of re-scaling I gather the program to use is Inkscape.
I haven't had time to mess with it yet.

Musashi Miyamoto's picture

sudo apt-get remove zeitgeist zeitgeist-core zeitgeist-datahub python-zeitgeist rhythmbox-plugin-zeitgeist geoclue geoclue-ubuntu-geoip geoip-database whoopsie

(logging software)

Fuck Ubuntu

You need to move to a better Distro. Period

find something else, anything else.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

none of those things are installed on mine.
Zeitgeist may be stupid but it's not being forced on me.
Freedom means the chance to do things you think are wrong because someone else wants to try.
Any software has NO negative affect on my life. It's not on my computer, never was.
As for logging/reporting that shouldn't happen, I'm using Ubuntu 12.04/precise from Mint 13 and it's not reporting shit on me.

HardlyZero's picture

Animal sprits lead to ...

Peter Pan's picture

While risk has an element of intuition, good luck and bad luck, it is nevertheless essential that a balance also be struck between and micro and macro considerations.

I am Jobe's picture

Look at Dell pushing Cloud Shit just like AMZN and IBM. More partying at NSA. WTF 

Papasmurf's picture

Who will put their shit in the cloud after Snowden's revelations?

I am Jobe's picture

Lots of sukers. Dell world was fuil  of this crap over and over. Of course edlon Musk was the Guest with Michael Dell. Dell is pushing their customers with no regard to the cloud shit. I fel sorry for the suckers at Dell who has to sell this shit

logicalman's picture

Who, in their right mind, would have put everything on the cloud BEFORE Snoden????


29.5 hours's picture



"If someone comes up with Word-Lite and Excel-Lite which can open Office docs, MSFT's last bastion of monopoly will face real competition."

Hmmm... and other totally fine substitutes for MS Office are out there. These software products are worthy, free and no more buggy than MS products. Jeez, even the latest Word still chokes on simple nested lists.


29.5 hours's picture



Yup. Both suites are fully interoperable with .doc, .docx, .rtf, .xls and all MS formats. They are free and stable.

MS cannot claim in any way to have a superior product for the money. From my own experience, MS expensive software continues to be favored by corporate purchasing departments for reasons that have nothing to do with the needs of the workers who use the software.



ronaldawg's picture

Stupid lazy people, ala secretaries will never learn anything new.  That is why we are stuck with Microsoft office.

Papasmurf's picture

Businesses can't afford the hit for secretaries to learn a new word processor on company time.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

They can. It takes less than 5 minutes. Some features are better, don't exist in MS, others are identical. That's that.

Of all things the corporations are telling their managers that the Microsoft stuff is more "secure".

No, seriously, that's what they're saying.

That's why where I run conferences it's all MS crap and nothing opensource.

ronaldawg's picture

I've taught literally hundreds of employees new word processing systems with little or no cost to the employer.  There is one animal that will not learn no matter how easy you make it - elderly legal secretaries.  Legal secretaries are the bane of my existence.