Start from scratch

When I was 15, my parents sent me to a rigorous maths school in Moscow.

We had 14 hours of math lessons per week. In fact, we had four different types of math (calculus, geometry, algebra, and a course called “special math” where we solved complex logical problems). And because this was Moscow, the teachers treated us like shit and often told me I would end up to nothing.

I hated it.

But one thing this three-year army-like experience did teach me was that every problem has a solution.

When one of us was stuck with a geometry task, the teacher would tell us, “Take a larger piece of paper and start over. If you can’t find paper, use the whiteboard. But start from scratch.”

I now use this in life, too.

When I am coming up with ideas – for myself or others – and see that it’s not going anywhere, starting from scratch, or taking a bigger piece of paper, to see the problem from a larger zoom, always helps.

Yet, we, humans, have a thing about starting over. We hate it.

We hate it so much, we’d rather be stuck in a soul-crushing job. Or keep waiting for the bus that hasn’t arrived on time (for an hour), hoping it will be here any minute.

Starting over means accepting defeat. More: it means accepting that we’ve just wasted precious time, all for nothing.

Economists call this concept a “sunk cost fallacy”. It’s a fundamental human trait that keeps us from making good decisions.

Most innovation comes down to simply trying again. Starting from scratch.

Louis C.K. famously reinvented himself every year by throwing away his notes with jokes and forcing himself to come up with new ones. Thomas Edison invented 9,999 versions of a non-working lightbulb, always getting closer to what worked by starting over, testing, trying new things.

Starting from scratch is important not just in business, maths, or creativity – but in life. We can change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our whole lives would change.

But most of the time we want changes without really changing anything in our lives. We want a better body but also a Shake Shack. Doesn’t work that way.

It’s easy to keep doing what you’ve always been doing. But if it’s not going anywhere, it’s important to give up. In fact, it’s essential that you quit. (See Seth Godin’s two types of quitting.)

Take a large piece of paper. And start from scratch.

(Stop waiting for that bus! It’s already been an hour. Go home and don’t spend a second more.)

You can come up with a new thing, a new idea, a new story.

You won’t be a loser or a quitter.

You’ll be someone who cares about getting it right more than being right.