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The Demands of Change

On July 6, 2016, Niantic, a forty-person startup company founded by ex-employees of Google’s

“Geo” division, launched Pokémon Go, an “augmented reality” game that employs a phone’s
camera to let people capture virtual creatures that appear on their screens as if they exist in the
real world. Within two days the app had been installed on more than 10 percent of all Android
phones in the United States, and within two weeks it had thirty million users. Soon iPhone
owners were spending more time each day on Pokémon Go than on Facebook, Snapchat,
Instagram, or Twitter. Even more impressive, within days of the game’s release, the
words Pokémon Go drew more searches on Google than the word porn.

If you’re not a gamer, you might roll your eyes or shrug at all that, but in the business world, the
events were hard to ignore: The game generated an astonishing $1.6 million in revenue each day
from domestic Apple users alone. Just as important, it added $7.5 billion to Niantic’s market
value virtually overnight, and within a month it had doubled the stock price of Nintendo, the
company that owns the Pokémon trademark.

In its first six months of existence, more than six hundred million people downloaded
the Pokémon Go app. Contrast that with some of the greatest successes of the early 2000s.
Facebook launched in 2004, but it didn’t hit the thirty-million-user mark until 2007. The hugely
popular World of Warcraft game, also released in 2004, took six years to climb to its peak of
twelve million subscribers. What seemed like pedal-to-the-metal growth back then became, ten
years later, life in the slow lane. And though no one can predict what the next big new thing will
be, most economists and sociologists expect that society will only continue to morph faster in the
foreseeable future.

But to focus only on the speed of Pokémon Go’s ascent is to miss much of the point. The game’s
massive success might not have been predictable, but neither was it accidental. In creating the
app, Niantic made a series of innovative and forward-thinking decisions concerning the use of
technology, such as piggybacking on the GPS and camera capabilities of a cell phone and
leveraging cloud computing to power the app, which provided a built-in infrastructure and a
capacity to scale. The game also took advantage, like nothing before it, of app-store economics, a
business model that hadn’t even been invented when World of Warcraft launched. In that now
familiar approach, a game is given away free of charge and makes its money by selling add-ons
and upgrades. Maintaining that revenue stream was another challenge. In the interactive
entertainment industry, a game can start out popular and still have the shelf life of raw oysters.
To avoid that fate, Niantic surprised many with a long campaign to aggressively update the app
with meaningful features and content. As a result, a year after its launch, 65 million people were
still playing the game each month, and revenues had reached $1.2 billion.
Before Pokémon Go, the conventional wisdom was that people didn’t want a game that required
physical activity and real-world interaction. And so, despite all the innovation in Silicon Valley,
the Pokémon Godevelopers were often admonished that gamers just “want to sit and play.” But
the developers ignored that widely held assumption, and by leveraging existing technologies in a
novel way, they changed the way game developers think. The flip side of the Pokémon Go story
is that if your thinking is not deft, your company can quickly sink. Just look at BlackBerry,
Blockbuster, Borders, Dell, Eastman Kodak, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sun Microsystems,
Sears, and Yahoo. And they are just the tip of the iceberg—in 1958, the average life span of
companies in the S&P 500 was sixty-one years. Today it is about twenty.

We have to face analogous intellectual challenges in our daily lives. Today we consume, on
average, a staggering 100,000 words of new information each day from various media—the
equivalent of a three-hundred-page book. That’s compared with about 28,000 a few decades ago.
Due to innovative new products and technologies, and to that proliferation of information,
accomplishing what was once a relatively straightforward task can now be a bewilderingly
complex journey through a jungle of possibilities.

Not long ago, if we wanted to take a trip, we’d check out a guidebook or two, get AAA maps,
and call the airline and hotels, or we’d talk to one of this country’s eighteen thousand travel
agents. Today, people use, on average, twenty-six websites when planning a vacation, and must
weigh an avalanche of offers and alternatives, with prices that not only change as a function of
when in the day you wish to travel but also as a function of when you are looking. Simply
finalizing the purchase once you’ve decided has become a kind of duel between business and
customer, with each vying for the best deal, from his or her vantage point. If you didn’t need a
vacation when you started planning one, you might by the time you are done.

Today, as individuals, we have great power at our fingertips, but we must also routinely solve
problems that we didn’t have to face ten or twenty years ago. For instance, once, while my wife
and I were out of the country, my daughter Olivia, then fifteen, gave the house sitter the night
off. Olivia then texted us asking if she could invite “a few” friends over. “A few” turned out to
be 363—thanks to the instant invitations that can be communicated over cell phones on
Instagram. As it turned out, she wasn’t entirely to blame—it was an overzealous friend who
posted it—but it’s a calamity that wouldn’t have been possible when her brothers were that age,
just a handful of years earlier.

In a society in which even basic functions are being transformed, the challenges can be daunting.
Today many of us must invent new structures for our personal lives that account for the fact that
digital technology makes us constantly available to our employers. We must discover ways to
dodge increasingly sophisticated attempts at cybercrime or identity theft. We have to manage
ever-dwindling “free” time so that we can interact with friends and family, read, exercise, or just
relax. We must learn to troubleshoot problems with home software, phones, and computers.
Everywhere we turn, and every day, we are faced with circumstances and issues that would not
have confronted us just a decade or two ago.
Much has been written about that accelerating pace of change and the globalization and rapid
technological innovation that have fueled it. This book is about what is not so often discussed:
the new demands on how we must think in order to thrive in this whirlwind era—for as rapid
change transforms our business, professional, political, and personal environments, our success
and happiness depend on our coming to terms with it.

There are certain talents that can help us, qualities of thought that have always been useful but
are now becoming essential. For example: the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become
accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets
and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open
ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to
generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant
of failure. That’s a diverse bouquet of talents, but as psychologists and neuroscientists have
elucidated the brain processes behind them, those talents have been revealed as different aspects
of a coherent cognitive style. I call it elastic thinking.

Elastic thinking is what endows us with the ability to solve novel problems and to overcome the
neural and psychological barriers that can impede us from looking beyond the existing order. In
the coming pages, we will examine the great strides scientists have recently made in
understanding how our brains produce elastic thinking, and how we can nurture it.

In that large body of research one quality stands out above all the others—unlike analytical
reasoning, elastic thinking arises from what scientists call “bottom-up” processes. A brain can do
mental calculations the way a computer does, from the top down, with the brain’s high-level
executive structures dictating the approach. But, due to its unique architecture, a biological brain
can also perform calculations from the bottom up. In the bottom-up mode of processing,
individual neurons fire in complex fashion without direction from an executive, and with
valuable input from the brain’s emotional centers (as we’ll be discussing). That kind of
processing is nonlinear and can produce ideas that seem far afield, and that would not have
arisen in the step-by-step progression of analytical thinking.

Though no computer and few animals excel at elastic thinking, that ability is built into the human
brain. That’s why the creators of Pokémon Go were able to quiet the executive functions of their
brains, look beyond the “obvious,” and explore entirely new avenues. The more we understand
elastic thinking and the bottom-up mechanisms through which our mind produces it, the better
we can all learn to harness it to face challenges in our personal lives and our work environments.
The purpose of this book is to examine those mental processes, the psychological factors that
affect them, and, most important of all, the practical strategies that can help us master them.

Excerpted from Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow. Copyright © 2018 by Leonard Mlodinow. All rights reserved. No part of
this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.