Shakira’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime was of course, as one would expect, incredibly wonderful. She has a history of providing more than entertainment, however. Her song “Try Everything” from the thrilling animated film Zootopia offers a deep philosophical reflection on uncertainty, creativity, and entrepreneurship.
The movie is an inspirational story of a rabbit with ambitions to stretch her professional goals beyond prevailing familial and social expectations. The hit song from the movie does more than sum up the film’s inspiring message for individuals. It highlights crucial features of the social order and structure of the world around that social science has mistakenly denied for longer than a century. It turns out that this song – a seemingly superficial pop song marketed to kids – represents a fundamental attack on the prevailing model of science and politics, as constructed by the ruling class of many generations, and completely upends it.
The music is upbeat. The song is joyful. The mood is celebratory. And yet the lyrics begin with a clear announcement:
“I messed up tonight, I lost another fight.”
This is the first clue that we are about to learn something counterintuitive. Why, with such a joyful tune, are the words about “falling down” and “hitting the ground?” Why should anyone be happy about messing up?
The answer comes quickly:
“I always get up now to see what’s next.”
There are layers to this question of what’s next. That we must seek to know the future at all points to a fundamental truth that we can either treat as terrifying or hopeful.
On the individual level, our skills are improved with every attempt that ends in failure because we toss out the failed pattern in search of a new successful pattern. We don’t necessarily know the path forward. But trying strategies and failing at least gets us closer to what might be true, if only by the process of elimination. Our skills are trained. More importantly, our sense of judgment over what works and what doesn’t undergoes gradual refinement.
Here we discern the essence of entrepreneurship, and probably its most salient feature: one that makes real-world business far different from how it is described in textbooks. There is no instruction manual, no sure-fire method for commercial success. The entrepreneur is the driving force of an ongoing discovery process. The process might be compared to entering a pitch-black room and searching for the light switch. You crawl along the wall, vaguely intuiting where that switch might be. You know only a few things: it is not likely low to the ground and not likely too high to reach. But these clues don’t tell you precisely where it is.
Ludwig von Mises described the honing of the entrepreneurial intuition as ever further refinements in understanding (a translation of the richer and more subtle German word “verstehen”). “Understanding,” he wrote, “can approach the problem of forecasting future conditions. We may call its method unsatisfactory and the positivists may arrogantly scorn it. But such arbitrary judgments must not and cannot obscure the fact that understanding is the only appropriate method of dealing with the uncertainty of future conditions.”
A crucial feature of success is failure as a necessary antecedent and precondition. Because failure is the signal you actually experience in the course of refining one’s judgement, it might be said to be the most valuable feature of entrepreneurship. Indeed, venture capitalists have discovered this. They are far more likely to fund your project if you have had a series of failures.
As the Harvard Business Review wrote in “The Value of Failure”: “Many venture capital firms look for entrepreneurial leaders with a failed start-up or two under their belt, for the lessons learned. Indeed, a hot business strategy these days is ‘intelligent fast failure.’”
Or as the song says:
“Birds don’t just fly, they fall down and get up. Nobody learns without getting it wrong.”
What is the standard of successful and unsuccessful choices? In a world without institutions and feedback mechanisms, we wouldn’t have one. If the light switches in that dark room of uncertainly didn’t actually function to illuminate the spaces, we would have no way of knowing. Fortunately, in a market economy, we have prices as the key indicators, the building blocks of a system of accounting that reveals profit and loss. And herein we find the signaling mechanism to provide the critical information we need.
Anything that disables or distorts that signaling system represents a vital threat to the capacity of our experiences to yield actionable results. Without prices that reflect market realities, we are left with guessing whether our actions are successful or unsuccessful. It is as if the bird is suddenly disabled in its capacity to know whether it is flying or sitting on the ground. That bird no longer possesses the personal capacity for learning.
At some point, the bird analogy breaks down, because the bird only has one task and one skill to master in pursuing its goal. Humankind faces an ever-changing environment, multifarious and competing goals, and must master an ever-changing range of skills.
On the way toward gaining ever-greater expertise in certain tasks, an individual can refine intuitions and judgements. You can find yourself further along the path toward achieving the goal. But the fundamental fact of the future’s uncertainty is ubiquitous and inalterable. The possibility of further failure must become part of the expectation for all action.
As Shakira’s sings:
“Though I’m on the lead, I wanna try everything, I wanna try even though I could fail.”
Even the most experienced entrepreneur can fail at the next stage, and the best among them are profoundly aware of that.
In this sense, there is no such thing as “market power” that guarantees that the world will work the way the entrepreneur imagines that it should. A great example is the nearly defunct web browser, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It was so dominant that the government attempted to break up its supposed monopoly. Far from being unassailably secure, the browser stopped innovating and eventually died at the hands of hungrier and more innovative competition.
The lesson here is that the definition of success is always backward-looking but cannot determine the future.
“I’ll keep on making new mistakes,” sings Shakira. “I’ll keep on trying every day.”
But in the course of this trying, this ceaseless quest for success, we find that we do make progress. And this becomes a source of joy for us, more so than if we had merely followed a preset path with an infallible map laid before us.
“Look at how far you’ve come, you filled your heart with love,” says the song. And yet, in the future, we could indeed “come last.”
Failure is possible, even probable. Still, there’s tomorrow.
On the social level, no one knows for sure “what’s next,” because the structure of the social order builds up in an unpredictable way. Our own individual uncertainty about the path forward is socially shared to make for a world that is similarly groping its way toward ever more successful paths.
In the words of Enlightenment era philosopher Adam Ferguson: “Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future.” It is precisely for this reason that he concluded that societies cannot be designed to conform precisely to what we desire, but rather emerge as the product of individual actions.
Once you come to terms with the uncertainties of the emergent order, you are left with the profound injunction to “try everything” to find the way forward. This realization inculcates certain habits of mind. One no longer seeks to know all the answers or feels despair in the face of the consciousness that one does not have them. The mature mind is at peace with not knowing, because it has the confidence of knowing that the answer is discoverable and that time and imagination can cause the answer to reveal itself.
A good example is modeled in the work habits of Don Draper, the advertising genius in the television show Mad Men. He is aware of the incompleteness of his knowledge and goes to bed each night with a sense of discomfort (but not despair!) in not knowing. Often a stray remark from one of his colleagues the next day will trigger an epiphany, and the next ad campaign in his brilliant career is born. The source of value in his life is not that he knows but rather that he is determined to seek and test new insights as they occur to him along the way.
But what kind of society do we need in order to maximize the potential of this form of spontaneous development of individuals and societies? A society hobbled by preset agendas emanating from fixed regulations and laws presume the opposite of a trial-and-error society. They indulge the illusion of knowledge, the myth of certainty, the fantasy that a static order with known solutions can be forced on everyone.
Here we find the core failing of much of 20th-century politics and social policy. The state attempted to forge a society with a point rather than permit the process of discovery to take its own course. The planning elite attempted to impose what F.A. Hayek (following Michael Oakeshott) has called a “teleocratic” order: a society with a defined end state designed by intellectuals operating outside the social process. This is in contrast to a “nomocratic” order that provides broad rules for behavior and otherwise defers to the learning process of innovation and individual action.
In a nomocratic order, there is no end state, no precise form that we imagined history is driving toward, and thus do we find meaning to the words of the song:
“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in, Till I reach the end. And then I’ll start again.”
Hayek further elaborates on why a society based on the principle of “try everything” is nothing to regret; it creates an opportunity for the emergence of an ever-more beautiful world:
It is through the mutually adjusted efforts of many people that more knowledge is utilized than any one individual possesses or than it is possible to synthesize intellectually; and it is through such utilization of dispersed knowledge that achievements are made possible, greater than any single mind can foresee. It is because freedom means the renunciation of direct control of individual efforts that a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.
Thus do we see how Shakira’s catchy song reveals core truths about the world around us: more grounded in reality than what has been taught by all the social sciences studies at the best universities for the last 100 years. Pop music, by seeking connection to people’s intuitions about their real lives, as measured by playlists and profitability, can embody a brilliance that eludes the most highly trained philosophical minds.