Return to insights

The Attention Span. “Where Do Ideas Come From?”

Last year I read a claim that “imagination” was arguably humanity’s greatest gift. That it was essential to success, not just in the arts, but science, business strategy and investing.

I didn’t really understand what that meant, so I spent a few months learning more. Here are some of the most interesting things I found.

[Separately- Tom Pence is doing a live update call to discuss the current market environment next Wednesday, September 7 at 1:30pm ET. Full details are at the bottom].

“Where do Ideas Come From?”

[12 minute read]

The James Webb telescope recently captured the world’s attention with the first remarkable images sent back from one and a half million kilometers away. The viral “deep field” image is filled with an incomprehensible number of galaxies. The longer they focused the telescope on a tiny area, the more galaxies slowly appeared in places that were previously assumed to be empty voids.

Source: NASA

If you’re on the beach today, try taking a grain of sand and holding it up to the sky at arms-length between thumb and forefinger. That’s the tiny area represented by the deep field image. Now imagine how long it would take to cover the entire sky. The world we inhabit also has an effectively infinite number of directions you can point an analytical telescope. So many in fact that endless trial and error is mathematically unlikely to have produced the kind of human progress seen over the last few hundred years.

This is where the role of “imagination” is so important. In this context, imagination doesn’t mean made-up fantasies about goblins and wizards, but the ability to conceive of things that might exist. As Richard Feynman put it perfectly:

“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

Humans can formulate imaginative questions, then conduct experiments to see if they are right.

Smart Humans and Dumb Computers.

In markets, the short-term is increasingly dominated by a dwindling number of incomprehensibly sophisticated quants and institutions. For the rest of us, this requires longer time horizons and a greater reliance on imagination to find the legendary “variant perception.”

Investor Bruce Kovner ran Caxton Associates for 28 years, averaging a stunning 21% a year with only a single down year. In a Market Wizards interview, Kovner explained the application of imagination to his investing style:

“I try to form many different mental pictures of what the world should be like and wait for one of them to be confirmed. You keep trying them one at a time. Inevitably, most of these pictures will turn out to be wrong - that is, only a few elements of the picture may prove correct. But then, all of a sudden, you will find that in one picture, nine out of 10 elements click. That scenario then becomes your image of world reality."

If you correctly anticipate that a company will nail a dramatic shift in strategy, it’s much easier to know that your successful investment was due to skill than luck. That makes your process more repeatable. These insights can also be unusually profitable, as Warren Buffett has noted:

“Interestingly enough, although I consider myself to be primarily in the quantitative school… the really sensational ideas I have had over the years have been heavily weighted toward the qualitative side where I have had a ‘high probability insight.’ This is what causes the cash register to really sing.”

Despite the endless hype, artificial intelligence (A.I.) has been unable to determine what is meaningful, where to point the telescope, or what imaginative questions to ask. As Picasso put it “computers are useless, they can give us only answers.”

The same is true in business strategy. As writer Byrne Hobart recently noted, high-functioning organizations can’t make their most important decisions with data, “because the more pivotal the choice is, the less data you have.” Business strategy professor Teppo Felin recently wrote an exceptional article (below) illustrating precisely this point:

“In all, my central concern is that the current obsession with human blindness and bias - endemic to behavioural economics and much of the cognitive, psychological, and computational sciences - has caused scientists themselves to be blind to the more generative and creative aspects of human nature and the mind. Yes, humans do indeed miss many ‘obvious’ things, appearing to be blind, as Kahneman and others argue. But not everything that is obvious is relevant and meaningful. Thus human blindness could be seen as a feature, not a bug.
Humans do a remarkable job of generating questions, expectations, hypotheses, and theories that direct their awareness and attention toward what is relevant, useful, and novel. And it is these – generative and creative – qualities of the human mind that deserve further attention. After all, these and related aspects of mind are surely responsible for the significant creativity, technological advances, innovation and large-scale flourishing that we readily observe around us.”

We spend too much time cleaning the lens of the telescope rather than working out if it’s even pointing in the right place. And that’s by far the more interesting idea.

Practical Tips.

Aside from the rather unhelpful suggestion to “be more imaginative,” what are the practical applications of this idea? While following my own curiosity, I stumbled on a stunningly good EconTalk podcast with three-time CEO and six-time author Margaret Heffernan (below). Her book Unchartered is all about navigating uncertainty and conducting imaginative experiments. This is creating data where none exists. Like Kovner, she argues that considering future scenarios is obviously crucial, but in a slightly counterintuitive way:

“There's a lot of misunderstanding about scenario planning. One is that it's about coming up with different views of the future and then choosing one… And that's not what it's about. It's really about coming up with a number of different scenarios of the future and then interrogating each one and saying, 'Okay, if Scenario One were to come true, what would I wish I had been doing right now in order to put myself in a stronger position for that eventuality?' And similarly, with Scenario Two, Three, and Four. And so, what it really is at its best at is surfacing choices, options, and alternatives.”

This also has an interesting application to business and investing. It’s important to work backwards from future forecasts to the present day. Self-driving cars were so overhyped because the end state was easily imaginable. But the stepping stones required to get there have been so blurry that it’s still not certain if we’ll ever get all the way there. Y Combinator’s Paul Graham describes visionaries as living in the future, and building what’s missing today. To know what’s missing in the future, you need to have an exceptionally clear view of the present.

As obviously pleases me, Heffernan repeatedly emphasizes the importance of paying close attention to the world around you in the present. Better current ingredients allow you to synthesize an accurate recipe for the future. Heffernan makes a resonant point about artists:

“When I worked in broadcasting, I had a huge pleasure of working with a lot of really outstanding artists--writers, playwrights, actors, musicians, visual artists. And, I started noticing lots of things about them. One of them was that quite a lot of them were fantastically good at doing something today that ended up being exactly what people wanted two to three years hence. And I was just constantly puzzling how they did that. And it wasn't about prediction. It was: They were fantastic sense-makers, and they generally wandered around- is really the simple answer. Which is: they really paid attention to where they were and what people were thinking and what different things they saw change. And they were constantly mulling over this and thinking, 'What does it mean? What does it mean? What's on people's nerve endings?' You know. And they necessarily lived in a context of uncertainty. They didn't know if they were going to make enough money to live on this year. They didn't know when they started a work, whether it would be finishable, if it would be any good, if the public would like it. They weren't kind of trying to game the system. They weren't trying to please the market… they had a tremendous sense of agency and a desire to make something meaningful. So, they were constantly thinking about, 'What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean?'”

As Kovner, Buffett, and a great many other legendary investors have described, these nagging questions can suddenly snap together to create a “high quality insight.” And this is where we return to one of the biggest themes of my work. Questions we can’t stop thinking about reflect intuitions and something that has literally grabbed our attention. Intuition and imagination tell us where to point the telescope.

So…. Where do Ideas Come From?

Space is filled with black holes that exert such a strong gravitational pull not even light can escape. Our attention also seems drawn to “attractors” that pull us toward higher evolutionary fitness. Like black holes, we can only perceive them through their effects. If that sounds outlandish, ask yourself how much control you have over things you’re interested in? Why do certain questions nag at you?

In short, it seems we are drawn to things that most exemplify the characteristics of life itself. Life attracts life. Curiosity has a conversational relationship with reality. You get cues, coincidences, and a felt-sense of meaning when you’re on the right path. I suspect this force is currently gaining strength, and operating on a broad societal level. Future Thinker Euvie Ivanova has noticed the same thing.

"Among those who study the future, and in particular those in the fields of complexity theory and existential risk, there has been a lot of talk of a “strange attractor” from the future that is pulling many of us towards it.
The prophets are trying to predict and describe the thing, the complexity theorists are trying to map and measure the thing, and the savvy speculators are no doubt already placing their bets on the thing."

If you want to predict the future, pay close attention to the direction society’s curiosity is being pulled today.

Strangely enough, Rebel Wisdom did a 2-part series with Daniel Schmachtenberger (after I wrote this) on the potential nature of this “third attractor.” I’ve also written about how this “bridge” is likely a colossal business and investment opportunity, hopefully one that is pursued ethically.

How this evolves within the current economic and technological landscape is yet to be determined. But it’s a question that’s interesting and a future that’s exciting to imagine.

People don't have ideas, ideas have people.

- Carl Jung

Related Reading & Listening.

  • Read. Are Humans Really Blind to the Gorilla on the Basketball Court? by Teppo Felin for Aeon (34 minute read).
  • Why read. The “selective attention test,” better known as the “Gorilla and Basketball” video, has been viewed 28 million times on YouTube. You’ve probably all seen it by now, but just in case, here’s a quick summary. You’re asked to count the number of passes made on a basketball court. For about 70% of people who watch the video, they’re so involved in counting the passes they completely miss a man in a huge gorilla suit walking right through the crowd. This experiment is typically used as one of many sticks to beat our endlessly fallible senses. But it might actually help illustrate one of humanity’s greatest strengths…. What we pay attention to determines what we find.

  • Listen. Margaret Heffernan on EconTalk (1 hour 4 minute listen).
  • Why listen. This is a very rich podcast about making decisions under uncertainty.


"A Market in Search of a Direction"- live call with Tom Pence, Sep 7th @ 1:30ET

Clients and Friends:

Please join us for a live Zoom call Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at 1:30 p.m. EDT with Tom Pence, Managing Director, The KCP Group. Tom will update you on his view of the markets and the direction of underlying economic trends.

We will be discussing a variety of topics that have impacted the market and our own investment outlook with a particular focus on:

  • What is currently driving sentiment in the cyclical sectors of the market,
  • How the markets are pricing in an economic rebound,
  • The inflation outlook,
  • · The potential implications of policy changes currently on the table.

Participants will be able to see Tom’s slides; however, no participant info will be visible to other attendees. Time will be allocated for Q&A. Please submit your questions in advance to Please consider joining this important webinar as it will not be recorded.

Please join this call using one of the following methods:

Joining Instructions:
Click Here to Join our Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 988 1894 2561

Meeting Passcode: 586507

Or iPhone one-tap:



U.S.: +1 312 626 6799

Meeting ID: 988 1894 2561

Meeting Passcode: 586507

This call will not be recorded.

Have a great weekend!


Sign up for updates