The Power of Moonshot Thinking – Lessons from Google X

ALA’s Networks Team ran an insightful digital speaker series this past month aimed at addressing various topics of the “Future of Work”. This series, made especially relevant due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the job market, saw a range of experts share insights on how our young leaders can best prepare for the working world and beyond.

One session in particular featured members from X, Google’s Moonshot factory. Known for creating out-of-this world projects to solve some of the globe’s most pressing needs, X’s ways of work provided much needed lessons during the session. The talk featured Kathryn Zealand (Project Lead at X) and Princess Adentan (Product Marketing Manager), who shared tips on how young people, in Africa especially, can navigate the unknown. More specifically, the advice focused on how young people can center their navigation on moonshot thinking.

The following tips were shared:

  1. Fall in love with the problem and not with the solution: Key to X’s ethos on solving problems is the emphasis on focusing on solving the problem, rather than attaching oneself to the solution. This means the team focuses on creating iterations of solutions, pivoting when necessary, and closing out solutions if they are not viable.
  2. Embrace failure. In other words, embrace learning. This, according to Kathryn, is central to keep in mind both in one’s professional and personal lives. “It’s okay to start a job and realise it’s not for you,” says Kathryn. “If anything, think about how much you’ve learnt from that experience, and then build on that in the next thing.”
  1. Make contact with the real world. “Unfortunately, no matter how smart, or how good of a planner you are, [making contact with the real world] is going to teach you things you never anticipated,” says Princess. Have an idea for a problem you want to solve? Start testing your idea/solution as soon as you can, so you can iterate and keep building from your learnings as you go.
  1. Learn to love version 0. “It is only from building these initial versions do you get to learn what’s important about your solution to the problem you’re solving,” says Kathryn. Progress, not perfection, is the aim.
  1. Build in diverse perspectives. Most innovation happens in diverse perspectives where people from different backgrounds come together to solve a problem. “It’s a bit of a myth in Silicon Valley that innovation is done by the one genius in the room who has a certain breakthrough. That’s not the common experience. Most innovation happens when people from different backgrounds with different ideas get together and bring in these diverse perspectives that allow you to think about a problem in a different way,” says Kathryn. 

“What’s your moonshot?” was ultimately the question posed to our young leaders by the speakers of the session.  “A lot of young people have a lot of things that they’re interested in but I would encourage you all to think about the thing that truly galvanizes you and develop a depth of expertise there such that you can leverage it across a number of spaces,” concluded Princess. Kathryn, on the other hand, concluded the talk by saying, “being unafraid, taking risks, and doing things that feel right to you even if you’re not sure if it’s the right career move and if it doesn’t work out, normally you’ll end up with a great story.”