Field of Dreams is 25 years old and hasn't aged well

if you build it, will anyone really come?

Nov 5, 2014


I'm sure you all remember the movie. A man whose normal life is starting to fall apart. He's got the wife, family, mortgage and it's both not enough and slipping away. He needs to do something, something to make him feel alive. And since it was that era of Hollywood film making, he's also got plenty of daddy issues he's working through. He becomes seized by a vision, caught in the grip of an idée fixe that he needs to go build something that everyone around him thinks is preposterous.

The movie's tagline is: If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.

And so he takes a chunk of his farm, and turns it into a baseball diamond for a team that doesn't exist, probably is a delusion brought on by stress and desperation, and that no one is asking to see.

If you haven't seen this movie in a while and have fuzzy nostalgic memories of seeing it as a kid, I'd hold off on seeing it again to rekindle the childhood magic. The movie, as a movie, doesn't really hold up well and unless you are interested in the late 80s from a cultural anthropology perspective, don't ruin the memory. (Unlike, say Bull Durham or The Princess Bride, which are actually as good as you remember.)

There's one thing that everyone remembers about this movie. If there's a reason why I still had fond memories of this movie, it was the signature quote:

If you build it, he will come.

In the face of the odds, clearly stacked against you, this phrase captured the emotional experience of keeping the faith while doing something that wasn't working and no one around was supporting. In that moment of pushing ahead to follow a dream that you can see so clearly, and even your loved ones don't really get it, what keeps you going?

The answer is courage.

Scientific progress is measured in units of courage, not intelligence. Paul Dirac

In order to move forward, to make progress in spite of everything, for you to take you vision to the world, you need to be able to find something deep inside of yourself to keep going. Before things get better there are some dark times. Paul Graham calls it the Trough of Sorrow. Figuring out how to navigate that emotional experience when you have doubts and are constantly second guessing yourself is major part of being an entrepreneur.

Yeah, but what about that baseball field in the middle of a corn field

Maybe the whole world thinks you are crazy. Or delusional. Maybe no one seems to know what you are talking about. You have a vision, and if you stick to it, if you actually do build the thing, maybe then all of the doubters, the critics who point out of the doer of deeds could have done it better, don't matter. Hell, I still think that a 140-character "microblogging platform" makes no sense. That didn't stop them, and they built it, and people came.

People take the wrong moral from this story. The problem isn't that people don't actually persevere in the face of the odds, though that is difficult, is that people don't have a way to hone in on a good idea. Or to jump start people using it. The Twitter folks started out in podcasting, and ended up in, well, whatever Twitter is.

And check it: using up part of your capital building a baseball diamond for your imaginary friends is actually really stupid. Everyone told him that it was a bad idea, they weren't merely perplexed, they actually tried their damnest to get his attention to save him from his folly. If you build it, he will come is magically inspirational, but magical thinking nonetheless.

This is a myth that people believe. In the start up world, it shows up in thoughts like:

  • If it just had one more feature, then it would work.
  • The reason that we don't have traction is because of a corner-case bug.
  • It's not that no one cares, is that it wasn't built right.
  • We'll engineer our way out of this marketing and distribution problem.
  • It's merely marketing and once it's built we expect an overnight success.
  • Sales is something for suits, we're doing the real work over here.
  • (Sales snobbery in general.)
  • Everything needs to be perfect, every bug is critical, and they need to be fixed all at once.
  • It does make sense, the entire world is actually wrong, it's time to double down.

In other words, if you believe the impossible, you have a problem. You probably aren't a misunderstood Artiste or the next Steve Jobs. The answer is it simply doesn't make sense. Maybe it's dumb, or maybe it's ahead of it's time. After all, while Twitter may have abandoned podcasting, podcasting is now all the rage.

There's a dark side to this courage-in-the-face-of-adversity. It's part of being in the grip of an idée fixe, where you only hear what you want to hear and filter out everything that is in any way threatening.

Does the world need your idea

You should sit down with your idée fixe and have a long talk. What are you actually trying to do with your life? Do you really have a problem that's worth solving? Are you actually trying to do anything worth doing?

A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs fall in love with their idea and it hurts them when they need to make a business. We say that they fall in love with the product, and don't understand what it means to start a business.

Build a better mouse trap, and the world will beat a path to your door. not Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is actually awesome but has this dumb-ass platitude associated with his name

The idea is important, a necessary but not sufficient component of a successful enterprise. How does the idea fit in to the rest of the world? What is it that people actually would like? How would they ever even find out about it, really? If it's not what people want, or not what they need, well, maybe your idea has a happier existence as a very elaborate day-dream. Before you spin up the manufacturing plant, you should check in with some mice before running with that platitude:

So with all of these people trying to invent a better mousetrap, the dirty secret of trapping mice is mice are really easy to catch. That's why every inventor thinks that he can do it. Catching a mouse is basically playing against a casino where you always win. [...] The regular, old-fashioned, cheap, little mousetrap, Andy says, will usually catch the mouse in 24 to 48 hours. It will kill it 88% of the time. Other traps that aren't much more expensive have 100% lethality. Mice are easy to kill because mice, unlike rats, are incredibly inquisitive animals. [...] So the problem for the mousetrap inventor is the world doesn't need a better mousetrap. You know that old saying, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat its way to your door?" Not true. Andy makes a traditional mousetrap that sells two for $0.99. It does the job just fine. But most inventors never understand this. Ira Glass, This America Life #366

The Long Game, not the Long Con

As an aside, I'm not really sure that I'm smart enough to read Ralph Waldo Emerson, at least the real thing and not the "well known quotes". It's all too damn subtle and I find myself drifting off. So many rhythmic sentences that just go on and on, and on, and so on. Nietzsche I'm fascinated by, and I've read most of his books multiple times. Those I can follow. I find something new in them every time. In the beginning of his writing, it's clear that Emerson's essays blew Nietzsche's socks off. He kept his ragged, annotated, school issued copy of the essays with him throughout his life. Based on this alone I'm sure good old Waldo deserves his place in the pantheon but in this go-go-go world I just can't get a grasp on it.

The actual Emerson quote that the mousetrap thing started our as is:

If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

Such poetry! Such rhythm! Such circumlocution! Yes yes, totally! Not precisely sure what I can take from Emerson here, as like an action item, but I'm certainly jazzed up about it! Just like If you build it, he will come.

Compare this nineteenth century poetry to our modern Paul Graham's Build something people want. It's not like they are saying anything different (though it's certainly said differently) but one has these emotional overtones that strike a chord right when things are the bleakest. When confronted between the dream and the reality, stuck spinning somewhere between the dream and the soul crushing contingency of the market, how do you move forward?

Sometimes the problem is the bleakness, where you need to hold on to something for psychological reasons. Sometimes the problem is bullheaded stupidity, a type of hubris where you stubbornly cling to a mistaken belief about how the world works. And in the later cases, using the emotional techniques to keep going is actually hurting you.

Because your emotions are probably not wrong. They are there for a reason. They've been honed by a jillion years of evolution (or instilled by a benevolent creator; the net is the same) and if there's something wrong on a gut level you should take a cold hard look at what it is that you are doing. If you're building something as a get rich quick scheme, because you have some sort of angle any change of the situation will topple the whole scheme. A fundamental trait of an Entrepreneur is to look at the world and see in it's problems an opportunity, and while that has an element of being bold and self-confident enough to say "I can do this better", it's not a uber-menchean dismissal of everyone else. It's better to be clear on your vision and be able to adapt to feedback.

This is what a lot of startups struggle with. On the one hand, you need to start with a clear idea and vision of what you want to do. On the other hand, you need to start small, see what works, try things out and be able to change your mind as you know more. But how can you change your mind enough to make it work while also having enough consistency of purpose to make it work?

Honestly, I just wanted an excuse to embed this video

I dont know the answer

And I don't think that Field of Dreams has it either. And blindly absorbing the myth of if you build it, he will come is overly simplistic and only works in heart-warming sports memoirs. Which is too bad because James Earl Jones was great in it, and it was some vintage Kevin Costner.

Still, there's always Iowa.

John Kinsella: Is this heaven? Ray Kinsella: It's Iowa.

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(Image source: keeve99a )


  1. I originally thought that the Paul Dirac quote was from Richard Hamming, whose talk You and Your Research has really stuck with me since I first read it.

  2. Here's a whole journal exploring the influence of Emerson on Nietzsche, which has nothing to do with startups, but is interesting anyway.