Compare yourself with yourself, step by step. That is how Eratosthenes measured the Earth’s circumference
An entrepreneur friend of mine once told me–he is an industrial engineer but, at the time, was a Tax Inspector–there’s always someone who can do something better than you. There will always be someone who jogs more and better than you do, who speaks better than you do; draws, dances, flirts, does math, understands finance, leads his or her team better than you do, while the team follows blindly wherever he or she leads; there’s always someone who sings karaoke better than you sing it, or whose golf handicap is better than yours. So what? That’s diversity.
So, why the introduction? Is it relevant in an illustration of what is important in innovation? I think it is. In general, competing means comparing yourself to others. Figures, rankings, they obsess us and occupy us completely, making us feel like the next step ahead, such as overcoming the next competitor or the next country in Europe’s comparable statistics for Innovation, Technology, Productivity… is very difficult. Almost unreachable.
But sometimes, the solution already lies within. Inside the companies, institutions, Universities and governments that we may be managing: there really is no need to compare. Great innovators never compared themselves to anyone else, but measured their progress every day, against themselves, wondering… Am I doing the best I can? Am I using resources efficiently for what I am, not for what others are? In my view, therein lies the key.
When a young entrepreneur asks for my best piece of advice, I tell them the same our parents told us when we were young:
Don’t compare yourself to others, only to yourself. Ask yourself if you are doing (whatever it is you are doing) the best you can. If you aren’t, make a greater effort. If you are, wait. Time is on your side and people will end up noticing and recognizing your efforts.
Comparing yourself to others is very often counter-productive because it leads to a mental block and unproductiveness. Everything seems so far away, so unreachable, that you can lose motivation. Take things one step at a time. Hearing critics put down your project precisely because it is original, different, daring, disruptive, challenging, is good if you take it as constructive criticism, but it should never lead you to abandon your passion, your ideas and dreams. Rather, it should give you strength and spur you on. The people who have managed to change the world have stuck to their principles, especially when their ideas went against established knowledge: Einstein, Edison, Galileo, Keppler, Newton, Darwin, and Eratosthenes.
And in order to achieve the results you dream of, innovative ideas, move forward step after step, paying attention to every detail of every step along the way. That is how Eratosthenes measured the Earth’s circumference. Our first Pearl of Innovation is all about him.
In his work Atlas de los descubrimientos, Mauricio Obregón tells the story of how innovative Eratosthenes was, already in the 3rd Century BC, when he measured the Earth’s circumference accurately. While living in Alexandria, where he was librarian in the magnificent Library and “temple of knowledge”, he observed that the angle of the sun’s shade on June 21 (summer solstice) was not the same when it was measured in Syen, where it was 0º, since the sun’s light dropped perpendicular over a water well. This made him think. Since the Earth was round, if he knew that angle (which he measured at 7 degrees and 12 minutes) and the distance between Alexandria and Syen (current-day Aswan), he could obtain the Earth’s circumference. And he did. He ordered a slave to count the STEPS between the two cities, as STEPS were the unit of measurement of the time. By calculating the equivalent measurement in meters we can now know that his estimate was a circumference of 25,000 miles, or 40,000 km. An extremely accurate calculation. A remarkable feat in terms of precision and wisdom, a gem of an example of innovation for the period, discovered Step by Step and without comparing himself to anyone else.
Ana María Llopis