Why are so many smart people re-inventing the wheel?

If you're getting old as quickly as I am (I was in my 20s one year ago!) you start to understand more and more about life and start seeing your own past mistakes in other people's lives. What I've recently found out is that you can fall for a trap of seeing some really smart people "discover new things" and believe them... when all they are doing is re-inventing the wheel. And the wheel has been round of thousands of years now... and it still works!
What do I mean by "smart people re-inventing the wheel"?

I'm a blogger myself and I read lots of blogs. Every Friday I post some of the coolest things I've learned from other bloggers and I really have learned a lot from them. These guys are really smart. However, what I've recently found out is that some of them are taking "new approach" to some rather explored and sound principles... and I caught myself believing that these smart guys have really discovered a new approach.

What they are actually doing is re-inventing the wheel. Why? Because after a while you see that their "new approach" was trying to find something that doesn't work for the problem they were solving. Solution was there the whole time and whether they liked it or not, there was no "better" or "other" solution so seeking new way of building the wheel was a simple waste of time.

Let me give you three real-life examples:

1. Ad-supported business rocks. No it doesn't, unless you're Google.

Having an Internet company I meet lots of startups and they very often say things like "with our new model we don't need to charge people for our service, we'll serve ads in these very innovative ways and this will bring us great revenues". I even believed some of these statements as the guys running these companies were really sharp and smart people.

When I met them 12 months later they'd ask me how to charge for a service, because the ads are not bringing in any money. The wheel remained round. My users happily pay for Nozbe because they know how much value and how big of an increase in their productivity it gives them... and they know we're running a profitable business that won't vanish anytime soon. Good old model that's worked for companies for ages... and works for me as well.

2. Venture Capital money will suddenly make our business great. No it won't. It will make you burn cash and fail.

The other thing startups founders are re-inventing the wheel at, is the VC money. They just believe when they get the funding they'll have great companies overnight. Oh really? Like spending loads of cash will suddenly give you a great product and lots of great customers? Spending money vs. actually getting money from real customers is a different dynamic. It will make your product inferior and although it'll give you loads of eyeballs, it'll not make your company great.

On the sidenote, VCs don't care about your startup. They want to sell it to someone bigger as quickly as possible to get their money back with hefty profits. They want the eyeballs and great valuation based on the eyeballs. They couldn't care less about the quality of your startup.

OK, let me give you a third example unrelated to a startup business:

3. Mid-life crisis with a different label. The new label won't make it any different

There is one blogger that I really liked reading but who's values and ideas I don't always share. And it's OK. But last year when he decided he was in search for a new love, because he achieved everything he could with his current wife, I knew he was bluffing. And now I know for sure. He gave it a new label called, "polyamory" and said that he wouldn't have to divorce his wife, that she'd be OK with him seeking new love objects and their two kids were cool with that as well. 

Apparently his wife and kids are special. No they aren't. After half a year they got a divorce. Nothing new there. How many men in mid-life crisis have ended up in a divorce in the past? The new label didn't bring any new magic there. The wheel keeps on being round.

Later that same guy said he was happy being a bachelor and wanted to discover a "new way" of being with women without labels like "girlfriend", "fiancée" or "wife". These labels created constraints he said. 

He started his "explorations" and "new way of being with women" and guess what? After a few months he's tweeting that he's going somewhere with his new "fiancée". Now, isn't that a label? Isn't that same-old, same-old?  The wheel is round. People are people. Mid life crisis, broken marriages, new girlfriends, etc. have been there for ages. No label will make it different or special.

Let's look at the wheel and make sure we understand why it's round.

When I look at my life I remember at least a few times I've been trying to re-invent the wheel. After recent observations I started to be more cautious. I started to analyze every "new approach" I see and quickly "catch" if there is a new kind of wheel over there. And watch out for these new "names" and "labels". They usually are same old things with different names.

Here's to all of us reinventing less wheels in the future!

Did you happen to re-invent the wheel in the past? What have you learned from it? How did it make you smarter? Do you see other people/companies reinventing the wheel?

--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2010 (business,life,productivity)

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Feb 17, 2010 20:59
You are right. Steve just gave a new label to his problem. Very disappointing. :-(
Michael Sliwinski
Feb 17, 2010 21:15
People put new labels and try to convince themselves they're onto something new when all they are doing is rediscovering the wheel. And sometimes it's really hard to spot this (both in others and in ourselves) and I'm now analyzing if me, or anyone around me is not on the track to "reinvention".

Yes, Steve's problem is indeed very disappointing. I thought he wasn't that kind of guy. And if you disagree with him, you're not living "consciously" or are not open to "growth". Sad. I used to really enjoy his blog, even though I didn't always agree with him. Thanks for your comment Testeq!

Sep 24, 2010 18:32
Very insightful article, so true. As you said, hard to see it in ourselves, very often the reinvention is really a rationalization, to make us feel better about the stupid things we do. Thanks, something to consider this weekend
Michael Sliwinski
Sep 26, 2010 11:39
Yes, sometimes the new label makes us feel better and doesn't feel like same-old-same old... but new label doesn't make it better. The new idea maybe to take the same-old for a spin and build on that, not in spite of that. I took the same-old subscription model and applied it to a gtd-project-management software and it works great for me. I went with the same-old route: you build a great product, people see it and buy it from you, you profit.

Craig, thanks for the comment, and you're spot-on that we even may fall for the trap of re-labeling something as "new" just to make us feel better, where we should really look at something from a side and see how "really" new this thing is.