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Mine Your Intuition

July 30, 2021

A little over two years ago, I had a chance to talk with Dr. Shuji Nakamura, who won a Nobel Prize in physics for the development of the blue LED. The original purpose of our conversation was work-related, but I was secretly hoping to have him review drafts of our company’s recently launched TOPC Axis corporate philosophies, and more specifically the Tech Axis. After we had wound down the work discussion without touching on these matters, Dr. Nakamura reacted with surprise when I presented him with the Tech Axis while waiting for lunch, saying “I really don’t know anything about the technology of accounting firms.” But how often do we get the opportunity to have a Nobel physics laureate review our ideas on the philosophy of technology? I persisted, saying that, “Regardless of whether it’s accounting, R&D, or manufacturing, the essential nature of the thought process required of people should be the same. If you read it and find it to be correct, that would be great; and if you think it’s lacking in some way you can let me know that.” I suppose he took me to be another crackpot accountant coming along with some new silliness. He gave me a perplexed smile but consented nevertheless, and made approving comments such as “I see” and “That’s right” as he read over several articles of our Axis, including Stick to the Basics, Deep Digging, and Eliminate Bias and SALY (Same as Last Year). Finally, he told me, “Yes, I think this ought to be fine.”

However, there was something unsatisfying in merely receiving his cursory review. I asked him if the TechAxis would be good enough for a person to receive a Nobel Prize. Once again taken aback, he smiled and said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” Then he went on to talk about his own experience developing the blue LED. Unlike many other researchers, Dr. Nakamura was engaged in more than theoretical work; he related how he had worked long and hard to redesign and build the furnace needed for the annealing of gallium nitride. Although a transparent film of gallium nitride was required in order to produce the blue LED, the commercially available MOCVD furnaces at the time resulted in pitch-black depositions. To figure out the problem of creating a transparent film, Dr. Nakamura drew on his copious experience and repeated failures as a young research engineer, combining the knowledge that he had accumulated in various areas such as welding, tinkering with his equipment in the morning and conducting experiments into the night. He continued onward with a single-minded focus. Contrasting with the typical “cool” image of a Nobel Prize winner, he recalled getting dirty and sweaty as he struggled in his efforts to somehow come up with the right kind of furnace.

But I still didn’t understand the reason for Dr. Nakamura’s unyielding conviction in the face of calls from his bosses and coworkers to stop his tinkering and shift his attention to products that would sell better. So I asked him, “How were you able to continue in your development work? What was the driving force?” He replied straightforwardly, “Resentment, I guess. And intuition. I felt like if I could make the world’s best furnace, I would wind up with the world’s best film. I had that intuition, and that’s why I kept going regardless of what anyone said.”

“Hmm... intuition,” I thought to myself, but I still wasn’t sure that I understood. So I asked him how intuition is formed. He said, “I was working for a company without much money, so from the time I was young, if we needed an electric furnace for example, I would scrounge up old bricks and steel plate and whatever parts we had to have and build it myself. I had that underlying experience, so I could see what was wrong with the existing furnaces, and I knew that I could build the world’s best furnace with my own hands.” And some of Dr. Nakamura’s early failures were nothing short of spectacular, with low-budget shacks containing research lab facilities literally blowing up on multiple occasions. “Underlying experience doesn’t always produce results, mind you,” he said, “but if I hadn’t engaged in those efforts, I definitely wouldn’t have had that intuition. On top of that, you reflect again and again on why you had those failures. And you think over and over about how you can succeed. Until you arrive at the intuition, you keep working, you keep failing, and you keep thinking about it!”

 "You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

Whether it’s the genius inventing the blue LED or the visionary creating the iPhone, ultimately no one can skip over the need for accumulated effort. You may not be able to do anything about not having been blessed with talent. But to reach the highest result that you are capable of, you simply have to keep going in the belief that you will eventually get there. I don’t think that it has to do with the actual level of invention or discovery. It’s fine to just keep accumulating small bits of intuition, the kind that allows you understand things instantly in your daily work. Those dots that you collect over time may one day connect into something big.

I’ve taken Dr. Nakamura’s story and added Mine Your Intuition to Tech Axis. I’m grateful to him for taking the time to talk to an inexperienced “youngster” such as myself.