Little Bets

"...ingenious ideas rarely spring into people's minds fully formed; they emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery approach."

- Little Bets, page 154

Creativity has a mythical elusive quality to it. Almost the unicorn of business, much talked about but little understood, and far too infrequent a companion. In Little Bets, Peter Sims explains that creativity doesn’t need to be so foreign to us. Through a non-linear process of making “little bets”, Sims believes that you can unlock greater access to your creativity.


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Make Little Bets

"Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems."
- Little Bets, page 8

Sims describes a little bet as “a small affordable risk that anyone can take to discover and develop ideas.” As a society we have a notion that we need to show commitment in a burn all the bridges kind of way so we can’t turn back on our quest in all that we do. In marriage that’s an awesome idea, in picking a new marketing strategy it is a bit over the top. Making little bets help to show that we can have better results by not applying the all or nothing propositions on some projects. Making a little bet doesn’t mean you are not committed to an idea, just that you start small and increase over time, adjusting your course as you go rather than rigidly sticking to a plan outlined from the start. If you make a huge bet from the start, your creativity and options are limited, problems arise that you couldn’t have conceived of from the start. Conversely, if you start small, get your feet wet, and test things out without becoming too invested in a decision, you can tinker along the way. This is the advantage of little bets—making progress and tweaking as you go—approaching problems in a non-linear manner.

What makes a little bet? There are no hard and fast rules.  Just try something, observe, learn, adjust, and repeat. Recognize something may or may not come of this and since we are not betting the kid’s college savings on this, that is okay. The goal is not to guarantee success but to explore the possibilities in a way that doesn’t break the bank.

Think about any successful venture you’ve had, now how the idea was implemented. Did that idea spring forth fully formed as you find it in its current state? Unless your name is Athena and claim Zeus as your father, probably not. And that is the point, great ideas come with tinkering and time. The phrase trial and error is cliché for a reason.

As Sims explains in the book, this isn’t a revolutionary approach, at some time we have all used little bets, to decide that maybe med school wasn’t for us (thank you Anat and Phys) or that by listening to a different radio station you found out you really enjoy folk music (not a true example). The goal is to recognize that little bets are not limited to picking majors and discovering new music, they can be used to generate more solutions from every problem.

To help you do just that I have two suggestions: learning a little from a lot, and setting up guard rails.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Learn A Little From A Lot

"People too often have a tendency to think that certain people, experts or mentors for example, have all the answers when in reality insight is far more dispersed."
- Little Bets, page 120

How many people have you interacted with today? What did you learn from them? How many questions have you asked today? Sims shares the story of the man behind the micro-finance movement and how he developed his idea for lending small amounts to little businesses in rural economies because of looking at things from “worm’s eye view.” It is common to gaze down from the bird’s eye view but what is happening on the ground? Learn about what people do, how they live, or what interests them. Through asking more questions I’ve recently learned that someone I’ve known for a year has written two books and is working on a third.

Little bets hinge on curiosity and by striving to learn more from those around you, you’ll have more ideas with which to solve problems—not to mention better conversation topics at dinner.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Set Up Guard Rails

"...productively creative people use constraints to limit their focus and isolate a set of problems that need to be solved."
- Little Bets, page 78

Sims explains that guard rails or constraints help to define the scope of what you are working on. Think of going to the grocery store and looking at the chip aisle. How many options are there? Now narrow your focus to just tortilla chips, there are still a number of options but you have ruled out enough to grant you the ability to focus. Guard rails perform a similar function to a little bet, they provide limits that can provide a space in which to create.

Wait, this seems counterintuitive to everything above doesn’t it? Guard rails act as constraints to help define the scope of what you are working on, things you can’t change such as a budget or time deadline. Reducing the scope of your project helps eliminate the things you don’t need to worry about. Therefore, constraints actually provide you with more freedom, as paradoxical as it sounds.

A professor once told me the best advice for taking an exam is to answer the question asked. Guard rails help point you to the correct issue, and little bets let you solve it in your own manner.


Remember “most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas—they discover them.” I’ve tried to make more little bets in my life. They have helped me branch out and ask a lot more questions.

What little bets you can make to help you move forward?

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Jakob Browning

ABOUT Jakob Browning

I am Jakob Browning. This fall I'll start my final year of law school. I enjoy running long distances. I have three younger brothers who will all probably be taller than me soon...
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