The Pinball Effect

Summary Written by Chris Taylor
"Sometimes the simplest act will have cosmic repercussions a hundred years later. On other occasions, the most cataclysmic events will finally lead to ordinary, even humdrum results."

- The Pinball Effect, page 3

The Big Idea

Our Greatest Teacher

"Being aware of change and how it operates is halfway to second-guessing it. And second-guessing change is good for survival and success in life."- The Pinball Effect, page 4

Perhaps what makes The Pinball Effect stand out from other “history” books is not so much the satisfying “click” of understanding that takes place when a new puzzle piece of history falls into place, but rather in how those puzzle pieces fit together to tell a story previously unimagined. As Burke marvels repeatedly through the book, there’s no way that the characters of the time could possibly have understood the eventual impact of their work. Only in hindsight can we see just how monumental their accomplishments were and, in such, we’re reminded of how history truly is our greatest teacher.

In virtually all cases explored in The Pinball Effect we can see two truths being confirmed: (1) that change is constant, and (2) that the individuals who leave their mark on history are those who capitalize on the changes of their era.

Insight #1

Pepper Power

"Spices were so valuable that in the fifth century A.D., one Roman city under siege by barbarians bought them off with three thousand pounds of pepper."- The Pinball Effect, page 65

It’s important to remind ourselves that just because something is valuable now doesn’t mean it always will be, and likewise, something seen as a household item today could be extremely valuable in the future.

At one point in The Pinball Effect, Burke discusses sugar being more expensive than gasoline today in comparable dollars. In the quote above, a city was worth less than today’s equivalent of $3000 worth of black pepper. The lesson here is not (hopefully) that we should be investing in household spices. Instead, I believe there is real value on reflecting on the perception of value as it evolves through time. I would imagine that, a thousand years from now, historians will also shake their heads at how much value we placed on gasoline.

It’s important to loosen our concern on immediate value and try to float our thoughts forward in time to imagine what might be of value 10, 15 or 25 years from now. What products or services currently demand a premium in your own industry? If you were to “disengage” from today and imagine forward a decade or two, can you imagine what might replace it?

“The only thing constant is change”, as they say. We could all benefit from a little less weight on the present, and a little more on the future.

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Insight #2

James Burke’s The Pinball Effect is not a book I would have naturally chosen for an Actionable Summary. After all, with a cataloguing classification of “History/Science”, it doesn’t even fit the base criteria of “Business Books made Actionable”. The Pinball Effect was the community pick for December though, so I dedicated my time to reading it. And I can truly say that I sincerely enjoyed it. I think my favorite idea from the whole book came in the first few pages (the introduction, actually), where Burke speculates on the importance of experimentation (and inevitable failures) that leads to game-changing innovation. Keep in mind that The Pinball Effect was first published in 1996, when you read this quote: “Schools might train students to weave their own way idiosyncratically through the web, imagining their way to solutions, rather than learning by rote lists of data that will be obsolete before they can use them.”

Read the book

Get The Pinball Effect on Amazon.

James Burke


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