The phrase “Hindsight is 20/20” is one of those things that we all say from time to time, but rarely have a chance to truly appreciate to the fullest. Taken in the most literal context, it means that once you know the end result of a particular scenario, you can look back and clearly see the progression towards that now inescapable endgame. For example, if you’re stuck on the couch with a bad case of food poisoning, you might employ the phrase “Hindsight is 20/20” to describe the decision a few days prior to eat that food truck sushi.
Then again, it’s usually not that hard to identify a questionable decision, with or without the benefit of foreknowledge. But what about the good ones? How can one tell if a seemingly unimportant choice can end up putting you on track for a lifetime of success and opportunity? If there’s one thing Michael Rigsby hopes you’ll take away from the fascinating retrospective of his life that he presented at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference, it’s that you should grab hold of every opportunity and run with it. Some of your ideas and projects will be little more than dim memory when you look back on them 50 years later, but others might just end up changing your life.
Of course, it also helps if you’re the sort of person who was able to build an electric car at the age of nineteen, using technology which to modern eyes seems not very far ahead of stone knives and bear skins. The life story Michael tells the audience, complete with newspaper cuttings and images from local news broadcasts, is one that we could all be so lucky to look back on in the Autumn of our years. It’s a story of a person who, through either incredible good luck or extraordinary intuition, was able to be on the forefront of some of the technology we take for granted today before most people even knew what to call it.
From controlling his TRS-80 with his voice to building a robotic vacuum cleaner years before the Roomba was a twinkle in the eye of even the most forward thinking technofetishist, Michael was there. But he doesn’t hold a grudge towards the companies who ended up building billion dollar industries around these ideas. That was never what it was about for him. He simply loves technology, and wanted to show his experiments to others. Decades before “open source” was even a term, he was sharing his designs and ideas with anyone who’d care to take a look.
It Never Hurts to Try
A recurring theme throughout Michael’s talk is the way that events occasionally unfold unpredictably, and that sticking to the “safe” route can sometimes take you out of the running for potential opportunities. Even if you aren’t sure something is going to work out in your favor, give it a shot anyway. At worst you’ll waste some time, but if you’re lucky, that shot in the dark might just end up paying off.
As an example, Michael tells a story about the robotics contest at the National Computer Conference in New York City. He had received a free ticket for himself thanks to his entry into a robotics contest which was happening at the Conference, but the cost of buying a ticket for his wife was more than they could afford. At the last minute they assembled a robot for his wife to enter which was little more than a bump-and-go car with a cute fabric mouse body.
The mouse wasn’t meant to be a serious entry, it was just a hack to get her in the door for free. So it was no surprise when it was eliminated immediately for failing to navigate a maze. Michael’s robot ended up not faring much better, as his competitors were better funded and more advanced. But when the television news cameras started rolling, their story ended up being more interesting than the robotics competition itself. The two worst performing entries in the contest ended up being the ones shown on the news, getting Michael and his wife widespread attention.
Forge Your Own Path
Michael also has some thoughts on the adversity that creative individuals often face when they refuse to take the road most traveled. He says there were several times when people told him that his latest idea wouldn’t work and that he was wasting his time. He admits that occasionally they were right, and that you shouldn’t necessarily ignore established wisdom outright. But sometimes it pays to follow your instincts and see where it takes you.
When Michael first saw the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell toy in stores, he was so impressed with it that he took it home and tried to figure out how it worked. He wrote an article for Byte magazine with his theories on how the device functioned, which was met with criticism from readers who claimed his analysis was flawed. But soon after he received a phone call from one of the toy’s designers congratulating him on his reverse engineering. A few weeks after that, he was contacted by a publisher asking if he’d be willing to write a book on the subject. Not bad for a flawed analysis.
If you’ve ever wondered if it was worth chasing down that wild idea or putting together a project that may or may not work, Michael Rigsby wants you to know you aren’t alone. Take a chance, and see where it leads you. Who knows? Some day in the distant future you might end up telling a packed room all about it.