The Fundamental Algorithm of Life
What I’m thinking about:
“[This is] what we might call the fundamental algorithm of life:
Repeat what works.”
What I’m thinking about:
“[This is] what we might call the fundamental algorithm of life:
Repeat what works.”
My Godson just graduated from high school and is getting ready to attend college in the fall. I couldn’t attend his graduation party, but I did want to give him a gift. In addition to some noise-cancelling headphones, I wrote him a letter with some advice that I wish I had received when I went to college.
Below is the letter. Now this letter was a tailored to him so this is not necessarily the advice I’d give everyone. And I’m certain not everyone will agree with all I’ve written. But here it is.
Congratulations! Graduating high school is a big life milestone. I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend your graduation party, but I wanted to send along this note and a gift in my absence.
I asked several people about a few different gift ideas, and we all agreed that this would likely be something you would find useful for both fun and work. I actually got some a couple years ago and definitely wish I had had them in college. I hope you enjoy them!
I also wanted to give you a few pieces of advice that I wish someone had told me when I was going off to college. If you search the internet for “advice for college students” (which you should!) you can find lots of great information, so here I’ll focus on a few things that either I didn’t see elsewhere or that I felt would have been particularly useful if someone had told me.
First, begin with the end in mind. What do you want to get out of the college experience? A job? To expand your horizons? To make new, lifelong friends? To learn more about yourself? College is different from high school in many ways. But one of the biggest is how many more options you have and how much more freedom you have in choosing between them. Because your time is limited, it’s helpful to at least spend a little of it thinking about what you hope to get out of your college and what steps are most likely to get you there. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t change what your goals are as you learn and grow. In fact, that’s probably likely. But having at least some tentative idea about what you think your goals might be can help you be more conscious about how you spend your time.
A career path should lie at the intersection of three things: what makes money, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy (in that order of importance). The people who get paid a lot typically are pretty good at at least one of four things: selling/marketing, managing people, managing money, or creating something that can be reproduced over and over (e.g. writing software, designing a microchip, discovering a new drug, etc.). You can also make pretty good money if you have certain professional certifications (e.g. a corporate attorney, a surgeon, etc.) You should therefore ask yourself and others who know you well which of those areas you are most skilled and which you enjoy.
Even if you think you’re pretty sure, one of the things I’d recommend early in your college career is to try to take a few classes in each of those areas that might give you a better sense of those things. I don’t know that there are many classes that focus on selling, but there might be some classes in negotiation or you could even start a small business on campus. For marketing you can obviously take marketing classes, but if you do that I’d really focus heavily on courses that are very quantitative (e.g. database marketing, digital analytics, etc.). For managing people, the best way to do that is to get a job where you are trying to coordinate a lot of people or try to get into a leadership position on campus at some point and gain some experience. There’s a lot to being a good leader/manager but a desire to coach and mentor people along with excellent communication and organizational skills are key. For managing money, I’d recommend taking accounting and finances classes, or even economics. Finally, in terms of actually making stuff, I’d say computer science and/or industrial design classes (like actually designing products) are good areas to focus. The other types of classes I’d recommend are those focused on statistics. Unless you’re going to be an engineer, statistics will be way more useful in the real world. And of course, if you have any interest in the law or medicine, taking classes in law or biology/chemistry is a good idea.
The main point I’m trying to make here is that early on you should cast your net semi broadly and get some sense of what areas are of practical interest to you. I have nothing against taking classes like poetry, art history, or psychology, but I’d recommend that you wait to take those until you’ve chosen your major and need some other classes to balance out your workload. When in doubt, finance classes are always useful – money touches most things.
Beyond the classes, I’d say that if there’s something you’re interested in that you think might want to pursue in a career, see if there’s some way to get involved with it while you’re in school early on. Maybe there’s a group on campus. Maybe you start a business or a blog. Maybe you start coding on your own on the side. It’s important that you try to actually do the thing you think you want to do. Yes it may help you get a job down the road (more on that later), but – even more importantly – it can help you understand what doing that kind of work is actually like – sometimes, the reality can surprise you.
You may also want to consider visiting the career center at school. Most students don’t even think about visiting until senior year, but in actuality the resources there are a lot more valuable when you have four years to learn and plan than when you’re two months from graduation and scrambling to find a job.
The next things are internships and interviews. They can help you figure out which types of jobs you might enjoy. If you think you are interested in X, see if you can find professors in that field and just ask them about it. They probably know former students in that space. If there’s an alumni directory, search on there for people in those fields. (You can also used LinkedIn.) There’s a phrase that goes “ask for money, get advice; ask for advice get money twice”. By reaching out early before you’re actually looking for an internship or job and just asking if they’d be willing to talk on the phone or meet for coffee, not only can you learn a lot about various industries but – if you do decide that you want to intern or get a job with them later – you will have already built a relationship with them.
Finally, though I would still recommend that you go to college, you should be aware that the job market is shifting in big ways. Google, for example recently announced a program called “Google Career Certificates”: they are online courses that – if you take them and pass – Google will consider them equivalent to a four year degree. There are also programs that are called “coding bootcamps”, which aim to give you the practical skills necessary to get a job as a software developer in the course of a few months. The reason I mention this is not to dissuade you from going to college but to make you aware that there are many forms of education available. You shouldn’t assume that just getting a college degree is all you need to do to be successful (or, conversely, that not getting a college means that you’re stuck.) While it’s not the majority view yet, more and more employers are starting to realize that what matters is not having a piece of paper, but that you can do the job they need you to do and can learn and adapt as needed.
Now if you really want to be a professional athlete, movie star, or famous musician, I’m not saying don’t try. Do try, and try hard. But statistically speaking it’s probably not going to happen. So be smart about having a plan B.
The good news is that two of the most important ways to figure out what you might want to do – doing actual work in the space and informational interviews/internships – are also two of the most important in helping you get a job by the time you graduate.
Here is the absolute #1 most important thing you need to know about getting a job: it’s almost always about relationships. For companies hiring a new college grad, they’re often going to get hundreds (if not thousands) of applications. The single best way to differentiate yourself is through a referral. That means building relationships: relationships with folks at potential employers, with professors or staff, even with other students – sometimes a friend of yours might get hired before you at a place you want to work and they can refer you; sometimes they might have a parent or older sibling that works somewhere. You never know.
When you combine the relationship with demonstrated interest in the area (through thoughful questions, joining relevant clubs, doing relevant work on the side, etc.) and decent grades, you’re in great shape. And while grades are very important, if I had to choose between a 3.1 and amazing relationships and a 3.8 and no relationships, I’d take the former in most cases. Keep in mind, however, that some scholarships, clubs, etc. have their own GPA requirements. This isn’t advice to skimp on the academics.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to folks. A lot of times people will respond to students. Create a profile on LinkedIn and search for folks in your field. Or look in your alumni directory. The best note is short and goes something like this:
Dear Mr/Mrs X, I am currently a [freshman/sophomore, etc.] at [school]. I am very interested in learning more about the [field]. [Some explanation of how you found them] and was wondering if you’d be willing to speak for 30 mins and tell me more about the industry and your role.
Not everyone will respond but some will. Take them up on it. Be prompt and prepared. And then follow up with a thank you note. Then – and particularly if it’s a thing you think you might actually want to do in the future – send them an update note every semester or so: how things are going, what you’ve been doing, and express your continued interest in the field (or ask about possible internships).
If you start doing these things early on, you will be light years ahead of most other students come graduation time.
I talked a little bit about this already, but really take the time to meet new people and develop new relationships. There are two reasons to do this. First, it will help your career. Second, it’s rewarding in its own right.
First, money. Generally speaking, we live in a capitalist society. This means that the people who control the capital are basically in control. For the purposes of this letter, there are two types of capital. The first is financial capital. This is money. All else being equal, having more money is better. The second is human capital. This refers to people’s skills, talents, time, and attention. If you invest those types of capital effectively, you create more of them. If you invest ineffectively, you destroy them. You have your own talents, abilities, time, and attention, but those are inherently limited. You can’t be good at everything. But other people are good at other things. By getting good at developing and maintaining relationships, you get access to other people’s talents, abilities, time, attention, money, and relationships. More practically, whether you’re looking for a job, someone to hire, a new client, an investor, or even just some advice, having a wide set of relationships makes all of these so much easier. This is somewhat true when you’re graduating. By the time you’re 30 it will be pretty important. And it only gets more important the older you get.
Second, meaning. In 1932, a Harvard doctor named Arlen Bock tried to conduct a definitive study of what leads to a life of satisfaction and happiness – what he called “human flourishing”. Between 1939 and 1946, Dr. Bock and his team selected about 250 sophomores from the Harvard undergraduate class, which ended up including four members who ran for U.S. Senate, one who served in a presidential cabinet, and even a young JFK. The men were evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, evaluations from physicians, and in many cases by personal interviews. Information was gathered on every imaginable dimension: mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality…all from the time they enrolled in the study for the rest of their lives – it was to become known as the Grant Study, one of the foremost longitudinal studies of 20th century social science. In 2012, George Vallant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published a book called Triumph of Experience, a summation of the insights from the study. There are many interesting findings, but in my mind the most important finding is the following in Vallant’s own words: “The 75-years and $20 million expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward conclusion: the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
So how to do this? If you’re naturally extroverted then you’ll do it automatically. If you’re introverted, it may take a bit more work. But make the effort. Join that club. Ask that girl out. You don’t need to be someone you’re not but put in the effort to at least be in situations where you have the opportunity to develop relationships with others. The reality is that you probably won’t remember most of what you learn in your classes. But many of the relationships you forge could last a lifetime.
The first thing I need to say here is that “well enough” is really defined by your goals. If you want to go to med, law, or grad school – then having top grades (~4.0) really matters. If you want to try to get a highly competitive job at a top company (Amazon, Goldman Sachs, etc.) then slightly lower grades (3.75+) are probably fine if you have built the relationships and have demonstrated real interest by doing work in the field. For most other things, a 3.0 is probably good enough and a 3.5+ is quite solid. If you’re getting below a 3.0 you need to do some combination of working harder, getting some help, or considering changing your major.
I won’t go into a ton of detail since you can find a lot about doing well in school online, but here are some quick tips on how to do well:
First of all, I recognize that some people have to work during school in order to afford it. But if you’re not in that situation, I’d generally recommend against it unless it’s really aligned with what you think you may want to do in the future. If you think you need more money, I’d first try to talk with the school – sometimes they have additional grants that they can provide. Next, assuming you haven’t taken out crazy amounts of debt to go to school already, I’d consider taking out an additional loan amount to cover the extra cost. You can also search for something called an “income share agreement” – this is a new way of paying for school where you only pay once you have a job and can afford it.
My reasoning here is that every hour you spend working (say in Starbucks) is an hour you could have spent studying, or writing your blog, or programming, or networking with potential employers. If you spend those hours doing those things, I can virtually guarantee you that’s a better investment. Now if take out a bigger loan, don’t get a job and then spend those hours watching TV or drinking (when you’re over 21, of course), that’s a different story.
Once you have some idea of what kind of path you think you might want to be on, are developing relationships, and are doing well enough in school, the next thing I’d suggest is to intentionally and proactively expand your horizons. Here are a few experiences that might be interesting to try – even if just once – while in college: write for the college newspaper; study abroad for a semester; volunteer for a political campaign; play an intramural sport; volunteer at a soup kitchen or other non-profit; learn Brazilian jiu jitsu; join a choir; play an instrument; do yoga; take a cooking class; learn to meditate. Always do some mix of spending time on the thing you think you care about (as doing so will tell you how much) and trying new things you’re curious about or even know nothing about just to learn. When you start working full time you’ll have plenty of time to focus. Now is still a time to explore.
I found this paragraph online and though it captured the sentiment well:
“College can be a very exciting time of your life, but it can also be a very stressful one. Universities advertise themselves as places full of fun-loving, amazing students enjoying every day by hiking on the local trails, dressing up in school colors, cheering at football or basketball games, discovering their true passions, and having ‘the best four years of their life’. But college is also a place where you spend a lot of money taking classes that are likely considerably more difficult than anything you’ve taken in the past, with the hope that the effort will land you a better career someday, but only if you spend a lot of time networking and finding other opportunities to grow your resume, all while trying to figure out what it means to be an adult now and not a kid anymore. It can be so overwhelming that it’s very easy to just curl up in a ball and accept that the students around you will be better off than you, and that’s just the way it is.”
Particularly at times during the first couple of years, you may find that college can be overwhelming, stressful, and many other things. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Talk to your parents. Or your sister. Or your friends. Or people at school. Or me. Whatever helps. When things get really stressful, take a few deep breaths and remember that, in the grand scheme of things, whatever it is isn’t that big of a deal. The data I’ve seen suggests that the first two years are often the hardest from an adjustment perspective. If you can persevere through the first two years, things usually get better.
With that said college can also be a fun and exciting time. Though it may not always feel like it, in many ways it’s the time (perhaps until retirement) when you will have the maximum amount of freedom with the minimum amount of responsibility. You’ll learn a ton, make great friends, have fun, and make memories that last a lifetime. Four years may sound like a long time, but it’ll go by quickly. So enjoy it. I’m rooting for you.
What did I get wrong here? What important thing did I miss? What advice do you wish you’d received before going to college that you don’t think is commonly given?
We often talk about the world being made up of discrete entities or concepts. This is a helpful construct, but it’s also the case that interesting happens at the interfaces between them. Some examples that come to mind:
Most of this comes down to the fact that, in any complex system, everything is connected. We think of bees and flowers as separate things. But how long would either last without the other? My view? There is no bee or flower. There is only the bee-flower system. And so on.
We as humans are not particularly good at understanding the relationships between things that are separated by time and space. But just because we can’t intuit them easily doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Breaking down the system into parts may help us organize our thinking, but sometimes those conceptual distinctions can bias or limit our understanding.
I have heard many times that the key to a successful business is to “create value”. While there is truth to that, it seems inadequate. Moreover, the ways in which it is inadequate have significant implications for the types of businesses one should start, the skills one needs to be successful, and the nature of our market system as a whole.
To my mind, there are two important clarifications here.
First, I actually don’t think our capitalist system rewards those who create value; it rewards those who create value for those who have value to give in return.
This can be most obviously seen in consumer brands. Apple and Starbucks are two of the most valuable brands in the world. Why? I would argue it’s because they target more affluent consumers for whom the marginal opportunity cost of that $3,000 computer or that $5 latte is not that big.
This reality has real consequences for the types of businesses that get started, funded, and succeed. Most people would probably agree that a business that helps uneducated, unemployed, single moms improve their parenting skills is ‘valuable’. But that’s not necessarily an easy business to start because – even if the moms wanted it – they don’t have the money to pay.
Now of course that business could attempt to sell its services to the government or a non-profit — or even get sponsored by a corporation – but this really is just the same thing: convincing the group that has value to give that you are providing a product or service that they value (even if they’re not the direct recipient of that product or service).
The second clarification I’d like to make is the ability of a person or an organization to create value vs their/its ability to capture value. It took me a long time to realize that these are not the same thing, and that the skills/capabilities required are often quite different. Moreover, for the purposes of becoming financially successful, I would argue that being able to capture value is more important..
Let’s say you’re a brilliant developer. You’ve worked for years developing this algorithm that solves some massive problem. And just last night, you finally got it to work. You’re telling some guy about this at a party, and he’s super interested. In fact, after some more discussion he agrees to pay you $500K for your work. $500K! You gladly take the money, and at tax time gladly pay your tax bill on that income when the time comes.
Meanwhile, this guy takes your algorithm, forms a corporation, and then turns around and goes and licenses it to big company. He’s a great negotiator and manages to get a $1M license fee – non-exclusive, of course – per year. And come tax time he’s got a bunch of business expenses to pay — marketing, business-class travel, etc., and leverages his disregarded entity’s self-directed plan to make large, pre-tax contributions to his retirement account, allowing him to reduce his tax bill significantly.
Who created the value here? Who captured it? Are the skills and knowledge required for each the same?
There’s obviously a lot to discuss here. Even my example is far from perfect in illustrating the distinctions. Perhaps I’m even thinking about it the wrong way. But they seem like important distinctions to consider.
Every system only has one to a few constraints that keep it from performing better. Sometimes this is due to an outdated or incorrect policy. Sometimes it’s due to a limited resource. Identifying and addressing the constraint in a system is the only way to meaningfully improve its performance.
Several years ago I had the (not unique, I’m sure) realization that human attention is often the constraint in many systems. Evidence for this being true is the fact that many of the most valuable businesses in the world today – Facebook, Google, Netflix, just to name a few – are valuable precisely because they’ve become highly effective in capturing, directing, and monetizing people’s attention.
Within an organization, often times the constraint is management attention: from the CEO, the executive team, the board, etc. How the CEO in particular manages her attention is one of the biggest – though far from the only – determinants of success.
I read somewhere recently that “the biggest barrier to scale at a startup isn’t capital, it’s the time & attention to design and run experiments testing the core tenets of the business.” I don’t know if I’d necessarily word it exactly like that, but I think it’s close.
Confirmation bias – i.e. overweighting evidence that supports your view and underweighting evidence that doesn’t – is a well-established cognitive bias. Indeed, it often seems to be the case that when people are presented with evidence against their beliefs, they simply retrench further.
Several years ago, I came up with a trick that helps me avoid this.
The method is simple. In my mind, I make two columns, each of which represents one ‘hypothesis’.
For example, a few years ago my wife made the claim that I was a “bad driver”. I of course immediately became defensive and thought of all the evidence I could that supported my being a good driver: I had never been in an accident; had only received two speeding tickets since I started driving; etc.
Using this technique, I picture something like this in my mind:
For each piece of evidence, I then ask which hypothesis that evidence supports better and put it in that column. For example, let’s say we had the following pieces of evidence:
Using my method, in my mind I saw something like this:
Based upon this, I had to concede that the balance of the evidence suggested that, while I may not be a terrible driver, I certainly wasn’t as good a driver as I had thought.
I think the reason this framework works (at least for me) is that it forces me to start by treating the probability of each hypothesis being right as equal and then to consider all the evidence and how each piece supports the hypotheses.
I use this general construct all the time. Is a person being malicious or just lazy? Does God exist or not? Is a given policy likely to be helpful or hurtful?
Now if I were doing this more rigorously I suppose I would instead ask whether each peice of evidence refutes or falsifies each hypothesis. I’ll work on that. In the meantime, I’ve found this practice to be easy to do and effective in helping me think more clearly.