Luck plays a major role in the outcome of a company and of one’s life. Part of luck is just pure chance, completely out of your hands but luckily luck can be cultivated as well. Here’s how:
1. Show Up and Make Motion
“Eighty percent of being successful in life is showing up” Woody Allen
A lot of opportunities that are seemingly random, are at least partly the result of showing up and/or making motion. People often say that an opportunity was the result of being in the right place at the right time. That sounds like pure chance (uncontrollable chance) but you can maximize your chances of being in the right place at the right time by visiting many good places many times. While you cannot know for sure what will be the exact right place, you can make sure to get out there and find ways to meet high quality people. Life is like a sales funnel, you have to take as many shots as possible and stuff the top of the funnel with as many potential “leads” as possible. Looking forward, it is impossible to know what will come of this but what is for sure is that you are opening up more potential possibilities and you are bound to get lucky at some point. This motion will introduce you to new ideas and opportunities.
There is a reason why being persistent is so important for startups. You will have to keep trying things and deal with failure over and over again but you will have to keep going and making motion. This motion maximizes the chance that something will work out. Yes, it will be partially luck when things go well but usually it takes a lot of work and stirring the pot to get there.
2. Be Prepared
“Chance favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur
Great opportunities are rare. One needs to be prepared to seize them when they come. Having a deep expertise in at least one field and diverse knowledge in many areas will help prepare you. On top of the knowledge, you need work experience in order to prove yourself and further develop your skills. Being prepared is partially skills and knowledge based, but it is also part mentality and world view. The prepared mind is constantly putting its feelers out for opportunity. Being prepared is the readiness to pounce when an opportunity is presented.
It was widely known fairly early on that Google was on its way up like a rocket ship but it was also extremely difficult to land a position there. Yes, the early Google employees got lucky, but they had the high-quality and rare skill-set that allowed them to have the ability to join Google. While it is unlikely that you will be an early employee at the next Google, being prepared will open up a whole new set of possibilities.
3. Be Distinctive
Have a unique skill set and set of interests. This will allow you to have a different view of the world and way of looking at problems. This often leads to the ability to solve problems that others can’t see the solution to and foresight into concepts before others can understand them. Marc Pincus had to have a deep experience in social networking (tribe.net) and a deep interest in gaming to have seen the potential of Zynga. Dennis Crowley had a deep interest and a ton of experience in mobile way before the space became hot, helping him make foursquare. Jack Dorsey’s understanding of real-time and the importance of location through his experience trying to build a taxi dispatch company helped him formulate the idea for twitter. In the words of Steve Jobs “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” That being said, fostering a set of distinctive dots and searching for unique ways of connecting them can only help one identify and understand opportunities as they arise.
4. Take Chances
“Fortune Favors the Bold” Virgil, Aeneid X.284 and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite quotes
Choose high-risk, high-reward paths when it is possible. While this approach can potentially lead to failure (which is a learning experience), it can also lead to great outcomes. People will debate whether such an outcome was luck or skill, but what is for sure is that such an extremely positive outcome would not be possible without taking the risk. While it is still important to weigh opportunity cost and taking big risks may not fit some personality types, it is definitely one way you can increase your chances of being lucky. Especially when you are willing to take chance after chance and can learn from each risk you make. The media loves to share the story of the lucky overnight success. Though in reality, most overnight successes are really ten years in the making.
As Keith Rabois says, the #1 goal should be to develop useful talents and then the rest will take care of itself, people will want to network with you.
Until then, It can still be useful to start building your network while you are simultaneously developing your skills. Also, the development of certain skills can be aided by meeting the right people. Here are some tips:
- Hook into the open and inviting parts of the SV entrepreneurial scene: locations like Hacker’s Dojo that are open to everyone and have a lot of people working on startups and there is some sort of entrepreneurial event nearly every evening. Check meetup.com for a long list of tech events in the bay. At events like these, you will meet the occasional “big name” but in general open events are great for meeting a wide cross section of people who are in the startup scene
- Participate digitally: Write on Quora, comment on HackerNews, Blog, Have conversations on twitter. If you have interesting and insightful things to say and you keep it up over a sustained period of time, people will notice.
- Do your homework: If you are meeting up with someone who you really respect and has accomplished cool things, research them and their background before the meeting. People tend to appreciate it and this allows you to custom tailor a conversation to the person you are talking to.
- Write quality cold emails: You can now contact virtually anybody in the world. Reach out to a lot of people that you would like to meet over email. Make the emails concise, polite and interesting and you may be surprised by how many responses you get.
- Start young: Silicon Valley has a love affair with youth. Many successful SV entrepreneurial types like to mentor young people. Be appreciative, low maintenance and try to help your mentor when you can and your mentors will be able to help you significantly.
- Be on a mission: Networking just for networking’s sake is not as effective as when you have a mission. I use the term mission broadly to mean something that you are focused on. If you have an interesting mission you can rally people around what are you doing and can reach out to people with a specific context which helps in the networking process. Startup related missions include starting companies, organizing events, writing for tech related press outlets, starting a non-profit, looking for specific knowledge for your job…etc.
- Be nice and helpful: People like to deal with people that they like (being nice goes a long way in this category). Also, most people have an in built sense of reciprocity, so try to help as many people as you can. In the long run it will pay off, especially in the SV culture.
- Accomplish noteworthy things and develop expertise: Accomplishing noteworthy things raises your “value” when it comes to networking and having expertise on a topic gives you knowledge that you can share that can be valuable to other people. When you accomplish something or develop an expertise, share it with the world. This can amplify the benefits and help you start a conversation with interesting people.
- Have a good elevator pitch: Whether you have a startup or not, introducing yourself in an interesting way can help catch the attention of people you are meeting and trying to meet. For more, check out http://www.bothsidesofthetable.c…
- Who else do you think I should meet?: When you meet someone that you really enjoyed meeting, at the end of the meeting, ask for introductions to other people that they think would be a good person for you to meet. (Hat tip Jordan Greenhall, a founder and former CEO of DivX)
- Participate in popular startup folk activities: Climb rocks, drink tea, play golf with frisbees, play settlers of catan, go to Burning man… there are a variety of activities that are both fun and quite popular with startup people. Taking part in these activities is both fun and a good way to meet people in a non stodgy way.
- Develop a good relationship with your boss: If you work at a startup, there is a good chance that your boss (and/or your boss’s boss) already has a great network and if you do good work and develop a good relationship with your boss, they can make a lot of useful introductions.
Google has already developed self-driving cars which Larry Page foreshadowed to in his commencement speech that he gave in 2009 to The University of Michigan.
Many things that people labor hard to do now, like cooking, cleaning, and driving will require much less human time in the future. That is, if we “have a healthy disregard for the impossible” and actually build new solutions.
Is it possible that Larry Page was foreshadowing secret projects that Google is working on?
Google has already developed self-driving cars which he foreshadowed to, so it may only be a matter of time before Google develops more crazy sci-fi inventions. I for one am looking forward to appliances that can autonomously cook my food and clean my dishes.
Site owners often A/B test the design of their websites with the goal of increasing the conversion rate of sign ups or sales or some other metric. Site owners often can encounter local maxima. Local maxima are, as the photo demonstrates, like the peaks of small mountains when there are larger mountains surrounding the point that you are at. One interesting feature about local maxima are that in order to leave one, you have to make steps backwards for the chance to get to a better point. In the real world, you can not be sure whether a local maxima is also a global maxima (the highest of all possible points) or not. Even with the possibility that a local maxima is also a global maxima, it is often still worth testing a handful of divergent design ideas and then trying to refine them so that you may discover a higher peak and increase the conversion rate for your site.
This concept is metaphorical to many things in life. We may be stuck at local maxima and will need to explore to potentially find higher maxima. Unfortunately unlike in the world of A/B testing web designs, it takes a serious amount of time and effort to test different possibilities in your life. While it does take significant resources to test out different directions in your life, I think it is well worthwhile to do so. The experience of testing out different options can be an adventure in itself and life is long and you will have the opportunity to seriously pursue many things in your life.
If you are completely satisfied with your current path, by all means, stay the course. Though, if you are not sure, do not be afraid to explore. While exploring, it may be best to focus on one thing at a time so you can really delve deep in a subject rather than merely reaching the foothills of many subjects. Part of the adventure is to explore many different possibilities and who knows, you may reach new heights.
To give you all background, Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, he runs Clarium Capital, another hedge fund guy. He’s been pretty vocal about this bubble in higher education. He has been pretty good at spotting the previous bubbles, the housing bubble, the tech bubble, and all of that. It is a bubble because people are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money on the perception that it is a good investment when it really isn’t. Which is what a bubble is, right. That’s true of the housing bubble and that was true of the tech bubble.
And so his kind of contribution beyond just talking about, his attempt at kind of disrupting it, which I think is in the right direction, but I don’t think it goes quite enough, is he started this program where he is targeting the same kids that would otherwise go to Stanford or MIT or Harvard or whatever and saying look, I will pay you 100 grand if you drop out of school and come start a business. And he is trying to make it so there is something very desirable, like a very prestigious to have, and will probably help your career that doesn’t cost money. That you would give up that other thing, you would give up the college degree. And this might become more desirable.
I think what would really work, to take his thing to the natural edge. I have thrown it out as a crazy idea three or four weeks ago and now it is getting little less crazy idea. I think it would be awesome to start a University, for lack of a better word, in say Mountain View. And this first university, I don’t want to make it sound elitist, but it would focus on the best and the brightest. It would focus on the same kids who are applying to Stanford and MIT and Harvad and all of this right now. And I will tell you a tangent on why I say that, I think that is the only way that you can disrupt. Because if you can, so the goal here is instead of these students paying 50 thousand a year and going into debt, they would be paid. And The reason why I say that is if you can make the best education have negative tuition, I am going to make a geeky calculus analogy, by the squeeze thereom you know literally how can anyone else justify charging anything? If the best education is negative tuition.
And so you get people to come in and their curriculum is literally 6 months at LinkedIn, 6 months at Google, they work in software engineering, they work in product managment, they work in marketing, they work in p.r., they work in accounting. 6 months at Apple, 6 months working for a VC firm, 6 months developing Ipad apps or whatever. And they are paid. Some of the money goes to the students, maybe 30 grand a year and then some goes to the University to set up the environment that you should have. So it is not this purely commercial thing. You have all of the things that we all liked about college. You have a campus, you have pretty trees to read books under, you have venues to meet your future husband or wife.
And you have a scaffold of truly academic material that you can do at your own pace, something like the Khan Academy. And the faculty. And you have seminars, “hey I have a project at LinkedIn but you know what, this is going to require some signal processing, but I don’t know signal processing.” I go back to the campus. There are either other students there, there are Khan Academy [type] resources or there are mentors in the Valley who are willing to work with me on signal processing. And then I learn it. And you go through this and what is going to happen is that these students are going to end up finishing not with debt, they are going to have money saved. They are going to be way more desirable by, you know, this whole slew of companies.
And they kind of have this downside protection because they still have a little bit of an academic scaffold. They will do well on the MCAT, the GRE if they decide to become a doctor or lawyer, they can still do that. I think if you do that, it will be pretty hard for Stanford to justify charging. You know the other thing is that we could go right out the gate ‘cus if you can get the employers involved, especially these sort of marquee employers, and maybe even the Khan Academy because we have a brand in the right place. You don’t face the difficulty of starting a University that no one has ever heard of. People will hear of this university on day 1. And so I think something like that, and if that is successful, then all of a sudden, the tuition inflation becomes very hard to justify. And then you can start more and more of these across the country at different levels with different specializations.
Salman Khan is then asked a follow up question about Olin in particular.
I think the problem with Olin, I actually know Olin pretty well, my advisor at MIT actually ended up becoming a professor at Olin. I think the problem with Olin is the reason that people are paying $200,000 right now is to have a signal to send to the job market that I kick butt. And even though Olin, I haven’t gone to Olin, but I can imagine that it is probably a very good education. That is not the reason that people are spending $200,000, people are spending [is because] they want that signal, “I went to MIT”, “I went to Caltech”. It’s the brand.
And so Olin has a problem with that, and it also has the problem with the connections. I don’t know if Google, maybe Google does, but I don’t know if Goldman Sachs recruits at Olin even though maybe they should. They don’t know what Olin is. And so I think the key thing is to have some type of partnership with very marquee recruiters, because if you get an ecosystem of ten of the top tier, the companies that everyone wants to work for, the other companies, the other companies, next tier of companies are going to say wait, if Google is getting, if LinkedIn is getting all their talent their, we better get our talent there too. We (the second tier companies) don’t want it to look like [they] are getting the scraps.
I think it is very important to build a whole ecosystem there and actually the big difference is that the projects would be stuff that actually matters. If I were to have recommended this 50 years ago, people would have said, “oh my god, but you are making people do vocational stuff. That’s horrible. It’s commercial.” But the reality is that the stuff going on inside LinkedIn, the Software Engineering, the analytics, the marketing is, the stuff that is going on at Google is more intellectual than the software engineering projects that we worked on as undergrads. It is more intellectual than almost anything then the kind of made up projects that the university gives you right now.
So I think if you build a whole ecosystem and I think Silicon Valley is the perfect place to do it. The one thing that I learned at Khan Academy is that there is a lot of people that have made it who are super smart that are just kind of orbiting the valley looking for someone to mentor. Looking to kind of disrupt things a little bit. You can imagine instead of this school showing off about how many Nobel Laureates on their faculty, no we have the CEOs of this company, this company, these are our people that are entrepreneurs and have done amazing things that are our falculty. These are the people who you have access to as mentors. I think it would be very hard to compete with this.
I recently listened to an interview of Salman Khan where he encouraged people to share their knowledge with the world in the form of short, easily digestible videos. Listening to that interview made me decide to create this video, a summary of one of my favorite pop psychology/business books. It is a combination of a review and a summary with the weight on the latter. Enjoy!
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best is now.” Chinese proverb
There are many excuses that people have for not doing what they know they should and what they really want to do. One especially dangerous excuse I call the “I can turn it on whenever I want” excuse. I know, the name needs work but it gets the message across. Whether it is starting to exercise and eat healthy, learning to program or whatever other activity/habit, many people delay taking action thinking that they can just start whenever they want. The good news is it is not too late, you can start whenever you really want to if can muster up the will power and apportion the time to do so. The bad news is that most people will never start, let alone keep it up.
Of course the best time to have started something would have been in the distant past but unfortunately the past can not be changed. Duh. Thus, the best realistic option is to start now. If you can keep up the desired activity for a decent amount of time, the activity can turn into an automatic habit and it will be easier to keep up after that point. Depending on the activity, there may also be a steep learning curve in the beginning and being in the middle of a steep learning curve is oh so frustrating. Therefore, the hardest part is to start the activity and keep going for a long enough period of time so that it becomes habituated and that you can conquer the beginning of the learning curve. But once you conquer the learning curve, you can begin to see results and your work can begin to feel like play.
Yes, starting is hard. Yes, you can think of many excuses. Yes, you can keep putting off action. Though if you do not start now, time will pass you by and no progress will be made. You will one day look back at the past (the current present) and will wish that you started then (now). So what are you waiting for, start now and go and get yours.
P.S. Even though this blog post is written in the second person view (the you view), I am the intended audience of this post. I have had trouble starting things and keeping them going but I am trying to change that. I decided to share this post because I think it is possible that some other people could possibly benefit from this message as well. Thanks for reading.