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February 27th, 2020
If you need to make an important free throw, it’s much more likely to go well if you can make an enormous number of practice shots. Each practice shot presumably raises the probability that the important free throw that counts will actually go in the hoop.
Compare that to a situation where you are allowed to prepare for the free throw in any other way imaginable except practice shots. How would you prepare for the one single shot? All the calculus in world isn’t going to help, even if you can learn all of the technical details of the arc that will put a ball into a hoop.
The difference between the two and the lack of wisdom in the latter are obvious. And yet this comparison forms a pretty good analogy for the way we think about opportunities and carry out plans. For example starting a business carries with it the cultural expectation of having a thorough business plan – a structure that is supposed to map perfectly the arc from initial investment up to early adopters, then first customers and all the way to profitability. How does this example map on to the previous discussion of free throws?
Another way to think about the dynamics of success is with farming, or even gardening. Even when planting just a single plant, we don’t put just one seed into the soil. We put a bunch of them, more or less depending on the species of plant and the different likelihood of sprouting that each species have. If a plant has a lower chance of successfully sprouting than we put more seeds in, which raises the chance that we’ll get one, or a couple seedlings.
These examples, of planting many seeds and taking numerous free throws are ways of hedging bets and mitigating the chance of a downside. But the business plan is an example of putting all your eggs in one basket, but unlike all the seeds in one planted spot, the basket can drop and the downside is that we loose everything, all our effort, energy and investment.
Ok, but how to go about something like a business plan?
Sure, it can be very useful to sketch out an arc towards profitability, but it becomes dramatically less useful through time as the plan fails to succeed. What’s required here is a willingness to change the plan or even abandon it all together, and treat every little step of the plan as an experiment that gathers information that once interpreted might point us in a different direction than the planned path.
The gathered information, or the feedback is the most important part. Like with the free throws, each shot indicates how we should change. The ball bounced off of the left side of the rim, so the next throw needs to be a little more to the right. The ball bounced right off the backboard? So the next shot need to be a little lighter so it will fall a little shorter. The idea of iterating is very intuitive when it comes to the physical world like this. Feedback is instant, and that distance between instances of feedback is key.
The faster we can iterate our action, the more often we get new information, the faster we can fine tune our direction.
But here’s the thing, no matter how strong and finely tuned our mental model, or no matter how many free throws we take, the result of our next action will always have a degree of unpredictability.
Even Tiger Woods misses 2 foot puts every now and then.
Whether throwing a ball at a hoop or initiating the next phase of a business plan, there’s simply no way to be absolutely certain what the outcome will be. But the more we can poke around for the right direction and the faster we can do this, the more likely we are to hit our target.
There’s really two concepts at play here and they are both methods for cultivating, or farming luck.
In one case we have multiple irons in the fire. Perhaps we have a couple of projects on the go in order to see if one of them might take off, just like the seeds in the ground. Nurture them all and see if any grow. The one that pops up first is maybe the one to nurture.
The second is iterating a single project. Like a bloodhound constantly sniffing around, each action we can take with the project can help us figure out which way to go if that action gains any real feedback.
Compare this to planning and working on something in isolation for many years and then finally releasing it. This sort of situation only creates one opportunity for feedback.
Now how well does it seem that situation will be at cultivating and capturing luck.
In fact, has anything really been cultivated?
Not every seed sprouts.