Here are two pieces of advice I’ve found helpful. The first is one I learned long ago, which has stuck with me for nearly a decade. It’s never far from top-of-mind whenever I begin a new project. The second is one I just heard this past weekend on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast interview where he spoke with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street.
One of my favorite stories that I find inspiring comes from the book, Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker. In the book, Baker recounts the origin story of IBM’s Watson– specifically back in 2011, how IBM conceived and executed the project. The anecdote that’s always stuck with me is before they embarked upon this multi-billion dollar endeavor, IBM’s Watson team tasked a summer intern who’d just joined with the task of trying to create “Watson” with the most basic, off-the-shelf, open-source software that was commercially and freely available. They timeboxed it to three weeks and simply let the intern, a bright fellow, I’m sure, wander off into the interwebs and do his thing. The motivation behind this assignment was to develop a baseline not constrained by conventional thinking. It’d be incredibly humiliating and embarrassing if the IBM team poured billions into Watson only to have it outperformed by a garage project some rando created in his spare time.
I’ve always found this story compelling because it champions a scrappy and resourceful mindset. Forget all of the fancy tools, machine learning, expensive vendor solutions, etc. You’re not always the King of England with superior firepower, vast armies of men, and overwhelming force. Sometimes you’re Mel Gibson in Scotland and the only things you have are your own two bare hands and your wits. Learning to build a lean, mean, fighting machine is a healthy approach and good for the human spirit. After all: “Necessity is the mother of all invention.”
The second piece of advice comes from Shane Parrish/Warren Buffett: Choose a domain of knowledge that doesn’t change quickly (Eg. Not technology.) This way you give your knowledge base a chance to compound and grow. If you are working in a fast-changing domain, the ground is always shifting beneath your feet making it extremely difficult to build on your terrain of knowledge.
Parrish cites Warren Buffet as an example who, famously, for many decades shied away from technology because Buffett simply felt like he didn’t understand it. (Now certainly, and by Buffett’s own admission, that ended up being a huge mistake and he left billions on the table, but that’s beside the point.) Instead, Buffett focused his investments on consumer staples and things like rail transportation. By focusing on just the few, slow-moving industries that he knew well, Buffett was able to make tremendous amounts of money.