“Your entire life runs on the software in your head. Why wouldn’t you obsess over optimizing it?" — Tim Urban, author of Wait But Why
One of the most striking posts I’ve read is Tim Urban covering Elon Musk’s Secret Sauce. Like computers, we are born with hardware and software.
The hardware is like a ball of clay — a starting combination of strengths and weaknesses — but the software determines what the clay gets shaped into. We cannot easily change our hardware, but we can regularly update our software to unlock extraordinary performance.
Most people never update their software. We live in 2020, but some people’s view of the world is frozen in time from their last software update, perhaps from decades ago.
Your mental software is arguably the most important product you own. You can nourish it through consuming healthy stuff, but it’s even more important to make time to create.
Building products is one of the best ways to force update your mental software. You observe the world as it is, and create a thesis about an overlooked problem. You test a solution based on your thesis. You get direct feedback. You update your thinking, and start again.
Mastering the fundamentals of anything, including product, hinges on two things:
- Speed of feedback
- Directness of feedback, which is a proxy for quality
I experienced this with each career switch. When I jumped from consulting to big tech, my feedback loop became more direct: I could tell if my market research resonated with advertisers based on whether they committed to a budget afterwards. When I switched from big tech to a startup, my feedback loop became more direct and faster: I could measure whether the products we shipped weekly were adopted by users and made them transact more in our marketplace.
Working at a startup that found product/market fit gave me a chance to master the PM fundamentals in a relatively safe but fast-paced environment. The speed and directness of our feedback loops helped me race up the learning curve.
The best part of mastering the fundamentals is that you get the chance to play a different game altogether. Speed and focus are critical when you’re already working on the right problems, but taking time to pause and reevaluate your problem space is the highest-leverage exercise for your future self and team.
Ask yourself: what am I optimizing? And how does it fit into the bigger picture?
Optimizing a cog in a machine will typically be lower ROI than rethinking the machine itself, even if the latter has a longer feedback cycle.
There’s almost always a higher level machine you can find. While it may not always be worth taking on Goliath, exploring options makes you less likely to miss a big opportunity.
For instance, when the categories in our marketplace were buckling under the strain of thousands of new products per week, the path of least resistance was to tweak category names and break apart bloated categories.
This worked for a while, but by greasing the cog, we were simply neglecting an opportunity to improve the overall categorization machine.
When we finally committed to creating a more flexible system for categorizing products, we saw massive gains in our conversion that dwarfed the optimizations that came before. It was a huge unlock for the business and the sheer difficulty of the initiative only deepened our competitive advantage.
We made a similar mistake by repeatedly optimizing the ranking of filters on the page to show more popular filters at the top. The bigger opportunity, however, was incorporating filter usage into personalized ranking, reducing the need for users to labor over filter selections altogether.
Sometimes the higher-level machine to optimize is your life itself.
Years ago, I was still learning at a fast clip in consulting when I noticed my growing sense of disillusionment with the work. I was desperate to be staffed on a consumer tech project, to escape the grim world of semiconductor fab plants. My desperation became all-consuming until it dawned on me that I already knew I wanted to be in tech, not consulting. So why continue on the treadmill?
The things I had yet to learn in consulting would make me a better consultant, not a better candidate for tech. I bit the bullet and left consulting before my 2-year mark. It remains one of the best decisions of my life!
As much as feedback loops help to tune your software, the dark side is that they are mini-treadmills of their own — they incentivize you to do more things that get you a positive reward as quickly as possible. This is ok when you’re running towards the right goal, but determining whether that is actually true for a product, or for your life in general, takes regular reflection on a changing you and a changing world.
Returning to Tim Urban’s post on Elon Musk’s Secret Sauce, the most inspiring insight is that what sets Elon apart is his carefully tuned mental software. That his seemingly magical power to visualize the future is less magic, and more clarity of what’s possible based on first principles. That what’s remarkable is there are not more people who think this way.
Our hardware may start us off at different points, but we get a chance everyday to change where we end up. By seeking places where we can get direct feedback quickly, we can update our software to master the fundamentals. We then have the ability to play a different game, moving up the ladder from optimizing cogs to rethinking machines and systems, from climbing a local maxima to scaling a global one.