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M&Ms 65: Optimization
In software, we say that premature optimization is the root of all evil.
All software engineers eventually end up accepting this as a hard truth. Optimizing before you know what will happen next makes systems hard to change. It makes systems brittle. And hard-to-change systems are a nightmare to work with.
But here is the thing, optimizing too soon seems to lead to bad things in more than just software.
Take the creator economy, something I dove deep into over the last year. The common advice doled out to new creators is to pick a niche and stick to it to grow fast. But choosing a niche when you are just starting is premature optimization.
Don't just take my word for it; Daniel Vassallo, the founder of the Small Bets community, says
"Sticking to your niche" is an optimization technique that doesn't work very well when you're still exploring what works for you. And I'm convinced it's not a great strategy even after you find something that works because of the opportunity cost of finding better things.
And premature optimization is not just bad in the creator economy and systems but also in your career.
When I started as a software engineer well over a decade ago, I was shocked by how much I didn't know. The field is vast, and what school prepared me for felt like it just wasn't enough. In short, even though I had a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, I felt like an imposter. So I became determined to fix this.
I spent a lot of time in the first few years of my career becoming a better coder. I even went back to school for a Masters degree in Computer Science, in which I didn't learn much else I didn't already know. I was optimizing hard to become great at code. Eventually, I became one of the best on my team technically.
But then I realized that no one was going to promote me for just coding well. I had to find ways to boost up all these other skills I had neglected while sitting in front of a computer screen. Almost all the skills I found myself trying to sharpen had nothing to do with code, such as how to talk to the business, communicate with customers, and influence decisions.
In fact, a few years later, when I became a manager, I would help juniors level up by assisting them in building these people skills up much earlier. And helping them out of any early over-optimization in any one area.
We also have plenty of examples in Nature of species that over-specialized and went extinct.
Let's look at one animal that's still around, the Cheetah. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, capable of reaching speeds of 80 miles an hour. That is one optimized cat. But did you know that the Cheetah faced more than one bottleneck event that sharply reduced the size of the population?
As The National Geographic points out:
"When [a bottleneck event] happens, the few remaining individuals end up inbreeding or mating with relatives. Inbreeding reduces the size of the gene pool, which can lead to problems such as decreased genetic variability and the persistence of potentially harmful mutations, making it harder for the remaining population to adapt to changes in their environment."
In the last bottleneck event, the cheetahs of North America and Europe went extinct, leaving only those in Africa and Asia still around. Of course, the Cheetah is still lucky enough to be around; countless other specialized species are not. But even though the Cheetah is still with us, their plight shows us that too much optimization comes with some tradeoffs.
And we finally get to the area where premature optimization may be the most detrimental, entrepreneurship.
The conventional wisdom for starting a business today is to pick a business and stick with it no matter what. But sticking with a failing idea for too long can be devastating financially for many. And we just saw what can happen in systems, the creator economy, careers, and nature when one optimizes too much and too early. The same is true for business.
So many great entrepreneurs failed with one idea only to succeed with another later. Thomas Edison is famous for many failed experiments that didn't amount to business success. In this wonderful Twitter Thread by Nathan Baugh, we learn that the founder of Hershey failed three other times before making Hershey work.
This is why I became so attracted to thinking about entrepreneurship in small bets. We don't optimize too early or even all that much. We try a lot of things, and we keep trying things. We always have the option to optimize later if it's working well, but we don't want to end up like the cheetah either; their numbers are dwindling.
So here's the thing, premature optimization is the root of all evil, not simply because of what we may miss out on or that it may be hard to make changes, but also because the thing we picked might not work at all.
And speaking of treating entrepreneurship like a small bet, my friend Chris and I finally launched the recorded version of our Newsletter Launchpad course.
Everything we learned about gaining the confidence to put ourselves ourselves out there authentically and through our newsletters is in it. If you have considered a newsletter or getting started in this creator economy that thing is for you.
A few Tweets I loved this week:
I liked this thread by Nathan, not just because it supports the premise of my essay tonight but also because it’s inspiring.
This thread on nuclear energy was enlightening, especially given all of the energy problems we have going on at the moment.
As it turns out the only problem Nuclear waste has is that people think it’s a problem.
One essay I found enlightening this week:
Morgan Housel wrote an article on things that are true in one field and remain true across others are fundamental principles about how the world works.
I believe this idea of premature optimization I spoke about tonight is one of those things that holds across fields, but he has many others in this excellent piece.
One meme I enjoyed this week:
A fun thread with examples going back to 1894 of people saying that people don’t want to work anymore.
As we can see, this has been going on for a long time, here is one from 1922:
A small update from me:
I have officially moved the newsletter over from my site to Substack.
I will continue to use my site louiebacaj.com to showcase my projects and evergreen essays but the newsletter I send every week will be from Substack.
Substack simply has too many advantages to ignore, and I wrote a little bit about that here
Thank you for reading. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.