Are you reaching a local maximum or a global maximum?
What's your goal and are you climbing the right mountain to get there?
Say you are on a mission to build a startup, and you want to provide a whole lot of value to the world with the company that you build. You've got your vision and your goal, but there are many things that can point you in the direction of the biggest success, your customers, your market, and your customer's problem that you are trying to solve.
Now, I like to imagine the biggest success you could reach as the biggest possible mountain in the world, the global maximum. I also like to imagine a success but not the biggest one, as a small mountain or a local maximum. If your strategy is that you are only moving upwards, you might not know what mountain you are climbing. You might find yourself at the top of the smallest mountain, with nowhere further to climb, and realize you've reached your local maximum. You can optimise almost anything, but if you choose the wrong thing to optimise you might be wasting your time.
Once you pick a mountain you can't just keep switching, you've got to make sure you are climbing Mount Everest.
Now, I think this analogy applies to more than just startups building a product, but many other things in life.
Here are some other interesting examples of local maximum.
- Eating the same foods. Your parents served you rice and three veg growing up, and that's all you've known.
- Doing the same hobbies/activities as you've always done? You have played tennis since school, your parents gave you lessons, and you played with friends in school and university, you haven't really thought about whether you even like tennis! You aren't even sure what is most important to you about what sport you play, because you haven't even tried enough variety to know!
- Staying in the same friend group as at school without considering who is serving your needs? You might still get along, but actually, you realize that talking about what clothes to buy and makeup to wear isn't hugely satisfying, and you feel somewhat out of place, but you might stay because you don't know anything else. It seems daunting to try another mountain and start climbing from the bottom again.
- Staying in the same degree your parents did or working in the same role as your degree, without considering all the options. Your parents might be engineers, so you decided also to study engineering. Everyone you went to University with is suddenly an engineer, and you are now on one very clear path up a mountain, and you aren't even aware of what other mountains there are! Do you really want to be an engineer? Is this the best use of your natural aptitude? Is this what brings you energy?
- Say you are fretting over getting paid the most compared to your friends/colleagues, and your goal is to get paid more. But you've never considered looking for employment outside of your local country. You might be looking for the largest mountain in NZ, but you need to be broadening your search if you want to be hitting the global maximum (if that so happens to be your goal).
*Note: you can get paid ~4x salaries by moving to the US in many high-paying jobs. Software engineering, data science.
- Not exploring enough startup ideas or feature ideas, not enough high-risk bets. You could be listening to customer feedback, iterating on your product, but not trying enough risky moves to see if there's a bigger mountain out there. Casting out a net to see if it sticks to a higher slope.
Some of these don't really matter, but some might matter a heck of a lot! It depends on a heck of a lot on what's most important to you; what are your goals? What is your vision for the future?
For each of these local minimums there is a global maximum!!
- choosing the best country for you to live in - you want to earn enough money to be incredibly comfortable, so you choose to make your way to America.
- choosing the best career for you to work on - if you want to optimise for earnings, you'd probably choose software engineering.
- choosing what customers you are targeting.
- choosing what market your startup is targeting.
If you notice yourself not exploring enough of your options and seeing the same choices again and again, without being intentional about it, you might be at a local maximum.
How do we get from the Local Maximum to the Global Maximum?
- Look up from your feet and explore more of the world. Understand what possibilities there are past your mountain.
- You can't always keep trying to find the right mountain; if you keep trying to find the right mountain, you end up in an optimization loop, which unfortunately gets you nowhere!
You can "explore" too much! A telltale sign of too much exploration is the optimisation loop! You are trying to optimise everything so much that, much like when a computer's ram is overloaded, you get stuck with too many options to optimise in a loop with your wheels spinning, and you aren't able to make any progress. Climbing a mountain isn't easy and all the time you spend exploring rather than exploiting is time that you aren't spending climbing. Even achieving a local maximum in life is a big achievement, so there's plenty of reasons to pick something and run with it.
In life it's not always clear if one thing is better than another, you won't know if one mountain is really taller or not, unless you climb both, and there isn't enough time in life to climb all the mountains! Life is nuanced and it's not easy to know if your choice was better than another.
What's the right balance?
There's some kind of balance between explore/exploit that will allow you to find the right maximum for you. Depending on the stage of your project or of your life will depend on the amount of exploration vs. exploitation. If you are early on in your life and career, lots of exploration will help you better understand what is out there. Similarly, if you are at the early stage of your startup, lots of exploration of different feature ideas are more useful. Later down the line, when you have a clearer product and feature set, and a proven path to success, it makes sense to explore less and exploit less.
Inspiration for this blog post came from walks with friends around the beautiful city of San Francisco and on the Scottish West-Highland Way.