Surface area of luck

Australian tech space explorations, sunk cost fallacy and loosely held strong opinions

Over recent weeks, I have been doing active scouting missions into the Australian technology / startup space, along this journey of exploring what work could next look like for me.

The sheer quantity of companies and people who are out there doing really interesting work was astounding and a pleasant surprise — previously, I had no idea that there was such a vibrant ecosystem right here in Australia and still upheld this default notion that the most interesting technology companies were abroad, not here.

In a short amount of time, I got to know more about:

This is, clearly, a strong signal that there are plenty of people out there building interesting things, so perhaps I just had my eyes just a little bit too closed before.

Sunk cost fallacy

In a previous exploration, in the Windscreen blog, I had touched upon the primary drivers that are pivoting me away from my training as a process engineer and propelling me forward towards the technology / startup space. The gist of it is this: through personal experiences gathered over time, I have come to learn more about myself and the types of work that I could really lose myself in, which is currently pointing me towards the spaces of front-end development, design thinking and human centred design.

On a personal level, this all feels like a tremendous divergence, requiring conscious efforts to overcome the pressures that are coming from the sunk cost fallacy but actually, it turns out that this is not the first.

I left university with a Bachelors of Chemical Engineering, with 4 years of specific training in oil & gas processing, and then went on to spend 4 years after that immersed within a completely different industry — one of minerals and pyro processing technologies.

Somewhere in between those years, I was lucky enough to pick up front-end development through a side project of building a personal website as well as gain immersive experiences within design thinking and human centred design — further adding to the collection of divergent skills.

From these experiences, one of the things I have come to notice and appreciate is the contrast between open source and closed source information flow.

The former came from learning how to build websites and self educating through an online MOOC, which made it seem like there were no longer any closed doors or hidden secrets — that anyone from anywhere with a reasonable internet connection could learn from the greatest giants and educate themselves if they were hungry enough. Getting such easy access to high quality knowledge from world class instructors also showed me that the hard skills, the technical know-how, have become commoditised in the wake of this open-flow of information.

On the other hand, the latter came from being immersed within the manufacturing industry, where information and knowledge can feel secretive and closed off even when on the inside and near the roots of production. There might be very practical reasons why information and knowledge becomes  proprietary or closed-sourced, in environments where it is time-in-the-seat instead of books and resources that leads to the accumulation of the right kind of knowledge that is required to cultivate domain expertise. It seems to be a form of specific knowledge that gets honed and sharpened by being exposed to that domain over time. What results is that this allows one to be highly effective within that domain, but with limited applicability to anywhere else beyond that domain.

Which is better and which is worse? I am not so sure if there is a clear cut answer.

I think fostering accessibility to high quality education is a good thing but there is a risk of creating a ‘there are no secrets, I can do anything’ arrogance. One can now learn about anything, but that does not mean that one can become anything. Being educated is not the same as being a practitioner, of being effective in applying the information gathered into the real world.

These days, anyone can choose to become proficient in the (many) tools of building software, but there remains massive demand and open competition for those who are great at doing the thing, of building great software. Why is that? Shouldn’t greater accessibility to education create additional supply of talent and fulfil more of the demand? It probably does to some extent, as those who have always been hungry but lacked the opportunity progress upwards and fill in the gaps, but there remains a dividing line between just knowing the skills and having the talent to be great at something.

On the other hand, closed-source systems demand participants to make a blind, upfront commitment of investing their time and energy into the system — before they can even receive any meaningful amount of information about what it takes to survive and thrive on the inside. This is a risk for all parties involved, where ‘managers’ of the system cannot really assess the capabilities of participants until they are functioning on the inside and where participants cannot really determine whether they have found the right fit until they are on the inside.

With this lens, it is no surprise how compelling the sunk cost fallacy can become to a participant in a closed-source system. The cost of exiting can be intimidatingly high, just like the price of entry.

Strong opinions, weakly held

What I had found most memorable and inspiring, from the times of being surrounded by people who were way smarter than me, was to encounter clarity of thinking — which seems to be a meta-skill that is capable of crossing disciplines and perhaps even across domains.

Clarity of thinking that manifests through a superpower ability to deconstruct problems all the way down to their core and build them back up again, regardless of what the technicalities of the problem might be. There was a strong sense of open-mindedness and an ability to sit steadily inside chaos, a deliberate act of not relying on assumptions or past knowledge, at least in the initial encounters with the problem at hand.

This reminds me of Paul Saffo’s famous saying of “strong opinions, weakly held” — to balance high convictions with an openness to the possibility of error and a willingness to make any required adjustments in the future.

Navigating an uncertain future

What happens when what the world needs from you suddenly changes?

Or if your curiosity takes you down a path that runs away from the one you have been on for so long?

“There are three solutions to every problem: accept it, change it or leave it.”

Which option is best? It is up to the individual asking the question to decide.

Whether the change is imposed from an external source or motivated from within, change is inevitable — but what we can control is how we prepare and how we respond to it. Cultivating the capacity to be adaptable to change should not be an excuse to opt out of ever diving deeply into something, but instead serve as a long term hedge against an uncertain future.

Manifesting into something like: ‘strong and diversified identities, loosely held’.

Along with this, I recently encountered an interesting idea from Michael Batko, CEO of Startmate, which I have been thinking about over and over again since reading the original blog post.

He shared that, “Luck is a process. You have to expose yourself to luck in order to be lucky.” and the idea that it is possible to be deliberate in ‘increasing the surface area for luck to strike.’ — which I found to be a really helpful conception that shines a light on what has always been mysterious and hidden in the shadows.

This insight is a timely and personal one, on this quest of pivoting away from the known and into the unknown. One thing is for sure, I am going to need all the luck I can get.

A person who never loses the key to the land of their childhood can visit a certain eternal place even as an adult.

The key, as it were, is the desire to keep asking, “What is important to me?”

If you have that, you can reach a deeper place. And the older you get, the farther you can go.

— Mariko Mikuni