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Paul Buchheit: Serendipity finds you (paulbuchheit.blogspot.com)
421 points by tzury on Oct 24, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

Eh, I just got approached by Google via LinkedIn and went for it even though I was sure I wouldn't get it. Sure enough, I did not get it, but it was nevertheless a valuable experience. I have learned two things:

1) An n^2 algorithm runs in polynomial time, but it is no longer good enough when n ~= 100000000. Assuming 1000000 operations a second, that is still a few hundred years. I have never thought of it because I've just never encountered that sort of scale. I may never do, but it was still a revelation for me.

2) It confirmed that I am really rusty at algorithms due to one too many jobs writing CRUD web apps. I need to do something about this. For a start, practice in my free time and secondly, look for a job that allows me to develop in that area.

I'm not saying that it wasn't disappointing even though I knew my chances weren't good, but I gave it my best shot and I am choosing to use the experience positively. Is that serendipity?

Interviewing for jobs you know you won't get is one of the best things you can do in your career. The insight you gain on both their hiring process as well as their expectation is priceless. I've interviewed with 5 big web companies, failed many, but landed one (after a failed first attempt). I credit my experiences learned from the failed attempts as the reason I was eventually hired.

1) There's nothing quite like looking at your MapReduce status page and seeing "Estimated completion time: 79 years."

"You can only connect the dots, looking backwards" - Steve Jobs, at the Stanford commencement address.

A closely related story, from HN user kenjackson (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1647146 ):

"How long will you need to find your truest, most productive niche? This I cannot predict, for, sadly, access to a podium confers no gift of prophecy. But I can say that however long it takes, it will be time well spent. I am reminded of a friend from the early 1970s, Edward Witten. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. He decided that what he was really meant to do was study economics. And so, he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. And, after only a semester, he dropped out of the program. Not for him. So, history was out; linguistics, out; economics, out. What to do? This was a time of widespread political activism, and Ed became an aide to Senator George McGovern, then running for the presidency on an anti-war platform. He also wrote articles for political journals like the Nation and the New Republic. After some months, Ed realized that politics was not for him, because, in his words, it demanded qualities he did not have, foremost among them common sense. All right, then: history, linguistics, economics, politics, were all out as career choices. What to do? Ed suddenly realized that he was really suited to study mathematics. So he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at Princeton. I met him midway through his first year there--just after he had dropped out of the mathematics department. He realized, he said, that what he was really meant to do was study physics; he applied to the physics department, and was accepted.

I was happy for him. But I lamented all the false starts he had made, and how his career opportunities appeared to be passing him by. Many years later, in 1987, I was reading the New York Times magazine and saw a full-page picture akin to a mug shot, of a thin man with a large head staring out of thick glasses. It was Ed Witten! I was stunned. What was he doing in the Times magazine? Well, he was being profiled as the Einstein of his age, a pioneer of a revolution in physics called "String Theory." Colleagues at Harvard and Princeton, who marvelled at his use of bizarre mathematics to solve physics problems, claimed that his ideas, popularly called a "theory of everything," might at last explain the origins and nature of the cosmos. Ed said modestly of his theories that it was really much easier to solve problems when you analyzed them in at least ten dimensions. Perhaps. Much clearer to me was an observation Ed made that appeared near the end of this article: every one of us has talent; the great challenge in life is finding an outlet to express it. I thought, he has truly earned the right to say that. And I realized that, for all my earlier concerns that he had squandered his time, in fact his entire career path--the ventures in history, linguistics, economics, politics, math, as well as physics--had been rewarding: a time of hard work, self-discovery, and new insight into his potential based on growing experience."

Source: http://www.colby.edu/colby.mag/issues/84n3/ivory.html

That's an amazing story. Makes me wonder...

As the narrator says, this is not an usual pattern for people to migrate from one thing to next. And if that's the case, then chances are there are many many more people which may end up never finding "that calling". In a way, the above story illustrates the anti "pure hill-climbing" approach: the initial assumption/premise is that you should find a hill and then go really, really far in hopes of making a big contribution. Whereas Ed Witten's story shows that picking one single hill is not necessarily a good idea (local minima!) ... In fact, every once in a while (or systematically), you could jump to a different hill and still come out as a winner. Now the real puzzle is:

a) You could make the argument that your chances of finding the optimal hill for you, on the first try, are very slim. Hence, you should jump at least a few hills.. i.e, your real aptitude lies somewhere else.

b) Jumping too much will/may cause not enough time with anyone subject to make significant contribution - hence it's an optimization problem.

c) The "cross-discipline" question: its often acknowledged that bridging different knowledge areas is very helpful in terms of making interesting discoveries. Does that, in turn, mean that you should jump at least a few hills? If so, how many, and how much time?

Fun questions to ponder... Clearly there is no black and white answer either! Depends on your field, context, etc.

I've experienced going down the wrong path to a lesser extent. I wanted to study physics or computer science. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or go into biotech, and I caved to their will. All through college I struggled, hating my major and what I was learning. I even continued to grad school down the same route.

I had been depressed for years, but then one day, it dawned on me that I should drop out and pursue what I knew I wanted in life. I picked up programming again, am now an aspiring web developer, and I'm quite happy now.

Sometimes I think of how much better things would've been if I had started on the right foot, but Ed's story goes to show it's never too late to discover your calling. And when you find it, you may be destined to do great things.

That was quite a motivating story. Thanks for the share.

And I would wonder if the cross-discipline of knowledge didn't also assist...

Wow, thank you so much for reviving that post! I had not seen that story before. It is a classic.

How did he get accepted into all of those graduate programs? I'd love to try my hand at a new field but i have no idea how to get into a phd program.

Step 0: Be Ed Witten.

More generally, if you can get into one Ph.D. program you can probably get into most of them. Profs, like any employer, want the two key things: be smart, and get enough done to justify their investment in you. Except that students are really cheap, especially in the first year or two, and especially in math or theoretical physics where their cost is mostly in office space, ever-cheaper computer time, adviser hours and coffee.

He must have been already recognized as being very talented in mathematics to get accepted into the Ph.D. program at Princeton. They only accept around 15 students every year from all over the world. I wonder how did his talent demonstrate itself before he started doing mathematics professionally.

Great story. Another reminder that you can't connect the dots looking forward: http://onemansblog.com/2010/02/01/steve-jobs-outstanding-sta...

Very inspiring - thank you. Yes, it strikes me that Ed was not squandering his time at all. He was making the absolute best possible use of his time as he amassed more and more insights and understandings that he was able to channel into his ultimate calling.

Thanks for sharing this. While Ed might not have been clear about his goals, he tried stuff and moved on quickly if he didn't like something.

Does any one have access to the original New York Times Ed Witten article?

The original Ed Witten New York Times article referred to by Weisbort is here http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/18/magazine/a-theory-of-every...

A little off-topic, but what little experience I have about successfully shipping successful software is that it's all about Dwight's aphorism that planning is essential but plans are inconsequential.

When you take the mindset that planning exists to help you observe and react to future discoveries rather than to detail exactly what you're going to do regardless of future discoveries, all sorts of serendipity is showered on a development effort.

Thanks, Paul, and sorry about the alliteration.

This is interesting, especially in contrast to "Nah, who needs another search engine?" from two days ago (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1822750)

The most important thing to take from the article is this:

> I was skeptical of their business (Google) and didn't expect it to last long, but it seemed like it could be fun and educational, so I accepted.

Live a little, and take chances!

My philosophy on planning your own life:

You should think enough (and just enough, no more) about what you want in life so that when unusual opportunities arrive, you notice them, and jump at them.

"You should think enough (and just enough, no more) about what you want in life so that when unusual opportunities arrive, you notice them, and jump at them."

This is more or less my take on it. There are opportunities all around us (IE: the luck part of the equation). But, if you don't have the knowledge, expertise, or ambition to act on them, you won't be able to take advantage of it (the skill part of the equation).

Lucky people notice more opportunities and take advantage of them, according to this article by Richard Wiseman:


Key points from the article

"unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else"

"lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good."

"lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good."

It sounds less like luck and more like skill when it's put this way.

Good content, but my favorite part of the article is the anecdote about how Paul started at Google. Putting yourself in a place where you have the opportunity to be lucky makes up some percentage of the total likelihood of being extremely successful (yes, I consider Paul extremely successful along many axes), but I think a much larger portion of this equation is actually being lucky. I guess if you iterate over and over again, by say joining startups repeatedly, eventually most people get lucky in some way. The magnitude of that success however, is certainly highly variant.

Even though I haven't been "successful" with startups (yet), I feel I've been very lucky. Anybody else feel that way?

If you tie your success to only how well a company is going to do, you are setting up for fail (And feeling unlucky, and so slightly pissed off at work.). There are too many external factors deciding that.

I measure my success in many ways.

1. Do I havea loving family. Check.

2. Do I have fulfilling hobbies. Check.

3. Do I have enough money to fulfill my responsibilities and hobby, doing things I love. Check.

4. Do I have as much money as I would want to call myself successful. Not yet.

Tying my success to many parameters I can feel a little successful everyday, and continue to feel lucky, and continue to work toward what I would call a successful startup.

This reminds me of portfolio theory in finance: as long as your goals are diverse enough, generally you will track the market (i.e. how life is going generally). That being said, I think the most successful business people are those that really closely tie their happiness with the success of the company (Steve Jobs, I think, is a good example).

> Steve Jobs

If you feel he's a good role model, then what do we make of him being cast out of Eden by his own board, and then having NeXT going basically nowhere until Apple begged him to come back and bought the company for its OS and as a talent acquisition?

I suspect he's been happier in a certain sense when his actions have been validated by the market, but at the same time, I strongly suspect he has certain other motivations that drive him and he's happy when he acts in harmony with those motivations. The marketplace validating his work is probably just icing on the cake.

That's all just speculation I pulled out of my Ass, of course!

"Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur

Repeating a comment I made a couple of weeks ago on another post on serendipity - http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1786959 -

This is even stronger than Pasteur's famous, "Chance favors the prepared mind" - if you are not actually working on a problem, there is no possible way to benefit from serendipity.

"Random selection is biased in favour of lucky people." - Roy A. Sorensen

There is a game called rejection therapy that is all about capitalizing on chances and getting out of your comfort zone: http://www.rejectiontherapy.com . I've tried it and it works.

I've found most chances come only once, and never again. That job interview, the cute girl right beside you in the produce section (etc) are opportunities we need to instinctively take (instead of instinctively shy away from).

"The program for eliminating ego-fear and unblocking serendipity is very simple: seek ego-fear. Hunt it down and soak in it. Steal its energy. This is, by definition, scary. That's good."

Jason Shen is an excellent example of hunting down ego-fear: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1811868

Reminds me of my recent interview experience with a big internet company. I was casually signing up for this Linux user group. To join that group you have introduce yourself, i just gave the link explaining how i contribute to this operating system project. One night i was pinged by a strange guy, he just showed me a job posting on their website and asked me whether i would like to join. The job description is exactly what i do in free time. It was really amazing. Everything was just an accident, no plan at all. I sent them my resume, after couple of phone interviews , they gave me a flight ticket (yay! that was my first flight) . Did the interview OKAY. I am keeping my fingers crossed for result of the interview. Even if i don't get the job, it was a wonderful experience :-)

I couldn't agree more. I find myself somewhat dumbfounded when I think about where I am these days and where I could be. My career path has been a series of serendipitous events that I could not have possibly planned out. I've mostly just responded to opportunities given to me, accepting the fear of rejection if things don't work out. Anyway, great advice.

The problem I have with this is that you're extracting a formula (or non-formula rather) after the fact. It seems as if you lived your life like any other person, and things just eventually happened to you.

It sounds like he has lived like any other person with the difference being his attitude ("Opportunity is all around us, but we have beliefs and habits that block it."). He might just be lucky. It also might be the case that that attitude is a powerful tool.

the part about ego based fear is really good. meditation helps with that

Sage advice.

Meh. Lucky people always love to talk about how easy it is if you just do what they did - though they usually have a hard time explaining exactly what it was that they did.

How does he explain all the happy-go-lucky young fliberdygibbits who ended up serendipitously taking their first job offer in 1998 from Pets.com? Or those of us who labored under the impression that "as soon as DataPower takes off" there'll be bonuses raining from the sky?

Right time, right place. Right age group. Right skill set. 25% of the above are things you can plan for.

I think PB is too consistent to dismiss him as merely lucky. He didn't just happen to be an early employee at Google. He also wrote GMail (which entailed not only a redesign of the email experience, but also was a pretty dramatic evolutionary step in web apps because of its then extreme use of Javascript), built the first version of AdSense, and was the one who came up with "Don't be evil." It's unlikely to be a coincidence.

Nor does he have a hard time explaining what he did. He has spoken several times at Startup School about his approach to solving problems. I've learned a lot from him.

I'm not saying the guy isn't smart. Just throwing out a little "outliers" to grease the wheel for the rest of us donkeys.

Sometimes reasons to hope are not best expressed by those who have nothing to regret. This is one of those times.

There are few people over the age of 5 who have nothing to regret, and I don't think PB is one of them.

I'm with you on this one. After the initial 'serendipity' of google, PB's reputation was sealed and he could pick his title and company.

While it's interesting to speculate if PB had chosen a pets.com instead of google what would have happened to his career, it's not particularly constructive.

The idea that our success is largely beyond our control is sufficiently pernicious that we're all better off just pretending it is not the case and keeping our heads down and trying our damnedest.

If PB had been at Pets.com then I'm guessing FriendFeed would have involved feeding dogs?

You seem to be missing the point.

There are no guarantees. Ever. Our lives are ruled chance. You can't duplicate my life, but you can create an interesting life of your own.

There are no guarantees of success. It's usually possible to guarantee failure, e.g. by not returning the call.

Survivor bias is the phrase that comes to mind. The other one is "notoriety bias:" Only the stories with a spectacular ending get made into movies, so you read about the big successes and the big failures, but nothing in between.

Yeah, I know. Meanwhile, there's now an industry built on telling children their dreams really can come true if they accrue enough ycombinator karma. Way to harness that aptitude, baby.

edit: yeah, rate me down for telling you what you didn't want to hear. I'm not the one who throws $18k at a time down a well just to get a high school kid to suck up to me and think I'm a god.

I thought the point of the article was not to have dreams, but rather to be awake to the world around you, because much of the goodness in it will pass you by if you're fixated on something else.

I seriously don't want to live in your world.

So what would you tell kids? Do not aspire for anything because chances are, you will likely fail.

You can choose how you look at things.

"For every good story, there is a bad story."

"For every bad story, there is a good story."

I choose the latter.

Well all the 'young fliberdygibbits' who started with pets.com might not be successful by "your" definition, but majority of them might be very happy in their lives by their own standards.

There could very well be a cafe owner down the road who might exactly say the same thing about serendipity as PB did in this blog post. He could be happy with the choices he made in his lifetime and the chances he took that got him all that is good in his life (by his definition).

It all comes down to whether a person has a positive outlook or not. One can keep regretting the things that didn't work out, or choose to see the good things in his/her life.

Lucky people always love to talk about how easy it is if you just do what they did - though they usually have a hard time explaining exactly what it was that they did.

I just posted an interview with the writer and professional asshole Tucker Max, who said almost the same thing: http://jseliger.com/2010/10/22/tucker-max-interview-assholes... :

Tucker Max: People create all these narratives explaining away why they haven’t had the courage to take their personal path, or explaining away my success, or anyone else. Anyone who succeeds in anything, there’s always going to be people who don’t have the courage to do that. They get upset about it, either explain it away, or dismiss it away.

JS: It sounds like you almost found out by accident. In Assholes Finish First you say that when you and your friends graduated from law school, “We were slowly realizing that the ‘real life’ we’d chosen really fucking sucked. A lot.” Sounds like you’re trying to tell people how not to do that.

TM: As much as I’d like to sit here and be like, “Yeah, I had the courage to do all this stuff, and I had the vision to see where I was gonna go and I knew I would get there.” That’s fuckin’ bullshit. That’s not true. That’s the narrative I might tell when I’m 70, and I can’t remember all this stuff.

JS: Trying to inspire your grandkids?

TM: Right. The true, true story is it’s a combination of some determination and some talent on my part. Some talent, a lot of determination, a lot of luck, and a lot of serendipity. And a lot of failure. I was fired—

JS: There’s a section about failure in the book.

TM: I was fired from the legal profession, basically. I wasn’t just fired from Fenwick and West—you read the first book, the story’s in there. I got fired in such a public way that there was almost no way I was going to get back into law. I would have to go back and be a public defender or something if I wanted to be a lawyer. Seriously.

That's nothing more than ego-fear in the extreme - after all, you don't have to step out of your comfort zone, success is just luck.

This, of course, isn't true at all.

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