After talking to a number of PhD students, I’ve come to conclude two things. First, that many (especially in “genius disciplines” like maths or physics) are motivated by the goal of being the smartest human who ever lived—“the next Einstein”, or Feynman, or Grothendieck—not like the humans themselves, but rather like the symbols: revolutionary rarities who personally transformed some small corner of the world.
Second, I’m tentatively concluding that base hits are “actually the way forward”—that is, that home-run projects become magnum opi that never get finished because they’re not perfect, or the passionate ego-drive weakens, or the idea of expressing the ultimate moral worth of one’s psyche through academic paper-writing does not lead to successful ideas. Maybe the cure to cancer doesn’t come from a flash of insight but from a more mundane process of trying this, then that, then another thing. The dissertation that gets done comes from a concrete plan, consisting of steps, which lead to a sequence of words on a page.
The revolution, if it happens, is more likely to come from a sequence of papers which actually get written, than from an unhatched geniusling that doesn’t get written. And let’s face it: most of us aren’t geniuses, nor would we want to be, but we’re still interested in being productive.
In business one can think about base hits as well. My first business was a base hit. I didn’t sell for a jillion dollars, I just gave myself and some other people jobs for a number of years and didn’t fail. Which was my goal at the outset: not to be unprofitable. My plan was to copy an idea I had seen work somewhere else, make a few tweaks, and do it.
OK, so maybe it turned out to be more of a bunt and I should go for a double next time. But at least I wasn’t trying to dream up a revolutionary mobile app that will change the world, justifying paying $250k to various programmers as justified on a massively outsized conception of the “genius” of my “idea”, and ending up with something looking suspiciously like a mashup of Foursquare, Linkedin, OKCupid, and airplane reservations.
I definitely keep my left eye on acquisition prices as a way to gauge interesting spaces to enter—but I’m also thinking about what are the things I can accomplish, with the team I could reasonably assemble, the skills & knowledge I actually have, and the hours I’m actually going to want to work. What are the high-probability base hits I could string together to get from here to there?
(Just to give an example, I will not be founding the next Heroku. That got a nice bid, but the founders were engineers who knew a lot about hardware. That’s not me.)
Maybe Citadel wasn’t built from a “genius” signal using all the latest machine-learning hoopla, but from a smart (and obsessive) kid making trades he thought he could win on, and not making the other trades. And then building from there. Learning what’s a good opportunity, how long it takes to scope out a trade, how much research can reasonably be done in a month, and so on.
In short, maybe all of the “homeruns” I can think of, are actually just a sequence of small steps definitively forward.
In writing I find myself looking more and more for base hits as well. When I first started isomorphismes.tumblr.com, I had very, very high hopes for how awesome the material would be. (I won’t admit how high.) But now after posting 250 short bits of mathematics, I’m much more focussed on
- write everything down somewhere, perhaps for later;
- publish 2-3 things a week;
- try to make them not suck.
I still think that after some unspecified amount of time, I may be able to string together a more magnum-opusy kind of work—once the pieces (short blog posts) are mostly there on the cutting-room floor. But that’s much more like stringing together a series of base hits than genius-ing out the heartbreaking work I would like to imagine I’ll create.
But what’s my rush? I’m accumulating tumblr followers every day, I’m plugging away at the craft, I’m putting out material. Looking back over a year of following that formula, I’ve put out a surprising amount of text and have a surprising number of subscribers. It’s kind of like the short-term/long-term fallacy working in reverse (working in my favour).
∫short term adds up to more than I thought it would.
Maybe Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst didn’t succeed because they were inspired geniuses who one night invented one of the best songs ever. But instead, first they learned to play the guitar, then they wrote one song when it occurred to them, then they wrote another. That’s the way Phillip Glass describes his own journey in the biopic about him.
Elon Musk and Larry Summers take a contrary perspective. @elonmusk says “I don’t know why all these entrepreneurs are trying to solve small problems”. Larry Summers says “It’s just as hard for an economist to think about important problems as about unimportant problems. The intellectual effort is the same, it’s just the output that’s better.”
Well, maybe they know better than I do. I still suspect in the day to day it’s about “What is the paper I can write, rather than the paper I’d like to be able to write” or “What are the practical steps I can take today to get closer to my business goal?” rather than “What do I wish for?”.
I can’t prove I’m right, this is just where my thoughts are at the moment. I think there’s a cult around genius and a cult around business superstars. Both of which do harm by increasing people’s appetites for success—feeding ambition, feeding vanity, feeding swagger, feeding overexuberance, feeding bad investments—above what’s reasonably achievable in a succession of 3,500 days.