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The Optimal Opportunity Myth, Reflections

I think I wasted a lot of my time in college searching for an optimal project to work on. I had it in my mind that I should be focusing on the most valuable project I can, and not taking on any old opportunity that came my way. And in college, there is no shortage of opportunities.

Because of this, I turned down a lot of opportunities in fear that they would quickly fill up my time and I wouldn’t have any left to work on a more valuable project. But that “most impactful project” never materialized, so I just wasted a lot of time being noncommittal.

I didn’t find my niche in college until my junior year. In the fall, I really began to feel the pressure of not having done anything interesting. I got good grades, had a few internships, and joined a few clubs, but compared to what I saw others accomplishing, it was pretty meh. I ended up finding a job at the Duke Innovation Co-Lab, my school’s makerspace. My job mostly involved helping people use equipment and maintaining 3D printers, but as a side effect, I began to spend a lot more time in the Co-Lab. From this, I met a lot of interesting students working on cool projects, from prosthetic limbs to electric monowheels. Their projects were certainly impressive, but at the same time I thought “hey, I can do this stuff too!”. It inspired me to start working on my own projects, and more broadly, to be unafraid to experiment with technology.

I might have been able to do this without even taking a job at the Co-Lab – it’s an open space for any student to work in. But by taking a smaller step, I fell into opportunities without even trying to.

What I Should Be Doing

Reflecting on it now, the best solution is to simply pick something interesting and start on it. No searching for the perfect project, waiting for that eureka moment of a great idea. Just pick something you’re interested in and find some small way to work on it. The act of pursuing an opportunity breeds even more opportunities. The optimal opportunity is a myth.

What does that mean? Say I reached out to a professor to start in their robotics research lab. At first, I might have found this a boring project, since I would mostly be assisting the professor in their research, with little exposure to actual design work. But being in that lab, I would have learned a lot, and perhaps seen some interesting subproblem that no one was working on. Or I might have met another student that was eager to work on a project as well. Then with this newfound knowledge, a simple research position would have snowballed into a more interesting personal project.

What you shouldn’t do is feel overwhelmed by the impressive projects that you’ve seen others produce. I fell into this trap. We all know the stories of college students like Evan Spiegel and Mark Zuckerberg, who built billion-dollar companies in their dorm rooms. These stories are certainly inspiring, but they inspire the wrong action. You think, “wow, I should be building my own billion-dollar startup!” You shouldn’t. The media doesn’t focus on the years of progression these kids have made by working on things that interest them. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell, it’s kind of like the 10,000-hour rule. Every story has humble origins.

What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don't plan to start startups, because it's the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn't aim too directly at either target. Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.” – Paul Graham

What you should be doing is getting to work on something interesting, forgetting whether it can earn you a spot in Forbes 30 under 30. That’s just not reasonable.

Balance

However, this doesn’t mean you should take on any project that you come across. Certain opportunities are better than others. At the same time, don’t hold off forever looking for the best opportunity. There’s a delicate balance between these two, but I can’t exactly say where it lies. Each student is different.

For some students, there is a lot of value in joining an established club, like say, a motorsports team. It gives you a structured schedule to follow, accountability from your teammates, and a manageable part of a project that you can help out with. Everyone likes to think that they can self-manage to get things done on their own, but we really overestimate ourselves. Joining a club can make a great stepping stone for more impactful projects. Once you learn more about how race cars work, you can contribute in more meaningful ways, and maybe even come up with a car-related innovation of your own. At Duke, the electric vehicles team broke the world record for most efficient vehicle in 2018. That’s an amazing feat, and something those students probably never imagined doing when they first joined the team.

On the other hand, I’ve always been more inclined to pursue projects independently. I like coming up with my own ideas entirely, rather than working from within the context of an established group. As an engineering student, I personally didn’t feel inspired by the types of projects in campus clubs/teams (cars, rockets, robotics); I have more of an interest in consumer products and whimsical ideas, like toys.

If you approach it in a clever way, there are plenty of opportunities to get resources for independent projects just by virtue of being a student. To people in the real world, students are endearing. They’re young and aspirational, which reminds people of their earlier selves before things like loans and daycare set in. All of this magically disappears when you graduate. You can use your student status to reach out to interesting people, get funding, or just work on something random without anyone telling you it’s “not worth your time”. All students are really expected to do in college is go to class and maybe join a few clubs. Anything beyond that and adults see you as an overachiever. Max Hodak, President of Neuralink (you may know it as Elon Musk’s Brain AI startup), summed this up pretty well in a tweet of his:

I was a fairly bad “student” in college because my mental model was “how can I use the resources of the university to learn/do interesting things while disguised as a student?” Looking back, this was the correct approach

I wasn’t able to take as much advantage of this fact as I would have liked, and I wish I pushed myself to do it earlier.

If you too feel more inclined to work on independent projects, seek out a group of similar people who can support and inspire you while you pursue them. For me, that group was the Co-Lab. My problem is that I value independence a lot, but it also scares me. I’ll go through times of focused, inspired work, and other times where I feel hopeless in my ability to get anything done. Having a group to connect with makes a massive difference.

Complete Manageable Projects

For a person first starting out, don’t be tempted to shoot for a moonshot right out of the gate. The reality is that aspirational projects like these are so hard to stay motivated for, because you constantly feel like you’re climbing a cliff.

Take on a project smaller in scope, and you’ll find it easier to finish. Plus, when you do, the good feeling you get from being successful can carry into your next project, where you’ll have more experience and confidence to take on something bigger [1].

Say you’re interested in physical computing – try an Arduino project before building an autonomous drone. Smaller-scoped projects give you meaningful confidence boosts.

Stop Playing the Game

Do not pursue opportunities just for the sake of a resume. This is probably the most common trap I see students fall into. They think they need to play the game just to get a good job. As a secondary effect, they can learn skills from pursuing these activities, but that misses the point. Some distant time long ago, companies looked at your resume to see what types of projects you pursued in college, and from those projects, they inferred the types of skills you learned. But students learned to start chasing the types of activities that employers liked, not because they wanted to learn new skills, but because they knew employers would like them. So the system is messed up.

If you really care about self-progression, ignore the game. If you forget about jobs and start doing things just for the sake of your own interest, and you work on them for long enough to produce some impressive result, you’ll come out ahead of anyone who played the game. Resume-filling students don’t have the risk appetite for ambitious projects like that – but those are exactly the types of projects that employers notice most.

Of course it’s impossible to fully forget about your resume, but try not to let that be the primary thing that drives what you do. Most professionals live to stuff their resume, but they’re optimizing for the wrong metric. Just look at LinkedIn for proof [2].


Footnotes:

[1]. And once you’ve produced some result that’s minimally novel or meaningful, don’t be afraid to share it with others. Their feedback can be really valuable and might help you build connections going forward. Read this article by Alexey Guzey, especially step 2. He talks about the importance of producing some minimum impressive result and sharing that with experts in your field.

[2] I hate LinkedIn. I have an account, but the content on there is so inauthentic. I could probably write a whole post about why LinkedIn sucks. If you’re looking for a good professional social network, join twitter.

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© 2023 by Ben Edelstein