Think Big and Be Curious
The things I learned from leading TU20
In Dec 2018 I realized that I needed to have a stronger succession plan for TU20. This is chapter 2, originally written in Jan of 2019.
What does it mean to Think Big?
Sometimes company talk about abstract concepts of vision/mission statements and they don’t really a lot of sense. But for all of your ideas you should be able to see a world in 1, 3, 5, 10 years down the line on whatever you are working on. They can be optimistic, they can be pessimistic, but you should be able to see what’s happening.
Example TU20–1 year
In 1 year I can picture things running smoothly and us having 10 chapters with 20 members each. Teachers and local companies are keeping a close eye on our activities due to them recognizing the potential of TU20.
Ok, nothing too descriptive but it’s a start.
Example TU20–3 years
In 3 years TU20 is the most popular academic extracurricular in Halton, on par with DECA. We suddenly have a capacity issue because more students want to get involved as compared to what we can offer. There is a sustainable business model and there is recognition at the provincial level. There is a small, but strong group of alumni who are actively involved.
Example TU20–5 years
Halton is seen as one of the top places to find a job for young people. The ecosystem makes learning, growing and finding work almost frictionless helping to make the community prosperous for young people. The alumni of TU20 have done some amazing things recognized at the national level, and provincial + federal governments are wondering how they can replicate the model in other regions.
These sound A LOT more optimistic. But that’s the goal. Have a vision where you want to go, and if you only achieve a part, it’s still excellent. Of course TU20 could no longer exist in 3 years if we are not careful, but that doesn’t get people excited.
Thinking Big and Not Naively
Many people talk about their dreams and they are not pragmatic. People have a sense they can accomplish anything, and this has often been emphasized in the western world. The origins of this probably has something to do with prosperity, a reaction to industrial work and a sense of optimism, but at the end of the day they are not useful.
You can’t do everything you ever dream of, but you can always take a step in that direction and re-evaluate.
Example Goal — Make the labour market more efficient
Wow, big task. Where do I even start?
Only after being involved can you realize what’s realistic
Without understanding a problem area or experimenting on solutions, it’s very difficult to assess.
What makes this comic age well is that now it’s quite easy to check if the photo has a bird thanks to the progression of Machine Learning. The comic was released in 2014, two years after the breakthrough Alexnet, but probably before the technology became mainstream enough or accurate enough.
Regardless, without domain knowledge it is hard to tell if you can something or not. But with more knowledge comes momentum and bias on how things should be done, which in turn can limit your thinking. So the trick is to keep learning, and to keep evaluating your methods the whole time. Here are three approaches that have worked for me:
- First principles. Have an approach to asking the right questions and to figure out the root of the problem. Being simple and thoughtful goes a long way.
- Novel approaches from other fields. For example design thinking has been around for decades but it’s only starting to make it’s way into mainstream business approaches now.
- Novel approaches from your field. Keep a look out for new articles, publications or just try to observe interesting people/companies. You don’t need to adopt their approaches 1 to 1, but they might inspire something tangential.
What happens when you are 1st, 10th, 100th…10n in your field or area?
This is one of the best ways I’ve heard people think about problems, companies, professions. You have to consider how good you can potentially be and estimate your outcomes in different scenarios.
You want to be a professional musician, what happens at each scenario?
1st: Millions, Many Fans, Mayhem
100: You’re living well
You want to be a software developer
1st: You create a programming language and dudes with big beards worship you.
100: You create something bigger than Big Data
10k: You’re probably working at Google
100k: Probably still working at Google
So when people tell you to follow your dreams, that’s fine, but keep in mind what the outcomes are. If you’re comfortable inhaving the lifestyle of someone who is above average in a field, go for it. If you’re after the lifestyle of someone who is one of the best, you better be good.
I wrote some more on this topic in a previous article.
How do you mitigate risk?
Say there is an apocalypse and we no longer need programmers, what do you do?
In your career (life?) journey you will learn many skills and need to adjust and should be able to this rather quickly. Your skills will be very specific sometimes ( how do you make a colour red on a website) and more general (why does a red button work here). Many companies actually look for proxies rather than skills themselves.
Example: Physicists in finance
An MBA somewhere once thought: “Hey I can give these people hard problems, pay them double of academia and they just work for hours uninterrupted”
Another MBA: “Brilliant”
More seriously, I would draw out a graph (discrete math graph) of what your intended career looks like and how it relates to other potential careers.
In addition you will always need to pick up new skills. The one thing being in tech teaches you right is forcing to reinvent yourself every year, due to the pace of evolution. If you don’t then you are doomed. If people in every industry did this they would have very little issues being automated or laid off.
It’s also useful to draw something similar to what you’ve done and how you can move between industries or jobs.
Ok … slight side track but let’s get back to it
Why has no one solved this problem yet?
Why is no one doing what you are doing. In one case, people might not see the intersection (studying employment relations & CS) , or might not find value in that work (underwater basket weaving). Sometimes you are wrong in your assessment, sometimes things change so quickly it doesn’t matter. But you have to ask yourself this question, not as a reason to do something or not (as the various motivational speakers have told you) but rather to ask more questions.
Sometimes people don’t have industry perspective, such as solving transportation logistics. Unless you’ve worked in the industry, it might be hard to know where to start.
What is stopping you from trying to solve a problem?
For example starting the TU20 coop program:
Lack of knowledge?
No demand from employers?
No demand for students?
Economically not viable?
How does this relate to leadership?
When you start a project or business venture you need to approach in the same way as you would with yourself, but with less fear. You think big, try new things out, have purpose with your actions and consider alternatives. Begin with a greater focus on incremental steps and then you can determine if your big goals are realistic or not.
Asking good questions is fundamental to so many things. It’s very easy to just accept what’s happening or keep your thoughts bottled within. But that doesnt help you learn new things or understand alternate approaches. Just like with anything in life, don’t just say anything that comes to mind, but make a list of questions you’d like answered.
In the context of working on a problem, asking 5 Why’s to yourself or others is quite useful.
- Q: Why do we need another student competition (TU20 cup)?
A: Because most competitions don’t build skills well and don’t combine tech and business skills.
- Q: Why is that important?
A: Because you don’t learn good project management, teamworking or hands on skills in 24/48 hours. You need something longer where you can properly sit down and analyze a problem and have the support to solve it.
- Q: Why are long term project skills important?
A: Because most jobs require you to work on longer term projects. Your career will benefit enormously from being able to join and lead such projects. You can also solve more interesting problems with a long term strategy.
- Q: Isn’t it a school’s responsibility to prepare you for work, not a competition’s?
A: Most school’s do not focus on work skills currently. Catering to a general education audience is hard, so having a more specialized event will provide students with access to mentors, resources and ideas that are not available in the school system.
- Q: But why a competition, can’t you just run workshops and a conference to inspire people.
A: Most people need structure, support and incentives to do things. People are busy and without a strong guiding path it is difficult to just get up and do things. Having a competition lowers those boundaries and helps people get involved.
Some of these things might have been obvious and you didn’t need to ask them explicitly. But after this rhetorical exchange you probably understand better why the TU20 Cup exists and the motivation behind it.
You don’t need to interrogate people with questions, but interrogating your own ideas and trying to get to the bottom of things is very valuable.
Taking opportunities to explore and learn new things.
We’ve all probably been down the internet rabbit hole about reading about one subject (say new phone that came out) then end up somewhere else (manufacturing working conditions) and an hour later we are reading about something completely different (west vs east beauty standards?).
Going down these rabbit holes is fun, but you should have an outcome of some sort. “I learned about this factory, now I’m more aware how this is made and the challenges”. If you can state what you’ve learned that’s awesome.
Even better is if you can tie it back to why this is useful. Keep in mind not everything you do is useful or should be useful, but being self aware is good. If you’re being curious for the sake of entertainment, embrace it. If you’re being curious for the sake of research, learn something!
The best is when your curiosity helps fuel an action.
For exampmle you read about some sort of environmental issue. You take action by making a donation, raising awareness or building something to solve it.
Even better if this action is long term. You create a sustainable financial model. You incorporate awareness into people’s everyday actions. You now make cool robots that clean up plastic.
In the words of this series: Curiosity + Bias for action = Magic
Curiosity killed the cat
Sometimes people will try to stop your curiosity because it exposes them. If someone is selling snake oil and you come around and ask too many questions. As a young person, you don’t have to worry about this too much because you aren’t seen as threatning usually. You will probably be brushed off. But as you get older (and more influential) it becomes important so tread carefully.
However, you should never stop asking questions, but rather be precise with your questions, know who you are asking, and what the underlying tone of the answer is. Just be aware that questioning things can threaten people’s egos, finances or power.
Things to think about:
What is something you really want to learn or try out?
What stops first steps?
When did trying something new benefit you?
What do you think you can be really good at that isn’t recognized by society?
What stops you from asking questions?
Think about something you read about recently and try the 5 Why’s methodology.
When did you get a non satisfactory answer about something you thought was obvious?