Climbing the Magic Mountains

It’s graduation season and I’ve been able to go see a number of high school and college graduations. The thing that immediately sticks out to me is that the majority of people who give speeches at graduations have very little to say that is meaningful. In my view, the point of graduation speeches is to provide advice to young people so that they can more effectively tackle what’s ahead. However, most people default to worthless platitudes and feel-good anecdotes rather than providing useful tactics.

Additionally, I’ve also been chatting with a lot of 2017 college grads and current students about what they want to do with their lives. While I’m certainly not qualified to give advice, people keep coming my way to chat. To avoid doing them a disservice, I set out to find some legitimately useful advice to share.

I found the basis of that advice in an old blog post by Chris Dixon called “Climbing the Wrong Hill.” In it, Dixon compares career advancement to a computer science problem called hill climbing. You’re dropped onto mountainous terrain and your goal is to get to the highest mountain, but you can only see a few yards in any direction because it’s foggy.

You might think that the best solution to climb through the fog is to ensure every step is an upward one. However, this means that you might optimize to end up on a relatively small mountain versus one of the highest ones. Instead, Dixon posits that you should drop yourself at random points in the mountain range and then climb upward. When you step back and compare, you’ll be able to find the highest mountain of the bunch.

While this is undoubtedly good advice, I still think Dixon misses the mark a bit. The mountains aren’t just misty, they’re magic. If the mountain range reflects the job market / economy, the mountains must be able to shift heights to correspond to the strength of industries over time. For example, the “computer programming mountain” didn’t even exist a century ago and now it’s among the highest. So we see that the deepest valley can become the highest mountain and vice-versa over time.

But in this environment of the magic mountains, the random walks method espoused by Dixon doesn’t work so well anymore. Climbing through the fog while the magic mountains shift under you makes the problem a lot harder; you’re trying to hit a moving target.

Alex Honnold, the first person to ever free-climb El Capitan.

If the mountains can move, you need to figure out not what the highest mountains are now, but what they will be 20 years down the road, when you’ll hit your highest earning and leadership potential. This is a difficult task, but nonetheless a doable one.

We can see the areas that are coming to the fore right now, that will dictate the trends of the next few decades. If I were to guess the highest-paying, most prestigious fields of 2030, I’d suspect they would be: alternative energy, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency and distributed computing, genetic engineering, autonomous vehicles, drones, and space exploration. Since we’re just scratching the surface of these technologies now, it will likely take decades to realize their full potential, just as it took the Internet a long time to become a mainstream force.

We can see these magic mountains starting to rise, so we might consider optimizing to climb them. (Obviously there will be other fields that I can’t even dream of, so this is not meant to be exhaustive, just illustrative.) Fortunately, most of these topics require the same batch of conceptual tools; to succeed in any of these areas, one would want to have knowledge of computer science, biology, physics, psychology, and business.

If you can meld ideas from those fields together, you’ll give yourself the tool belt to be able to climb the magic mountains of the future. Furthermore, by diversifying your skills, you make it harder to automate yourself away (because bots are only good at domain specificity, for now, although that will likely also change).

A funny diagram of the “T-shaped Employee” who has honed a large variety of skills as well as cultivated expertise in a single discipline. Becoming this person is how you climb the magic mountains. (Source: Valve – pdf)

Ultimately, to summit the magic mountains, we need to develop diverse skills now, which will enable us to climb in the future. Random walks can certainly help determine which skills those are, but the key is to stay focused on how the landscape today will translate into a new landscape in 20 years.

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