Thursday, September 24th, 2009...12:37 am

Climbing Hills

Jump to Comments

This October will mark three full years that I have been working at Sportsvite. Not only is it the longest that I’ve been at one place, but I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more time working on Sportsvite than I have for any other project, goal or situation in my life (with the one obvious exception of rooting for the Johnnies). This has me thinking about my longer term career path and how I want to spend my time in the future.

I’m not at the point where I feel comfortable enough to share my career ambitions and goals in this blog post. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the desire to do that. But I do have a few things on the process and how I’m trying to figure it all out.

When I get an idea or concept like this stuck in my head, I usually think and think and then think some more and try to chip away at the issue until I begin to make sense out of it. I’ve always been thankful that my mind works in such a way that the more I focus on something the better I’m able to process it and feel more comfortable. I’ll usually try to clear my head and then think my way out of pickles or stressful situations. The nice thing about being a rational and logical thinker is that it’s easier to trust myself. I’m my own shrink.

Still, sometimes I need a mental boost to get me over the humps. Besides my father (who admittedly is clueless when it comes to today’s digital world) I really don’t have a mentor to turn too. So i rely on good conversations, things I read or even by connecting with people through this blog. I’ve had a few of worthwhile moments recently that I want to mention to ya’ll.

Recently, I’ve been playing career adviser for both of my sisters as they try to figure out their next career moves. I kind of give them the no holds barred brotherly lectures where I recite everything I know all at once in a condescending, know-it-all tone. The analogies I come up with on the fly with Courtney are frighteningly bad as I try to explain the same concept to her in four different ways just to make sure she grasps it exactly how I intended. Discussing and understanding their challenges allows me to realize and reaffirm some of my fundamental principles. Sometimes, solving other people’s problems can be the best way to solve your own.

Last week, I had lunch (La Mazouski) with Mia’s husband who now scares me with his intelligence and understanding of the digital startup world even more than he scares me with his flamboyant exuberance (penis jibbitz!). Jer has a combination of abundant energy and extreme restlessness that can get your gears turning. I find myself still thinking about some of the things we discussed one week later.

Finally, I read a blog post by investor and tech entrepreneur Chris Dixon this week. His blog is all the rage these days as he’s certainly distinguishing himself as a influencer in the tech startup community. Dixon used a classic computer science problem to discuss career path. I sucked at the only computer science class I took in college (got a C+ in C++) but the analogy clicked for me immediately. In my moments of second-guessing, I sometimes have difficulty reconciling the career opportunities that I’ve passed up and wondering if I made those choices for the right reasons. If an 18 year old Brian Litvack looked at a 28 year old Brian Litvack he might even call him an underacheiver (he would definitely call him fat). Chris’s blog post helped me put this insecurity into a larger perspective. It also has helped me better think through the entire topic of my career.

You can read the full blog post, and the comments are also worth a read, but here’s my favorite part…

A classic problem in computer science is hill climbing. Imagine you are dropped at a random spot on a hilly terrain, where you can only see a few feet in each direction (assume it’s foggy or something). The goal is to get to the highest hill.

Consider the simplest algorithm. At any given moment, take a step in the direction that takes you higher. The risk with this method is if you happen to start near the lower hill, you’ll end up at the top of that lower hill, not the top of the tallest hill.

A more sophisticated version of this algorithm adds some randomness into your walk. You start out with lots of randomness and reduce the amount of randomness over time. This gives you a better chance of meandering near the bigger hill before you start your focused, non-random climb.
Another and generally better algorithm has you repeatedly drop yourself in random parts of the terrain, do simple hill climbing, and then after many such attempts step back and decide which of the hills were highest.



Going back to the job candidate, he has the benefit of having a less foggy view of his terrain. He knows (or at least believes) he wants to end up at the top of a different hill than he is presently climbing. He can see that higher hill from where he stands.

But the lure of the current hill is strong. There is a natural human tendency to make the next step an upward one. He ends up falling for a common trap highlighted by behavioral economists: people tend to systematically overvalue near term over long term rewards. This effect seems to be even stronger in more ambitious people. Their ambition seems to make it hard for them to forgo the nearby upward step.

People early in their career should learn from computer science: meander some in your walk (especially early on), randomly drop yourself into new parts of the terrain, and when you find the highest hill, don’t waste any more time on the current hill no matter how much better the next step up might appear.