The Metacast

Luck Surface Area

(doing x talking)


[00:00:00] Hello, this is Mark. And welcome back to the Metacast. Today, I'd like to talk about a concept called Luck surface area. It was coined by Jason Roberts, who is a co-host of the tech podcast called Techzing, and it's pretty interesting that the person who coined the phrase is also a ridiculously lucky person at least from what I've pieced together from meeting him once and listening to his various stories on the podcast over the past 10 years.

[00:00:34] He ended up getting fairly wealthy not super wealthy but fairly wealthy from having stock in Uber and he was never even a full time employee there. He was just an early contractor. I guess he was a contractor there for four or five years or something like that. So, the idea is fairly simple, and after sharing and I'll go back to how that applied for the person who coined it.

[00:01:04] The idea is, quoting from Jason, "If there's one thing I've discovered in recent years, it's this: the amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your luck surface area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you're passionate about, combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated. It's a simple concept, but an extremely powerful one, because what it implies is you can directly control the amount of luck you receive. In other words, you make your own luck."

[00:01:39] And, he wrote this before, long before he ended up finding the massive amount of luck he did with Uber. The reason he said "something that you're passionate about" is because if you pour energy into a passion, you develop expertise and that expertise has real value. If you're an expert at something, you can produce something that's objectively better than you could if you were working on something you didn't care as much about and you never developed that level of expertise.

[00:02:12] The second part about communicating with others, or effectively communicating with others, is that if nobody knows about the great work that you're doing on your own or only a few people know—maybe your employer knows but nobody else does—just from a game theory perspective, you're not going to have very many opportunities for negotiating a better salary or for the sorts of benefits that usually go with doing great work. Your best alternative negotiation is pretty crummy, so the employer just doesn't have to pay you very much for you to stay. You're maybe not that easy to replace, but you know the employer isn't easy for you to replace, either.

[00:02:59] On the other hand, if you just tell lots of people about what you care about but you don't actually put any work into it or get that good at it, that is also pretty much useless. You're just you're just a big talker and that may even harm your reputation over the long run.

[00:03:19] But if you pour energy into a passion, develop real expertise and you can effectively communicate that to other people, then you end up with something that's much greater than the sum of the parts. And that's exactly what you would expect with a name Luck Surface Area, because an area is a square. In this case the length of one side is the amount of doing and the length on the other side is the amount of telling. The Luck Surface Area is the doing times the telling. So, if one of them is zero you're not going to be very lucky. However, if both of them are high, if you're doing a lot of good work in public, a lot of people can see what you're doing and it's done in a way that they can understand the value in it, then you're just going to get lucky in a lot of ways. You'll find opportunities, that you did nothing personally to create, present themselves to you and you'll be in a position to take advantage of them, because you'll have the expertise and you'll have the credibility to make whatever opportunity happen.

[00:04:29] Now going back to Jason Roberts, he met Travis Kalanick the CEO and co-founder now a multi billionaire who was at Uber from the beginning, by being at a party and it wasn't just any party. It was a party related to Tech Crunch that had a lot of tech industry insiders. There was a fireplace at the party and he was, I guess it was a house party, and he was out there where people would go warm their hands and different people sort of cycled through that area. And it turns out that Jason had a lot of interesting stuff to say, because of interesting work that he had done before. He had worked on an algorithmic trading startup with one of his friends after school and he had also created a startup that was a good candidate to be bought by Google as part of their app suite.

[00:05:26] But it turns out he made some mistakes with it on the business side. Google actually did reach out to him and was interested but he he messed up the acquisition and wrote a pretty popular blog post about that that made it to the top of Hacker News. He just did a good job of communicating 1) that he was passionate about the technologies that he had worked with and 2) that he had the skills. He wasn't looking for a job or anything at the party.

[00:05:54] He already had a job, or he was a contractor, but because of the combination of the doing and the talking, people were interested in staying in touch with him and Travis Kalanick stayed in touch with him and I think they talked on the phone several times over the next year or so. When he was starting Uber and hiring people, he reached out to Jason to be CTO, probably because he had communicated both a passion and an ability around building real time systems... and probably to a degree even more than what Uber needed because, if you're doing algorithmic trading, it's really about who has the fastest transaction time. And, for Uber, you know they do need it to be soft real time, but if the display of your cab's position is maybe two seconds slow to update, it's not that big of a deal probably, especially not in the early days.

[00:06:52] So, he had an opportunity to become CTO. He didn't do that because he was working on other things and had kids and lived in South California instead of in the Bay Area. But, he did start contracting remotely and poured energy and passion into doing a good job of it and as a result, wrote a lot of really crucial infrastructure for the company Over time, it just made a lot of sense for them to give him stock options, even though he wasn't a full-time, permanent employee, because they really didn't want him to just leave and go to the next contract.

[00:07:31] And, there were a number of other examples that he shared over the years in the podcast about luck, but obviously it's not just a term about the person who coined the phrase. It's a concept that's broadly applicable to everybody. There definitely is luck in the world, but the larger you can make your luck surface area of your doing passionate things times your telling people about it in a way that it's effectively communicated, the more of the random luck in the world will eventually strike you.

[00:08:06] Another analogy that might make this clear, is to think of collecting sunlight with a solar panel. On "lucky" days, there will be a lot of sunlight and on "unlucky" days, it might be cloudy, but in the long run the larger your solar panel is, the larger the surface area of the solar panel that can collect sunlight, the more sunlight and the more energy you'll eventually collect.

[00:08:33] I hope you found this concept useful. In the show notes, I'll link to Jason Roberts' essay on Luck Surface Area. I'll also link to the new book—by the founder of Duck Duck Go, Gabriel Weinberg—which is called Super Thinking and includes a lot of mental models, some of which will be featured in future podcasts and one of which is Luck Surface Area. Thanks for listening to The Metacast.

Show notes

In this episode, I talk about the concept of Luck Surface Area, coined by Jason Roberts of the Techzing podcast.


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