Become a professional - writes Steven Pressfield in the War of Art. I couldn't agree more. Time to dive in and learn to swim. Take no days off. Become a warrior of success. No dilettante endeavors and no pussyfoot pondering. The yoke of the amateur is actually heavier than the bridle of the pro. It enervates our will and depresses or aspirations behind excuses, procrastination and rationalizations.
Become a pro at living. Pour gasoline on yourself and light the match - burn with raging passion. Make the world turn it's head at you and say, 'that man is a supernova'. Make the world fear for you. Make the world think you will get hurt. Better yet, get hurt. Break every bone in your body. Scorch the earth behind you and make the townspeople flee in front. The warlock of originality is the incinerator of violent upheaval to the status quo. Burn it all down.
Break the chains of mortality. Our genius and free will lies at the smile we give to death - our smirk to the reaper. Only man can know his fate and still not go quiet into that good night. The dance with life is always moved by the music of bones quaking and teeth chattering. Our defiance is the pentimento of God, the mark of the artist on his work.
Walk in peace but run in war. Lay waste to otiose undertakings and give rise to an oracle of conscious presence. Fear has no home in the land of action, you cast no shadow in a universe of a trillion trillion suns.
"Superficially I think it looks like entrepreneurs have a high tolerance for risk, But one of the most important phrases in my life is 'Protect the Downside'"
-Sir Richard Branson
Richard Branson is aware of the almost mysterious power in an asymmetrical equation. He didn't give a blanket admonishment awash in hidebound conservatism but an astute observation gleaned as a successful entrepreneur and self-made billionaire. Awareness of which side of the equation you are on concerning every decision - convex or concave - is the heart of long-term growth. Why? Because recognizing is step 1 when it comes to harnessing optionality. By knowing you can then "purchase" more convex options - where you can only lose as much as the option costs - no more. More importantly, asking will allow you to avoid concave options, protecting yourself from harm. If the downside is protected then the upside will naturally take care of itself. If the downside is protected you can live to fight another day. Branson's sanguine aphorism adumbrates this truth and is why he has had such success.
The payoff or harm of an option cannot be quantified beforehand. The binary choice - A or B, 0 or 1, convex of concave - is all we can hope to answer. For instance, the choice 'should I speed on the freeway?' illustrates this point. On one hand, by speeding you can get home faster by every MPH you go over the speed limit. On the other hand, for every MPH you go over the speed limit the risk of a serious car crash goes up until it becomes 100%. This is what I mean by concave options - small known gain vs huge unknown loss. Look at the extremes. Getting home faster vs serious car crash. It's a no-brainer. Why pick up pennies in front of a steam roller?
Over time, these seemingly innocuous choices add up to either a debit or a credit on your life account. Just like a personal balance sheet: Assets - Liabilities = Equity. Equity can be either positive or negative. The decisions we make accumulate, bringing our balance sheet either up or down. Some payoffs are huge, literally, the sky is the limit. The majority have little to no effect and still others make us pay huge. This equation doesn’t just apply to money either. Indeed, money and finances are a small, maybe the smallest aspect. Love, family, leisure, giving, service, hobbies, intelligence and fulfillment are but a portion of the other convex options we can cultivate to paint the iridescent canvas of life.
Every decision has some degree of optionality convexity or concavity baked into it. Many of these convex options don't cost a cent but - as a general rule - do cost something: time and/or effort. Think of reading a book. Beyond the small nominal price, the cost is the time spent reading it and effort put forth cognitively processing it. That’s it, it can never be more than that. Yet the upside is potentially limitless. There are some books I’ve read that had a profound effect on me, illuminating my view of reality like a fecund supernova. True, most have a mild if null effect, yet the very chance I have to read something that can redefine my small window to this world is a roll of the dice I'll throw forever.
As long as you perform convex options, there is no need to worry. Good things happen; they come naturally, sometimes seemingly out of the blue. You can never know beforehand which will be that magic ticket into the stratosphere. If you knew beforehand, then there would be no need to perform the option. As Fredrich Hayek wrote, "The mind can never foresee its own advance." It's a paradox and we're trapped right in the middle. The more we want to control our fate, the more we end up 'selling' options for a small gain with the specter of calamity dangling like the sword of Damocles a hairs breath away. Control of upside is an illusion. The secret to capturing that unicorn is to put in the work, do the hard thing, sacrifice and make the extra effort. It's only through convex actions can one hope to be like "he on honeydew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise"
Flâneur (pronounced: ), from the French noun flâneur, means "stroller", "lounger", "saunterer", or "loafer". Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations.
Have no plan. Court serendipitous moments. Leave yourself open to chance then have just enough brains to be able to seize the better path, using that stellar vision utilizing hindsight - always 20/20. Steve Jobs has famously said that's its only when you look back that the dots will connect. But, what if there was a way to at least give yourself the greatest amount of dots to connect into a meaningful pattern? Surely there are more constellations in the Milkyway than in the empty vacuum between galaxies.
The most successful flaneurs do not leave everything up to chance. They are masters of giving themselves the best opportunities. When given multiple paths to an unknown future there must be some default selection mechanism, some method to the madness. Experienced venture capitalists, become more artists than scientists. Yet they still have a basic framework with axioms that they use to uncover as many stones as possible. One can be right for all the wrong reasons, and inversely wrong for all the right reasons. Iteration is what distinguishes the wheat from the chaff. Time shakes all fruit loose, low hanging and high...
1) Only gather convex options. - The most important rule by far. Do that which has short term pain with the potential- not guarantee- of long term gain. This asymmetrical equation has made kings out of paupers and prostrated history on bended knee to the man who has grasped this from the history books. One cannot lose long term on this side of fate. But because this is true the inverse is also true. Tragedy sprouts from concave fertility. It has turned emperors to beggars and empires to ashes. She is a cruel mistress, quick in the sack followed by a knife in the heart. The concave island shelters and breeds the black swan.
2) Diversity is rewarded. Its the freest option there is. - All things being equal, diversity is using optionality on optionality. Its having a hand in all your convex options at once. No need to settle. Simply see that which pays the most benefits then select. No foresight necessary. It allows one to dip your toes into all the pools before selecting which one to dive headfirst into. Its also free. No opportunity cost. Just select, take action then take a different action rather than the same again. This is how mountains get moved. You zig while others zag.
3) Hone your skill. - This is where the magic happens. Its about nudging the needle from the luck side to the skill side of the continuim. Outcomes become less dependent on chance, and more settled by ability. Cost is also reduced. A surefire way of reducing risk, is reducing cost.
4) Surrender to the infinite - Play the infinite game. Convexity allows us to brush against the infinite, and catch lightning in a bottle. Both mysterious and mystic, all who have been touched by the asymmetrical hand of god walk around forever changed. There is a new light behind their eyes. They've glimpsed the reality behind the shadows dancing on the wall. How does one go back and tell the prisoners still chained? Impossible. As Morpheus says to Neo, "I cannot talk about it, it must be seen to be believed."
Every moment is an active one. A chance to turn it all around in either direction. We see it everywhere, everyday. Castles made of sand melt into the sea eventually. The surrender to the universe is more than magical- its divine. Ephemeral. To paraphrase Lichtenstein, to that which cannot be spoken about one must perforce remain silent.
So follow these rules in this order as you tour around the vacation called existence. Let these simple rules guide your path and allow you to bask in the fortune that lady luck has desired for you. There is no other way. If it was easy then it wouldn't be hard. If it was easy everyone would do it and it wouldn't be easy anymore. For the busy beaver finds the best fallen logs and the best rivers to make his dam. While all the others toil away fighting over resources and wasting time, he is able to create where there is nothing. A true Zero to One. Move to the space between the branches. Fill the gaps between the paths being trampled by the masses. Look right when everyone is looking left. You can find the end of the rainbow.
Risk means more things can happen than will happen - Elroy Dimson
The 4 following quotes are from the book The Most Important Thing Illuminated by Howard Marks.
"Rather than volatility. I think people decline to make investments primarily because they're worried about a loss of capital or an unacceptably low return. To me, "I need more upside potential because I'm afraid I could lose money," makes an awful lot more sense than "I need more upside potential because I'm afraid the price may fluctuate." No I'm sure "risk" is - first and foremost- the likelihood of losing money."
"Theory says high return is associated with high risk because the former exists to compensate for the latter. But pragmatic value investors feel just the opposite. They believe that high return and low risk can be achieved simultaneously by buying things for less than they're worth. In the same way, overpaying implies both low return and high risk."
"There's a big difference between probability and outcome. Probable things fail to happen - and improbable things happen - all the time."
"Like opportunities to make money, the degree of risk present in a market derives from the behavior of the participants, not from securities, strategies or institutions. Regardless of what's designed into market structures, risk will only be low if investors behave prudently...Risk cannot be eliminated; it just gets transferred and spread."
How then does risk relate to optionality? Like it states above, risk would be greatest if one were to overpay for the option in question. Just as all stocks are not created equal, some quality stocks are simply overpriced to the point were there is more risk to the downside than to the upside, and some beaten down stocks are actually a bargain that carry much less risk and much more upside potential. You must choose your options carefully and view each with a sort of second level thinking. For example, exercise is a convex option, yet it is possible that you can pay too much for it - especially over time.
Imagine going to the gym and doing 1 set of bench press vs doing 10 sets. Quick question, is doing 10 sets going to make you 10 times stronger? No, of course not. In fact the most valuable set, i.e. the cheapest, is the first set. You are much better off going to the gym and doing 10 sets of completely different exercises and/or muscle groups to gain the most amount of fitness for time & energy spent. This is the essence of optionality. Yet time after time I see hulking behemoths in the gym doing the same set of arms or legs or rows over and over again - they look like the least fit humans on earth. If there was ever a contest for who could do the most heavy rows with a cable then these guys would be set but otherwise they are forming and developing completely useless muscles and motions outside of their narrow domain.
So this brings us back to the point that to get the maximum benefit from a given convex option one must pay as little as possible, and in order to pay as little as possible one must diversify or be volitant with the convex options at your disposal. Doing the same thing over and over is like slicing one pizza into smaller and smaller pieces - its just better to grow the pizza or switch to a different entree entirely.
"When everyone believes something is risky, their unwillingness to buy usually produces its price to the point where it's not risky at all. Probably negative opinion can make it the least risky thing, since all optimism has been driven out of its price...when everyone believes something embodies no risk, they usually bid it up to the point where it's enormously risky. No risk is feared, and thus no reward for risk bearing- no risk premium- is demanded or provided. That can make the thing that's most esteemed the riskiest. This paradox exists because most investors think quality, as opposed to price, is that determinant of whether something risky."
Therefore purchase convex options as broadly and as cheaply as possible. Use your time and energy wisely. Focus and the process, how to streamline getting to as many options in the smallest amount of time and energy as you can. Court randomness and look for new asymmetric bets you can place on your own future. Be endlessly curious and seek failure the read the tea leaves and find out why you failed. More knowledge equals more options. Seeing the perspectives from other people and viewed from other angles can mean the difference between a good life and a great life. Its all at your finger tips. Get out there and explore with action.
“Amor fati: this is the very core of my being—And as to my prolonged illness, do I not owe much more to it than I owe to my health? To it I owe a higher kind of health, a sort of health which grows stronger under everything that does not actually kill it!—To it, I owe even my philosophy.… Only great suffering is the ultimate emancipator of spirit, for it teaches one that vast suspiciousness which makes an X out of every U, a genuine and proper X, i.e., the antepenultimate letter. Only great suffering; that great suffering, under which we seem to be over a fire of greenwood, the suffering that takes its time—forces us philosophers to descend into our nethermost depths, and to let go of all trustfulness, all good-nature, all whittling-down, all mildness, all mediocrity,—on which things we had formerly staked our humanity.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche Contra Wagner
It's still Day 1 - writes Jeff Bezos founder of Amazon at the end of every shareholder letter referring to his massive web business and (I imagine) his overall philosophy towards life. In The Start Up of You - Reid Hoffman - venture capitalist and startup founder of LinkedIn, writes to be in permanent Beta mode i.e. always be in the testing phase. So at any given moment in your life you are at ground zero. The question then becomes- where do you go from here? It begins with you at the foot of the river with almost limitless streams to follow before you. You must remain - as Suzuki so sanguinely puts it - like a beginner, where there are many possibilities and not as an expert - where there are few.
Cognitive dissonance - is the physiological theory that when presented with contradictory evidence we will do mental back flips to keep from internalizing that our perception of events don't match reality. It's a little like creative accounting, where you can add a little here, take away some there and next thing you now reality has been changed - post hoc. So we conjure up a little cognitive dissonance and voila our vision of the world is restored. Like the question in the paragraph above, instead of where do we go, why do we do this so much? Its like taking the same river over and over again even though you know it doesn't lead where you want it to go. We are all masters of cognitive dissonance, we are addicted to it. It been built into the structures- social, economic, political and educational- that form the world around us.
Being in Beta phase and asking the questions as if you were starting on Day 1 stops you from letting yourself get trapped into old, ineffective and even harmful ways of thinking - ego clinging. As seen in fixed mindset vs growth mindset, believing that your traits are fixed makes for a tough explanation when reality has a nasty way of clashing with your limited view of the world. Beta mode is a method of getting unstuck, beta mode is the growth mindset.
This is why failure is so damn good. Like a rat stuck in its cage we must test the enclosure around us. Find the strong points, the weak points and the question marks. Failure is alerting you with lights and sirens flashing where your view of reality is wrong. If you are not getting this information rich message often, then you are not failing enough and are therefore not learning enough. Learning is one of the simplest and cheapest convex options available. So many people choose not to look and learn. To get to where others aren't you must do what others won't. To not be a failure - fail often.
It's amazing how much you can accomplish when you have made up your mind to actively improve, learn and grow. It seems like you are moving at warp speed while everyone is standing still. Then everyone looks at you and remarks - 'wow I don't know how he does that, he must be a natural'. Even if you try to explain to them its simply the power of using feedback, 80/20 analysis and permanent beta mode you are able to essentially create a machine for accelerated improvement. A convex evolution of consciousness. You can become superman.
The irony is the real superman is a failure. He makes a ton of mistakes. But he is fearless, and an avid learner. Curiosity is one of the the axioms he lives by. Be curious. Be foolish. Everything that has been discovered or created was at one time uncharted. It was plucked from the opaque unknown unknown. The only way to get to this place is to embrace randomness. Seek the extreme outcomes, look for the disconfirming evidence and dive into the muck of ignorance. To paraphrase Ed Katmul one of the founders of Pixar - "the man who waits and thinks is not any smarter than the man who wades in and through action and discovery finds his way. No, they both make the same amount of mistakes. But the man of action can quickly see what he was doing wrong, and take the necessary steps to avoid those pitfalls in the future. His time is greatly shortened and he inevitably arrives at his destination sooner. Whereas the deep thinker, pondering on the shore will become attached to his cherished ideas, and will find it so hard to let them go, he wont be able to move for fear of being proved wrong."
In his book Shoe Dog here is a young Phil Knight the founder of Nike on how Zen compliments optionality:
"But first Id need to change my whole approach. I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is non-linear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now."
By cultivating your intuition about how nature works, Zen can show you how the world really works, not how you want it to. The world - and by that I mean your world - is dominated by events that do not function as linear. If the world were linear a tree would grow 1 branch and 1 single leaf that would capture all the the suns rays. However because a tree doesn't know where the sun will be it grows branches in all directions a) for balance and b) to harness as much of the suns light from as many seasons and angles as possible.
If nature were linear, a river would run from the top of a mountain to the sea as a rain cloud would pour only in 1 spot over and over again. Yet as everyone knows, it doesn't look like that. The terrain of the earth has vast arrays of river networks starting small and slowly converging together. The exact opposite of the tree yet strikingly similar. It isn't quite correct to say each uses optionality but that each are optionality. Each piece of the smallest part is just an iteration of a larger part. It can only be taken as a whole. Fractal. Perfect.
Later as he is just starting his nascent company he also takes a job as an accountant to supplement his income, and learn - 2 different forms of optionality:
"For starters, I invested a healthy portion of my paycheck in Blue Ribbons account at the bank, padding my previous equity, boosting the company's cash balance...Price Waterhouse Cooper boasted a great variety of clients, a mix of interesting start-ups and established companies, all selling everything imaginable--lumber, water, power, food. While auditing these companies, digging into their guts, taking them apart and putting them back together, I was also learning how they survived, or didn't. How they sold things or didn't. How they got into trouble, how they got out. I took careful notes about what made companies tick, and what made them fail."
This is classic optionality, it draws from the basic premise that one shouldn't put all ones eggs in one basket. Here is a classic barbell strategy as defined as Taleb, have one foot in the safe shallow water, earning a steady, dependable income, one that can be counted on in lean times. And the other foot in a speculative venture. One that will payoff wildly if it works out. Small downside - uncapped upside.
Additionally he is learning, from his second job as an accountant. He is getting paid lessons in how to run a business, see over and over real world examples of what people are doing to make things work. Even more important is observing what isn't working. Failure has more information within it. It tells a specific story. While success often is more general, failure is specific.
Here is the company's leading salesman and his boundless exploration of free options:
"Each new customer got his or her own index card...This database enabled Johnson (the salesman) to keep in touch with all of our his customers, at all times, and to keep them all feeling special. He sent them Christmas cards. He sent the birthday cards. He sent them notes of congratulation after they completed a big race or marathon. Whenever I got a letter from Johnson I knew it was one of dozens, he'd carried down to the mailbox that day."
By employing free convex options - giving gifts, Johnson is upping the odds of his ultimate success. Where luck does indeed play a huge roll, one where you don't know how much skill you have, the it is vital to play the long game and shoot as many bullets at the target as you can. Since there is no penalty for trying, you should do as many trials as you are physically and mentally able. Taleb says that assuming cost isn't too much of an issue, the 1/n where n is the number of trials that gives the optimal chance of hitting that home run. Make n as large as possible. Paying close attention to the results. Refine the data and tweak the methods like Google doing A/B testing to see how you can increase sales with each evolution. To become the best you must be a master at self improvement. The jet engine wasn't the result of sheer accident, but continued refinement, adjustments and upgrading. Through natural pandiculation to your own unknown, you will be buying options and keeping the curve as convex as possible.
Faced with an opaque future the only way to find which door contains the hidden prize is to have a hand in all of them. It's why dandelions scatter in the wind. Being too narrow or rigid in specialization, focus or growth leads to disastrous results.
In the Sierra Nevada mountains this last summer, I was taking a shuttle down to some of the more secluded parts of the park when I noticed there were thousands of large logs and stumps hulking along on each side of the serpentine road. The bus driver said something that instantly made me think of Nassim Taleb and black swan events. In Nov 2011 there had been a terrible wind storm called appropriately The Devils Windstorm. In the Sierras where wild weather is abundant strong winds occur quite regularly. However he said that this particular storm carried winds of 180 mph and came from the eastern direction sweeping westward. Now it wasn't just the wind alone that knocked these huge trees over, uprooting them and flattening large swaths of the forest, it was the fact that the wind came from the direction of the east that did the most damage. You see the typical wind, year in and year out, comes from the west and the trees had braced and built themselves up for years against the western wind. Indeed, the very trees that braced themselves the best from the western wind had grown the tallest and the fastest. Then on that one fateful night five years ago the raging wind was able to knock down trees hundreds of years old. In all it leveled 1/4 of the trees in the valley, and the rangers had to pass a bill through congress in able to get logging equipment to cut down the felled trees (no logging allowed in national forests - its protected land).
Similarly the 2008-09 financial crisis found many facing a wind from another direction. The majority of people had been long into stocks and real estate and they now found themselves facing a danger that they hadn't accounted for beforehand and they were too concentrated in a single area. This is why optionality is so important. It allows you to know in advance that you don't know anything, and rest comfortably. Convex optionality allows you to pick exactly what your cost will be - you just can't pick your benefit. If you are sufficiently diversified with convex options then the wind can blow in any direction and -over time - you will thrive.
This is why in my portfolio, I own every color of the rainbow. Not just in the financial market, but also in the real market - life. The trick is to own something that zigs while the others zag. Don't just be healthy, be intelligent. Don't just have money saved, be generous and give gifts. Don't just read - write as well. Use all the convex options at your disposal. You can't know in advance which ones will payoff - but you know that some of them will and they will more than pay for all all the options. Personally I take great joy knowing that everyday I'll have to throw my all against the tree of life and see what shakes loose. I like the struggle and I relish the fact that it is difficult. It's not supposed to be easy. Growth can only come from overcoming. Plants that are grown in a no wind environment are weak and limp while ones fighting against the elements day after day are robust and strong. We are the same.
Imagine - if you will- a house turned upside down. A pointed roof balancing the conglomeration of cement, brick, drywall, tile, plumbing and electrical components. Doesn’t appear too stable now does it. How about a good strong wind, think it will help the situation? Yet we see structures like this everyday, we see them our entire lives, and don't give them a second glance - trees.
Have you ever looked at a tree? I mean really looked at a fucking tree? What makes a tree a tree? What is it's raison de etre? How does it work? I think most people don't know or simply don’t care. Now, I'm not trying come across as some John Muir tree hugging nature worshiper. Looking at it from the eyes of design, form and function I believe that we are much more like trees than the dwellings we reside in.
A tree goes from one massive truck to many small branches, each branch a slightly smaller version of the trunk (a fractal) and it can happen for five or more iterations, leading to a complex organism than when fully grown, seems as if it was drawn up that way from some master blueprint or top down design when in fact it was just following a set of simple rules repeated over and again - a true bottom up process. Our knowledge of fractals points to basic instructions than give way to complex patterns. A linear modeled brain cannot handle exponentially increasing functions, and a rapidly growing tree is exactly that. Each iteration of growth increases the number of branches and leaves non-linearly from simple order.
So why does a tree grow so many branches and leaves? Because nature uses the ultimate tool - optionality. Without a brain or knowledge of the future, the tree doesn't know in what direction the sun will rise and charting its course through the day and season. The tree is blind, deaf and dumb with no central nervous system, evolution has equipped the tree to act in the optimal condition from its initial germination as a seed. It spreads in all direction because it doesn't know. The branches that do get sunlight pay for the branches that don't. The roots that find a water source pay for the roots that don't. In addition the tree doesn't know in which the direction the wind is going to blow, but being balanced it doesn't have to, by growing in all directions it in effect is creating equilibrium and that a strong gust on one side will cause the tree to pull back to counterbalance the force applied.
Optionality also lets the tree procreate and spread it's seed with equal ignorance (or care) for the future. In theory one single branch could produce all the seeds necessary for the tree to have 'children'. It’s increasing the likelihood of success by spreading around many seeds over all of it's branches. It is in effect betting on all the possible paths - ones that include wind, rain, animals, bad soil and harsh conditions. It's taking advantage of an asymmetrical property found in all of nature - convexity bias. In a nut shell (pun intended) convexity bias states that if you are on the convex side of the equation then given enough time you stand to benefit far more than whatever cost you put in, and no matter what random events the future holds - up to a point of course.
To have many options is preferable than to have few options and seems to be the way that nature works her magic. Similarly we humans seem to have a inborn convexity bias as well, and our minds work much the same way as the branches and leaves do on a tree. Have you ever wondered why it's called the tree of knowledge? Indeed even our synaptic connections work in bifurcating and branching like processes. Our trunk - or in this case our consciousness - takes in nutrients (thoughts) from all the branches of our minds and filters it only keeping the most relevant for our immediate survival. Here is Aldous Huxley in Door’s of Perception explaining:
“The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge."
Simple rules dictate both trees and our very lives. Just like a simple rules will grow a complex beautiful tree, some simple rules you live by will create a beautiful and truthful life. The axioms that we live by matter! They are the functions that build our averages. The rules are made from a top down standpoint to explore the greatest number of options in order to exploit them for future use.
Lastly, just as a tree starts general and the proceeds along to become more & more specific. Each branch is moved and shaken over time by the environment, creating ever stronger branches and trunks. When was the last time you could say a good wind made your house stronger? Nature seems fine to let her creation evolve as the environment sees fit. As each breach bifurcates, it moves into new territory and maximizes what it can with the rules it’s given. This gives the tree tremendous flexibility to achieve its goal of growth & procreation. We too must stretch ourselves to do likewise. Each branch of our lives must grow naturally and allow itself to be molded and adapted to fit the environment.
Steve Jobs, newly ousted from Apple a company he co-founded, was searching the technology world for a new product(s) in 1986. He had just started his first new computer company NEXT without his old partner Steve Wozniak. So far it had been an uphill battle and his nascent company was far from being a powerhouse. Turning his formidable gaze towards other projects he settled on a small computer graphics division of Lucasfilm, Ltd. and renamed it Pixar Animation Studios. Now these graphics were primarily geared towards high tech architecture and engineering firms who would have use for their amazing 3D features.
However there happened to be a very small sub section of the company that was using the graphics to produce new and amazing animated shorts - the primary purpose of the animations were to showcase the incredible power to the propriety technology and processor. So far, this decision was a financial loser in a company that was bleeding money. The processors were very expensive and there was a very limited market to whom these units could even be sold. The animation department was an even bigger flop, barely generating any cash whatsoever and in fact costing the company thousands of dollars a day in overhead. Yet rather than scrap the unprofitable division Steve Jobs went with his gut and kept the unit around simply because he was amazed by both the technical prowess of the animators doing animations that had of yet never been done, but also by the burning passion and vision of the head of the department John Lasseter.
There was one meeting after a particularly bad quarter when the company was laying off people and projects in droves. Jobs was watching his once massive fortune from Apple stock dwindle with his recent acquisition. He decided against the advice of the other officers to keep the small animation dept going. Now this was a gamble with no hope for a clear payoff or even a real viable moneymaking history. But this option was one that would pay off most handsomely for Jobs and make him - 12 years later a Billionaire and the single largest shareholder of Disney. Yes you read that right Steve Jobs didn’t make most of his money with Apple but with Disney stock which he owned via Pixar being purchased by Disney in 2006.
Of course Jobs didn’t know any of this back in the early 90's while his small company was floundering. All he went off was his gut and the passion of what proved to be an invaluable asset in Lasseter. Soon the company was able to produce an animated short (Tin Toy) so good that it won an Academy award. Soon thereafter Pixar had agreed to do a full length animated film for Disney - you may have heard of it - Toy Story. Since then the company has rode a unequaled wave of success from Toy Story, Monsters, Finding Nemo and other blockbusters as well. Interestingly enough the company utilizes the very sort of optionality that Steve Jobs harnessed to make the company a success. They storyboard continually - generating literally thousands upon thousands of storyboards to make their films. A sort of bottom up evolution where natural selection of the best story rules the day and leads to smashing successes. This is optionality at its finest.
Take for instance the movie Monsters Inc. original idea featured a 30-year-old man dealing with monsters that he drew in a book as a child coming back to bother him as an adult. Each monster represented a fear he had, and conquering those fears caused the monsters eventually to disappear. Doesn't sound like much of a blockbuster now does it? However using their story-boarding technique, the writers were able to slowly generate the story as it currently stands, a monster who befriends a little girl and stops a sinister plot to kidnap more children. The film generated over $577 million worldwide. Not too shabby huh? Easy work? No. Definitely not, but therein is the magic of optionality. Although it does require work, the payoff is still disproportionately high. i.e. It's non linear. Its not you add one unit of work and you get back one unit of pay. Its more like you do one unit and get something greater than one. How much more? Impossible to say a priori. Really there is no limit. Even better the only downside is the work you do i.e. The cost of one unit. It will never cost you more than that one unit. This is the beauty of optionality. It allows you to pick your cost, but you can never pick your outcome. Its a wild ride, filled with possibility and potential. It makes life a gamble with unlimited upside. How high will it take you?