Evolution, mountains, careers and superjumps

This is a post about career and life decisions, but first, evolution.

Survival of the fittest gets all the credit in evolution. But if that was all there was to evolution, we would all be slowly converging towards a single super-fit species. Evolution is only so powerful thanks to another

equally important component: mutation. As a species slowly grinds away towards slightly better fitness, occasionally, a member of the species mutates, and radically changes. Most of the time the mutation is a failure, but sometimes the complete shot in the dark yields a much better adaptation that ultimately creates an entirely new species or comes back to dominate the original one.

A good metaphor for understanding this interplay is that of the fitness landscape. Imagine a mountain range, with peaks and valleys and each mountain is a random height. Traversing this landscape, height = awesomeness, so everybody on this landscape always wants to get as high as possible.

Now imagine you’re dropped at random somewhere on the fitness landscape. You have a fancy GPS watch that tells you your elevation, but a dense fog has set in, so you really can’t see the whole range, or even the whole peak/valley you are currently on. How do you get higher? Well, you’ll take a few tiny steps in one direction, check if your getting higher and either keep going or change directions and check again. This is survival of the fittest, small variations that double down on incremental improvement.

But what happens if you have randomly been dropped at the foot of the tiniest little hill in the whole mountain range. Your survival of the fittest strategy won’t serve you very well, yes, you’ll eventually make it to the top of the hill, but what then? This is a local maximum. You are improving alright, but you’re going up the wrong hill, taking you further away from the higher, more awesome, peaks in the range.

This is where the mutation comes into play. Mutating in the fitness landscape is the equivalent of a super jump superpower. When you mutate you launch yourself to some other random spot, check your elevation and start feeling around for ways to get a bit higher. You might end up lower than the top of your first little hill, but you might also land on a much bigger Mount Awesome, and your incrementalist strategy will get you right to the top.

The interplay of small improvements and a few big random jumps is what makes evolution so powerful. Short guess and check with the occasional superjump is also the best strategy for traversing the fitness landscape. The metaphor is pretty simplistic, but I think it’s a powerful mental tool for a lot of scenarios.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the fitness landscape in the context of career trajectory. I think most of us spend way too much time optimizing for a local maximum when we should be taking a few more random superjumps. We’re halfway up our little hill. We think about all the work it took to get up to this point. The stack of degrees signifying our right to be so far up this particular hill. The carefully constructed CV that shows us a clear path several more steps up the same hill.

By contrast the mutation, the superjump, the leap of faith seems crazy. Where will we end up after the jump? What guarantee do we have that the we’ll land on a higher mountain? What if we fail and land smack in the middle of a valley? No no, this hill is just much safer and more certain. Two more steps up.

But evolution tells us that this really is the best way to get as high as we can. So maybe we should take a few more leaps of faith in our careers, trying out a field where we have no expertise, no credentials, just confidence that when we get there we will work hard and get better and starting heading up the hill. I’m not saying all the time, but probably more often than we do now.

Another upside, superjumps are definitely NOT boring.

Related listening: Tim Ferriss on reasons to be a Jack of All Trades

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