#5: Serendipity machines

Serendipity machines harness uncapped upside; Covid-19 leaves you exposed to uncapped downside

Welcome readers old and new. This is one of Thomas Hollands’ notes in his search for ideas which are surprisingly general, or generally surprising. The first issue explains the project, and you can find all past issues here.


Serendipity machines

In the online circles I move in, an idea has been doing the rounds. It goes a little something like this:

"In life, there are many, many different ways to succeed, far too many to keep track of. But in any field, there are only a few ways to fail. I can easily keep track of the ways to fail, and make sure that I am not moving closer to failure. As long as I keep going without failing, I am almost guaranteed to succeed!"

This idea comes from evolutionary biology. Survival is the ultimate filter. To succeed at all you must survive. And those that survive long enough are likely to learn enough things that they're almost guaranteed to succeed.

Let’s think more about the last part. If the ways to succeed are unidentifiable in advance, how can success be guaranteed?

An investing metaphor provides a useful lens. Success can be guaranteed provided you cap your exposure to downside, while exposing yourself to as much upside as possible. It doesn’t matter where the upside comes from, as long as you eventually get enough of it. Survive long enough and you'll eventually find a way to thrive.

I buy this advice big time.

I don't have any crazy, Elon Musk-style, 30-year career goals (though I often wish I did). I don't know where I want to be in 10 years' time, let alone 30 years. But I have a very clear picture of where I don't want to be. I don't want to be in bad health. I don't want to have bad relationships with my family. I don't want to be lonely. I can build regular actions like exercise, catch-ups, and family time into my day so I don't unwittingly take steps towards a future I'll hate.

This takes care of avoiding failure, but what about guaranteeing success?

Of course, life is full of uncertainty and success is never truly guaranteed. But we can increase our chances of success by exposing ourselves to what investor Josh Wolfe calls "randomness and optionality", that sweet uncapped upside. We can do this by increasing our exposure to serendipity.

Serendipity is a happy accident, an unplanned delight, a chance encounter gone right. It's discovering the person across the table interviewing you supports the same niche sports team. It's grudgingly going to a party and seeing an old friend. It's bumping into a potential investor on the tube.

Serendipitous events are things which are a) unexpected and b) personally relevant. It follows that you can increase the number of serendipitous experiences you have by:

a) increasing the number of unexpected things that happen to you and

b) by increasing the ability for personally relevant things to happen to you.

The internet massively enables both of these things.

a) is about brute-force increasing the number of encounters you have, while b) is about building serendipity machines.

A serendipity machine is something that attracts people who are unexpectedly like-minded towards you. It's like an angler fish's light — it summons all manner of deep-sea creatures who are interested in its glow. And then you meet them (eat them?) and become friends.

Angler Fish - 3D model by Thomas Veyrat (@veyratom) [aaafd31 ...

Thomas attracting followers to his blog so he can befriend them (2020, colourised).

The more authentic and sincere the maker, the better the machine. This is a big deal. To attract people who are like-minded, you have to share what you're really like! It's scary to do this at first but with practice you improve.

My serendipity machines are my blog, my twitter account, and more recently, this newsletter. On each I share a sliver of my thoughts, a tiny light in the deep internet sea. Other kindred internet surfing-sea-creatures can coalesce around the light if they wish.

Sometimes they do. I’ve been on twitter for just over a year, and the blog is about to have its' 1-year anniversary. Thanks to both, I've made at least five (5) good friends, done several fun unpaid projects and so far at least one paid one. None of these opportunities would've happened without putting myself out there.

I'm looking forward to having many unexpectedly good conversations over the years to come. That's why this year I'm taking my serendipity machines to the next level. Following Paul Millerd's lead, I'm offering free half-hour curiosity conversations to people who come across my profile.

If you're reading this and interested in chatting about something you've read, a crazy idea you've had, your favourite book, or anything at all, feel free to book a chat here. Best case scenario: we become friends for life, worst case scenario: you end the zoom call after 10 minutes of my inane chatter. If that's not capped downside, I don't know what is.

But the serendipity doesn't end there. I recently discovered the wonderful website buymeacoffee.com, where you can reward creators you like for their hard work in conveniently coffee-sized monetary increments. I'm not expecting any payments, but I'm leaving myself open to serendipity! And hey, if you have ample disposable income and are a fan, please feel free to send me a can.

Book a curiosity conversation


COVIDs long term consequences

TLDR Don't get covid even if you're young

In less light-hearted news: my "recovery" from covid has hit a few setbacks.

If serendipity machines are about capping downside while leaving exposure to upside, then getting covid is the reverse. It caps your upside, while leaving exposure to downside. It can only be ok, while it has the potential to be awful.

OG supporters of the newsletter may remember my March coronavirus blog post, wherein I describe the discomfort of being furloughed and getting covid-19 in hay-fever season, in a springtime clusterfuck extravaganza.

I was mostly recovered from late April onwards, apart from no sense of smell whatsoever, and the occasional episode of wheeziness. I had exercise-induced asthma as a child and still carry an inhaler today, although until this year I almost never had to use it.

Fast forward to the end of July, and the olfactory glands are recovering slowly but surely (I can now smell odours of the pungent variety, but still miss the subtle stuff) however my lungs seem to have gotten worse.

Over the past few weeks I have had a few minor asthmatic episodes, with some difficulty breathing, along with one major asthma attack where for half an hour I could barely breathe at all.

This is despite being in almost the best aerobic shape of my life - I have become a quarantine runner and at the moment my mile time is around the 6 minute mark.

But two days' ago I was gasping for breath like I had just run a 400m sprint, even though I was only sitting down at a bar outside. Thanks to the lack of smell, I hadn't noticed I was sitting downwind of someone's cigarette fumes. Last year, this would've been marginally unpleasant but no cause for concern. But this year it drove me into a coughing fit for half an hour. Any time I inhaled at all my chest was wracked with coughs. I couldn't speak. It took all my effort to breathe. I became dizzy, and my throat filled with phlegm and blood as I croaked for air.

I say all this for one simple reason: covid really sucks, even if you're an otherwise healthy young person.

Please, please be careful and avoid giving it to others or getting it yourself. We don't understand its long-term consequences, but judging from some reports and my anecdotal experience, it can be as bad or worse than the short-term experience of the disease itself.