I have no idea what I’m doing

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

-Somebody pretty wise

Justin Kan recently posed the question: What good is experience?

The ultimate good that comes from experience is that it teaches you this…

You’ll constantly find yourself in situations where you have no experience, and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need the experience. You just need some grit.

grit
courage and resolve; strength of character

In other words, you can figure it out.

See no matter how much experience I get, I continuously find myself in situations where I have no idea what I’m doing. I have countless personal tales of being neck deep in some type of problem or subject, and being completely baffled how I’m going to figure it out.

There was my freshman year honor’s Algebra class. Before the first day I wondered if someone made a mistake placing me in a class like this. I mean, I was a pretty good student. But I didn’t even have a decent pre-algebra class to prepare me. My suspicions were further confirmed on the first day.

The entire class was able to yell out the answer to this question: Expand the following expression:

(1 + 2x) * (3 + 4x)

Hold on, what!?

The class yells out FOIL! Chanting First… Outer… Inner… Last…

I had no idea what I was doing.

After many nights of my mom trying to teach herself and me these types of problems, I was still totally f*&ing baffled. It came to the point where I approached my Algebra teacher and fessed up that I’d only be a bit more lost if he was teaching the class in Italian, and maybe I should change classes.

Thank god for that Algebra teacher. I will always remember Mr. James G. Serpe. As he sucked on some Luden’s cough drops. (That man was addicted to Luden’s cough drops). He told me it was fine to move to a lower level math class, if that’s what I really wanted, but he warned.

“I think you can figure this out.”

Mr. Serpe had enough experience to have seen enough folks just as lost as I was eventually figure this stuff out. All it takes is some grit. Mr. Serpe said I could come over to his office hours after school.

I went every single day.

Eventually I figured the crap out of Algebra.

So much so, that I had the highest grade point average of my entire Freshman class (over 400 students) at the end of my Freshman year.

But the thing is, I continuously found myself drowning in the next subject in high school. In college it just got worse of course. And then after college? Oh My God. :)

There was the case of getting my first job after college. I wanted to be a software developer. But I got stuck doing really terrible stuff. My company didn’t think I had the education to be a developer. So I basically had to collect things people talked about in meetings that represented “requirements” and stick them into Word documents. I hated it. I wanted to be a developer. But…

I had no idea what I was doing.

So I stayed after work sucking down information from the internet on how to create websites and program software until the building would shut it’s lights off. (Actually, I stayed even after that.)

I downloaded Java so I could install it at home.

It took about 12 floppy disks. :)

In the end I finagled my way into a new career as a software developer at that same company. I became a pretty good Java developer. I then moved onto a senior engineer role at my next job. Then went onto be the technical co-founder of my own business, Inkling, in the second class of Y Combinator. Where there again, I found out…

I had no idea what I was doing.

There was the day when we realized the simple algorithm I was using to “score” people’s use of our tool wasn’t working. That “score” was the fundamental point of our business. And now, a guy had figured out how to completely game our system. My original algorithm was incredibly naive of course. I’ve never created something like this before. So I dug even further into the literature then I’ve ever gone before. Finding algorithms from the best minds in the industry we were in (prediction markets).

I was looking at papers like these from Robin Hanson, a pioneer in prediction markets. And I thought algebra was tough? Jesus, was I completely lost.

But I worked at turning Robin’s equations and papers into something I could understand. Something I could put into Ruby code to fuel our software.

After weeks and weeks and weeks of battle… including a vacation weekend where my wife and I went camping. I just sat with a calculator and a notebook on our campsite looking to make all these algorithms and choices make some kind of sense.

I finally figured this thing out.

Then there was the time CNN was a client and stuck a link to Inkling on CNN.com. Multiple days in a row. I’ve never had experience creating a dynamic website that could handle millions of people every single day (let alone using Ruby on Rails to do this).

I had no idea what I was doing.

But of course, I figured something out. Figured out the bottlenecks and performance problems to keep the few servers we had from melting down.

Fast forward to today. I’ve had over 6 years of experience helping to start and run my own profitable software business. Over those years, I’ve wanted to give up a countless number of times. These were just a few stories of dozens where I couldn’t possibly fathom how we at the company were going to figure out how to get through our next challenge. But we did.

Now I find myself in the middle of starting a new project and a new business. And…

I have no idea what I’m doing.

My first attempts at products in this new business haven’t quite gone right. I’m working on the next something I have some hope might be it. But I’m baffled at how it’s going to work out. I have some insane competition in what I want to achieve. How am I possibly going to get through this?

But if experience has taught me anything…

I’ll figure this out.

And you will too.

P.S. You might dig following me on Twitter.

 
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