You Can Become Whatever You Choose

A couple of days ago, I was presenting a research poster at a machine learning conference called ScaledML. Large groups of people were gathering around my poster while I delivered ad-hoc summaries of my work and answered questions on a subject about which I had now apparently become a recognized expert: determinism in deep learning. In fact, I’m not aware of anyone else who is focused on this, so perhaps I’m actually the only expert in the world on this topic.

Last week, at the GPU Technology Conference, I stood on a stage and talked about the same topic for 40 minutes to a room containing almost 140 people. At the end, nearly everyone stayed while I answered a stream of questions for the remaining ten minutes of the session. I told the audience how grateful I felt to be able to share my work with so many interested and appreciative people. I almost cried. At the bottom of this article is a link to My First Public Tech Talk: What I’m Learning in Preparations, which is about that talk.

Shortly afterwards, I had a one-on-one with an engineering manager at NVIDIA, the company where I work, in which I mentioned how amazed I was that I had apparently become an expert on this topic in only one year. He said, “I thought that you were already an expert on this!” I told him that my knowledge of deep learning had all been self-taught over the past few years, and that I had only recently developed expertise in this determinism aspect from working on it intensely.

This seems to be a small step towards an outcome that I chose a couple of years ago: to be a world-renowned expert on artificial intelligence. I didn’t know how that chosen outcome would materialize and I had no anticipation of this particular sub-outcome.

Back at my poster presentation at the ScaledML conference, after a large crowd of people dispersed, one young engineer (only a year out of college) was left staring at my poster. With eyes wide and a look of awe on his face, he asked “but how did you figure all of that out?” I proceeded to blow his mind by telling him that I’m not even really a software engineer—my background being mostly in electrical engineering—and that I had only started investigating this subject a year before. The rest of this article is a distillation of the career advice that I gave him.

In life, it’s as if we’re all feeling around in the dark, trying to make sense of what is happening. We have almost no idea of what is going on, either from a broad scientific perspective or as individuals. Our culture teaches us that we’re supposed to achieve competency and success, so most people spend most of their time and energy trying to show the world that they have arrived. Feeling lost, we look around and perceive that everyone else seems to have their shit together while knowing, either consciously or unconsciously, that we don’t. Then the problem compounds like interest on a debt: I’m aware of my incompetence, I perceive everyone else as more capable, and so I focus on hiding my incompetence from the world. As I revealed in The Value of Incompetence (linked at bottom) this prevents any progress towards true mastery.

One strategy that people use to cope with this situation is to bullshit, attempting to trick themselves and others. They spout streams of barely comprehensible nonsense at people who nod their heads fearing that their own inability to follow the jargon-stream will be discovered. These are the emperor’s new clothes of our society. The professor stands on stage essentially talking to himself, losing 95% of the audience as they nod mechanically in agreement. I had better nod too, we all think. It must be terrifying for these bullshitters to be living a fragile lie that has to be continually shored up.

Have the courage to ask honest questions, of yourself and of others. Speak up in the silence to get your need for understanding met. In doing so, you’ll lead by example and create the safety to allow others to reveal their own innocent curiosity.

The same pattern is repeated with success. “Wow! Look at your new car!” I say, feeling jealous, envying his putative financial success, not admitting to myself that what I’m really coveting is luxury, as symbol of debt, which is the opposite of wealth. “Thanks” he says, feeling a glow of pride tempered only by the thought of years of car payments leading to ownership of a worthless hunk of scrap metal. The car is the emperor’s new clothes. The house is the emperor’s new clothes. The hot girlfriend, the one who secretly hates you, is the emperor’s new clothes. Heck even the new clothes are the emperor’s new clothes.

All of this is simply to point out how shallow and meaningless the world really is when its viewed as a competition with others, a competition that always disintegrates into a game of make-believe.

The reality is that you get good at what you actually spend time doing, or at least you get better than you were yesterday. If you want to become better at math, then you just practice doing math. If you want to write better, then you just write a lot. Any craft is mastered through its application.

And then there are the gate-keepers. These are the recruiters, the hiring managers, the venture capitalists, and the investment bankers. These people are no different than you; they’re also feeling around in the dark; they’re also trying to make sense of what’s going on while peering through a keyhole.

“Are you an expert?” the gatekeeper asks while looking at your experience. To this, some people respond, “That’s not fair! How can I become an expert if I’m not given a chance to practice!”

In reality, someone who has the right temperament can achieve anything, can solve any problem. Conscientiousness, focus, curiosity, kindness, leadership, persistence: these are the ultimate transferrable skills, the skills they should be hiring for. These are the skills that will weather pivots in the product, changes in the technology, and phases in the market. These are the skills that make management mostly superfluous; if you need to manage your employees then you may not have the right kind of employees. These are the skills that you should always be developing, no matter what you’re doing.

But there will always be gatekeepers who don’t understand this, and they just want you to check the boxes. So just check the boxes, or don’t. Either check the boxes or take a route where there is no gatekeeper. “Do you have a bachelor’s degree in computer science?” If yes, then you might get a job as a software engineer; if no, then you might just be the founder of Facebook (net worth $62.3 billion at the time of writing).

I remember moving out of the first apartment that I rented in the UK after graduating. I spent several hours cleaning before the agent arrived to take the keys and return my deposit. Before returning my deposit, the agent checked the thoroughness of the cleaning by running her finger over the top of the refrigerator, “There’s dust” she said, “I can’t return your deposit.” I grabbed a damp cloth from a few feet away and wiped off the dust. “How’s that?” I asked. I got my deposit back.

This is exactly how careers work. It’s stupid that there are gatekeepers who use relatively irrelevant metrics to block your path, but getting past those gatekeepers is usually surprisingly easy. If you want to do something then simply start doing it. Commit fully and dive in. In a matter of months, a gatekeeper’s response can change from a no to a yes. At some point not only will people start to pay you for what you’re doing, but they will actually seek you out and try to tempt you with increasingly lucrative offers. The more you do what you love, the more you’ll get paid for doing what you love. This is unrelated to what anyone else is doing.

What do you want to be doing? Get started right now and spend at least ten minutes on it.