Are you 18, dead-set on investment banking?
Are you 26, engaged to your first-ever Tinder match?
Are you 30, putrescently rotting in a law career you spent the last 12 years chasing?
School. Exams. Grades. Choose random major. Choose random career. Choose random partner.
Life rushes us into high-stakes investments without a second’s breath to reflect: are we making the right decision?
And how can you know if you’ve never had the chance to explore your options…
This is the insidious problem of premature optimisation.
It’s a computer science concept — a warning against prematurely optimising a piece of code you might not actually need.
But it extrapolates beyond the world of 1s and 0s to any time we overinvest, too early, in the wrong pursuit.
In startups: it’s raising £500k to build an AI-powered toothbrush, only to realise no one wants machine learning algorithms sliding around their gums.
In relationships: it’s marrying your high school boyfriend out of mutual loneliness, then breaking his heart with the Brazilian mailman.
And in careers: it’s choosing medicine at 16, studying your arse off for 8 years, to then find out doctoring actually sucks.
I’ve been through my fair share of embarrassing premature optimisations, too.
I chose to study Economics at 16 after googling “highest-paying degree” with no idea what economists even do.
Then discovered at university, they’re just wannabe mathematicians who love to abstract common sense into increasingly useless models.
I wish I’d studied neuroscience or computer science but hey, that’s premature optimisation 🤷🏽♂️
I then fell into startup education entrepreneurship, because what else is there outside finance and law?
I enjoyed aspects of it, was quite good at it, but soon realised I was burning myself out, like a spliff lit at both ends.
Only in the two years that followed did I finally get the chance to step back and really work out what I wanted to do.
Travel, extensive reading, self-experimenting, constantly seeking out new experiences…I finally got to understand who I am.
Turns out I don’t really like startup entrepreneurship…
But I love coaching startups. I love entrepreneurial projects and creating new things. I love writing, accelerated learning, exploration, biohacking, neuroscience, art, kitesurfing, chess, languages…
And now I’m designing my life around all the above vs a life randomly assigned to me by bad choices I made when I was 16.
Make time to explore your options. Travel. Read. Talk to people in different careers.
And once you find your “thing” or “things”, it’s time to optimise. Go all out and make your dreams come true.
Of course, there’s always going to be a shinier “thing” out there and you can’t spend your whole life “exploring options”.
Which brings us to the flipside of premature optimisation…
Perpetual FOMO — an even more surefire way to screw up your life.
Like a perpetuum mobile (incidentally the name of my favourite song), the FOMOists perpetually swing from one thing to the next without ever seeing any results.
The trouble for the FOMOists is the grass is always greener. And it’s just too easy to rationalise switching career pursuit or business idea or programming language — especially when the going gets tough.
Right now I’m learning the piano, for example, but I’m desperate to switch to music production.
I’d actually get to make my own music (vs rote-learning piano pieces). I could sell the beats I produce. I could combine infinitely many instruments to create totally new sounds.
And the piano is getting boring. Learning scales and chords. Repetitive practice. Frequent frustration.
Fortunately, I pre-committed to 60 hours of piano practice.
However much my inner-FOMOist wants to switch…I am going to complete my 60 hours. And then I can continue, or try something new.
But 60 hours is enough to reach results — a few impressive pieces under my belt, a good foundation in music theory, and perhaps some pop improv.
Pre-commitment is necessary to find a balance between premature optimisation and perpetual FOMO.
For instance, by pre-committing to 30 hours learning to code on Codecademy, you can explore software engineering as a potential future career, but you can’t rage-quit as soon as it gets challenging, or defect to data science because it looks sexier.
At the end of your 30 hours, you’ll have explored a new option, informing your future career decisions. And if you conclude it’s not for you, who cares?
You now know software engineering’s not your “thing”, so no FOMO when Susie Noob-Struft tells you how programming is the sh*t right now.
And you’ve probably picked up some cool skills you’ll find a way to connect the dots on later on.
This is exactly what I did when exploring Data Science as a new career option in 2018. Tempted as I was by the £100k starting salaries, I didn’t love the online data science course I did — and that’s the end of it.
So explore your options.
But don’t just dip your toes in. Get at least half a leg underwater.
If you want to get into digital marketing, pre-commit to securing at least one month-long internship.
If you want to start a business, pre-commit to 3–6 months building out and testing your idea.
Dabbling’s fine, as long as you get your hands dirty.
Don’t turn your twenties into a career ladder. Only to climb to the top and realise it was resting on the wrong wall.
Your twenties are a huge, spiraling cobweb of connecting dots and exploring options.
And when you’re finally ready, when you’re done exploring, when you’ve found your “thing”, go all out.
So don’t prematurely optimise.
Use pre-commitment to fend off perpetual FOMO.
And remember, you can design your life to look exactly the way you’d like it to.