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Hedge First, Optimize Later


“Truth will sooner come out of error than from confusion.” (Francis Bacon)
As with all religions or political philosophies, the converted are always the great evangelists for they have overcome the darkness within to find the greater illumination. But Saint Paul is a particularly difficult figure to reconcile. He is at once both a firebrand proselytizer and a canny proponent of good sense. These are traits that seldom work together in any contemporary assembly hall or pulpit. His ministry began in the chaos of the provinces with a series of unfortunate missteps but slowly became more focused and doctrinaire by the time he reached Rome, the center of the Western world. His clever strategy of coming to a new place and quickly learning what works and doesn’t, and then integrating these insights with his central message brings the Gospel from the most obscure part of the Empire to its very core. In the modern tongue, Paul went viral to grow the brand. Given his conduct in the pages of the Great Book it is hard to image him as a likeable fellow but easy to see him as judicious and even wise. What can be learned from the alias Saul of Tarsus is that prudence is the surest course to prevail in the face of uncertainty and doubt.
There is a sequence to growth, an implicit order. They are often referred to as the forward and aft positions. We look out to discover opportunities and threats to our growth before we may streamline our actions to maximize their value to us. First, the unknown must be found and revealed. This is not only to minimize the risk of failure but to speculate where opportunities for growth may abound. Investor and scientist alike know well the value of spreading out when the future is impenetrable.
For example, venture capitalists invest in dozens of diverse companies in the early or angel phases in order to quickly learn which approach will win the day. It’s less about natural selection and more about learning what the fish are biting. In subsequent rounds of investment the sums get larger and the range of possible solutions become optimized until they grow to sufficient scale to provide spectacular returns to the investors. Efficiency is the final stage, otherwise we move with all due speed to our undoing. The rich do in fact get richer but not simply because they have “risk” capital, but more from the way in which they manage it. To bet it all on a sure thing is either to invest in something so incremental that only those firms with a quasi-monopoly can prevail or something so new that the level of risk is unmanageable – Viva Las Vegas!
Unfortunately, this irrational exuberance cuts a destructive path through the lives of many. They know their soul mate or place to bliss or vocation all without the benefit of test or trial because they fear they will get disconfirming feedback. It’s not that we should not pursue our aspirations or believe in emerging opportunities but rather that we should lure them out bit by bit with a wide array of real bait. What moves the bobber is not self-fulfilling but an indication and perhaps an affirmation that what we seek has an appetite to grow as well.
It seems counter intuitive that big growth and its companion success should typically be preceded by prudent experiments that are designed to produce constructive failure but as the journeymen say “You don’t know what you know until you know it.” Maybe the genius of St. Paul was that he wasn’t a strategist but a believer who made it up as he went along. To do the later is to be both mindful and faithful. Wishing is an essential part of our growth while evidence is paying attention to the answers given.

  • We grow by broadening our approaches at first and streamlining them at last
Jeff DeGraff
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