The value of working on projects which might not work

‘Use a Molecular Biologist with programming experience to advertise for your Bioinformatics Specialization, not just a youtuber!!’

That’s the tail end of one of the comments on one of my recent YouTube videos.

It also mentioned the work I was doing wasn’t biologically or scientifically sound.

He was right. But it didn’t take the comment to make me aware. The video has a disclaimer at the start. The description has one too.

Maybe Reza didn’t see it. That’s okay, sometimes people miss disclaimers and no one ever reads the terms & conditions.

Not all projects you start are going to work.

But that doesn’t mean they’re a waste of time.

In my latest video, I use what I’ve been learning in the Coursera Bioinformatics Specialization plus the help of a genetic algorithm to mutate a DNA sequence until it changes into the right one. When it changes into the right sequence, a YouTube video loads of my best friend’s son hearing him speak for the first time.

The project works, the code runs. However, it’s not scientifically significant nor will it push the field of biology forward.

But I did learn a whole bunch about DNA, different genes, cell replication, computer science, algorithm design, hearing loss and how to research along the way. And now I know where I could improve, plus, I have a story. A story of how I built something.

When people reach out to me asking how they should learn machine learning (or anything else), I often recommend getting a foundation of knowledge and then starting to work on some projects of your own.

The next question is usually, ‘What project should I work on?’

To which my reply is usually, ‘Something which might not work.’

Why?

You’ve seen the reasons above from my personal project. But I’ve put together a few points on the benefits of working on things which might not work.

Getting comfortable with the unknown

Loss aversion is one of the main drivers of all decision making.

Losing something has six times the psychological effect as gaining something. Which means you'd have to win $600 to compensate losing $100.

This is hardwired into us. And it's a good thing. In the past, when we were hunter-gatherers and resources were scarce, losing something could mean the end.

But now, if you're reading this, you likely have more resources available to you than most people in history.

Yeah, you've heard this before. But what's the point?

Loss aversion keeps you in the known.

'I know this works so I'm going to keep doing it.'

Doing this over and over risks stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline.

All the best work comes from projects which might not work. The ones where the outcome isn't clear to begin with but instead is refined and found over time.

The next time you're avoiding the unknown, rather than think about what you're missing out on gaining, what are you afraid of losing?

The fear of loss is a far bigger driver of your decision making.

Get comfortable with the unknown.

Figuring out where you’re wrong

My bioinformatics project doesn't mean anything biologically.

The genetic algorithm I used wasn't as computationally efficient as it could be.

These are two areas I could improve on if I wanted to take it further.

Even if the project you're working on doesn't turn out to be as expected (they hardly do), at a bare minimum you'll figure out where you're wrong.

Now you know what doesn't work, you can use it as direction for what's next.

If everyone else is doing it, avoid

Projects don’t have to be what you see everywhere else.

Imagine you're in a job interview.

The other candidates have all worked on Project X.

The interviewer has heard the same story 6 times.

It's your turn. They ask you.

'What have you been working on?'

You reply.

'I've been working Project Y. It hasn't quite worked out yet but I think I know what I'm going to do next.'

'Oooo, Project Y, tell me more.'

This scenario is made up. But you get the point.

Having a project you've worked on is better than no project.

And having a project you've worked on that's different to what you easily find elsewhere is better than what everyone else has.

What can you do?

If someone has done it before, remix it with your own vibe. Combine one project with another and see what comes out.

The worst case?

You'll have a story about how you tried to mix X with Y. And it didn't work out. So you tried to add Z into the mix and then W was born. I ran out of letters.

Do the thing you've always done and you'll get the same results you've always got.

A chance to share your work

It's the story. The process. The thought process. The why behind each step.

Even if what you're working on doesn't turn out to be great. You'll still have this.

The process is as important as the outcome. The process is what will follow you to the next project.

Being able to describe your process to someone is teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish.

The benefit of sharing your work, even if it doesn't work?

Someone else might be working on the same thing. They might want to come along and join forces.

‘Hey, I’m working on this too.’

The internet allows this kind of interaction.

Plus, people online are really quick to tell you where you're wrong.

‘Yeah, but where’s the practicality?’

If you're thinking about this, you're on the right path.

It's well and good to not be afraid of working on things which might not work.

But when does it turn into something really useful?

It's an iterative process. Ask, test, reflect, refine, repeat. There's no one answer.

It starts with making. Making something you're proud of. And then sharing it with others.

This post is an excerpt of the newsletter I send out once a month or so. If you’re interested in reading more posts like this, you can sign up for updates.