Flogging certainty

​In today’s world, it’s not uncommon for people and organisations to pursue a lucrative business strategy called “complicate to profit”. It works like this:

Person: “I’m interested/care about/want to do X.”
Business: “But, good sir, X is supremely difficult to understand and risky to play with.”
Person: “Ah.”
Business: “Fortunately, we have spent decades learning about it. And for a fee, we will guide you or act on your behalf.”
Person: Wipes sweat from forehead, shuffles feet, puts hand in pocket, pays money.

This is how many institutions function and survive. They position themselves as guides for customers wishing to cross the dangerous desert of their particular domain. In some cases, this guidance is critical and necessary. In others, not so much. So the question is, “How do you tell the difference? How do you know when you actually need a guide, and when a guide is an unnecessary burden on your time, money and attention?” 

There are a few ways to approach an answer and they all involve preparation and research. For example, you could look at what others before you have tried, succeeded and failed at. You could estimate the time it will take you to learn or find the necessary information and then compare that figure to the cost of hiring a guide-slash-expert. You could do an accounting of your energy and see if you have enough spare to forego assistance. Alternatively, you could run through the following questions:

1) What can the guide do that I can’t? What does he have access to that I don’t?
2) What will it take for me to get/be able to do these things for myself?
3) Is that a cost I’m willing to bear?

That’s the kernel of the issue, the deciding factor between going solo and purchasing some assistance. To demonstrate why, let me walk you through two situations. The first: I’m considering hiring a plumber because I have a bad leak in the kitchen. I’ve turned off the water and now I must decide whether to get some help in. 

Question: What can the guide do that I can’t? What does he have access to that I don’t? 

Answer: He can diagnose problems in a plumbing system and act on that diagnosis, all in a short period of time. He has all the tools he might possibly need, he has undoubtedly encountered similar situations before so he has experience, and he can be relied upon to implement a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.

Question: What will it take for me to get/be able to do these things for myself?
Answer: A lot of time, probably. I’d need to learn how plumbing systems work, then figure out how to find issues within them, and within my own particular setup. I’d then need to devise a proper solution for what I think is the problem and acquire the necessary tools and bits. After that, I’d need to follow a step-by-step guide to performing the required fix, and be prepared for other issues to arise due to my incompetence or inexperience.

Question: Is that a cost I’m willing to bear? 
Answer: No, I need this fixed today.

Second situation: I want to change career. Right now, I work in HR, but I want to get into tech. I’m considering doing a part-time degree in computer science before I start looking for a new job.

Question: What can the guide—in this case, a university—do that I can’t? What do they have access to that I don’t? 
Answer: They can offer me a sensible, structured pathway through a complex domain. They can provide supporting figures and contacts throughout the process and after I complete it. They will put me alongside others trying to learn the same thing at the same time. And they can provide a widely recognised credential that could open many doors and net me an actual job. 

Question: What will it take for me to get/be able to do these things for myself?
Answer: Time. I could break down the domain of computer science and create my own personal pathway and timeline. I could do my own outreach and speak to people I know and don’t know who do what I’d like to do. I could build relationships with these people, or attend bootcamps, seminars and conferences where I’ll meet new people with which to share my journey. I couldn’t gain a socially recognised credential without the assistance of a learning institution, but I could gain socially recognised experience by contributing to open source projects and becoming active in different streams and communities. 

Question: Is that a cost I’m willing to bear? 
Answer: Yes. I have a stable job and some autonomy over my time and schedule. Plus, I’m in no rush. It would take me several years to complete a part-time degree, going at a pace that someone else determines, so I can afford to devote years to learning by myself and becoming active in various communities. 

This is how you see through the fog that people complicating to profit put forth into the world. You just have to ask yourself what they have that you don’t, what they can do that you can’t, and how high your tolerance of uncertainty and the unknown is. Because that’s what all businesses and institutions are really flogging; certainty. They’re assuaging your doubts and fears. They’re putting a hand on your shoulder and offering you a supposedly easy way through. But do you want to take it?