The Lessons I Learned From Shiny Hunting Pokémon
The value of randomness
At some time over the pandemic, I re-got into pokémon and then (for the first time) I got into shiny hunting. In case you’re not familiar, perhaps because you are a mature adult and not a 37 year old woman with the hobbies 19 year old man-boy, shiny hunting in pokémon means either catching the same pokémon over and over, or breeding pokémon and hatching eggs over and over until you get a pokémon that’s a different color.
For example, this is a normal Eevee:
And this is a shiny one:
See how the colors are different? Now you may be wondering, is anything else different? Is there any advantage to a shiny pokémon, other than simple vanity?
And the answer is no, nothing is different. They fight the same, there is a little sparkle animation on the shiny ones, but that’s about it.
What are the odds of actually getting a shiny pokémon? Well, they drift from 1/4000 to 1/100 depending on some particulars of the situation that I won’t get into here; but suffice it to say you basically have to spend a long time doing the same boring task over and over again, until you get a shiny.
“Why on earth would anyone do that?” you may be wondering, but that’s beside the point of this article.
The point of this article, is that truly engaging with randomness is a very bizarre experience, and not one that the human mind is well equipped to understand. The human mind, indeed maybe most animal minds, are designed to find patterns so we can replicate success. However, when faced with a truly random event, we tend to make up patterns that don’t exist because somehow our minds can’t really grock what randomness is.
Back in the 50s, we actually made a discovery about this with pigeons. This guy Skinner, was running tests on pigeons and was rewarding them with food when they pushed a button. However, at some point instead of just giving the pigeons food whenever they pushed the button, he made them push the button a random number of times. And, the results were bizarre. Basically, the pigeons started engaging with the button much more frequently, sometimes frantically or manically. Other pigeons developed little rituals; like if they happened to turn around or something one time before pressing the button to get food, they would start doing that every time.
In a way, it kind of makes sense; true randomness is not super common in primitive nature. Like, if you shake a tree to get fruit to fall out, and you learn that kicking the tree makes more fruit fall out, it’s likely that kicking the tree is more efficient than shaking the tree. Or something. And, if you were able to generate success doing something once, if you can figure out how you generated that success again so you can repeat it, this will give you a massive advantage over other beings who are indifferent to when they achieve success.
However, we now live in a world where functionally random encounters are far more common thanks to computers. And… engaging with them feels weird.
So, similarly to the pigeons, whenever I succeed in getting a shiny pokémon, if I’d randomly been doing something before I got it, I would tend to assign some sort of credit to that event. In my case, it was usually “not paying attention too hard.” For instance, I’d often shiny hunt on my handheld switch while watching TV, and I noticed that — hey — I get more shinies when my attention is focused on something else! I started to, almost subconsciously, think things like “no, don’t pay attention to the shiny hunting” when I was doing it, because I somehow felt that if I was paying attention too hard, I’d make it not happen (sort of a “watched pot doesn’t boil” vibe.)
Now, of course, this is irrational. The reason why I usually got my shinies when I wasn’t fully paying attention, is shiny hunting is boring. Consequently, I tend to be able to do more repetitive tasks for longer when I have something else to engage my mind, so effectively, I got more shinies when I wasn’t paying full attention because most of the time I spend shiny hunting I’m not paying full attention. Or, to phrase it another way, the causality was reversed; I “felt” like not paying attention was getting me more shinies, but actually, it just took a long time to get a shiny and I’d get bored and start paying attention to something else early on.
If you ever go to a casino, you’ll probably see stuff like this happen all the time; effectively, people start developing random superstitious rituals based on misattributed causes of success in the past. And, it’s like, even if you “know you’re not serious” part of you is a little bit serious about it.
However, on a larger scale, I also began to see that our society is not very good at handling random events because the same cognitive biases that cause misattribution in individuals cause misattribution in community. For example — consider something like startup success. There may be many factors that can influence a startup’s success, but luck or effectively — random positive chance — is a crucial element of it.
However, people don’t like to think about that side of it. As someone who has worked in may startups, one of the massive cognitive biases people have, is that they think that if they can just come up with a good enough idea, then they will be successful. And, what they will do, is they will look at people like Marc Zuckerberg or Elon Musk as “brilliant” people who “saw a market opportunity” or something. And while I’m sure those guys were to some degree on top of their shit, I’ll bet there were at least 1000 other people out there just as sharp, and just as on top of their shit as those two guys were. And, the reason Musk and Zuckerberg rose to the top, is they just happened to stumble into business areas that were just about to have their moment.
Or, in effect, they got lucky.
Yet, no one likes that answer. People like to imagine, if they just do what those guys do (or, in the case of Elizabeth Holmes, wear what Steve Jobs wore) then they can be successful too. But the thing is, we have so many people founding businesses now, so many people “taking a shot” that someone is bound to be successful. And, it may not be a mater of intelligence and strategy as much as it is a matter of luck, at least, the part that pushes you finally over the top.
But, it’s not all bad news. Because, once you accept that certain events may be random, you learn to roll with the randomness. In my case of shiny hunting, I park myself in front of the TV and do a 2 in one — I learn to not expect to get a particular shiny any hour or so, but almost just view it as a methodical task like knitting. To get a shiny in pokémon, you just need to grind out as many shots as possible.
And, actually, startups aren’t so different. The advice I try to give when I work at a startup, which is often ignored, is “you need to experiment with as many things as possible.” The mental cognition that holds people up, generally is a desire to not release “imperfect” products, and a certain type of spendthrift attitude when people have access to millions of dollars. If you have a million dollars, and no product market fit, you are better off saving like hell and hiring a cheap dev on Upwork so you can get out 100 different product ideas than you are building out in house teams or getting an office. (Steve Blank has some more fully baked ideas on this with respect to startups specifically in his book 4 Steps to the Epiphany — disclosure: affiliate link¹)
In fact, I would argue that the method of sort of trying many different things is effectively the method of generating truly original content. This particular human cognitive error, of attempting to replicate what is often random success with often pseudo-superstitious ritual has the extremely irritating impact, of creating massive monotonous trends within culture.
Consider something like YouTube; YouTube has massive trends in content generation. As someone trying to start a YouTube channel herself, the first thing I did, was go and watch a bunch of videos on “how to create a YouTube channel.” And then, while there was some decent advice out there, I got stuck in creating a bunch of videos that felt boring and formulaic — my thumbnails, in particular, are boring and formulaic because I was just too lazy to experiment with them for myself so I copied what everyone else did. And, now, YouTube is full of people with the same stupid looking thumbnail, and what may have started out as a good or unique idea has become a kind of visual monotony that permeates YouTube, which I am unabashedly contributing to.
And, people regularly look to the “greats” to see what they’re doing. Mr Beast, for example, is a popular YouTuber I see people analyze sometimes. However, they often tend to analyze his recent videos, that frequently have an unreachable production value, not to mention his already existing multi-million person audience sets him apart from anyone who wants to copy his strategy.
However if go back in time, you actually see something really interesting about his videos. This guy has tried a bunch of random and completely bizarre things over the years:
Even if you just look at his thumbnails, they lack the type of consistency or “brand” many of the YouTube advice-giving “experts” suggest you adopt. Basically, he just tried a ton of things, and his success apparently wasn’t even that fast considering how big he got. I forget, but I think it took him him like over 100 videos to get to 1k subscribers (though, I may be getting him mixed up with another YouTuber.) Plenty of people get to that number way quicker, but what’s interesting about MrBeast, is when he became successful, he became more successful. I’d argue, he didn’t box himself in, he had a larger idea space to draw from and this increased the chances that some of his ideas would be extremely successful. The often, counter, advice given on YouTube is to “niche down” so the algorithm can figure out how to prioritize you.
That was not Mr Beast’s advice, though. In one his videos when people asked him how to be successful on YouTube his advice was simply “be different.” Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Which is an interesting mindset; it implies, when he was trying to grow his channel, he was seeking out new concepts, rather than trying to replicate old concepts.
If we consider the infinite idea scape of things you could do, which idea is going to be a good one is — functionally — random. I’d say, you can’t really figure out what’s going to work in advance. We pretend like we can, startup founders in particular try to convince investors they know what’s going to work, but I think it’s all lies.
One of my recent favorite reads, has been the book Little Bets which details how we don’t really know what’s going to succeed before we try, and the way to get to big, successful ideas is to try and experiment with many little smaller ideas — “little bets” — first. In the introduction, Little Bets describes how comedy is a difficult thing to produce formulaically, and how nearly all successful comedians and humor generators basically have to try many things before they’re successful:
For a full routine, [Chris] Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut. A successful joke often has six or seven parts. With that level of complexity, it’s understandable that even a comedian as successful as Chris Rock wouldn’t be able to know which joke elements and which combinations will work. This is true for every stand-up comedian, including the top performers we tend to perceive as creative geniuses, like Rock or Jerry Seinfeld. It’s also true for comedy writers. The writers for the humor publication the Onion, known for its hilarious headlines, propose roughly six hundred possibilities for eighteen headlines each week, a 3 percent success rate.
Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims — p 2 (Note: affiliate link¹)
Yet, I think it can be difficult for people to adopt approaches like this because we desperately seek explanation and reason. Even in situations we know, for a fact, are functionally random (gambling, or pokémon hunting) we still have a tendency to try to impose some sort of superstitious “reasoning” behind what’s going on. So, this natural human tendency is one that inhibits us from exploring most optimal strategies.
And, another way that we get shut down from this, is generating new ideas is tiring. Part of the reason I don’t use different YouTube thumbnails, even though I sort of know I’m probably hindering potential success, is I just haven’t really wanted to put in the energy to consider alternative options. When I’m done with a video, I’m often tired. I often just want to get something out, so I just do something standard. Coming up with a continuous stream of new ideas is harder than just copying other people’s ideas, and more than that, it’s more emotionally shattering when they don’t work. One of the things about standup comedians, is they have to be so tough to just get up on the stage, and put out material that doesn’t work over and over until they find something that lands.
Of course, reflecting on this, it does actually remind me of one more lesson I’ve learned when shiny hunting pokémon; dealing with randomness can be a lot easier, when you get tools to automate it.
¹ I’m experimenting with affiliate links, to see if eventually I can have more time to write without full time work. I’m only using them in areas where I would have organically quoted and linked to the book anyway.