Tobias Lutke is the founder of Shopify (and a hobbyist Starcraft player)
In this interview he goes pretty deep on the things he learned about life and business through Starcraft.
If, for some reason, you’ve decided to get all your life lessons by playing games, Starcraft is a good place to start. You might not end up with a multi-billion dollar company like Lutke, but you can still learn a bunch about systems, attention, and efficiency.
This episode is a great example of the unique content that podcasts provide. The founder of one of the most successful e-commerce companies in the world dedicates an hour talking about Starcraft and how he’s applied the concepts in his life and in business.
After listening to this, I re-installed Starcraft and have been quickly reminded of concepts I learned through Starcraft.
Let’s say you have a chaotic day to day…
… you have dozens of things that you could focus on.
Which of those things will you try to tackle first?
Well, let’s say most of those tasks are interceptors but a couple are carriers. If you destroy the carriers, the interceptors die with them. Things in your life can be similar. There are a few things that are way more important to take care of and can make the other things unnecessary.
(There are plenty of games where a boss has a weak point that you need to target, but something about RTS really just maps better to all the unpredictability of the day to day.)
Tobi Lutke offered a pro gamer an internship at Shopify based on the student’s success as a professional gamer. He talks about that on this episode. The way he sees it, there are just a ton of positive characteristics required to get that good at a game as difficult as Starcraft.
At the highest levels, there’s just an amount of mental grit involved. There aren’t many activities where you sit at a computer that have as much pressure as competitive gaming. Solving a programming problem can be mentally strenuous, sure, but you’re probably not under the same type of time pressure and there’s not someone on the other side actively trying to destroy you. (I mean, unless, I don’t know, you’re in a hacking scene in a movie.)
Don’t believe in the growth mindset? Play Starcraft for a few weeks.
Lutke calls out how Starcraft makes the growth mindset obvious.
It’s difficult to learn, but you can very clearly see yourself getting better if you stick with it long enough.1 Whatever your first RTS was, it can be an incredibly jarring genre to jump into. You’re in control of a whole bunch of stuff instead of the usual focus on one character.
Focus on attacking your opponent? Check your email? Check on your expansion that’s being attacked? Respond to that ping? Keep building units? (Learn to prioritize and shift your attention.)
One similarity (of many) that Tobi points out between Starcraft and running a business is that you very clearly have a limited amount of attention. If you’re paying too much attention to a battle and forget to continue producing units, then you can end up way behind when the battle ends.
If instead you’re just monitoring things at a high level and don’t pay enough focused attention and get sloppy on an attack, you can lose a battle you should’ve won based on the units you have.
Maybe that battle won’t matter.
Maybe it was the only battle that mattered.
Just understanding what the tradeoffs are when shifting your attention in different directions is important. And it’s invaluable to be able to do it over and over one after the other and learn to make those decisions.
Remember when you didn’t know anything? (You probably don’t!)
At least not really. An expert has a really hard time picturing what it’s like to be a beginner who doesn’t even know what they don’t know.
In 6th grade, I remember playing a bunch of Starcraft before learning there was even a concept of build orders. That seems silly at this point but it really is this thing that seems obvious and you might forget that beginners don’t know about build orders at all.
It reminds me of something Thomas Frank (of College Info Geek) said about students who take some of the productivity courses he’s made. He’s talked about overthinking things and considering teaching some advanced tactics that might be more useful.
But when the course is released, what do plenty of people say?
“Oh yeah… putting stuff on a calendar does make sense!”
The scary thing with this is that, ten years from now, there’s probably some things looking back that you’d do differently and probably think it should’ve looked so obvious.
Take the time to reflect on what you know now and what you would tell yourself from 6 months ago.
Writing this reminded me of this old video I made about some life lessons from Starcraft.
- As I’ve started playing again, I’ve been getting some of the muscle memory back and now I can’t imagine coming into the game completely fresh. It’s good that there are so many resources available now. I’ve watched a few hours of games on YouTube in the past week and the announcers will sometimes reminisce to the old days of Brood War and how hard it used to be trying to find Korean VODs.