Paul Graham is an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist best known for founding the startup accelerator Y Combinator. But more recently known for his insightful essays such as this one on how to do Great Work, relevant for the young and the old alike.
“The first step is to decide what to work on. The work you choose needs to have three qualities: it has to be something you have a natural aptitude for, that you have a deep interest in, and that offers scope to do great work.
In practice you don’t have to worry much about the third criterion. Ambitious people are if anything already too conservative about it. So all you need to do is find something you have an aptitude for and great interest in.”
Whilst that might sound pretty straightforward, finding that intersection of something you have aptitude in as well as great interest in is not easy, at least for most people. Graham in this longish essay provides some guidelines we can follow in fairly flowy prose.
First, he dwells on curiosity as a tool to explore until you find what you are deeply interested in:
“If you’re not sure what to work on, guess. But pick something and get going. You’ll probably guess wrong some of the time, but that’s fine. It’s good to know about multiple things; some of the biggest discoveries come from noticing connections between different fields…There’s a kind of excited curiosity that’s both the engine and the rudder of great work. It will not only drive you, but if you let it have its way, will also show you what to work on.
What are you excessively curious about — curious to a degree that would bore most other people? That’s what you’re looking for.”
…Four steps: choose a field, learn enough to get to the frontier, notice gaps, explore promising ones. This is how practically everyone who’s done great work has done it, from painters to physicists.
Steps two and four will require hard work. It may not be possible to prove that you have to work hard to do great things, but the empirical evidence is on the scale of the evidence for mortality. That’s why it’s essential to work on something you’re deeply interested in. Interest will drive you to work harder than mere diligence ever could.
The three most powerful motives are curiosity, delight, and the desire to do something impressive. Sometimes they converge, and that combination is the most powerful of all.”
Beyond curiosity he lays a lot of emphasis on getting started (avoiding procrastination), consistency and perseverance. What makes it hard and worthwhile is the exponential nature of the benefits of great work which is hard for the human mind to appreciate (as we have talked about compounding in the area of investing):
“…we underestimate the cumulative effect of work. Writing a page a day doesn’t sound like much, but if you do it every day you’ll write a book a year. That’s the key: consistency. People who do great things don’t get a lot done every day. They get something done, rather than nothing.
If you do work that compounds, you’ll get exponential growth. Most people who do this do it unconsciously, but it’s worth stopping to think about. Learning, for example, is an instance of this phenomenon: the more you learn about something, the easier it is to learn more. Growing an audience is another: the more fans you have, the more new fans they’ll bring you.
The trouble with exponential growth is that the curve feels flat in the beginning. It isn’t; it’s still a wonderful exponential curve. But we can’t grasp that intuitively, so we underrate exponential growth in its early stages.
Something that grows exponentially can become so valuable that it’s worth making an extraordinary effort to get it started. But since we underrate exponential growth early on, this too is mostly done unconsciously: people push through the initial, unrewarding phase of learning something new because they know from experience that learning new things always takes an initial push, or they grow their audience one fan at a time because they have nothing better to do. If people consciously realized they could invest in exponential growth, many more would do it.”
The whole piece is a wonderful read talking about aspects of originality where he recommends we chase what others have overlooked, intellectual honesty and optimism.
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