Paul Graham, the English-American computer programmer, is the legendary founder of the Y Combinator, the seed capital firm which 20 years ago transformed start-up investing in the Silicon Valley. Now retired, he lives in England and writes thought provoking blogs about seemingly simple topics which, under Graham’s treatment, yield rich insights. In this blog he talks about how “hard work” is a non-trivial subject which deserves careful thought.
Graham says that in professional life one of the things that makes sustained hard work over decades tough is that, unlike in school, you don’t have “clearly defined externally imposed rules”. He says: “It is straightforward to work hard if you have clearly defined, externally imposed goals, as you do in school. There is some technique to it: you have to learn not to lie to yourself, not to procrastinate (which is a form of lying to yourself), not to get distracted, and not to give up when things go wrong. But this level of discipline seems to be within the reach of quite young children, if they want it.
What I’ve learned since I was a kid is how to work toward goals that are neither clearly defined nor externally imposed. You’ll probably have to learn both if you want to do really great things.”
Firstly, you need to cultivate the habit of consistent hard work: “The most basic level of which is simply to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to. Now, when I’m not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can’t be sure I’m getting anywhere when I’m working hard, but I can be sure I’m getting nowhere when I’m not, and it feels awful.
There wasn’t a single point when I learned this. Like most little kids, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement when I learned or did something new. As I grew older, this morphed into a feeling of disgust when I wasn’t achieving anything. The one precisely dateable landmark I have is when I stopped watching TV, at age 13.
Several people I’ve talked to remember getting serious about work around this age. When I asked Patrick Collison when he started to find idleness distasteful, he said: “I think around age 13 or 14. I have a clear memory from around then of sitting in the sitting room, staring outside, and wondering why I was wasting my summer holiday.”
Perhaps something changes at adolescence. That would make sense….Bill Gates, for example, was among the smartest people in business in his era, but he was also among the hardest working. “I never took a day off in my twenties,” he said. “Not one.” It was similar with Lionel Messi. He had great natural ability, but when his youth coaches talk about him, what they remember is not his talent but his dedication and his desire to win. P. G. Wodehouse would probably get my vote for best English writer of the 20th century, if I had to choose. Certainly no one ever made it look easier. But no one ever worked harder.”
Secondly, Graham says that school education embeds in us a notion of fake hard work because of the way the school syllabus dumbs down difficult-to-understand stuff. You therefore end up with the wrong impression that hard work is somehow related to doing well in exams: “There are two separate kinds of fakeness you need to learn to discount in order to understand what real work is. One is the kind Hardy encountered in school. Subjects get distorted when they’re adapted to be taught to kids — often so distorted that they’re nothing like the work done by actual practitioners. The other kind of fakeness is intrinsic to certain types of work. Some types of work are inherently bogus, or at best mere busywork.
There’s a kind of solidity to real work. It’s not all writing the Principia, but it all feels necessary. That’s a vague criterion, but it’s deliberately vague, because it has to cover a lot of different types.”
Finally, once you have identified what you want to do, you then need to get your head down and keep at it. This too is not as simple as it sounds: “Once you know the shape of real work, you have to learn how many hours a day to spend on it. You can’t solve this problem by simply working every waking hour, because in many kinds of work there’s a point beyond which the quality of the result will start to decline.
That limit varies depending on the type of work and the person. I’ve done several different kinds of work, and the limits were different for each. My limit for the harder types of writing or programming is about five hours a day. Whereas when I was running a startup, I could work all the time. At least for the three years I did it; if I’d kept going much longer, I’d probably have needed to take occasional vacations.
The only way to find the limit is by crossing it. Cultivate a sensitivity to the quality of the work you’re doing, and then you’ll notice if it decreases because you’re working too hard. Honesty is critical here, in both directions: you have to notice when you’re being lazy, but also when you’re working too hard. And if you think there’s something admirable about working too hard, get that idea out of your head. You’re not merely getting worse results, but getting them because you’re showing off — if not to other people, then to yourself.
Finding the limit of working hard is a constant, ongoing process, not something you do just once. Both the difficulty of the work and your ability to do it can vary hour to hour, so you need to be constantly judging both how hard you’re trying and how well you’re doing….
Many problems have a hard core at the center, surrounded by easier stuff at the edges. Working hard means aiming toward the center to the extent you can. Some days you may not be able to; some days you’ll only be able to work on the easier, peripheral stuff. But you should always be aiming as close to the center as you can without stalling.
The bigger question of what to do with your life is one of these problems with a hard core. There are important problems at the center, which tend to be hard, and less important, easier ones at the edges. So as well as the small, daily adjustments involved in working on a specific problem, you’ll occasionally have to make big, lifetime-scale adjustments about which type of work to do. And the rule is the same: working hard means aiming toward the center — toward the most ambitious problems….
As well as learning the shape of real work, you need to figure out which kind you’re suited for. And that doesn’t just mean figuring out which kind your natural abilities match the best; it doesn’t mean that if you’re 7 feet tall, you have to play basketball. What you’re suited for depends not just on your talents but perhaps even more on your interests. A deep interest in a topic makes people work harder than any amount of discipline can….
The best test of whether it’s worthwhile to work on something is whether you find it interesting. That may sound like a dangerously subjective measure, but it’s probably the most accurate one you’re going to get. You’re the one working on the stuff. Who’s in a better position than you to judge whether it’s important, and what’s a better predictor of its importance than whether it’s interesting?
For this test to work, though, you have to be honest with yourself. Indeed, that’s the most striking thing about the whole question of working hard: how at each point it depends on being honest with yourself.”
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