The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius
Paul Graham is an investor, especially known for having founded Y Combinator, a successful incubation platform in Silicon Valley, having incubated companies such as Airbnb, Drobbox, Doordash, etc. In this particularly insightful blog, Paul highlights the need for obsessive interest in a subject as a key ingredient for success, especially the creative kind of success. He uses the example of people who collect bus tickets as a passionate interest, where there is clearly no tangible benefit. Yet a bus ticket collector collects tickets simply because she is deeply interested in this. And such deep interest can be attributed to success elsewhere in other fields as well.
“The bus ticket theory is similar to Carlyle’s famous definition of genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains. But there are two differences. The bus ticket theory makes it clear that the source of this infinite capacity for taking pains is not infinite diligence, as Carlyle seems to have meant, but the sort of infinite interest that collectors have. It also adds an important qualification: an infinite capacity for taking pains about something that matters.
So what matters? You can never be sure. It’s precisely because no one can tell in advance which paths are promising that you can discover new ideas by working on what you’re interested in.
But there are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It’s more promising if something you’re interested in is difficult, especially if it’s more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random.”
Paul extends this line of thought towards parenting as well. He reckons whilst traditional schooling system should take care of helping kids with broad shallow focus, we as parents should help kids narrow their focus and let them go deep. If not for anything else but just for them to experience the joy of learning.
“It may even be that we can cultivate a habit of intellectual bus ticket collecting in kids. The usual plan in education is to start with a broad, shallow focus, then gradually become more specialized. But I’ve done the opposite with my kids. I know I can count on their school to handle the broad, shallow part, so I take them deep.
When they get interested in something, however random, I encourage them to go preposterously, bus ticket collectorly, deep. I don’t do this because of the bus ticket theory. I do it because I want them to feel the joy of learning, and they’re never going to feel that about something I’m making them learn. It has to be something they’re interested in. I’m just following the path of least resistance; depth is a byproduct. But if in trying to show them the joy of learning I also end up training them to go deep, so much the better.
Will it have any effect? I have no idea. But that uncertainty may be the most interesting point of all. There is so much more to learn about how to do great work. As old as human civilization feels, it’s really still very young if we haven’t nailed something so basic. It’s exciting to think there are still discoveries to make about discovery. If that’s the sort of thing you’re interested in.”