I’m thinking about a couple of things right now. Here they are:
- Scott Adams’ career advice to become very good at a couple of things, instead of the best at one specific thing: “Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”
- This video, which basically states that, with sufficient effort, two years is enough time for you to become very good (not the best) at most areas. “There is nothing that cannot be accomplished in two years with enough effort.”
- Peter Thiel’s advice on career planning: “Take your 10-year life plan and ask: Why can’t I do this in six months?”
Putting it all together…
You can become really, really good at something with two years of dedicated work. And if you have two or three things that you’re really, really good at, you’re a valuable and highly employable individual. You can probably achieve quite a lot in 6 months, if you really put the hours in. It all boils down to learning.
And learning is something that has certain prerequisites. First of all, you actually have to be interested in what you are learning. If you are forced to learn, you’re not learning. So having an intrinsic interest in knowing more about a subject is critical. But even if you’re interested, you might still find yourself in situations where you don’t really learn that much. You don’t put in the hours.
There is a popular idea that you need a lot of discipline in your life. This may be true for some people. Industriousness is certainly a plus. If you can pursue long-term projects and keep grinding away at things, eventually you’ll get somewhere.
But to me, this seems like incomplete life advice. It kinda is true sometimes, but it misses quite a few things. And this is because it’s simple, easy, motivational, and works well with the “hustle hard” or “wake up and grind” mentality. It’s a celebration of hard work.
Don’t get me wrong – hard work can be great. But in order for it to be great, it has to produce great results – and leisurely work must not produce inferior results, because that means that you’re working with much more intensity than you need, and that means that you’re inefficient and burning through things. In simple terms, what can be done with leisure and easiness shouldn’t be done intensely, with hard work – unless this hard works does things faster, or better in some way. But surprisingly, it really doesn’t that much.
This is anecdotal experience and purely subjective thinking, but it seems to me that the mentality of “wake up at 4 in the morning and grind” just produces a feeling of intensity, but doesn’t put you an order of magnitude above people who wake up at 7 in the morning and work at a reasonable pace. But maybe I’m just trying to cover up for my lazy ass.
But in all seriousness, becoming better at things shouldn’t really demand that much discipline. Here’s Paul Graham:
One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.
Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it’s the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They’re all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they’re not interested in. One still hasn’t sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.
I’m not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I’m often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don’t run for several days, I feel ill. It’s the same with people who do great things. They know they’ll feel bad if they don’t work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.
This brings us back to passion:
- Original thought: Follow your passion. (base level)
- Cal Newport: “Following your passion” is bad advice. Instead, become good at something you’re interested in and you’ll naturally develop passion for it. (contrarian level)
- This post (and many other people): Actually, following your passion is great if you’re actually passionate about something. Motivation will get you there, discipline will keep you there, but above all, you need to be happy and interested in what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s just a mindless grind. (meta-contrarian level)
As it usually is, the closer you get to truth, the uglier it is, and the less catchy it is. If you get into the specifics, you find that there are components of the advice that you need to differentiate. And you find that every next iteration of the advice isn’t actually an opposite claim – it’s just “unpacked”, it delves into more detail.
So what about it?
You can only do so much at once. “If you say “Yes” to one thing, you’re saying “No” to another thing.”
But still, you have 24 hours a day and most people aren’t really optimizing. So just by optimizing things a little bit, you’re already doing more than most people. But you’re probably not interested in what most people are doing. You want to be among the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most successful. These people actually are optimizing. Nobody becomes great by accident. There is effort involved, and study, and resilience, and hours have been put in. If you want to compete with not the best, but the very good, you have to cut down on what you’re doing. You cannot do it all at the same time.
(I’m basically giving myself this advice, but if you want to, you can feel like I’m talking to you)
- Take your 6 months to 2 years. You don’t need more than that.
- Develop enough discipline to get started with things, and to keep working at them, but don’t believe that boredom is good. If you’re wasting energy just on keeping yourself working, if you’re not having fun while you’re doing something, don’t do it, and do everything you can to organize your life so that you don’t have to do it.
- Have 2 or 3 things you’re working on. Now, this part is tricky because it’s hard to draw boundaries. Say that one of the things is becoming good at programming. But wait a second – programming is comprised of many different things. For example, the usual distinction between frontend and backend work. Do you need to go narrow here? If you do go narrow and choose e.g. backend, you can still go narrower. There are so many languages and frameworks and specific things withing this, and even then, if you go even narrower, you can still go narrower. So picking 2-3 things is a very, very loose idea. One thing means 28 things to a person who draws more detailed boundaries. For me, it’s still work in progress to know where to draw the boundaries. But yeah, work on 2-3 things.
- Work on these things so that you become better than 75% of people. This is a rough estimate, but you do actually want to become very good at these things.