top of page

Notes from "How To Do Great Work" - Essay by Paul Graham

These are some direct key snippets from Paul Graham's essay, "How To Do Great Work." I'd highly recommend his full version here.

 

Many discoveries have come from asking questions about things that everyone else took for granted.


Boldly chase outlier ideas, even if other people aren't interested in them — in fact, especially if they aren't. If you're excited about some possibility that everyone else ignores, and you have enough expertise to say precisely what they're all overlooking, that's as good a bet as you'll find.


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.


The big prize is to discover a new fractal bud. You notice a crack in the surface of knowledge, pry it open, and there's a whole world inside.


When it comes to figuring out what to work on, you're on your own. Some people get lucky and do guess correctly, but the rest will find themselves scrambling diagonally across tracks laid down on the assumption that everyone does.


What should you do if you're young and ambitious but don't know what to work on? What you should not do is drift along passively, assuming the problem will solve itself. You need to take action. But there is no systematic procedure you can follow. When you read biographies of people who've done great work, it's remarkable how much luck is involved. They discover what to work on as a result of a chance meeting, or by reading a book they happen to pick up. So you need to make yourself a big target for luck, and the way to do that is to be curious. Try lots of things, meet lots of people, read lots of books, ask lots of questions.


When in doubt, optimize for interestingness. Fields change as you learn more about them. A field should become increasingly interesting as you learn more about it. If it doesn't, it's probably not for you.


If you're making something for people, make sure it's something they actually want. The best way to do this is to make something you yourself want. Write the story you want to read; build the tool you want to use. Since your friends probably have similar interests, this will also get you your initial audience.


This should follow from the excitingness rule. Obviously the most exciting story to write will be the one you want to read. The reason I mention this case explicitly is that so many people get it wrong. Instead of making what they want, they try to make what some imaginary, more sophisticated audience wants. And once you go down that route, you're lost.


It's ok to lie to yourself about how much work a project will entail, for example. Lots of great things began with someone saying "How hard could it be?"


This is one case where the young have an advantage. They're more optimistic, and even though one of the sources of their optimism is ignorance, in this case ignorance can sometimes beat knowledge.


Try to finish what you start, though, even if it turns out to be more work than you expected. Finishing things is not just an exercise in tidiness or self-discipline. In many projects a lot of the best work happens in what was meant to be the final stage.


Another permissible lie is to exaggerate the importance of what you're working on, at least in your own mind. If that helps you discover something new, it may turn out not to have been a lie after all.


Great work usually entails spending what would seem to most people an unreasonable amount of time on a problem. You can't think of this time as a cost, or it will seem too high. You have to find the work sufficiently engaging as it's happening.


There may be some jobs where you have to work diligently for years at things you hate before you get to the good part, but this is not how great work happens. Great work happens by focusing consistently on something you're genuinely interested in. When you pause to take stock, you're surprised how far you've come.


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.


Work doesn't just happen when you're trying to. There's a kind of undirected thinking you do when walking or taking a shower or lying in bed that can be very powerful. By letting your mind wander a little, you'll often solve problems you were unable to solve by frontal attack.


You have to be working hard in the normal way to benefit from this phenomenon, though. You can't just walk around daydreaming. The daydreaming has to be interleaved with deliberate work that feeds it questions.


One way to aim high is to try to make something that people will care about in a hundred years. Not because their opinions matter more than your contemporaries', but because something that still seems good in a hundred years is more likely to be genuinely good.


Don't try to work in a distinctive style. Just try to do the best job you can; you won't be able to help doing it in a distinctive way.


Style is doing things in a distinctive way without trying to. Trying to is affectation.


One way to avoid intellectual dishonesty is to maintain a slight positive pressure in the opposite direction. Be aggressively willing to admit that you're mistaken. Once you've admitted you were mistaken about something, you're free. Till then you have to carry it.


There may be some jobs where it's an advantage to be cynical and pessimistic, but if you want to do great work it's an advantage to be optimistic, even though that means you'll risk looking like a fool sometimes. There's an old tradition of doing the opposite. The Old Testament says it's better to keep quiet lest you look like a fool. But that's advice for seeming smart. If you actually want to discover new things, it's better to take the risk of telling people your ideas.


You may have to throw things away and redo them. You won't necessarily have to, but you have to be willing to. And that can take some effort; when there's something you need to redo, status quo bias and laziness will combine to keep you in denial about it. To beat this ask: If I'd already made the change, would I want to revert to what I have now?


I don't know if it's possible to cultivate originality, but there are definitely ways to make the most of however much you have. For example, you're much more likely to have original ideas when you're working on something. Original ideas don't come from trying to have original ideas. They come from trying to build or understand something slightly too difficult.


Talking or writing about the things you're interested in is a good way to generate new ideas. When you try to put ideas into words, a missing idea creates a sort of vacuum that draws it out of you. Indeed, there's a kind of thinking that can only be done by writing.


Changing your context can help. If you visit a new place, you'll often find you have new ideas there. The journey itself often dislodges them. But you may not have to go far to get this benefit. Sometimes it's enough just to go for a walk.


It also helps to travel in topic space. You'll have more new ideas if you explore lots of different topics, partly because it gives the angle grinder more surface area to work on, and partly because analogies are an especially fruitful source of new ideas.


Don't divide your attention evenly between many topics though, or you'll spread yourself too thin. You want to distribute it according to something more like a power law. Be professionally curious about a few topics and idly curious about many more.


Having new ideas is a strange game, because it usually consists of seeing things that were right under your nose. Once you've seen a new idea, it tends to seem obvious. Why did no one think of this before?


When an idea seems simultaneously novel and obvious, it's probably a good one.


Seeing something obvious sounds easy. And yet empirically having new ideas is hard. What's the source of this apparent contradiction? It's that seeing the new idea usually requires you to change the way you look at the world. We see the world through models that both help and constrain us. When you fix a broken model, new ideas become obvious. But noticing and fixing a broken model is hard. That's how new ideas can be both obvious and yet hard to discover: they're easy to see after you do something hard.


The other thing you need is a willingness to break rules. Paradoxical as it sounds, if you want to fix your model of the world, it helps to be the sort of person who's comfortable breaking rules. From the point of view of the old model, which everyone including you initially shares, the new model usually breaks at least implicit rules.


Indeed, if you think about it, a good new idea has to seem bad to most people, or someone would have already explored it. So what you're looking for is ideas that seem crazy, but the right kind of crazy. How do you recognize these? You can't with certainty. Often ideas that seem bad are bad. But ideas that are the right kind of crazy tend to be exciting; they're rich in implications; whereas ideas that are merely bad tend to be depressing.


An overlooked idea often doesn't lose till the semifinals. You do see it, subconsciously, but then another part of your subconscious shoots it down because it would be too weird, too risky, too much work, too controversial. This suggests an exciting possibility: if you could turn off such filters, you could see more new ideas.


One way to do that is to ask what would be good ideas for someone else to explore. Then your subconscious won't shoot them down to protect you.


You could also discover overlooked ideas by working in the other direction: by starting from what's obscuring them. Every cherished but mistaken principle is surrounded by a dead zone of valuable ideas that are unexplored because they contradict it.


Religions are collections of cherished but mistaken principles. So anything that can be described either literally or metaphorically as a religion will have valuable unexplored ideas in its shadow. Copernicus and Darwin both made discoveries of this type.


What are people in your field religious about, in the sense of being too attached to some principle that might not be as self-evident as they think? What becomes possible if you discard it?


Unfashionable problems are undervalued.


One of the most interesting kinds of unfashionable problem is the problem that people think has been fully explored, but hasn't. Great work often takes something that already exists and shows its latent potential. Durer and Watt both did this. So if you're interested in a field that others think is tapped out, don't let their skepticism deter you. People are often wrong about this.

Working on an unfashionable problem can be very pleasing. There's no hype or hurry. Opportunists and critics are both occupied elsewhere. The existing work often has an old-school solidity. And there's a satisfying sense of economy in cultivating ideas that would otherwise be wasted.


But the most common type of overlooked problem is not explicitly unfashionable in the sense of being out of fashion. It just doesn't seem to matter as much as it actually does. How do you find these? By being self-indulgent — by letting your curiosity have its way, and tuning out, at least temporarily, the little voice in your head that says you should only be working on "important" problems.

You do need to work on important problems, but almost everyone is too conservative about what counts as one. And if there's an important but overlooked problem in your neighborhood, it's probably already on your subconscious radar screen. So try asking yourself: if you were going to take a break from "serious" work to work on something just because it would be really interesting, what would you do? The answer is probably more important than it seems.


Originality in choosing problems seems to matter even more than originality in solving them. That's what distinguishes the people who discover whole new fields. So what might seem to be merely the initial step — deciding what to work on — is in a sense the key to the whole game.


Few grasp this. One of the biggest misconceptions about new ideas is about the ratio of question to answer in their composition. People think big ideas are answers, but often the real insight was in the question.


This is one of the places where actual expertise differs most from the popular picture of it. In the popular picture, experts are certain. But actually the more puzzled you are, the better, so long as (a) the things you're puzzled about matter, and (b) no one else understands them either.


Think about what's happening at the moment just before a new idea is discovered. Often someone with sufficient expertise is puzzled about something. Which means that originality consists partly of puzzlement — of confusion! You have to be comfortable enough with the world being full of puzzles that you're willing to see them, but not so comfortable that you don't want to solve them.


Being prolific is underrated. The more different things you try, the greater the chance of discovering something new. Understand, though, that trying lots of things will mean trying lots of things that don't work. You can't have a lot of good ideas without also having a lot of bad ones.


How do you get from starting small to doing something great? By making successive versions. Great things are almost always made in successive versions. You start with something small and evolve it, and the final version is both cleverer and more ambitious than anything you could have planned.


Begin by trying the simplest thing that could possibly work. Surprisingly often, it does. If it doesn't, this will at least get you started.


Take as much risk as you can afford. In an efficient market, risk is proportionate to reward, so don't look for certainty, but for a bet with high expected value. If you're not failing occasionally, you're probably being too conservative.


Even a project that fails can be valuable. In the process of working on it, you'll have crossed territory few others have seen, and encountered questions few others have asked. And there's probably no better source of questions than the ones you encounter in trying to do something slightly too hard.


Use the advantages of youth when you have them, and the advantages of age once you have those. The advantages of youth are energy, time, optimism, and freedom. The advantages of age are knowledge, efficiency, money, and power. With effort you can acquire some of the latter when young and keep some of the former when old.


The old also have the advantage of knowing which advantages they have. The young often have them without realizing it. The biggest is probably time. The young have no idea how rich they are in time. The best way to turn this time to advantage is to use it in slightly frivolous ways: to learn about something you don't need to know about, just out of curiosity, or to try building something just because it would be cool, or to become freakishly good at something.


That "slightly" is an important qualification. Spend time lavishly when you're young, but don't simply waste it. There's a big difference between doing something you worry might be a waste of time and doing something you know for sure will be. The former is at least a bet, and possibly a better one than you think.


When you're learning about something for the first time, pay attention to things that seem wrong or missing. You'll be tempted to ignore them, since there's a 99% chance the problem is with you. And you may have to set aside your misgivings temporarily to keep progressing. But don't forget about them. When you've gotten further into the subject, come back and check if they're still there. If they're still viable in the light of your present knowledge, they probably represent an undiscovered idea.


One of the most valuable kinds of knowledge you get from experience is to know what you don't have to worry about. The young know all the things that could matter, but not their relative importance. So they worry equally about everything, when they should worry much more about a few things and hardly at all about the rest.


But what you don't know is only half the problem with inexperience. The other half is what you do know that ain't so. You arrive at adulthood with your head full of nonsense — bad habits you've acquired and false things you've been taught — and you won't be able to do great work till you clear away at least the nonsense in the way of whatever type of work you want to do.


Much of the nonsense left in your head is left there by schools. We're so used to schools that we unconsciously treat going to school as identical with learning, but in fact schools have all sorts of strange qualities that warp our ideas about learning and thinking.


Schools also give you a misleading impression of what work is like. In school they tell you what the problems are, and they're almost always soluble using no more than you've been taught so far. In real life you have to figure out what the problems are, and you often don't know if they're soluble at all.

But perhaps the worst thing schools do to you is train you to win by hacking the test. You can't do great work by doing that. You can't trick God. So stop looking for that kind of shortcut. The way to beat the system is to focus on problems and solutions that others have overlooked, not to skimp on the work itself.


Some of the features of things you admire are flaws they succeeded despite. Indeed, the features that are easiest to imitate are the most likely to be the flaws.


In fact you can sometimes learn more from things done badly than from things done well; sometimes it only becomes clear what's needed when it's missing.


If a lot of the best people in your field are collected in one place, it's usually a good idea to visit for a while. It will increase your ambition, and also, by showing you that these people are human, increase your self-confidence.


Seek out the best colleagues. There are a lot of projects that can't be done alone, and even if you're working on one that can be, it's good to have other people to encourage you and to bounce ideas off.


Colleagues don't just affect your work, though; they also affect you. So work with people you want to become like, because you will.


Husband your morale. It's the basis of everything when you're working on ambitious projects. You have to nurture and protect it like a living organism.


Morale starts with your view of life. You're more likely to do great work if you're an optimist, and more likely to if you think of yourself as lucky than if you think of yourself as a victim.


One of the biggest mistakes ambitious people make is to allow setbacks to destroy their morale all at once, like a balloon bursting. You can inoculate yourself against this by explicitly considering setbacks a part of your process. Solving hard problems always involves some backtracking.


An audience is a critical component of morale. If you're a scholar, your audience may be your peers; in the arts, it may be an audience in the traditional sense. Either way it doesn't need to be big. The value of an audience doesn't grow anything like linearly with its size. Which is bad news if you're famous, but good news if you're just starting out, because it means a small but dedicated audience can be enough to sustain you. If a handful of people genuinely love what you're doing, that's enough.


Ultimately morale is physical. You think with your body, so it's important to take care of it. That means exercising regularly, eating and sleeping well, and avoiding the more dangerous kinds of drugs. Running and walking are particularly good forms of exercise because they're good for thinking.


People who do great work are not necessarily happier than everyone else, but they're happier than they'd be if they didn't. In fact, if you're smart and ambitious, it's dangerous not to be productive. People who are smart and ambitious but don't achieve much tend to become bitter.


It's ok to want to impress other people, but choose the right people. The opinion of people you respect is signal. Fame, which is the opinion of a much larger group you might or might not respect, just adds noise.


Curiosity is the best guide. Your curiosity never lies, and it knows more than you do about what's worth paying attention to.


Notice how often that word has come up. If you asked an oracle the secret to doing great work and the oracle replied with a single word, my bet would be on "curiosity."


The factors in doing great work are factors in the literal, mathematical sense, and they are: ability, interest, effort, and luck. Luck by definition you can't do anything about, so we can ignore that. And we can assume effort, if you do in fact want to do great work. So the problem boils down to ability and interest. Can you find a kind of work where your ability and interest will combine to yield an explosion of new ideas?


Here there are grounds for optimism. There are so many different ways to do great work, and even more that are still undiscovered. Out of all those different types of work, the one you're most suited for is probably a pretty close match. Probably a comically close match. It's just a question of finding it, and how far into it your ability and interest can take you. And you can only answer that by trying.


Many more people could try to do great work than do. What holds them back is a combination of modesty and fear. It seems presumptuous to try to be Newton or Shakespeare. It also seems hard; surely if you tried something like that, you'd fail. Presumably the calculation is rarely explicit. Few people consciously decide not to try to do great work. But that's what's going on subconsciously; they shy away from the question.


So I'm going to pull a sneaky trick on you. Do you want to do great work, or not? Now you have to decide consciously. Sorry about that. I wouldn't have done it to a general audience. But we already know you're interested.


Don't worry about being presumptuous. You don't have to tell anyone. And if it's too hard and you fail, so what? Lots of people have worse problems than that. In fact you'll be lucky if it's the worst problem you have.


Yes, you'll have to work hard. But again, lots of people have to work hard. And if you're working on something you find very interesting, which you necessarily will if you're on the right path, the work will probably feel less burdensome than a lot of your peers'.

The discoveries are out there, waiting to be made. Why not by you?

Commentaires


bottom of page