It might not seem there's much to learn about how to work hard.
Anyone who's been to school knows what it entails, even if they
chose not to do it. There are 12 year olds who work amazingly hard. And
yet when I ask if I know more about working hard now than when I
was in school, the answer is definitely yes.
One thing I know is that if you want to do great things, you'll
have to work very hard. I wasn't sure of that as a kid. Schoolwork
varied in difficulty; one didn't always have to work super hard to
do well. And some of the things famous adults did, they seemed to
do almost effortlessly. Was there, perhaps, some way to evade hard
work through sheer brilliance? Now I know the answer to that question.
The reason some subjects seemed easy was that my school had low
standards. And the reason famous adults seemed to do things
effortlessly was years of practice; they made it look easy.
Of course, those famous adults usually had a lot of natural ability
too. There are three ingredients in great work: natural ability,
practice, and effort. You can do pretty well with just two, but to
do the best work you need all three: you need great natural ability
to have practiced a lot and
to be trying very hard.
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. At 74, he wrote
with each new book of mine I have, as I say, the feeling that
this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A
good thing, really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one's toes and
makes one rewrite every sentence ten times. Or in many cases
Sounds a bit extreme, you think. And yet Bill Gates sounds even
more extreme. Not one day off in ten years? These two had about
as much natural ability as anyone could have, and yet they also
worked about as hard as anyone could work. You need both.
That seems so obvious, and yet in practice we find it slightly hard
to grasp. There's a faint xor between talent and hard work. It comes
partly from popular culture, where it seems to run very deep, and
partly from the fact that the outliers are so rare. If great talent
and great drive are both rare, then people with both are rare
squared. Most people you meet who have a lot of one will have less
of the other. But you'll need both if you want to be an outlier
yourself. And since you can't really change how much natural talent
you have, in practice doing great work, insofar as you can, reduces
to working very hard.
It's 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
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.
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
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.
Strangely enough, the biggest obstacle to getting serious about
work was probably school, which made work (what they called work)
seem boring and pointless. I had to learn what real work was before
I could wholeheartedly desire to do it. That took a while, because
even in college a lot of the work is pointless; there are entire
departments that are pointless. But as I learned the shape of real
work, I found that my desire to do it slotted into it as if they'd
been made for each other.
I suspect most people have to learn what work is before they can
love it. Hardy wrote eloquently about this in A Mathematician's
I do not remember having felt, as a boy, any passion for
mathematics, and such notions as I may have had of the career of
a mathematician were far from noble. I thought of mathematics in
terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other
boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most
He didn't learn what math was really about till part way through
college, when he read Jordan's Cours d'analyse
I shall never forget the astonishment with which I read that
remarkable work, the first inspiration for so many mathematicians
of my generation, and learnt for the first time as I read it what
mathematics really meant.
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.
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
, but it all feels necessary. That's a vague criterion,
but it's deliberately vague, because it has to cover a lot of
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
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
Trying hard doesn't mean constantly pushing yourself to work, though.
There may be some people who do, but I think my experience is fairly
typical, and I only have to push myself occasionally when I'm
starting a project or when I encounter some sort of check. That's
when I'm in danger of procrastinating. But once I get rolling, I
tend to keep going.
What keeps me going depends on the type of work. When I was working
on Viaweb, I was driven by fear of failure. I barely procrastinated
at all then, because there was always something that needed doing,
and if I could put more distance between me and the pursuing beast
by doing it, why wait? 
Whereas what drives me now, writing
essays, is the flaws in them. Between essays I fuss for a few days,
like a dog circling while it decides exactly where to lie down. But
once I get started on one, I don't have to push myself to work,
because there's always some error or omission already pushing me.
I do make some amount of effort to focus on important topics. 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.
By center, though, I mean the actual center, not merely the current
consensus about the center. The consensus about which problems are
most important is often mistaken, both in general and within specific
fields. If you disagree with it, and you're right, that could
represent a valuable opportunity to do something new.
The more ambitious types of work will usually be harder, but although
you should not be in denial about this, neither should you treat
difficulty as an infallible guide in deciding what to do. If you
discover some ambitious type of work that's a bargain in the sense
of being easier for you than other people, either because of the
abilities you happen to have, or because of some new way you've
found to approach it, or simply because you're more excited about
it, by all means work on that. Some of the best work is done by
people who find an easy way to do something hard.
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.
It can be harder to discover your interests than your talents.
There are fewer types of talent than interest, and they start to
be judged early in childhood, whereas interest in a topic is a
subtle thing that may not mature till your twenties, or even later.
The topic may not even exist earlier. Plus there are some powerful
sources of error you need to learn to discount. Are you really
interested in x, or do you want to work on it because you'll make
a lot of money, or because other people will be impressed with you,
or because your parents want you to?
The difficulty of figuring out what to work on varies enormously
from one person to another. That's one of the most important things
I've learned about work since I was a kid. As a kid, you get the
impression that everyone has a calling, and all they have to do is
figure out what it is. That's how it works in movies, and in the
streamlined biographies fed to kids. Sometimes it works that way
in real life. Some people figure out what to do as children and
just do it, like Mozart. But others, like Newton, turn restlessly
from one kind of work to another. Maybe in retrospect we can identify
one as their calling — we can wish Newton spent more time on math
and physics and less on alchemy and theology — but this is an
induced by hindsight bias.
There was no voice calling to him that he could have heard.
So while some people's lives converge fast, there will be others
whose lives never converge. And for these people, figuring out what
to work on is not so much a prelude to working hard as an ongoing
part of it, like one of a set of simultaneous equations. For these
people, the process I described earlier has a third component: along
with measuring both how hard you're working and how well you're
doing, you have to think about whether you should keep working in
this field or switch to another. If you're working hard but not
getting good enough results, you should switch. It sounds simple
expressed that way, but in practice it's very difficult. You shouldn't
give up on the first day just because you work hard and don't get
anywhere. You need to give yourself time to get going. But how much
time? And what should you do if work that was going well stops going
well? How much time do you give yourself then?
What even counts as good results? That can be really hard to decide.
If you're exploring an area few others have worked in, you may not
even know what good results look like. History is full of examples
of people who misjudged the importance of what they were working
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
Working hard is not just a dial you turn up to 11. It's a complicated,
dynamic system that has to be tuned just right at each point. You
have to understand the shape of real work, see clearly what kind
you're best suited for, aim as close to the true core of it as you
can, accurately judge at each moment both what you're capable of
and how you're doing, and put in as many hours each day as you can
without harming the quality of the result. This network is too
complicated to trick. But if you're consistently honest and
clear-sighted, it will automatically assume an optimal shape, and
you'll be productive in a way few people are.Notes
In "The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius" I said the three ingredients
in great work were natural ability, determination, and interest.
That's the formula in the preceding stage; determination and interest
yield practice and effort.
I mean this at a resolution of days, not hours. You'll often
get somewhere while not working in the sense that the solution to
a problem comes to you while taking a
, or even in your sleep,
but only because you were working hard on it the day before.
It's good to go on vacation occasionally, but when I go on vacation,
I like to learn new things. I wouldn't like just sitting on a beach.
The thing kids do in school that's most like the real version
is sports. Admittedly because many sports originated as games played
in schools. But in this one area, at least, kids are doing exactly
what adults do.
In the average American high school, you have a choice of pretending
to do something serious, or seriously doing something pretend.
Arguably the latter is no worse.
Knowing what you want to work on doesn't mean you'll be able
to. Most people have to spend a lot of their time working on things
they don't want to, especially early on. But if you know what you
want to do, you at least know what direction to nudge your life in.
The lower time limits for intense work suggest a solution to
the problem of having less time to work after you have kids: switch
to harder problems. In effect I did that, though not deliberately.
Some cultures have a tradition of performative hard work. I
don't love this idea, because (a) it makes a parody of something
important and (b) it causes people to wear themselves out doing
things that don't matter. I don't know enough to say for sure whether
it's net good or bad, but my guess is bad.
One of the reasons people work so hard on startups is that
startups can fail, and when they do, that failure tends to be both
decisive and conspicuous.
It's ok to work on something to make a lot of money. You need
to solve the money problem somehow, and there's nothing wrong with
doing that efficiently by trying to make a lot at once. I suppose
it would even be ok to be interested in money for its own sake;
whatever floats your boat. Just so long as you're conscious of your
motivations. The thing to avoid is unconsciously
letting the need
for money warp your ideas about what kind of work you find most
Many people face this question on a smaller scale with
individual projects. But it's easier both to recognize and to accept
a dead end in a single project than to abandon some type of work
entirely. The more determined you are, the harder it gets. Like a
Spanish Flu victim, you're fighting your own immune system: Instead
of giving up, you tell yourself, I should just try harder. And who
can say you're not right?
to Trevor Blackwell, John Carmack, John Collison, Patrick Collison,
Robert Morris, Geoff Ralston, and Harj Taggar for reading drafts of this.