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June 2021

A few days ago, on the way home from school, my nine year old son told me he couldn't wait to get home to write more of the story he was working on. This made me as happy as anything I've heard him say — not just because he was excited about his story, but because he'd discovered this way of working. Working on a project of your own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It's more fun, but also much more productive.

What proportion of great work has been done by people who were skating in this sense? If not all of it, certainly a lot.

There is something special about working on a project of your own. I wouldn't say exactly that you're happier. A better word would be excited, or engaged. You're happy when things are going well, but often they aren't. When I'm writing an essay, most of the time I'm worried and puzzled: worried that the essay will turn out badly, and puzzled because I'm groping for some idea that I can't see clearly enough. Will I be able to pin it down with words? In the end I usually can, if I take long enough, but I'm never sure; the first few attempts often fail.

You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don't last long, because then you're on to the next problem. So why do it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way, nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you're an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive.

Many kids experience the excitement of working on projects of their own. The hard part is making this converge with the work you do as an adult. And our customs make it harder. We treat "playing" and "hobbies" as qualitatively different from "work". It's not clear to a kid building a treehouse that there's a direct (though long) route from that to architecture or engineering. And instead of pointing out the route, we conceal it, by implicitly treating the stuff kids do as different from real work. [1]

Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from working on projects of one's own. It's usually neither a project, nor one's own. So as school gets more serious, working on projects of one's own is something that survives, if at all, as a thin thread off to the side.

It's a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

If I had to choose between my kids getting good grades and working on ambitious projects of their own, I'd pick the projects. And not because I'm an indulgent parent, but because I've been on the other end and I know which has more predictive value. When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn't care about applicants' grades. But if they'd worked on projects of their own, I wanted to hear all about those. [2]

It may be inevitable that school is the way it is. I'm not saying we have to redesign it (though I'm not saying we don't), just that we should understand what it does to our attitudes to work — that it steers us toward the dutiful plodding kind of work, often using competition as bait, and away from skating.

There are occasionally times when schoolwork becomes a project of one's own. Whenever I had to write a paper, that would become a project of my own — except in English classes, ironically, because the things one has to write in English classes are so bogus. And when I got to college and started taking CS classes, the programs I had to write became projects of my own. Whenever I was writing or programming, I was usually skating, and that has been true ever since.

So where exactly is the edge of projects of one's own? That's an interesting question, partly because the answer is so complicated, and partly because there's so much at stake. There turn out to be two senses in which work can be one's own: 1) that you're doing it voluntarily, rather than merely because someone told you to, and 2) that you're doing it by yourself.

The edge of the former is quite sharp. People who care a lot about their work are usually very sensitive to the difference between pulling, and being pushed, and work tends to fall into one category or the other. But the test isn't simply whether you're told to do something. You can choose to do something you're told to do. Indeed, you can own it far more thoroughly than the person who told you to do it.

For example, math homework is for most people something they're told to do. But for my father, who was a mathematician, it wasn't. Most of us think of the problems in a math book as a way to test or develop our knowledge of the material explained in each section. But to my father the problems were the part that mattered, and the text was merely a sort of annotation. Whenever he got a new math book it was to him like being given a puzzle: here was a new set of problems to solve, and he'd immediately set about solving all of them.

The other sense of a project being one's own — working on it by oneself — has a much softer edge. It shades gradually into collaboration. And interestingly, it shades into collaboration in two different ways. One way to collaborate is to share a single project. For example, when two mathematicians collaborate on a proof that takes shape in the course of a conversation between them. The other way is when multiple people work on separate projects of their own that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. For example, when one person writes the text of a book and another does the graphic design. [3]

These two paths into collaboration can of course be combined. But under the right conditions, the excitement of working on a project of one's own can be preserved for quite a while before disintegrating into the turbulent flow of work in a large organization. Indeed, the history of successful organizations is partly the history of techniques for preserving that excitement. [4]

The team that made the original Macintosh were a great example of this phenomenon. People like Burrell Smith and Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson and Susan Kare were not just following orders. They were not tennis balls hit by Steve Jobs, but rockets let loose by Steve Jobs. There was a lot of collaboration between them, but they all seem to have individually felt the excitement of working on a project of one's own.

In Andy Hertzfeld's book on the Macintosh, he describes how they'd come back into the office after dinner and work late into the night. People who've never experienced the thrill of working on a project they're excited about can't distinguish this kind of working long hours from the kind that happens in sweatshops and boiler rooms, but they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. That's why it's a mistake to insist dogmatically on "work/life balance." Indeed, the mere expression "work/life" embodies a mistake: it assumes work and life are distinct. For those to whom the word "work" automatically implies the dutiful plodding kind, they are. But for the skaters, the relationship between work and life would be better represented by a dash than a slash. I wouldn't want to work on anything I didn't want to take over my life.

Of course, it's easier to achieve this level of motivation when you're making something like the Macintosh. It's easy for something new to feel like a project of your own. That's one of the reasons for the tendency programmers have to rewrite things that don't need rewriting, and to write their own versions of things that already exist. This sometimes alarms managers, and measured by total number of characters typed, it's rarely the optimal solution. But it's not always driven simply by arrogance or cluelessness. Writing code from scratch is also much more rewarding — so much more rewarding that a good programmer can end up net ahead, despite the shocking waste of characters. Indeed, it may be one of the advantages of capitalism that it encourages such rewriting. A company that needs software to do something can't use the software already written to do it at another company, and thus has to write their own, which often turns out better. [5]

The natural alignment between skating and solving new problems is one of the reasons the payoffs from startups are so high. Not only is the market price of unsolved problems higher, you also get a discount on productivity when you work on them. In fact, you get a double increase in productivity: when you're doing a clean-sheet design, it's easier to recruit skaters, and they get to spend all their time skating.

Steve Jobs knew a thing or two about skaters from having watched Steve Wozniak. If you can find the right people, you only have to tell them what to do at the highest level. They'll handle the details. Indeed, they insist on it. For a project to feel like your own, you must have sufficient autonomy. You can't be working to order, or slowed down by bureaucracy.

One way to ensure autonomy is not to have a boss at all. There are two ways to do that: to be the boss yourself, and to work on projects outside of work. Though they're at opposite ends of the scale financially, startups and open source projects have a lot in common, including the fact that they're often run by skaters. And indeed, there's a wormhole from one end of the scale to the other: one of the best ways to discover startup ideas is to work on a project just for fun.

If your projects are the kind that make money, it's easy to work on them. It's harder when they're not. And the hardest part, usually, is morale. That's where adults have it harder than kids. Kids just plunge in and build their treehouse without worrying about whether they're wasting their time, or how it compares to other treehouses. And frankly we could learn a lot from kids here. The high standards most grownups have for "real" work do not always serve us well.

The most important phase in a project of one's own is at the beginning: when you go from thinking it might be cool to do x to actually doing x. And at that point high standards are not merely useless but positively harmful. There are a few people who start too many new projects, but far more, I suspect, who are deterred by fear of failure from starting projects that would have succeeded if they had.

But if we couldn't benefit as kids from the knowledge that our treehouses were on the path to grownup projects, we can at least benefit as grownups from knowing that our projects are on a path that stretches back to treehouses. Remember that careless confidence you had as a kid when starting something new? That would be a powerful thing to recapture.

If it's harder as adults to retain that kind of confidence, we at least tend to be more aware of what we're doing. Kids bounce, or are herded, from one kind of work to the next, barely realizing what's happening to them. Whereas we know more about different types of work and have more control over which we do. Ideally we can have the best of both worlds: to be deliberate in choosing to work on projects of our own, and carelessly confident in starting new ones.


[1] "Hobby" is a curious word. Now it means work that isn't real work — work that one is not to be judged by — but originally it just meant an obsession in a fairly general sense (even a political opinion, for example) that one metaphorically rode as a child rides a hobby-horse. It's hard to say if its recent, narrower meaning is a change for the better or the worse. For sure there are lots of false positives — lots of projects that end up being important but are dismissed initially as mere hobbies. But on the other hand, the concept provides valuable cover for projects in the early, ugly duckling phase.

[2] Tiger parents, as parents so often do, are fighting the last war. Grades mattered more in the old days when the route to success was to acquire credentials while ascending some predefined ladder. But it's just as well that their tactics are focused on grades. How awful it would be if they invaded the territory of projects, and thereby gave their kids a distaste for this kind of work by forcing them to do it. Grades are already a grim, fake world, and aren't harmed much by parental interference, but working on one's own projects is a more delicate, private thing that could be damaged very easily.

[3] The complicated, gradual edge between working on one's own projects and collaborating with others is one reason there is so much disagreement about the idea of the "lone genius." In practice people collaborate (or not) in all kinds of different ways, but the idea of the lone genius is definitely not a myth. There's a core of truth to it that goes with a certain way of working.

[4] Collaboration is powerful too. The optimal organization would combine collaboration and ownership in such a way as to do the least damage to each. Interestingly, companies and university departments approach this ideal from opposite directions: companies insist on collaboration, and occasionally also manage both to recruit skaters and allow them to skate, and university departments insist on the ability to do independent research (which is by custom treated as skating, whether it is or not), and the people they hire collaborate as much as they choose.

[5] If a company could design its software in such a way that the best newly arrived programmers always got a clean sheet, it could have a kind of eternal youth. That might not be impossible. If you had a software backbone defining a game with sufficiently clear rules, individual programmers could write their own players.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, Andy Hertzfeld, Jessica Livingston, and Peter Norvig for reading drafts of this.


May 2021

There's one kind of opinion I'd be very afraid to express publicly. If someone I knew to be both a domain expert and a reasonable person proposed an idea that sounded preposterous, I'd be very reluctant to say "That will never work."

Anyone who has studied the history of ideas, and especially the history of science, knows that's how big things start. Someone proposes an idea that sounds crazy, most people dismiss it, then it gradually takes over the world.

Most implausible-sounding ideas are in fact bad and could be safely dismissed. But not when they're proposed by reasonable domain experts. If the person proposing the idea is reasonable, then they know how implausible it sounds. And yet they're proposing it anyway. That suggests they know something you don't. And if they have deep domain expertise, that's probably the source of it. [1]

Such ideas are not merely unsafe to dismiss, but disproportionately likely to be interesting. When the average person proposes an implausible-sounding idea, its implausibility is evidence of their incompetence. But when a reasonable domain expert does it, the situation is reversed. There's something like an efficient market here: on average the ideas that seem craziest will, if correct, have the biggest effect. So if you can eliminate the theory that the person proposing an implausible-sounding idea is incompetent, its implausibility switches from evidence that it's boring to evidence that it's exciting. [2]

Such ideas are not guaranteed to work. But they don't have to be. They just have to be sufficiently good bets — to have sufficiently high expected value. And I think on average they do. I think if you bet on the entire set of implausible-sounding ideas proposed by reasonable domain experts, you'd end up net ahead.

The reason is that everyone is too conservative. The word "paradigm" is overused, but this is a case where it's warranted. Everyone is too much in the grip of the current paradigm. Even the people who have the new ideas undervalue them initially. Which means that before they reach the stage of proposing them publicly, they've already subjected them to an excessively strict filter. [3]

The wise response to such an idea is not to make statements, but to ask questions, because there's a real mystery here. Why has this smart and reasonable person proposed an idea that seems so wrong? Are they mistaken, or are you? One of you has to be. If you're the one who's mistaken, that would be good to know, because it means there's a hole in your model of the world. But even if they're mistaken, it should be interesting to learn why. A trap that an expert falls into is one you have to worry about too.

This all seems pretty obvious. And yet there are clearly a lot of people who don't share my fear of dismissing new ideas. Why do they do it? Why risk looking like a jerk now and a fool later, instead of just reserving judgement?

One reason they do it is envy. If you propose a radical new idea and it succeeds, your reputation (and perhaps also your wealth) will increase proportionally. Some people would be envious if that happened, and this potential envy propagates back into a conviction that you must be wrong.

Another reason people dismiss new ideas is that it's an easy way to seem sophisticated. When a new idea first emerges, it usually seems pretty feeble. It's a mere hatchling. Received wisdom is a full-grown eagle by comparison. So it's easy to launch a devastating attack on a new idea, and anyone who does will seem clever to those who don't understand this asymmetry.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the difference between how those working on new ideas and those attacking them are rewarded. The rewards for working on new ideas are weighted by the value of the outcome. So it's worth working on something that only has a 10% chance of succeeding if it would make things more than 10x better. Whereas the rewards for attacking new ideas are roughly constant; such attacks seem roughly equally clever regardless of the target.

People will also attack new ideas when they have a vested interest in the old ones. It's not surprising, for example, that some of Darwin's harshest critics were churchmen. People build whole careers on some ideas. When someone claims they're false or obsolete, they feel threatened.

The lowest form of dismissal is mere factionalism: to automatically dismiss any idea associated with the opposing faction. The lowest form of all is to dismiss an idea because of who proposed it.

But the main thing that leads reasonable people to dismiss new ideas is the same thing that holds people back from proposing them: the sheer pervasiveness of the current paradigm. It doesn't just affect the way we think; it is the Lego blocks we build thoughts out of. Popping out of the current paradigm is something only a few people can do. And even they usually have to suppress their intuitions at first, like a pilot flying through cloud who has to trust his instruments over his sense of balance. [4]

Paradigms don't just define our present thinking. They also vacuum up the trail of crumbs that led to them, making our standards for new ideas impossibly high. The current paradigm seems so perfect to us, its offspring, that we imagine it must have been accepted completely as soon as it was discovered. Whatever the church thought of the heliocentric model, astronomers must have been convinced as soon as Copernicus proposed it. Far, in fact, from it. Copernicus published the heliocentric model in 1532, but it wasn't till the mid seventeenth century that the balance of scientific opinion shifted in its favor. [5]

Few understand how feeble new ideas look when they first appear. So if you want to have new ideas yourself, one of the most valuable things you can do is to learn what they look like when they're born. Read about how new ideas happened, and try to get yourself into the heads of people at the time. How did things look to them, when the new idea was only half-finished, and even the person who had it was only half-convinced it was right?

But you don't have to stop at history. You can observe big new ideas being born all around you right now. Just look for a reasonable domain expert proposing something that sounds wrong.

If you're nice, as well as wise, you won't merely resist attacking such people, but encourage them. Having new ideas is a lonely business. Only those who've tried it know how lonely. These people need your help. And if you help them, you'll probably learn something in the process.


[1] This domain expertise could be in another field. Indeed, such crossovers tend to be particularly promising.

[2] I'm not claiming this principle extends much beyond math, engineering, and the hard sciences. In politics, for example, crazy-sounding ideas generally are as bad as they sound. Though arguably this is not an exception, because the people who propose them are not in fact domain experts; politicians are domain experts in political tactics, like how to get elected and how to get legislation passed, but not in the world that policy acts upon. Perhaps no one could be.

[3] This sense of "paradigm" was defined by Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but I also recommend his Copernican Revolution, where you can see him at work developing the idea.

[4] This is one reason people with a touch of Asperger's may have an advantage in discovering new ideas. They're always flying on instruments.

[5] Hall, Rupert. From Galileo to Newton. Collins, 1963. This book is particularly good at getting into contemporaries' heads.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Patrick Collison, Suhail Doshi, Daniel Gackle, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.


May 2021

Most people think of nerds as quiet, diffident people. In ordinary social situations they are — as quiet and diffident as the star quarterback would be if he found himself in the middle of a physics symposium. And for the same reason: they are fish out of water. But the apparent diffidence of nerds is an illusion due to the fact that when non-nerds observe them, it's usually in ordinary social situations. In fact some nerds are quite fierce.

The fierce nerds are a small but interesting group. They are as a rule extremely competitive — more competitive, I'd say, than highly competitive non-nerds. Competition is more personal for them. Partly perhaps because they're not emotionally mature enough to distance themselves from it, but also because there's less randomness in the kinds of competition they engage in, and they are thus more justified in taking the results personally.

Fierce nerds also tend to be somewhat overconfident, especially when young. It might seem like it would be a disadvantage to be mistaken about one's abilities, but empirically it isn't. Up to a point, confidence is a self-fullfilling prophecy.

Another quality you find in most fierce nerds is intelligence. Not all nerds are smart, but the fierce ones are always at least moderately so. If they weren't, they wouldn't have the confidence to be fierce. [1]

There's also a natural connection between nerdiness and independent-mindedness. It's hard to be independent-minded without being somewhat socially awkward, because conventional beliefs are so often mistaken, or at least arbitrary. No one who was both independent-minded and ambitious would want to waste the effort it takes to fit in. And the independent-mindedness of the fierce nerds will obviously be of the aggressive rather than the passive type: they'll be annoyed by rules, rather than dreamily unaware of them.

I'm less sure why fierce nerds are impatient, but most seem to be. You notice it first in conversation, where they tend to interrupt you. This is merely annoying, but in the more promising fierce nerds it's connected to a deeper impatience about solving problems. Perhaps the competitiveness and impatience of fierce nerds are not separate qualities, but two manifestations of a single underlying drivenness.

When you combine all these qualities in sufficient quantities, the result is quite formidable. The most vivid example of fierce nerds in action may be James Watson's The Double Helix. The first sentence of the book is "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood," and the portrait he goes on to paint of Crick is the quintessential fierce nerd: brilliant, socially awkward, competitive, independent-minded, overconfident. But so is the implicit portrait he paints of himself. Indeed, his lack of social awareness makes both portraits that much more realistic, because he baldly states all sorts of opinions and motivations that a smoother person would conceal. And moreover it's clear from the story that Crick and Watson's fierce nerdiness was integral to their success. Their independent-mindedness caused them to consider approaches that most others ignored, their overconfidence allowed them to work on problems they only half understood (they were literally described as "clowns" by one eminent insider), and their impatience and competitiveness got them to the answer ahead of two other groups that would otherwise have found it within the next year, if not the next several months. [2]

The idea that there could be fierce nerds is an unfamiliar one not just to many normal people but even to some young nerds. Especially early on, nerds spend so much of their time in ordinary social situations and so little doing real work that they get a lot more evidence of their awkwardness than their power. So there will be some who read this description of the fierce nerd and realize "Hmm, that's me." And it is to you, young fierce nerd, that I now turn.

I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that your fierceness will be a great help in solving difficult problems. And not just the kind of scientific and technical problems that nerds have traditionally solved. As the world progresses, the number of things you can win at by getting the right answer increases. Recently getting rich became one of them: 7 of the 8 richest people in America are now fierce nerds.

Indeed, being a fierce nerd is probably even more helpful in business than in nerds' original territory of scholarship. Fierceness seems optional there. Darwin for example doesn't seem to have been especially fierce. Whereas it's impossible to be the CEO of a company over a certain size without being fierce, so now that nerds can win at business, fierce nerds will increasingly monopolize the really big successes.

The bad news is that if it's not exercised, your fierceness will turn to bitterness, and you will become an intellectual playground bully: the grumpy sysadmin, the forum troll, the hater, the shooter down of new ideas.

How do you avoid this fate? Work on ambitious projects. If you succeed, it will bring you a kind of satisfaction that neutralizes bitterness. But you don't need to have succeeded to feel this; merely working on hard projects gives most fierce nerds some feeling of satisfaction. And those it doesn't, it at least keeps busy. [3]

Another solution may be to somehow turn off your fierceness, by devoting yourself to meditation or psychotherapy or something like that. Maybe that's the right answer for some people. I have no idea. But it doesn't seem the optimal solution to me. If you're given a sharp knife, it seems to me better to use it than to blunt its edge to avoid cutting yourself.

If you do choose the ambitious route, you'll have a tailwind behind you. There has never been a better time to be a nerd. In the past century we've seen a continuous transfer of power from dealmakers to technicians — from the charismatic to the competent — and I don't see anything on the horizon that will end it. At least not till the nerds end it themselves by bringing about the singularity.


[1] To be a nerd is to be socially awkward, and there are two distinct ways to do that: to be playing the same game as everyone else, but badly, and to be playing a different game. The smart nerds are the latter type.

[2] The same qualities that make fierce nerds so effective can also make them very annoying. Fierce nerds would do well to remember this, and (a) try to keep a lid on it, and (b) seek out organizations and types of work where getting the right answer matters more than preserving social harmony. In practice that means small groups working on hard problems. Which fortunately is the most fun kind of environment anyway.

[3] If success neutralizes bitterness, why are there some people who are at least moderately successful and yet still quite bitter? Because people's potential bitterness varies depending on how naturally bitter their personality is, and how ambitious they are: someone who's naturally very bitter will still have a lot left after success neutralizes some of it, and someone who's very ambitious will need proportionally more success to satisfy that ambition.

So the worst-case scenario is someone who's both naturally bitter and extremely ambitious, and yet only moderately successful.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Steve Blank, Patrick Collison, Jessica Livingston, Amjad Masad, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.


June 2021

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. There isn't.

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 and to have practiced a lot and to be trying very hard. [1]

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 twenty times.
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 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.

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. [2]

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 Apology:
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 decisively.
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. [3] 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. [4]

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. [5]

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. [6]

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.

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? [7] 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? [8]

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 illusion 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? [9]

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 on.

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.

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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 shower, 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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 interesting.

[9] 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?

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, John Carmack, John Collison, Patrick Collison, Robert Morris, Geoff Ralston, and Harj Taggar for reading drafts of this.


August 2021

When people say that in their experience all programming languages are basically equivalent, they're making a statement not about languages but about the kind of programming they've done.

99.5% of programming consists of gluing together calls to library functions. All popular languages are equally good at this. So one can easily spend one's whole career operating in the intersection of popular programming languages.

But the other .5% of programming is disproportionately interesting. If you want to learn what it consists of, the weirdness of weird languages is a good clue to follow.

Weird languages aren't weird by accident. Not the good ones, at least. The weirdness of the good ones usually implies the existence of some form of programming that's not just the usual gluing together of library calls.

A concrete example: Lisp macros. Lisp macros seem weird even to many Lisp programmers. They're not only not in the intersection of popular languages, but by their nature would be hard to implement properly in a language without turning it into a dialect of Lisp. And macros are definitely evidence of techniques that go beyond glue programming. For example, solving problems by first writing a language for problems of that type, and then writing your specific application in it. Nor is this all you can do with macros; it's just one region in a space of program-manipulating techniques that even now is far from fully explored.

So if you want to expand your concept of what programming can be, one way to do it is by learning weird languages. Pick a language that most programmers consider weird but whose median user is smart, and then focus on the differences between this language and the intersection of popular languages. What can you say in this language that would be impossibly inconvenient to say in others? In the process of learning how to say things you couldn't previously say, you'll probably be learning how to think things you couldn't previously think.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Patrick Collison, Daniel Gackle, Amjad Masad, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.