#314 Paul Graham How To Do Great Work

Summary Notes


In a thorough exploration of Paul Graham's essay "How to Do Great Work," the host reflects on the essential steps to achieving greatness, emphasizing the importance of curiosity, ambition, and the willingness to experiment and evolve one's work. Graham advocates for selecting work that aligns with one's natural aptitude and deep interest, as these drive the hard work necessary to reach the frontiers of knowledge. The essay dismisses the need for importance in work, encouraging individuals to focus on their interests and let future generations judge the significance. Graham also stresses the importance of continuous learning, working on personal projects, and the value of interdisciplinary insights. Furthermore, he highlights the importance of community, suggesting that working with the best colleagues can significantly impact one's ability to produce great work. The host underscores Graham's points on maintaining morale, avoiding prestige as a guide, and the dangers of not being productive when one is capable. Ultimately, the essay and the host's reflections serve as a guide for those seeking to do great work by following their curiosity and interests, embracing the iterative process, and fostering the right environment and mindset for innovation and creativity.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Paul Graham's Essay "How to Do Great Work"

  • Paul Graham's essay "How to Do Great Work" is considered special by the podcast host.
  • Many listeners recommended the essay, indicating its impact and relevance.
  • The host had previously covered Paul Graham's essays in episodes 275, 276, and 277.
  • The essay provides a recipe for ambitious individuals on how to do great work.

"I just finished listening to this entire episode, and I mentioned in the episode that I was not expecting to do another Paul Graham episode, especially an episode on a single one of his essays."

The quote indicates the host's initial hesitation to focus on a single essay but suggests the significance of the essay warranted a dedicated episode.

Founders AMA Feed

  • The podcast has a private AMA (Ask Me Anything) feed for Founders podcast enthusiasts.
  • Members can ask the host questions directly and listen to short episodes based on these questions.
  • The AMA feed facilitates learning from others' inquiries and promotes networking among members.
  • The host personally reads all emails without an assistant, ensuring direct communication.

"If you become a member, you'll be able to ask me questions directly. There's actually a private email address that you get access to in the confirmation email. I read every single one of these emails myself."

This quote emphasizes the personalized attention members receive from the host, highlighting the value of joining the AMA feed.

Criteria for Choosing Work

  • The work chosen must align with the individual's natural aptitude and deep interest.
  • The third criterion, the potential for great work, is less of a concern if the first two are met.
  • Paul Graham defines great work as doing something important so well it expands what's possible.
  • There is no threshold for importance; it's a matter of degree and often hard to judge at the time.

"The first step is to decide what to work on. The work you choose needs to have three qualities. Number one, it has to be something you have a natural aptitude for. Number two, you have to have a deep interest in it."

The quote outlines the essential criteria for selecting work that has the potential for greatness, emphasizing personal strengths and passions.

Discovering One's Aptitudes and Interests

  • Young individuals often don't know their strengths or the types of work they may end up doing.
  • The host encourages young people to explore their natural interests and become "learning machines."
  • Discovering life's work often requires starting multiple ventures, as exemplified by entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg.

"When you're young. You don't know what you're good at, and some kinds of work that you end up doing may not even exist yet."

This quote captures the uncertainty young people face in determining their career paths and the importance of exploration.

The Importance of Personal Projects

  • Great discoveries can arise from connections between different fields.
  • Personal projects should be driven by one's own interests, not dictated by others.
  • Paul Graham suggests that few people ever truly discover work they love due to societal pressures like prestige and money.

"Develop a habit of working on your own projects. Do not let work mean something that other people tell you to do."

The quote encourages individuals to pursue their own interests and projects rather than conforming to external expectations.

Preserving Excitement in Work

  • Excitement and curiosity are crucial for driving and guiding great work.
  • The host's own excitement about Paul Graham's essay led to prioritizing it over other planned content.
  • Finding something that bores others but fascinates you is key to identifying your true interests.

"There's a kind of excited curiosity that's both the engine and the rudder of great work."

The quote underscores the role of excitement and curiosity as both motivation and direction in pursuing great work.

Advancing to the Frontier of Knowledge

  • To do great work, one must become deeply knowledgeable about their area of interest.
  • At the frontier of knowledge, one can identify gaps and ask questions that lead to discoveries.
  • Great work often contains an element of strangeness, and pursuing outlier ideas can be fruitful.

"Once you found something you're excessively interested in, the next step is to learn enough about it to get you to one of the frontiers of knowledge."

This quote explains the progression from interest to expertise and the importance of reaching the forefront of a field to innovate.

The Process of Doing Great Work

  • Paul Graham outlines four steps to doing great work: choose a field, learn to the frontier, notice gaps, and explore gaps.
  • Hard work is essential in steps two and four, with empirical evidence suggesting its importance.
  • Deep interest in a subject drives one to work harder than mere diligence.

"This is how practically everyone who's done great work has done it, from painters to physicists."

The quote summarizes the universal process that individuals across various fields have followed to achieve great work.

The Challenge of Figuring Out What to Work On

  • It's difficult to understand what work is like without actually doing it, which can take years.
  • Educational systems often require premature commitment to a field, which the host criticizes.
  • Paul Graham emphasizes that individuals are largely on their own when it comes to discovering what to work on.

"When it comes to figuring out what to work on, you're on your own."

This quote highlights the individual responsibility in determining one's path and the inadequacy of societal structures to assist in this process.

The Role of Luck and Taking Action

  • Luck plays a significant role in discovering what to work on, as seen in the lives of great individuals.
  • Chance meetings or random readings can lead to significant discoveries.
  • The host advises against passivity and encourages active exploration to find one's work.

"When you read biographies of people who've done great work, it's remarkable how much luck is involved."

The quote acknowledges the element of luck in the journey to great work and the unpredictability of finding one's passion.

Mark Twain's Unintended Path to Success

  • Mark Twain initially aimed to be a cocaine dealer and a Mississippi riverboat pilot.
  • The Civil War forced Twain to flee, leading to transformative adventures and a name change from Sam Clemens to Mark Twain.
  • Twain encountered individuals who offered life-changing advice.
  • He faced extreme lows, including contemplating suicide, before choosing to write.
  • Twain's "silly story" went viral, leading to a fan base, a trip to Hawaii, and meeting an influential diplomat.
  • These events culminated in a journalistic scoop and a lecture career, which boosted his public profile.
  • A 23-week trip in Europe provided material for his first successful book, which changed his life forever.

"Then something completely out of his control, the civil war comes and causes him to flee, to go out west and have all these series of adventures. He turns from Sam Clemens into Mark Twain."

This quote highlights the pivotal moment when external circumstances (the Civil War) propelled Twain into a series of life-changing experiences, leading to his transformation into the writer we know today.

The Role of Luck and Curiosity in Finding One's Path

  • Luck plays a significant role in the success of great individuals.
  • Chance encounters and random discoveries often guide people to their true calling.
  • Curious individuals cast a wide net, increasing their chances of finding the right work.

"They discover what to work on as a result of a chance meeting or by reading a book that they happen to pick up."

This quote emphasizes the element of serendipity in finding one's passion or life's work, often through seemingly random events or encounters.

Optimizing for Interestingness

  • One should pursue fields that become more interesting as they are explored.
  • Unique and strange interests can lead to productivity and innovation.
  • Enjoying even the tedious or frightening aspects of work may indicate a strong fit for that field.

"When in doubt, optimize for interestingness."

This quote suggests that when uncertain about what to pursue, one should choose what is most intriguing, as this will likely lead to greater engagement and satisfaction.

Making Something You Want

  • Create products or stories that you personally desire.
  • Founders who do not use their own products often struggle.
  • Avoid creating for an imagined sophisticated audience; authenticity is key.

"Build the tool that you want to use."

This quote underscores the importance of creating something that fulfills a personal need or desire, which often results in a more passionate and successful project.

Resistance to Distraction and Pretentiousness

  • Staying true to genuine interests provides immunity against distractions and external pressures.
  • Following one's interests often requires overcoming rejection and failure.

"If you stick to what you find genuinely interesting, you'll be proof against all of them."

This quote reinforces the idea that a strong personal interest in one's work can shield against various forms of distraction and misguidance.

The Concept of "Staying Upwind"

  • Rather than planning excessively, focus on what is currently most interesting.
  • This approach, termed "staying upwind," allows for flexibility and the discovery of exciting opportunities.

"At each stage, do whatever seems most interesting and gives you the best options for the future."

This quote advocates for an adaptable approach to work, where one's current interests guide their direction, keeping future possibilities open.

Working Techniques and Avoiding Burnout

  • Work hard, but be aware of diminishing returns due to overwork.
  • Arrange life to have large, continuous blocks of time for work.
  • Trick yourself into starting work to overcome reluctance.

"Ideally, those hours will be continuous to the extent you can try to arrange your life so you have big blocks of time to work in."

This quote from Paul Graham advises on the optimal work structure, suggesting that uninterrupted time blocks can lead to more productive and meaningful work sessions.

The Importance of Finishing Projects

  • Completing projects can lead to unexpected discoveries and achievements.
  • Finishing is not just discipline; it often brings out the best work.

"In many projects, a lot of the best work happens in what was meant to be the final stage."

This quote highlights the value of perseverance and completion, as the final stages of work can be where the most significant breakthroughs occur.

Self-Deception as a Tool for Progress

  • Exaggerating the importance of your work can motivate and lead to genuine discoveries.
  • Avoiding per-project procrastination is crucial; it's deceptive and hinders progress on ambitious projects.

"Another permissible lie is to exaggerate the importance of what you're working on, at least in your own mind."

This quote suggests that a bit of self-deception regarding the significance of one's work can be a positive motivational tactic.

The Dangers of Per-Project Procrastination

  • Per-project procrastination is more dangerous than daily procrastination.
  • It often disguises itself as productive work on other tasks.
  • Regularly ask yourself if you're working on what you most want to.

"The way to beat this is to stop occasionally and ask yourself, am I working on what I most want to work on?"

This quote offers a strategy to combat procrastination by encouraging self-reflection on one's true priorities.

The Cumulative Effect of Consistent Work

  • Great work involves dedication and spending considerable time on a problem.
  • Consistency is key, even if progress seems slow at first.
  • Exponential growth is undervalued in its early stages but can lead to significant outcomes.

"Writing a page per day doesn't sound like much, but if you do it every day, you'll write a book a year."

This quote illustrates the power of consistent effort over time, demonstrating how small daily actions can accumulate to achieve substantial results.

The Power of Undirected Thinking

  • Undirected thinking during leisure activities can lead to problem-solving.
  • This type of thinking must be interleaved with deliberate work.

"There's a kind of undirected thinking you do when walking or taking a shower or lying in bed that can be very powerful."

This quote acknowledges the role of relaxed, unstructured thought processes in fostering creativity and solving complex problems.

The Value of Mind Wandering

  • Mind wandering leads to focusing on what one cares about most at the moment.
  • Distractions can displace important thoughts, wasting valuable thinking time.
  • One should avoid all distractions except for love.

"When you let your mind wander, it wanders to whatever you care about most at that moment. So avoid the kind of distraction that pushes your work out of the top spot, or you'll waste this valuable type of thinking on the distraction instead."

This quote emphasizes the importance of allowing the mind to wander freely to focus on what's truly important, while also warning against the negative impact of distractions.

Cultivating Taste in Your Field

  • Cultivating taste helps identify the best work in one's field and understand what makes it superior.
  • Aiming to be the best is crucial because without that aim, one won't even achieve being good.
  • Taste can serve as a competitive advantage or "moat."

"Consciously cultivate your taste in the work done in your field until you know which is the best and what makes it so."

This quote stresses the importance of developing a deep understanding and appreciation for quality work within one's field, which is essential for setting high standards for oneself.

Authenticity and Style in Work

  • Authentic work follows natural interests and leads to developing a distinctive style without trying.
  • Affectation, or artificial behavior to impress, is counterproductive.
  • Authenticity results in work that is more engaging and improves over time.

"Trying to work in a distinctive style. Just try to do the best job you can. And if you do, you won't be able to help doing it in a distinctive way."

The quote suggests that focusing on quality work naturally leads to a unique style, as opposed to forcing a style which can come off as disingenuous.

Earnestness in Pursuit of Great Work

  • Earnestness involves sincere and intense conviction in one's work.
  • Intellectual honesty is at the core of being earnest, necessary for seeing truths others haven't.
  • Informality in approach implies focusing on substance over appearance.

"The core of being earnest is being intellectually honest. You're trying to see more truth than others have seen so far."

The quote defines earnestness as a commitment to intellectual honesty and truth, which is fundamental for doing meaningful and impactful work.

The Role of Nerds in Innovation

  • Nerds often excel in great work due to their natural indifference to appearances.
  • Their "innocent boldness" is advantageous for innovation.
  • Criticism from others is less important than the work itself.

"That's one reason nerds have an advantage in doing great work. They expend little effort on seeming anything."

This quote highlights the advantage that nerds have in innovation due to their focus on the work rather than how they are perceived.

The Importance of Being Willing to Redo Work

  • Great work sometimes requires starting over and discarding previous efforts.
  • One must overcome status quo bias and laziness to improve their work.
  • Stripping work to its essence can lead to a deeper understanding and better results.

"You may have to throw things away and redo them. You have to be willing to."

The quote underlines the necessity of being open to revising and even discarding work in the pursuit of excellence.

Creation vs. Discovery in Work

  • The best work often feels like it's being discovered rather than created.
  • One should think of themselves as a conduit through which ideas take shape.
  • Choosing a problem to work on is critical and can sometimes involve creating a new field.

"It's a very good sign when it's hard to say whether you're creating something or discovering it."

This quote suggests that the most significant work blurs the line between creation and discovery, indicating a deep connection with the essence of the subject.

Curiosity and Originality

  • Original ideas come from working on challenging problems, not from seeking originality directly.
  • Diverse exploration is key, but attention should not be divided evenly across topics.
  • Curiosity leads to new ideas by revealing what's hidden in plain sight.

"You'll have more new ideas if you explore lots of different topics."

The quote encourages exploring a variety of topics to foster original ideas while cautioning against diluting one's focus.

Overcoming the Fear of Change

  • People resist acknowledging broken models of the world due to fear of change.
  • Change is the only constant, and embracing it is crucial for innovation.
  • Breaking rules is necessary to develop new ideas and improve one's model of the world.

"Seeing the new idea usually requires you to change the way you look at the world."

This quote captures the challenge of innovation: recognizing that a shift in perspective is often needed to identify and embrace new ideas.

Independent Mindedness and Rule Breaking

  • Being comfortable with breaking rules is essential for innovation.
  • There are two types of rule-breakers: those who enjoy it and those who are indifferent to it.
  • Outsiders often make new discoveries due to their lack of preconceptions.

"There are two ways to be comfortable breaking rules, to enjoy breaking them, or to be indifferent to them."

The quote distinguishes between two approaches to rule-breaking, both of which can lead to significant discoveries and advancements.

The Value of Unfashionable Problems

  • Working on unfashionable problems can be rewarding and less pressured.
  • Overlooked problems are often those that don't seem important but are.
  • Following one's curiosity leads to identifying valuable but underrated problems.

"Unfashionable problems are undervalued."

This quote points out that problems not currently in vogue may offer the greatest opportunities for impactful work.

The Significance of Personal Interest in Work

  • Personal interest should guide one's choice of problems to work on.
  • Ignoring societal notions of what's "important" allows for authentic and impactful work.
  • The process of doing work reveals the right problems to focus on.

"The only way to find this is you following your natural interest."

The quote emphasizes the importance of personal passion and interest in choosing work that is both fulfilling and has the potential to lead to significant contributions.

Unanswered Questions and Curiosity

  • Great work often stems from long-held unanswered questions.
  • Initial curiosity about a question can lead to a deeper exploration over time.
  • Being curious and exploring many questions can lead to significant discoveries.
  • Starting small and being prolific in various interests can increase the chance of success.
  • It's crucial to balance the quantity of ideas with the acceptance that many may fail.

"Great work often comes from returning to a question you first noticed years before and you could not stop thinking about it is a great thing to be rich in unanswered questions."

This quote emphasizes the importance of holding onto questions that spark curiosity, as they can lead to great work when revisited with more knowledge and experience.

"It is just better to be promiscuously curious to put a little bit on a lot of small threads and see what happens."

This quote encourages a broad curiosity, suggesting that exploring a wide range of interests can lead to unexpected and significant discoveries.

Starting Small and Evolving Work

  • Beginning with small experiments or side projects can lead to larger, impactful work.
  • Successive versions and iterations are key to developing great work.
  • Each version should build upon the last, becoming more clever and ambitious.
  • Starting with the simplest possible solution can often be surprisingly effective.

"Big things start small the initial versions of big things were often just experiments or side projects or talks, which then grew into something bigger."

This quote highlights the idea that significant achievements often have humble beginnings, starting as small experiments that evolve over time.

"Great things are almost always made in successive versions."

This quote suggests that the process of creating great work involves continuous improvement and evolution, rather than a single, final product.

Utilizing Youth and Age Advantages

  • Youth provides energy, time, optimism, and freedom, which can be used to explore interests and experiment.
  • Age brings knowledge, efficiency, money, and power, as well as the awareness of these advantages.
  • The young should spend their abundant time exploring various interests, while the old should leverage their accumulated knowledge and resources.

"The advantages of youth are energy, time, optimism and freedom. The advantages of age are knowledge, efficiency, money and power."

This quote contrasts the benefits of youth and age, suggesting that each life stage offers unique advantages that can be utilized for personal growth and achievement.

"The young have no idea how rich they are in time."

This quote underscores the value of time that young people possess, encouraging them to use it to explore and learn.

The Problem with School and Work Misconceptions

  • Schools can induce passivity and fill heads with unnecessary information.
  • Real work requires identifying problems and determining their solvability, unlike the structured environment of school.
  • Great work cannot be achieved by looking for shortcuts; it demands genuine effort and independence from gatekeepers.

"Schools induce passivity. The sooner you overcome this, the better."

This quote criticizes the passive learning environment of schools and urges individuals to become proactive learners.

"You cannot do great work by doing that, so stop looking for that kind of shortcut."

This quote advises against seeking easy solutions and emphasizes the importance of dedication and hard work.

Copying Work and Originality

  • Copying existing work can be a learning tool and does not preclude originality.
  • Originality comes from introducing new ideas, not just avoiding old ones.
  • Learning from other fields and incorporating their ideas can lead to innovative breakthroughs.
  • Deliberate exploration of different fields can foster creative cross-pollination of ideas.

"Originality is the presence of new ideas, not the absence of old ones."

This quote clarifies that originality is not about avoiding what has been done before but about introducing new concepts.

"One of the most powerful kinds of copying is to copy something from one field into another."

This quote encourages looking beyond one's field to find inspiration and innovative solutions.

The Importance of Colleagues and Physical Proximity

  • Working with talented colleagues can significantly influence one's ability to do great work.
  • Being in close physical proximity to leaders in one's field can boost ambition and self-confidence.
  • Genuine interest in a subject often leads to warm receptions from experts, as they enjoy discussing their passions.

"Seek out the best colleagues."

This quote emphasizes the importance of surrounding oneself with talented and inspiring individuals to enhance one's own work and personal growth.

"The degree to which great work happens in clusters suggests that one's colleagues often make the difference between doing great work and not."

This quote suggests that collaboration and the influence of peers are crucial elements in the pursuit of great work.

Managing Morale and Inner Monologue

  • Maintaining morale is essential for ambitious projects.
  • High morale leads to better work, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • Setbacks should be seen as part of the process, not as reasons for panic.
  • Struggle in work can be a sign of progress, much like exertion in physical exercise.

"Husband your morale. It is the basis of everything."

This quote underlines the importance of maintaining a positive and resilient mindset when working on challenging projects.

"Morale compounds via work."

This quote illustrates the cyclical relationship between morale and productivity, where each enhances the other.

Audience and Direct Communication

  • Having an audience, even a small one, can sustain motivation and morale.
  • Direct communication with the audience is crucial; intermediaries should be avoided.
  • Surrounding oneself with positive influences and avoiding naysayers is vital for morale.

"Avoid letting intermediaries come between you and your audience."

This quote stresses the importance of direct engagement with one's audience to maintain control and authenticity in one's work.

"Seek out the people who increase your energy and avoid those who decrease it."

This quote advises choosing social and professional relationships that contribute positively to one's energy and morale.

Prestige vs. Curiosity

  • Prestige should not guide one's work; instead, curiosity should be the driving force.
  • Curiosity is an honest indicator of what is worth attention and can lead to great work.
  • The desire to impress should be directed toward those whose opinions are truly valued.

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

This quote posits curiosity as the most reliable indicator of where to focus one's efforts, suggesting it has an innate understanding of what is truly important.

"If you do anything well enough, you will make it prestigious."

This quote implies that excellence in any endeavor can transform its perceived value and prestige, indicating that the quality of work should be the primary concern.

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