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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Paul Graham and his great essays

On his blog, Steve Sailer introduced me this morning to the essays of Paul Graham, a Silicon Valley smart guy who has the gift of being able to write wise things with exceptional clarity. I spent a couple of hours on Graham’s site, reading through some of his collected self-help essays. Here’s the graduation speech […]

On his blog, Steve Sailer introduced me this morning to the essays of Paul Graham, a Silicon Valley smart guy who has the gift of being able to write wise things with exceptional clarity. I spent a couple of hours on Graham’s site, reading through some of his collected self-help essays. Here’s the graduation speech he wishes he could give to high school seniors. Excerpt:

I think the solution is to work in the other direction. Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for “don’t give up on your dreams.” Stay upwind.

How do you do that, though? Even if math is upwind of economics, how are you supposed to know that as a high school student?

Well, you don’t, and that’s what you need to find out. Look for smart people and hard problems. Smart people tend to clump together, and if you can find such a clump, it’s probably worthwhile to join it. But it’s not straightforward to find these, because there is a lot of faking going on.

I sent this speech to my niece today. She just started college. I told her that the “look for smart people and hard problems” advice is golden. I didn’t really discover my niche and my vocation until I found my way to the college newspaper the summer before junior year. I’m pretty sure all of us who worked in student media got worse grades because of it, because we were always there at the paper so late. But we fed off each other, and learned from each other, and worked on the hard problem of improving our writing, editing, and reporting skills. This may not be exactly what Graham is talking about here, but it seems so to me.

Here is a Graham essay about doing what you love. Excerpt:

Do what you love doesn’t mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first.

It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they did so much that there was nothing they’d rather do. There didn’t seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. If I had a choice of (a) spending the next hour working on something or (b) be teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I’d prefer? Honestly, no.

But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

Boy, is this ever true. When I had this blog before, sometimes people would remark to me that I was some kind of writing fiend, given my productivity. But it doesn’t seem like work when you love what you do. When you can’t do the work you love — which for me is writing — nothing feels right at all.

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