Quick thoughts on work, success, risk, money, and the future from Sam Altman, the current head of Y Combinator, (one of) Silicon valley’s most successful incubator(s).
Notes for the New Year
As a kid, I just sort of took for granted that stuff got better every year—TVs got bigger and then thinner, cars got a little faster, and computers got unbelievably better on an exponential curve.
As an adult, I realized that the future is not guaranteed to be better. The default is that things stay the same (or get worse because we continue to create new problems and occasionally get in wars). The world only gets better if committed people with strong visions about the future work hard to make it better.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moving sidewalk of a career and end up deeply involved in something that does not maximize your potential. It’s never too late to change, and it’s always good to be thoughtful about the path you’re on and how to best use your time.
I made some notes before my brother Jack interviewed me for How to Build the Future, where I mostly talked about how ambitious young people should think about their careers. I thought I’d clean those up to share for the New Year. Here they are.
On What To Work On
I think the best way to pick what you want to do is to find the intersection of what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what the world needs, and what the world values.
It’s not easy to figure out what you actually care about– there are so many directions you can go. But rather than listening to where other people might push you, it’s worth trying to figure this out for yourself. Don’t chase other people’s ideas of what matters. The best way to succeed long-term is to deeply believe that what you’re doing matters.
Most people just fall into things that come their way. That can work – people sometimes just have to try stuff to figure out what they like – but I think it’s worth being more deliberate. Try to develop and carefully refine strong convictions about what you want to accomplish.
The framework I’ve found most useful for helping people think through career decisions is to consider both impact maximization and regret minimization—a decision that scores well on both is likely to be a good one.
On Achieving Success
The way to get things done in the world is a combination of focus, personal connections, and self-belief.
You should work really hard. You should be willing to do whatever it takes; society doesn’t owe you success. Be a doer, not a talker – history belongs to the doers.
Whatever you choose to do, you’ve got to believe in your own capacity to succeed. People will doubt you and think your goals are impossible or dumb, but you have to stand behind your convictions.
It’s ok to start off motivated by wanting to make a lot of money or wanting fame and glory. At some point though, most people need to find a deeper mission to keep pushing forward.
The right way to think about your career is like compound interest; if you put in long hours at the start of your career and get a little bit better at what you do every day, you’re going to accomplish more than others. That builds up a compound effect that will extend throughout your entire career. Life is obviously unfair and you don’t know what will happen, but all else equal it becomes a major advantage.
Enjoy your life when you’re young – it’s a true cliche that you only have your youth once – but work harder than most people think you should. I’ve come to believe that burnout isn’t so much associated with working too hard, but instead from things not working out. If you have momentum with whatever you’re working on, you’ll stay motivated and refreshed.
Learn to say “yes” to an amazing opportunity even if you’re not 100% sure how to do it or if you’re ready—it’s possible to learn a lot very quickly. A mistake a lot of people make is to compare themselves to very successful people today, instead of the version of that person from ten years ago, which probably looks a lot more familiar.
On Finding Your People
You want to find your tribe – the types of people like you that you can imagine working with for the rest of your career. Within that, you want to find a small group of people whom you trust, and whose opinions you really respect.
You should probably be willing to move. For whatever you’re interested in, there will be pockets of people around the world who are doing the best work, and it’s worth getting as close to them as possible.
Help others for no reason at all. When you’re young, you tend to have a small network, and that limits your options. When you help people without any intention of ever getting benefit back, doors and new connections will open – this has been super important for me.
On Giving Up
When some people try something and it doesn’t work after a few weeks or months, they give up. I think that’s way too early to quit.
If people are saying that what you’re doing or what you’re making is bad, pay attention to that as feedback, but don’t let it get to you personally. It’s not a sign to give up, but instead to refine your approach.
It’s hard to say when is the right time to give up, but I think it’s usually when you yourself feel you have run out of ideas, and you don’t see any pathways to keep experimenting further.
If you think you’ve reached that point, by all means walk away. There’s no glory in dragging things out if you’re truly out of ideas. Shut down what you’re working on, decompress, and try something new a few months later.
If you’re working on the right thing it will probably be really hard. It will likely take a long time and you’ll face a lot of criticism. The super successful people I know spent a very long time pursuing their ideas, way past when most people would have given up. Keep pushing forward.
On Taking Risk
Most people are wrong about what is risky and what is not, and so they don’t take nearly enough risk. Take more risks, especially when you’re early on in your career; being young and unknown is actually a major advantage because you have very little to lose.
Don’t let fear of failing stop you from taking risks. That is a risk itself, because you will miss out by not acting.
If you do fail or end up in a crisis, you’ll probably be OK. The more crises I’ve faced in my life, the less scary each subsequent one has become. I’m secure in the knowledge I’ve made it through disaster before and I believe I will again.
If you do something new and ambitious, be ready for doomsayers. Doing new things is hard both because you have to figure out how to do it and you have to deal with a constant barrage of negativity.
Simple tip – don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. If you’re doing something ambitious, you’ll be told “no”, a lot. Sometimes though, people will give you what you want. Those times will outweigh the pains of being rejected, so be aggressive.
When I was young, I had a misconception that you get rich from making a nice salary. As I got older, I realized the way to get rich was by owning things that go up in value—i.e., equity.
I think that time is the major arbitrage opportunity still left in the market. People are increasingly focused on the short-term, so there are lots of untouched opportunities that just take a long time to mature. I’ve found that these types of bets have helped me generate the most value and wealth.
One way to become an owner is to start a company, and there especially, it’s best to take a long-term approach. If you pick the right thing and devote yourself to growing it over the long run, you can make far more money than with a bunch of short-term payouts along the way. If you aim big, you only have to be right once. Start early in your career, and if you fail, keep trying.
As a general note, I think you should look for opportunities where if they work out, you will 10x your net worth. And if you have the option to invest in advancing yourself, do it — it’s usually better than saving the money.
On Thinking About The Future
Strong opinions about the future are valuable. Here again, the most interesting and successful people I know seem to all have strong ideas about what the future will look like. They are willing to be convinced with new data that they are wrong, but the bar for that is fairly high.
I don’t agree with the idea that the future is unknowable. There’s a lot you can have conviction about that will happen or that you can make come true.
Have strong opinions on where you want to go and then be flexible on the details.