What does it mean to be "successful"?

Is it net worth? Status? Impact?

I spend a lot of time thinking about this question.

One of the best essays I've ever read on the subject was by Sam Altman, a prolific startup investor.

I try to read it every few months. It's that good.

Here are some insights that stood out to me.

Compound Yourself

Many of us have seen the following graph which shows the difference between starting to save in your 20's versus your 30's and 40's:

Like your money, your skills also compound over time. The earlier you start, the more you can differentiate yourself from others.

However, some skills compound at a high rate while others barely compound at all.

For example, entry-level technical skills like financial modeling and formatting PowerPoint decks can usually be taught in a few months. As a result, people don't usually become executives because of these skills.

Meanwhile, skills like strategic thinking and communication take an entire career to refine. The earlier you start developing these skills, the harder it is for people to catch up later on. Just like a retirement fund.

For your industry, try to define which skills compound over time and which don't.

Here's the list I came up with for software engineering:

Low Compounding Rate

  • Learning shiny new frameworks that don't gain traction
  • Building basic web applications

High Compounding Rate

  • Understanding foundational technologies (databases, operating systems, computer networks, etc.)
  • Building specialized applications (machine learning and cloud infrastructure)
  • Management skills

Learn To Think Independently

There are two types of thinkers in the world - cooks and chefs.

Cooks follow recipes. Chefs create recipes.

For any skill, the goal should be to evolve from a cook to a chef. First, you learn the rules. Then you master them. Then you recreate them.

One of the best independent thinkers in the world is Elon Musk.

Prior to Tesla, car manufacturers told Musk it'd be too expensive to build electric vehicles powered by batteries.

As an independent thinker, Musk and his team decided to identify all the components needed to build a lithium-ion battery.

To their surprise, the batteries actually cost a fraction of what they were being sold for.

This insight helped Musk create the market leader in electric vehicles.

He then launched Tesla Energy, which sells batteries for utility companies and houses.

To be successful, identify the difference between facts, opinions, and assumptions.

Rigorously test them on your own. As Ronald Regan has said:

"Trust, but verify."

Be internally driven

For any job, focus on the inputs, not the outputs. Inputs include your work ethic, the quality of your work, and how much you enjoy it.

Outputs include how much money you make and how other people perceive you.

Intuitively, we know we should do this. But it's hard.

Find something where you take pride in the act of creating. The reward is just the cherry on top.

By doing so, you will outlast others in the industry and enjoy doing it.


The entire essay is worth a read so check it out - How To Be Successful.

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Mar 29, 2020

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