Niko Juranek  | August 20, 2023 min

How To Be Successful: A Recipe for Success by OpenAI Founder Sam Altman

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OpenAI founder Sam Altman became known to most people lately with the resounding success of ChatGPT. Fact is, however, that this success did not come overnight, but that he built it up over a long period of time (OpenAI was founded back in 2015).

Accordingly, I always find it exciting to read articles and assessments of successful people like him from the past that give an insight into their mindsets, show their vision, unwavering belief and dedication to the project, often long before the success actually happened.

Today I read Sam Altman's 2019 article "How To Be Successful" [1] for which I've summarised my notes and biggest learnings for you here:

Summary of the Essay "How To Be Successful" by Sam Altman

In this article, Sam Altman lists 13 factors that he says are crucial for success. These include the power of compounding, the pursuit of exponential growth, self-confidence and willpower, the ability to think independently and sell well, being unique, building a strong network, and taking focused risks.

Core Concepts, Key Learnings and Notes on How To Be Successful

1. The Power of Compounding

Altman emphasises that the "compound effect" is the biggest factor in becoming successful. This applies to all areas of life, whether one wants to start a scaling business, grow in personality, or earn capital returns through investment (compound interest):

"I think the biggest competitive advantage in business - whether it's for a company or an individual's career - is long-term thinking with a broad view of how the different systems in the world are going to come together." - Sam Altman

Especially in choosing a career, he said, it is important to choose one that has a lot of opportunity for accumulation, as most careers are only relatively linear. In particular, he says, one should not work in a profession where people who have been in it for two years can be just as effective as people who have been in it for twenty years - the pace of learning should always be high, according to Altman.

The biggest levers to get such a compound effect, he believes, are the use of capital (compound interest), the use of efficient, scaling technologies that can decouple outcome (output) from effort (input), the building of a strong personal brand or reliable reputation, the use of network effects and a good sense of people management.

Many people are afraid of missing "the one" opportunity. Altman's advice here, however, is to stay relaxed and focus on the really big opportunities - just as a surfer has to wait and miss many small waves before he sees the one big wave coming that he wants to ride. This may well take some time:

"I'm willing to take as much time as I need between projects to find my next project. But I always want it to be a project that, if successful, will make the rest of my career look like a footnote." - Sam Altman

Other successful people like Naval Ravikant with his principle "Productize Yourself" [2] and Darren Hardy in his book The Compound Effect* [3] see it the same way.

To me, this sounds rationally logical; from my personal experience, I feel that it is actually more of an emotional challenge to communicate the meaning of this to other people, especially those in your immediate circle (family, friends, etc.) who mean well with you and therefore may simply not understand why you would want to miss out on "a good job opportunity".

2. Have almost too much self-confidence

"Unfortunately, the more ambitious you are, the more the world will try to tear you down." - Sam Altman

Impostor syndrome actually affects many capable people who mistakenly think of themselves as impostors." [X] Altman sees this difficulty, but stresses the importance of cultivating self-confidence at a very early age: The most successful people, he says, are so self-confident that they are almost at the point of self-deception.

But he says that self-confidence must be balanced with self-knowledge in any case - which is at the same time a great way to deal with criticism and feedback:

"I used to hate any kind of criticism and actively avoided it. Now I try to always listen to it on the assumption that it is true and then decide whether I want to act on it or not. The search for truth is difficult and often painful, but it distinguishes self-confidence from self-deception."

So on the one hand, this approach helps you not to deceive yourself and to be more self-confident - but on the other hand, it also makes you much more sympathetic towards other people, because it doesn't give you the impression that you think you are perfect and that you are open to feedback.

3. Learn to think independently

Independent, unfiltered thinking is difficult to teach, which is why the education system fails here, according to Altman, because conformity is rewarded while originality is neglected. People are therefore left to their own devices and hav e to teach themselves this important form of thinking.

This "first-principle thinking" emphasises the importance of mastering basics and being able to better judge new issues based on the underlying principles as a result, rather than just memorising and then not being able to see connections.

One way to promote this is to engage with such principles, develop new thoughts and ideas from them, and share them with other like-minded people, challenging and testing each other's ideas.

A few of my favourite authors and thinkers like Naval Ravikant, Balaji Srinivasan, Charles Munger and Shane Parrish, Host of the Blog Farnam Street, are very much into these "Great Mental Models" and how to develop them. [4]

For Altman, one of the most important lessons is that you can use them to figure out what to do in situations for which there seems to be no solution. The more often you do this, the more you believe in it yourself. The well-known "grit" comes when you learn that you can always get back up after being knocked down.

4. Get good at selling

At a certain level, every job is a "sales" job. For Altman, good communication - especially written communication - is an inevitable investment worth developing.

His best advice on this is to communicate clearly. This includes making sure your thoughts are clear, and then using simple, concise language.

A "clear thinker" is a better compliment than "smart". - Naval Ravikant

To sell better, Altman has two recommendations:

  • On the one hand, he says, it's important to really believe in what you're trying to sell yourself
  • On the other hand, you have to show up in person when it matters.

With this he says that the financial aspect of selling should never be in the foreground, but that the counterpart must feel the conviction, the why of the person - only then can a trusting relationship develop that makes a "sale" possible. People buy from people, and trust is an important prerequisite for this.

5. Make taking risks easier

Opinions are divided on risk: For example, many people believe that in order to build a successful business, you have to take extreme risks. But if you look at the practice and science behind it, you see that the opposite is true: the most successful people avoid risk as much as possible. [5]

In fact, studies show that people are more willing to avoid a loss than to get a possible higher gain. [6] In fact, according to Altman, most people overestimate possible risks and underestimate the opportunity or benefit.

Taking certain risks is important because it is impossible to be right all the time; it is only through trial and error that one learns and can quickly adapt.

This is especially easy at the beginning of your career, because you don't have much to lose, but you have a lot to gain. As a rule of thumb, Altman recommends looking for "small bets" where you "only" lose 1x if you are wrong, but can win 100x if it works. If it works, then look for a "bigger bet" in that direction, otherwise adapt and try again.

It is also important to start early, because on the one hand the aforementioned compound effect becomes stronger in the long run, on the other hand it becomes more and more difficult the more sedentary you are. Comfort, security, a stable income from employment, family obligations and ties make it more difficult to take risks, as the potential for loss simply increases over time. Altman therefore recommends keeping one's life cheap and flexible for as long as possible to achieve this. This requires compromises, of course, but pays off all the more in the long run.

6. Focus

Being able to work in a focused way is a superpower in our attention-starved world and a real multiplier for great work.

As Cal Newport also points out in his book Deep Work [7], working on the right thing is much more important than working for many hours. Altman says that most people waste their time on unimportant things and that it is therefore important to sharpen one's focus or to know exactly what is worth working on.

The search for the "right" thing can of course take a long time - Altman therefore recommends being patient.

But once you have found the one thing, you should waste no time and be unstoppable in getting those few priorities done quickly. Altman says that he has yet to meet a very successful "slow person" who had a good idea but was very slow to act.

Focus, concentration and quick implementation are important.

7. Work hard

Our lives are often shaped by "power laws" (e.g. Pareto principle [8]): a small amount of effort is often responsible for a large share of success, while it then takes incredible effort to achieve perfection. It is the same if you want to be among the best:

Altman says that if you want to be in the top 10% of a field, it is enough to work either hard or smart; but if you want to be in the top 1%, it takes both. Extreme people get extreme results.

Working hard, of course, comes at a great sacrifice and opportunity cost in life, and, according to Altman, it is perfectly reasonable and understandable to choose not to.

But it also brings a lot of benefits in return. In most cases, the momentum of effort is amplified, and success leads to success.

The willingness to work hard is also definitely a matter of attitude: work is something positive, it gives a lot of energy, especially if you find meaning in it.

Work is exhausting and many people are not looking for shortcuts - but there are no shortcuts, and often people have to find their own way first. Altman says that perseverance at work, however, is one of the most important predictors of long-term success.

Again, the compound effect applies: the earlier you start, the faster and longer the efforts add up. Again, it is also easier to work hard when you have even fewer commitments.

8. Be bold

There are many opinions about what kind of business to start if you want to be successful. Many people say you should take the easiest route and solve a current (if often small) problem, as this is simply more likely to succeed.

Altman, on the other hand, believes that it is easier to create a hard start-up than an easy start-up. People always want to be part of something exciting and feel that their work matters - you tend to find that in a sophisticated, innovative startup rather than a small improvement. After all, if you make progress on an important problem, people will always be happy to help too:

"If everyone else is starting meme companies and you want to start a gene editing company, then do that and don't question it." - Sam Altman

Follow your curiosity. Things that inspire you also inspire other people.

9. Be strong-willed

Many people give up because they don't feel they can actually make a difference. They do nothing about it and resign themselves to the status quo. Self-doubt, giving up too soon, not trying hard enough are the most common reasons why people don't reach their goal.

Altman says, however, that in most cases you can have more influence than you think:

"Ask for what you want. Usually you won't get it, and often the rejection will be painful. But when it works, it works amazingly well."

Willpower or a strong vision can also have a very inspiring effect on other people and inspire them to do something.

10. Make it hard for others to compete with you

The world is efficient - if what you do can be done by someone else, it will eventually be done, and for less money. Altman therefore stresses the importance of becoming unique in one's own abilities, one's own person, virtually acquiring a USP.

The best levers for this, he says, are personal relationships, by building a strong personal brand, or by being well versed in the intersection of several different fields.

I really like this approach, because this is also where broader generalists have an advantage over specialists.

It is important to remember the way human psychology works: Most people do what most people they are with do. This mimetic behaviour [9] is usually a mistake - because if you do the same as everyone else, it will not be difficult for others to compete with you.

So be bold, focus on your strengths or unique qualities, skills and use personal relationships, your strong brand and versatile knowledge in several related fields to become unique.

11. Build a network

The fact is that especially in a digitalised economy, the "network effect" is incredibly important; therefore, a critical mass of people (users) is needed when building a new platform, for example, in order to be relevant, in order to bring a benefit to the individual users. Otherwise, the project will quickly fall asleep or be discontinued. [10]

The size of the network of really talented people you know therefore often becomes the limit to what you can achieve, according to Altman.

He recommends helping people as often and as much as you can. One of the best ways to build a network is to build a reputation of really caring about the people who work with you.

People are often afraid that this generosity will be taken advantage of; Altman says not to think of that, to be overly generous when it comes to sharing benefits; because it will come back to you with a 10x benefit.

This is also helpful in terms of people's different abilities:

"Everyone is better at some things than others. Define yourself by your strengths, not your weaknesses."

A particularly valuable part of building a network is getting good at spotting undiscovered talents and using them properly. Quickly spotting intelligence, drive and creativity becomes easier with practice, and the easiest way to learn this is to meet lots of people and observe who impresses you and who doesn't.

Altman reiterates that this is all about the speed at which you can improve and you should not overstate experience or current performance.

"I try to always ask myself when I meet someone new, "Is this person a force of nature?"

That's a pretty good heuristic for finding people who are likely to achieve great things."
The power of good mentoring is also paramount in this context:

"A special case of building a network is finding someone who will take a bet on you, preferably early in your career. The best way to do this, as you would expect, is to prove helpful."

Finally, he says, choosing the right environment is of paramount importance, as it has a huge impact on how you think, how you act, what you consider right and wrong, possible and impossible. Altman therefore recommends spending time with positive people who support your ambitions.

Here you can find more inspiring quotes on networking.

12. Get rich by owning things

In the penultimate recommendation, Altman addresses the economic component that is necessary for wealth and financial success.

It is often drummed into children's heads at school that they have to be good, fast and study well in order to get a secure job with a good income later on. Economically, however, this is a partial truth (if at all), because nowadays it is hardly sufficient for great prosperity to exchange one's time for (often only a little) money:

"The biggest economic misconception of my childhood was that people get rich by earning high salaries. There are some exceptions - entertainers, for example - but virtually no one in the history of the Forbes list has made it on a salary. You get really rich by owning things that increase in value quickly."

These can be company shares, real estate, natural resources, intellectual property or similar things. But one way or another, you have to own equity in something rather than just selling your time. Time scales only linearly - capital, on the other hand, scales exponentially at best.

"Earn with your mind, not your time." - Naval Ravikant [11]

The best way to produce things that quickly increase in value, according to Altman, is to produce things that people want at scale. Naval Ravikant also emphasises this:

"If you want to be part of a big tech company, you need to be able to sell or create. If you can't do either, learn it." - Naval Ravikant [12]

So focus on developing skills that will enable you to sell better or make something useful and detach your input from your output - because that will get you much more than merely trading your limited time for bad money.

13. Have a strong intrinsic drive

Altman concludes his list with a strong intrinsic drive: because most people, he says, are primarily externally driven, they do what they do because they want to impress other people. This is bad for many reasons, but these are especially bad:

  1. Consensus and conformity: you want to work on ideas and career paths that are generally accepted. Worrying about what others think is likely to prevent you from doing really interesting work, and even if you manage to do it, someone else would have done it anyway.
  2. Misjudging risks: You are likely to misjudge the risks because you are too focused on keeping up with others.

It is interesting that intelligent people seem to be particularly prone to this externally driven behaviour. Awareness alone is of little help for this - again, one would probably have to work very hard at it to avoid falling into the mimetic trap of imitation.

Altman concludes that the most successful people he knows (including Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston) are mainly driven from within; they do what they do to impress themselves and because they feel compelled to make a difference in the world. After achieving enough money and social status, they say, this is the only force that can drive them to even higher levels of achievement.

This is the reason why the question of a person's motivation is so important. It is the first thing Altman tries to understand about someone. The right motivations are hard to put into rules, he says, but you know them when you see them.

Ultimately, he says, you will measure your own success by doing excellent work in areas that are important to you. The earlier you start in that direction, the further you will get, he said.

"It's hard to be wildly successful in something you're not obsessed with."

So follow your own path, your curiosity, your intrinsic motivation, and you will create great work.

Conclusion: "How To Be Successful"

The 13 factors mentioned are often just superficial quotes and phrases taken out of context; they sound simple and you think to yourself while reading: "That's what I do anyway". I think it's great how much detail Altman goes into on the individual aspects, giving context, depth, examples and experiences in order to understand the statements better or to be able to implement them oneself.

I learned a lot for myself from the summary and will definitely read the article again after some time, in the hope of getting new details and insights.

I hope that the article is also very useful for you and I look forward to hearing from you - what helps you to be "successful"? 

References

  1. Altman, How To Be Successful (2019).
  2. Ravikant, Productize Yourself (2019).
  3. Hardy, The Compound Effect* (2022).
  4. Parrish, The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts* (2020).
  5. Grant, Originals – How Non-Conformatists Move The World* (2016).
  6. Kahneman/Tversky, Choices, values, and frames, American Psychologist 39(4) (1984), 341.
  7. Newport, Deep Work – Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World* (2016), 3f, 16.
  8. Archived original work in French by Pareto, Cours d'Économie Politique, Librairie Droz Geneva (1964), 313.
  9. Interview in the Podcast The Knowledge Project by Farnam Street: Luke Burgis: The Power of Mimetic Desire [The Knowledge Project Ep. #138].
  10. More about Network Effects
  11. Jorgenson, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness* (2020), 57.
  12. Jorgenson, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness* (2020), 56.

Note: The books marked with * contain affiliate links. This means that I receive a small contribution if you buy the book via my link. You will not incur any additional costs, but you will help me to finance the blog so that I can continue to write such extensive articles. Thank you! - Niko

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Mag. Nikolaus Juranek

Nikolaus Juranek is a jurist and certified trainer for communication, rhetorics & leadership. In his articles he deals with how to acquire practice-relevant skills and abilities from a wide range of fields in order to grow in one's job, hobbies and private life.

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