Niko Juranek  | August 6, 2023 min

Paul Graham: How To Do Great Work

Paul Graham’s article “How to Do Great Work” is an inspiring guide that highlights the importance of curiosity, choosing the right field of work, hard work and the right environment to achieve true excellence – a must-read for anyone who wants to take their work to the next level.

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Brief summary of the essay

Paul Graham's article "How to Do Great Work" is an inspiring guide that highlights the importance of curiosity, choosing the right field of work, hard work and the right environment to achieve true excellence - a must read for anyone who wants to take their work to the next level.

The meaning of "Great Work

Success is a result of ambition, perseverance and hard work.

Life is complex - people want to be successful in their job, life, so they constantly try to improve. If you excel in your field, that's a huge competitive advantage. Disadvantage: It is usually exhausting and often takes longer than expected.

Especially in the area of personal development, people therefore look for easy solutions and shortcuts on how to reach their full potential, be maximally productive, and perform at their best.

Unfortunately, often only rather superficial tips can be found, especially from people who themselves want to explain to others how it works without having walked the path themselves. People who have themselves achieved what they say and therefore know what they are talking about are often rather hard to find in all this noise.

Paul Graham, founder of the well-known start-up incubator Y Combinator, is such a role model for me - when he says something, it has a hand and a foot, he has repeatedly shown that he knows how to build great things as a pioneer. So it's a good idea to listen very carefully and take notes when he says something.

Recently, he wrote a new, incredibly detailed essay that addresses this very topic: "How To Do Great Work" (make sure to read the essay in the original, even though it is very long!). [1]

In today's article, I would like to go into the most important points and summarise my personal learnings:

Key Learnings and Notes on "How To Do Great Work" by Paul Graham

1. Definition: What is "great work"?

It should be mentioned that Graham himself does not give a definition of what "great work" actually means exactly. For him it simply means

"doing something important so well that you expand people's ideas of what is possible".

People should focus on their interests instead of worrying about whether they are important or not - and leave it to future generations to evaluate whether you have succeeded. Ambition, of course, he presupposes.

2. How do I find the "right" work that is worth putting time into?

Talent, interest & opportunity

Young people in particular often find it very difficult to find out what interests them or what they are good at. Graham puts this into perspective by saying that this is not so important, and that one should give oneself time, because this only becomes apparent through increasing discovery.

According to him, you need three things to choose the right work:

  • A certain natural talent
  • A deep interest in one/several field(s)
  • The possibility for greatness

In a way, the aptitude is the easiest point - there is usually something you do more skillfully than others, something that just feels natural to you. This is also what Naval Ravikant says:

"Find something that feels like work to others, but feels like play to you." [2]
Basketball legend Michael Jordan, physicist and inventor of the Polaroid process Edwin Land, Apple visionary Steve Jobs are just other examples that prove this - all acted on the principle of "find work that feels like play." [3]

Staying upwind

Sometimes, however, talent and interest drift apart, which makes it even more difficult to start because you are afraid of doing something "wrong". Graham says here to just guess and start with one thing, as it is the only way to find out the right one. The best strategy is not to plan too much - the work process itself gives the best feedback.

He calls this principle "staying upwind" and recommends doing at each stage what seems most interesting and gives you the best opportunities for the future. In retrospect, this is what most people who have done great work would have done. Ravikant also agrees:

"99% of the effort is wasted. [...] 99% of the seminar papers you wrote, the books you read, the exercises you did and the things you learned were not really relevant later. [...] Of course these learning outcomes count, you have learned the value of hard work. [...] But at least in terms of goal-oriented learning, only about 1% of their effort pays off." - Naval Ravikant [4]

Accordingly, the possibility for greatness is also rather irrelevant - after all, with enough time, attempts, experiences, there is some possibility of achieving greatness in a field everywhere.

Try to be the best in your field

My favourite quote from the essay is definitely Graham's statement:

"If you don't try to be the best, you won't even be good."

When you try to be the best, you often come out ahead in practice. This is exciting and also strangely liberating. It simplifies things. In some ways, wanting to be the best is easier than just being good. Another advantage of this is that you don't even have to try to differentiate yourself from others, as this is a necessary consequence of doing so. When you are the best, you set the standard for others to follow - not the other way around. [5]

In this context, it is also important to find one's own definition of what meaningful "work" is for one personally, especially since this term is very much influenced by upbringing, education, societal expectations etc:

"Don't let other people define what work is."

Therefore, one should always choose something that excites one and in which one has a certain talent, and just get started. One's own curiosity, one's own enthusiasm are the strongest forces for great work.

3. What to do when your interests change?

Interests are the strongest drive - follow them

It's okay if your area of interest changes (Graham cites enthusiasm for Lego at age 7, for example, which is often gone by age 14 or 21). The most important thing is simply to maintain enthusiasm.

He sees curiosity as both the biggest driver and a directional guide to what you should be working on. Graham: "Interest will make you work harder than mere diligence ever could.". On motivational factors, he said:

"The three strongest motives are curiosity, pleasure and the desire to do something impressive. Sometimes they come together, and that combination is the strongest of all."

Besides, he says, subject fields are not people, which is why you don't owe them any loyalty. Therefore, if in the course of working on one thing one discovers another that is more exciting, one should not doubt switching.

An important issue he raises is patience: often you have to work and develop for years before you discover a subject for yourself or see how good you actually are at it ("You often have to co-evolve with the problem").

Narrow focus vs. broad interest

What I find very interesting is the relationship between narrow focus and broad interests that Graham addresses. So both are important, but only in the right proportion: too narrow a focus on only one narrow area is a danger of neglecting other things because of it and not learning further; many broad interests also bring many new ideas and perspectives:

"There are many reasons why curious people are more likely to do great work, but one of the more subtle ones is that if they cast a wide net, they are more likely to find the right thing to work on." 

At the same time, Graham specifically warns against diluting his focus too much:

"Don't divide your attention evenly among many topics or you'll get bogged down. Divide it up according to a 'power-law'."

This means that while you should focus on a few things, you should also have an open, superficial, not consciously active awareness of a few other things:

"Be professionally curious about a few subjects and idly curious about many others." 

For the worst thing would be to decide wrongly too late and on the basis of very incomplete information, or even worse, not to reflect, re-evaluate one's enthusiasm, abilities, the possibilities and thus follow an unhappy path until the end of one's life.

4. Learn until you recognise gaps in knowledge

Learn until you reach the limits of knowledge

Something that no one is spared is working hard and concentrated on the same thing for a long time to get really good at it. Learn enough about it until you reach the limits of knowledge in the field, because only then will you be able to "notice the gaps" that other people have missed.

Admittedly, noticing the gaps is challenging because our brain likes to ignore gaps because it prefers to make a simple model of the world. From a distance, the explored "circle of knowledge" of an area looks round and complete, but if you look closely, you will always find gaps at the edges.

Find patterns that others overlook

If you look at history, many of the greatest achievements or insights come from things that have been around for a long time but have been overlooked by other people. A prominent example of this is given by Adam Grant in his book Originals with Galileo, who could see mountain landscapes on the moon only because of his expertise in painting through zig-zag patterns and the associated light and dark areas, even though his telescope could not technically confirm this at the time due to insufficient magnification power. He had the necessary depth of knowledge in physics and astronomy, but also breadth of experience in painting and drawing:

"Thanks to his artistic training in the so-called "chiaroscuro" technique, which focuses on the depiction of light and shadow, Galileo was able to see mountains where others did not." [6]

Graham says this with a metaphor:

"The big prize is the discovery of a new fractal bud. You notice a crack in the surface of knowledge, break it open, and inside is a whole world."

Contradictions & anomalies are your friend

It therefore pays to keep at it, especially you should not be put off by answers that seem strange and contradictory at first glance. Especially small anomalies are often an indicator to be on to really great work in a field. [7]

5. What to do when others don't understand my interests or smile at my curiosity?

Pursue ideas, even if they step out of line.

Graham clearly states:

"Boldly pursue ideas that step out of line, even if others don't care about them - or even especially if they don't. If you're excited about an opportunity that everyone else is ignoring, and you have enough expertise to say exactly what everyone else is overlooking, that's the best chance you'll find."

You know that feeling when you can't describe why others are wrong, but you can't put it into words except, "They don't get it?" That's exactly what they're looking for here: The best thing that can happen to you is that you discover gaps that others can't or maybe don't want to see.

It's not easy to find "the" area

Another problem is that education systems in many countries claim that it is easy to find "your" field. It is expected to decide on a field early on, long before one actually knows what it is really like (e.g. when one has to decide at the Matura which specialisation to choose in order to be able to study medicine, law, economics, technology, etc.). Some are lucky and know from the start, others are lucky and guess correctly - but most then struggle with their lives in the long run, assuming that everyone would guess correctly.

My own example is law - for a long time in my education (which was rather theoretical at university) I assumed it was useful to have as a good basis, but didn't think I wanted to work in the field or could imagine being really good at it. It was only after a few years of practical experience in a legal profession that I saw the really exciting dimensions, developed a new enthusiasm for it and am now training to be a prospective lawyer. As Graham says, you don't know until you actually try it.

Following your interests takes courage

When it comes to figuring out what to work on, you're often on your own. "Following your interests" sounds like a very passive approach, but according to Graham it is not at all, because it usually risks a lot of rejection and failure, and therefore takes a lot of courage. There are a lot of distractions and resistance because of this, but again, self-interest is the only way to persevere in the long run.

The good thing is that courage and uncertainty do not require much planning - planning only works for known circumstances and goals. Graham therefore recommends working hard on excitingly ambitious projects and something good will come out of it. If necessary, he says, one can always adapt to circumstances along the way and try other variations. Another clue is that as you become more active and experienced in the field you are in, your enthusiasm should increase - otherwise it is probably the wrong field for you after all, and you are just torturing yourself unnecessarily where something else is waiting for you.

Be the person you are working for

If you are doing something for other people, do something that they really want:

"Write the story you want to read; build the tool you want to use. Since your friends probably have similar interests, that's how you'll find your first audience."

This is a good middle ground to start with, combining your own interests with external factors.

6. How much luck does it take to be successful?

"There is no such thing as "self-made"

Many people proudly claim that they are "self-made", i.e. that they owe their success exclusively to themselves.

However, if you read biographies of very successful people, it is remarkable what a significant influence luck - in addition to hard work - has had on their respective careers. Thus, for many people, a chance encounter or reading a book they happened to get their hands on helped them figure out what to work on.

It is known, for example, that successful film directors James Cameron and Christopher Nolan independently watched the same film (2001: A Space Odyssey) [8] before their careers and thought to themselves, "I can do that too." There are similar accounts of Mark Twain, who followed an extremely unlikely career path, was marked by the Civil War, almost ended up as a drug dealer, put down his gun (due to suicidal thoughts), and took up paper and pen instead - all this after meeting great people on the journey who gave him fantastic advice, and he only began his journey as a result of famous writers. [9]

Put yourself in a situation that happiness can find you

The thing is, though, that - even if luck was involved - these people put themselves in advance into a situation that luck can find them too. Graham recommends trying lots of things, meeting lots of people, reading books and asking lots of questions, and disregarding "random luck":

"Luck, by definition, cannot be influenced, so we can ignore it."

Naval Ravikant shares this view. He has a good metaphor for "forced luck" - according to him, there are four types of luck:

  1. Blind luck, because something happens over which one has no control. This includes chance, fate, force majeure.
  2. Luck through perseverance, hard work, activity. This is also what Graham is talking about here when he says to try many things.
  3. Developing a "happiness sensor". Through his qualification, one learns to recognise patterns and breakthroughs in one's field, which others overlook. This coincides with Graham's learning and recognising gaps.
  4. Developing a "lucky character". One develops a unique character, a certain mindset that ensures that "luck finds you".

As a striking example, Ravikant cites a deep-sea diver who has gained years of experience in diving. Out of sheer luck, a person finds a sunken treasure ship off the coast, but cannot get there on his own. Now his sheer luck has become the diver's luck, as he needs the diver to recover the treasure - and the diver is well rewarded.  [10]

"You have made your own luck. You have put yourself in a position where you could benefit from luck or attract luck, while no one else has created this opportunity for you." - Naval Ravikant

Success comes late for most

David Senra, Founder & Host of Founders Podcast, also confirms this. According to him, very few people succeed in their younger years or with their first venture. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is a rare exception.[11] He attributes this to the experiences - and above all - the self-discovery that people have gone through along the way. Graham also states:

"Take the advantages of youth when you have them, and the advantages of age when you have them. The advantages of youth are energy, time, optimism and freedom. The advantages of age are knowledge, efficiency, money and power. If you make an effort, you can acquire some of the latter in youth and retain some of the former in old age."

Even though you can't really plan with it unfortunately, luck has been involved in some way with many successful people after the fact. So through your commitment, your activities, put yourself in a position where luck can actually find you and forget about chance.

7. Challenges on the way to great work

External influences & disruptive factors

Besides the opinions and lack of understanding of others, there are many other factors that can hinder you from doing great work:

"There are many forces that lead you astray when you are trying to figure out what to work on. Arrogance, fashion, fear, money, politics, other people's desires, eminent frauds. But if you stick to what really interests you, you are immune to all these things. If you are interested, you are not astray."

Too much ambition

Yes, paradoxically, too much ambition can also hinder you: According to Graham, there are two forms of ambition, one that precedes interest in a subject and one that follows from that interest.

Most people who do great work have a mixture of both, but the more you have of the former, the harder it becomes to decide what to do. This especially affects people who get excited about many things quickly. Don't plan too much, but jump in at the deep end and you can make ambition work for you.

Procrastination & Procrastination

Graham says that there are two ways to start something (per day and per project), accordingly there are two ways you can procrastinate.

Project-based procrastination, he says, is by far the more dangerous, as people put off starting an ambitious project from year to year because the timing is never right. The problem is that this form of procrastination masquerades as work, because you're not just sitting around doing nothing, you're working diligently on something - you're simply too busy to notice.

As a solution, Graham suggests asking oneself: "Am I working on what I would most like to do? At a young age, he says, "no" is still rather OK, but as you get older, this becomes more and more dangerous.

Unrealistic time commitment

Many people overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can make happen in the long term. In the quick motivation, it is fun to start things before effort, stress, lack of expected successes set in. A certain degree of realism is therefore helpful, even to anticipate the obstacles.

Paradoxically, these "lies" can also help to start the project in the first place: If one were always thinking up front about how complex, lengthy and challenging the thing will turn out to be (and any thing of significance will be), then many people would probably not have started in the first place.

In this respect, Graham definitely sees an advantage especially with young people who still think less about the consequences and more "unrealistically" about the possibilities and just start. Graham even says that this justifies a rare "self lie", since success can only come about as a result and would by no means represent a character flaw, but rather lie in the nature of things.

Other examples of such effective self-lies include saying to oneself, "I'll just read through what I have," and then getting right back into it, or saying to oneself, "How hard can it be?" and just starting. Also, you are allowed to exaggerate the importance of the thing you are working on if that is an important motivating factor for yourself. If that helps you then discover something new, it will turn out not to have been a lie after all.

Too hard work & wrong priorities

You do have to work hard, but you can also work too hard, according to Graham, and when you do, you will find that the returns diminish:

"Fatigue makes you stupid and eventually even harms your health. The point at which work is no longer worthwhile depends on the type of work. Some of the hardest work you might only be able to do four or five hours a day."

Graham recommends setting aside longer, continuous blocks of time (4-5 hours), as this is the only time you can really do great work. This is similar to the "deep work" concept of Cal Newport, who also stresses the importance of such uninterrupted, long blocks of time. Otherwise, one can never get to such depth, as it takes time for concentration, mind, brain to adjust to the work. This is why constant interruptions (notifications, emails, calls, social media, etc.) are so counterproductive, as they not only eat up time, but would also completely prevent or destroy this deep focus. [12]

A balance of hard work and rest is important, also because it is only in the break that the input can be properly processed, and only then can new ideas and approaches to solutions emerge that would otherwise be suppressed. Graham defines what constitutes "hard work" in another essay (How To Work Hard). [13]

Summary and conclusion

In summary, there are four important steps on the path to great work, according to Graham: 

  • Choose an area in which you have interests and talents.
  • Learn enough to reach the limits of knowledge.
  • Spot gaps, patterns, anomalies that others miss.
  • Explore the most promising gaps. 

This is how virtually every person who has achieved great things has done it, from painters, athletes, entrepreneurs, to physicists.

If you follow your interests, you will always have the necessary drive that will see you through lows, external resistance and obstacles and give you an individual advantage because it is natural for you, while for others it seems impossible.

What does "great work" mean to you?


References

  1. Graham, How To Do Great Work (2023).
  2. Jorgenson, Der Almanach von Naval Ravikant* (2021), 83.
  3. Senra, Founders Podcast (2023), #314 Paul Graham (How To Do Great Work).
  4. Jorgenson, Der Almanach von Naval Ravikant* (2021), 48.
  5. Original: "If you don't try to be the best, you won't even be good." – Paul Graham.
  6. Quoted insight from the psychologist Dean Simonton in Grant, Originals – How Non-Conformatists Move The World* (2016), 48.
  7. Original quote on anomalies & strange deviations: "Great work often has a tincture of strangeness. You see this from painting to math. It would be affected to try to manufacture it, but if it appears, embrace it." – Paul Graham.
  8. Film by Kubrick, 2001: Odyssee im Weltraum (1968).
  9. Senra, Founders Podcast (2023), #312 Mark Twain
  10. Jorgenson, Der Almanach von Naval Ravikant* (2021), 87f.
  11. Senra, Founders Podcast (2023), #314 Paul Graham (How To Do Great Work).
  12. Newport, Deep Work – Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World* (2016), 3f, 16.
  13. Graham, How To Work Hard (2021).

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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