From time to time newly graduated hackers ask me: “Do you have any advice for beginning my career?”
I’ve found myself repeating 3 principles over and over again. On reflection, I realized these principles apply more broadly. I think they might answer the question “Do you have any advice on for beginning my life as an adult?”
I thought I’d share these ideas with you here. The style and the examples I wrote are career-oriented, but I think the core ideas will still help in your decision making. I hope you enjoy them : ).
Principle A: Follow your taste
What should you do? is one of the hardest questions to answer when you start out.
The default path is to follow what’s popular or prestigious. That can lead to a bunch of problems: What’s prestigious is already highly competitive. When you compete with smart people in a game that has established rules, just keeping up will take most of your time. That leaves little time to explore what interests you. When you don’t explore what interests you, you won’t understand things as deeply, and that leaves you with an undifferentiated skillset.
The solution here is to follow your taste. Popularity and prestige are lagging indicators. Your taste, especially as a young, curious person, is a signal for what will be popular in the future. Regardless though, when you follow you taste, you’ll find yourself much more interested in the problems you’re solving. When you’re interested in the problems you’re solving, you’ll discover deeper truths, build deeper expertise, a differentiated skillset, and have more fun along the way.
Now, you may be wondering: What if you don’t even know what you’re interested in?
Don’t worry. You just need to tune into and strengthen your taste. To do that, just do anything. Once you do anything, ask yourself, what part of that thing do you find interesting?
Start going deeper there, and all of a sudden, you’ll discover a wealth of interests.
Next up, you may be wondering: What if your interests keep changing?
Don’t worry. It’s totally fine. Just follow it. You’ll be surprised how things will serve you down the road. As long as you’re working hard and you’re learning, it’s a good use of time.
You may also wonder: What if your interests are what’s popular and prestigious today?
That’s great. Follow that, but instead of competing, start sensing what actually interests you in that field and go deeper.
The ideas may seem career oriented, so you may be wondering: What if I just want to travel and explore the world?
That’s great too! It’s your taste, telling you that you want to travel. Follow it and see where it leads you.
As you discover your interests, you may find that they’re not necessarily popular. Yet, when you go deeper and do your thing, something magical will happen…which leads us into the second principle:
As you explore and follow your taste, you’ll discover a subset of people who share your core interests and values.
Nurture those relationships. Some of these people will be your friends for life. Many of those people will become very successful in the future.
The people you know will show you what’s possible and work alongside you in deepening, exploring, and innovating on your shared interests.
You may be wondering: what if you live in the middle of nowhere, and there aren’t people who get you? Do your best to go to the center of wherever your community is. That may be SF for hackers or Los Angeles for entertainers or Paris for artists, the list goes on. You know where it is for you.
Now, this may sound impractical to you, but you’ll be surprised with what you can do. You can start off online in the meantime.
One common pitfall here is focusing only on successful people in your field. This misses the point. Sure, reach out to those successful people, but remember that the young, curious, interested people right next you, will become those successful people in the future. You have tons of time to spend together, so it’s great way to deepen your relationships. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t reach out to successful people (you definitely should), but to remove “success” as a criteria altogether for choosing who you spend your time with.
Now, you may be wondering, how do you deepen those relationships? That leads to us to the third principle:
Principle C: Take risks
As you form your community, new ideas and ways to collaborate will spring up. Take those opportunities: work together, support each-other and play. Over time, which you have a lot of right now, you will form a tight tribe of friends.
As a happy side effect, you’ll become exposed to new fields, new technologies, interesting problems, and interesting opportunities. Start taking them, and you’re well on your way to a career that’s made for you.
One common issue here is a lack of self belief. This may lead you into choosing what you think “you are capable of”, rather than what you’re interested in. One way to get around this is to just experiment: let yourself dream and work with your friends, even if the problems seem fantastically hard.
There are a lot of examples I can give you if you’re interested in what I’m interesting in: From my favorite books to Paul Graham’s essays to Norvig’s Paradgims of AI programming, to Rich Hickey talks. But, instead I encourage you to think: what interests you right now?
If you’re up for it, I’d love to know your answer: what interests you right now? Feel free to leave your answer in the comments or to email me directly, I’d be curious to hear : )
There’s a slew of people who have influenced and mentored me. These ideas are just as much them as me.
On the idea of taste specifically, the big shoutout has to go to Paul Graham. A lot of my thinking about this was inspired by reading his essays over and over when I started out. I highly suggest reading them.
Thanks to Daniel Woelfel, Talha Baig, Martin Raison, Irakli Safareli, David Magaltadze, Joe Averbukh, Julien Odent, for reviewing this essay