I recently came across this post by Patrick Collison on Hacker News, a website for tech nerds. Patrick runs Stripe, a fast-growing company that makes online payments work better. He wrote down some advice for his younger self, in the hopes it could help others between the ages of 10 and 20.
Turns out it’s super relevant for the rest of us too.
The last few months, I’ve experienced how rewarding it can be to focus on a single subject. And Collison encourages going deep. Skimming the surface may be easy, but then you’ll never discover your true passions.
Go deep on things. Become an expert. In particular, try to go deep on multiple things.
Going deep can happen with effort or as a natural process. It does have a downside: you’ll have to do less of other things (superficial or not).
But I believe the investment will pay off down the road. And going deep means calling on your own creativity and original thinking.
A lot of what we think turns out not to be true at all
Not that we’re especially encouraged to be original, says Patrick:
More broadly, nobody is going to teach you to think for yourself. A large fraction of what people around you believe is mistaken. Internalize this and practice coming up with your own worldview.
It’s a fascinating point he makes about people around you being largely mistaken. Your initial reaction may be: “Finally! I am right much more than people around me, but nobody ever sees it.” If that’s how you feel, then this quote isn’t meant for you. In that case, you’ll need to read it differently: that you, too, get it wrong far more often than you think.
Look at it this way: an awful lot of what all of us think turns out not to be true at all. Internalize this humbling perspective. It’ll make you much nicer to work with to boot.
Things to try:
Patrick’s point applies if you feel you don’t have enough creative ideas, or if you think you’re easily swayed by others. That can be difficult in any context, but it’s especially limiting at work.
Here are some tips to try.
Make time to think. This is the central theme of Deep Work. And I’ve written about how generating truly good ideas isn’t easy (see newsletter #4 “Creativity isn’t a talent. It’s a way of operating”). We’re always looking for a shortcut, when you really just have to sit down and take the time. Same goes for writing project plans, setting priorities, and everything else that’s important. It all starts with taking the time to form your own opinion.
Give yourself permission to not have an opinion yet. It can be hard to revise an opinion you boldly expressed in the past. We sometimes cling to our old views to avoid having to amend them publicly. That’s irritating for those around us, and it stands in the way of your own growth. Giving yourself more time to figure out what you think helps get around this issue.
Get yourself in contact with more ideas. Want to break out of your bubble? Read and listen to people you disagree with. But beware of extreme viewpoints. They’ll only work to cement your own views.
Back to Patrick’s point: Give yourself better odds of being right. In a world where so much seems to be fixed and all figured out, it’s easy to convince yourself that fresh new ideas are a rarity. Let alone that you could come up with them. So it can be good to rediscover a sense of confidence in our own ideas.
Flush with reality
And let’s be clear here: we ultimately want the picture in our heads, our take on things, to be flush with reality. That’s why I’m adding something to what Patrick wrote. Take the time to decide on your standpoint and practice letting go of standpoints once dear to you. There’s always a chance you’ve got it wrong. What helps me is a thought experiment: What if my take’s not right?
That gets me started seriously sussing out the alternatives.
Have a good week!