How To Be Successful - Sam Altman


I really enjoy almost all of Sam Altman's writing, and this is no exception. His insight about compounding yourself is a real challenge, since there aren't that many ways to do it (though he says the opposite!) He lists a few: capital, technology, brand, network effects, and managing people. As a company, I understand this list, but as an individual, I'm limited to technology and managing people (there's an argument that network effects applies as well). Interestingly, these are the two areas I've focused on most in the past 10 years or so, so there's at least some alignment there.

John Carmack has always been an inspiration to me, and he seems to be thinking a fair bit about exactly what technology will lead to that sort of compounding:

I struggle with internal arguments around how much pursuing various new things "compounds" on my current base. I hate to say "not worth my time to learn that", but on the other hand, there is a vast menu of interesting things to learn, and some are worth more than others.

There are some obvious guidelines. One is to focus on technologies that are what I call "prime abstractions": they can seem uselessly abstract, but once you learn them, they have broad applicability across both discipline and time. These technologies are often the least attractive, especially to newcomers, since they tend to not lead to immediate results. Buckling down and learning procedural, object-oriented, and functional programming idioms is like this. Even learning SQL well has some of these elements. I was lucky that I picked up Linux back in 1997 as my primary computing environment: it has endured beyond my greatest expectations, and has had a huge compounding effect in my work for the past 20 years.

But then there's the harder question: given what I currently know, what should I learn next to either compound my effectiveness, or set myself up to learn the next thing that will compound my effectiveness? For me, it's been difficult to figure that out in the realm of technology: there's a ton of stuff to get interested in, and it is sometimes hard to discern which will be most useful when coupled with my existing knowledge. But, as an engineer focused on technology for so many years, I think it was a slam dunk for me to start focusing effective methods of working with others. Not just management (which is world unto itself), but working with peers, managers, executives, contractors, and other teams as well. I have many more years to continue improving in those areas, but I would like to start using some time to focus again on technology as well.

How To Be Successful - Sam Altman