TL;DR: Putting a dent in the universe is a great way to spend your time on this planet. To do that, you need a unique perspective on a meaningful problem. To get that perspective you need to be an expert, which can only really be done by going deep. Become obsessed with the area you’ve chosen to explore, and you’ll quickly become an expert with the knowledge and insight to do something unique and novel.
If you’re like me, you want to have an impact. Put a dent in the universe. If for no other reason than it is interesting and challenging. If life is just a bunch of games, you may as well play at one of the more interesting ones.
Also, it sounds cliche, but once you’ve reached Ramen Retirement, money ceases to be a primary motivator – yes, it matters, but it’s secondary to doing something worthwhile and inherently enjoyable.
I learned how to make money because it was a necessity. After it stopped being a necessity I stopped caring about it.
But how do you ‘have an impact’ or ‘put a dent in the universe’? The short answer is that you go deep.
If you don’t know where to ‘go deep’, that’s okay. You should take some time to step back from the coalface and explore a little. Try to find that natural interest and curiosity you might have had years ago before the pressures of work, deadlines and bills beat it out of you. Let your instincts guide you. See what you gravitate toward. Do this for a few months or even a year, and when you find something that is both interesting and relevant, go deep.
Pattern I’ve noticed in very impactful people: Spend ~1 year exploring broadly, ~4 years relentless focus executing on the most interesting direction, repeat.
— Sam Altman (@sama) January 23, 2018
So what does it mean to go deep? It means you need to become a relative expert in the space – to have something novel to share with the world, you need unique insight. To have unique insight, you need be on the edge of knowledge for a field. One of the best in the world, literally. As Naval shared regarding success in business:
Whatever it is… it moves around [from] generation to generation, but a lot of it happens to be in technology… and so it’s a form of what I think the Austrian economists used to call specific knowledge… Knowledge that only you know or only a small set of people know. This [knowledge] basically is going to come out of your passions and your hobbies oddly enough. So if you have hobbies around intellectual curiosity, you’re more likely to develop these passions, and you’re more likely to have skill sets that society does not yet know how to train other people how to do… because if it can train other people how to do something then it can replace them… and if it can replace them there’s no need to have to pay them a lot. [Thus], you want to know how to do something that other people don’t know how to do, at the time period when they want it.
The best way to do this is to find an intersection of skills, abilities, knowledge and experiences. It’s really hard to become the best Product Manager in the world. But it’s a lot easier to become the best Product Manager with a deep understanding of Finance and Agriculture in the United States corn belt. There’s just a lot less competition.
Once you’ve found that intersection, you need to become an animal:
What do I mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.
You need to be obsessive. Read every article. Use every product. Stalk every major player on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Become the most knowledgeable person on the subject – this includes the history of the industry, the strategic dynamics, the future prospects for all the different players. You need to understand the three-dimensional-chess-game better than anyone else. You need to go all in. In many ways, going deep is a lot like the illustrated guide to a Ph.D.:
As Steven Pressfield notes, there is no room for diletantes:
Anyways, in the dream, Art was talking animatedly to Linda Ronstadt and was totally ignoring Roseanne and finally Roseanne sort of broke in, trying to break into the conversation and then Art turned to her and with a withering glance, looked her right in the eye and said, “We don’t waste our time with dilettantes.” Roseanne said that she woke up and she was shattered by this dream.
She felt like that she had absolutely been exposed and she realized that at that time she had thought that she was really operating on a pretty good level of professionalism and she just realized that she really wasn’t, that she really was not as good a musician as she wanted to be.
She didn’t know enough about the craft, she didn’t respect the craft enough, so from that moment she sort of committed herself, and she started studying. She studied everything more seriously, the piano, vocal coach, and it changed her life, she really kind of elevated her game to a whole other level.
Once you’ve gone deep, you should have a unique perspective on the industry and opportunities that are available. At this point, you might finally be ready to contribute something to the conversation. This is not to say you can’t contribute along the way. There is always value in sharing your journey. But, before you can have deep impact, you need to go deep. This only makes sense, because really what you’re looking for is a problem to solve, and if you only have a superficial understanding of a space, you won’t really encounter the real problems. Only by going deep do you understand all the dynamics at play, all the problems, the existing solutions, their shortcomings, and potentially (if you’re lucky) how to do something 10X better than it is being done today.
So to close, you can’t sit on your couch waiting for inspiration or insight to strike. You need to get out in the world and go deep, turn over rocks and find the real problems that need to be solved. When young people say they don’t know what they want to do with their life, the best answer is to go deep on something… anything. The entire process of going deep will open doors you never even knew existed. But if you sit at home all day waiting for some bright idea to pop out of nowhere, that’s exactly where you’ll end up.
Oh, and remember – enjoy the journey!
Executive Small Group Leader in Chief, Ramen Retirement