It’s not enough to be smart

TL;DR: People wonder whether working hard is necessary to achieve success. The truth is if you want a high probability of success, then you will need to give 100% of yourself. This doesn’t leave room for much else. Don’t get tempted by shortcuts. Choose your path, prepare to course correct, and give it your all. Later, when you’re in Ramen Retirement, you can take a more leisurely approach to life and success, but before then you need to give everything you’ve got. Simply knowing this is true will make the sacrifice that much easier.

There is a debate in the world of tech (and life in general) around working hard vs. working smart. The fundamental question being asked is: Do I have to put in long hours to be successful? Of course, most people hope the answer is no. They hope there’s a magic formula that, much like the first 20 years of their life in academia, will allow them to game the system and come out on top

The best advice I can give from experience is that if you want a high certainty of success, you need to work as hard as you possibly can. Leave nothing on the table. It’s simply not enough to be smart. There are a lot of smart people in the world. Smarts are overrated. Working hard is underrated. If whatever you’re pursuing is valuable enough, you better believe there are a ton of other folks who want that thing just as badly. Sure you might outsmart a few of them, but certainly not all of them. Doing the work is not glamorous or sexy, as it’s typically portrayed in the Hollywood montage (this one is fun too). The struggle is filled with sleep deprivation, missed life events and the infamous trough of sorrow:


Despite this, there will be folks who are smart and lazy who will end up doing incredible things. This is great. You should wish them nothing but the best. They chose a path and things worked out. Perhaps they’re really just smarter than us all and knew that path would work. Perhaps they went deep enough to have a unique insight that was obvious to them, but hidden to everyone else. Perhaps they were lucky to be interested in a seemingly esoteric field that suddenly became significant (see: AI, machine learning, self driving technologies, cryptocurrencies). Whatever the case, it worked for them, but that doesn’t mean it will work for you. Survivorship bias only shows us the cases that worked out well. We only hear about the big wins, and think it’s an easy path. It’s not. Don’t drink the Kool Aid. Instead, listen to Steven Pressfield and do the work. I suspect for every smart, lazy, success, there are a whole handful of smart lazy folks wondering why they haven’t got their break in life.

The ultimate question is how badly do you want the success you’re seeking, and what are you willing to sacrifice? If it’s something you need to have, then what you’re prepared to sacrifice better be pretty close to everything else in life if you want a good shot at it. As Keith Rabois points out above, it’s arrogant to think you can outsmart other talented people. Moreover, when you’re starting out you won’t know which path will work, you can’t just thread the needle to success, which is why you need hustle. You will make mistakes, you’ll need to course correct, and when those things happen if you’re not able to give it 100%, you’ll drown. This is true as an individual at school or in a career, and it’s true of a company just starting out.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend significant time thinking about which direction you’re going in. On the contrary, you should always be assessing and course correcting your approach given your end goals:

I mean the hard work is important don’t get me wrong. You have to care about what you do, and you have to sink time into it because there are other people out there really working just as hard or harder than you…

You have to put in the time but more important is the direction you’re heading in. That matters more than how fast you drive… we live in the modern age of leverage… we’re leveraged to machines, we’re leveraged through media, were leveraged through money, were leveraged to people working with us.

So picking the direction that you’re heading in, for every decision, is far far more important than what force you apply. Pick the right direction to start walking and then start walking.

– Naval Ravikant, Jan 2018

But the issue with Naval’s point above is that when we’re young starting out, it’s really hard to know which direction is best. It’s hard to know what your gift is for the world. Even if you did know the direction you should be going, you might not have the resources and tools at your disposal to take full advantage. To close this gap requires hustle, as Naval later pointed out on the Twitter:

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Too often people want the success without paying the price of admission – this is particularly alluring if you think you can get to the promised land without making those sacrifices. But I’m here to tell you those shortcuts are an illusion. Trying to take the shortcut will more often than not hang you out to dry.

Once you reach Ramen Retirement, you can afford to slow down, step back and take your time before diving into something new. You can explore some more esoteric fields and hope that they’ll find their moment sooner rather than later. You can do that because you’ve got the downside covered. You have the flexibility and control to bring a little more balance and make sure you’re there for the big life events. But before you reach that promised land, there are no shortcuts. If others tell you otherwise, they’re lying.

Most importantly though – enjoy the journey, even in the trough of sorrow. Life is about experience, and not all of them necessarily need to be about hedonic bliss. Sometimes it’s the toughest moments we look back on most fondly.

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