I remain only slightly less clueless than as on my birth day. No clue then. After about a trillion seconds of learning, I’ve still not much to go on. Some things have worked— but I’m not sure exactly why. Some things haven’t worked— also not sure why. The only clues I have are very abstract, fortune-cookie sized, clues like: “Work hard. Stay Humble.” (And a few I’ve cribbed from Lao Tsu and Marcus Aurelius come to think of it.)

The following recipe assumes you’re very ambitious.

The first step is to decide what to work on. The work you choose needs to have three qualities: it has to be something you have a natural aptitude for, that you have a deep interest in, and that offers scope to do great work.

~ Paul Graham from,


I’ve often wished there’d been a How to Be Human manual. I’m not sure how one would learn the contents very early on. (How does one learn the first chapters pre-language?) Each year, as one levels up, the next chapter of the manual would become available. Arguably, the entire book reduces to: “Relax. Breath.” But, somewhere around chapter 7 I’d very much liked to have found what Graham wrote. (Even though I’d probably have ignored it until about level 22.)


Creating something

I’m the obsessive type. I’m ordered and process driven to a fault, but not quite (or at least, only rarely) to the point where this affects my ability to function. I’m continuously thinking about things like can I carry something else if I’m going in a certain direction— which is fine when heading out to run errands with the car, but which can stop me in my tracks, and cause me to turn in circles in place, before moving from room to room. I’m also obsessive about doing things. I’m the guy you want physically setting up your complex computer systems and networks—physically arranging everything. I’m the guy who got really into roller skating, bicycling, skiing, Aikido, scratch-building radio-controlled gliders, sailing… there’s a much longer list.

I learned one lesson on my own over the years and many obsessions: Do or do not. I am unable to “spend less time” on an obsession. I have to lean into it, or let go of it. Many of my obsessions paid off either as income or simply being useful to my personal growth. Being able to assess when continuing an obsession is not going to do either of those things for me is a hard-won skill.

But there are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It’s more promising if something you’re interested in is difficult, especially if it’s more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random.

But you can never be sure. In fact, here’s an interesting idea that’s also rather alarming if it’s true: it may be that to do great work, you also have to waste a lot of time.

~ Paul Graham from,


Graham’s point about creation is a second lesson about obsession. I agree, and I think an obsession’s being about creation is critical. I stumbled really near this lesson a few months ago when I wrote Being Genuine for Open + Curious where I wrote…

A great conversation is one where we (and our partners) feel the joy of creation, even if that’s while discussing a contentious topic. We have little chance of being creative if we know, or think we know, where things are headed.

Creation is critical. I need to imagine the world differently, and then try to go and create that new world.


How to think for yourself

Independent-mindedness seems to be more a matter of nature than nurture. Which means if you pick the wrong type of work, you’re going to be unhappy. If you’re naturally independent-minded, you’re going to find it frustrating to be a middle manager. And if you’re naturally conventional-minded, you’re going to be sailing into a headwind if you try to do original research.

~ Paul Graham from,


This is a case where I found it difficult to pull-quote. This at least gives you an idea of what the article is about. The challenge for me seems to be not becoming a raving lunatic when I’m off in independent-thinking land. I’ve learned to be able to swim in the conventional–minded, littoral waters, and I’ve been told I can even be helpful there. But my native environment seems to be the deep ocean of solitary thinking. I need to constantly remind myself that coming back to shore is important… as is doffing the raving lunatic appearance before trying to fold myself back into collaborative efforts.


If I’m being honest

So the worst-case scenario is someone who’s both naturally bitter and extremely ambitious, and yet only moderately successful.

~ Paul Graham from,


Graham is one of that vanishingly-rare type of blogger: One who posts stellar ideas, very infrequently and is being heard. Follow that link, take a trip back to the 90s-blogs, and learn something about nerds.

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure if I’m a nerd or a geek… I mean, I don’t actually know the definitions of those nouns. Sure, I can go look—here’s a good definition-and-how-to-tell… but the words simply don’t stick in my head as standing for something. Worse, I can tick boxes on both columns of that how-to-tell page. On the other hand, this page has a nifty graph and I think I’m over on the nerd side.

On the other, other hand, looking for “nerd” versus “geek” here on my own blog, isn’t very helpful. Maybe… just maybe… I was a geek, but there’s a natural half-life to Geeknadium, after which a certain percentage of geeks spontaneously transform into Nerdomium?


Bad taste

Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

~ Paul Graham from,


I’m not certain about “good” taste. I’m not convinced that there’s an objectively good measure of, well, good taste. I think too much of what some would say is “good,” is actually rooted in the current culture.

But I feel comfortable saying that there is such a thing as bad taste. There are clear reasons, for which one can present a clear case, why things are gauche. There’re clear situations and choices that are in bad taste. Mind you, I can readily imagine art which is intentionally in bad taste; that’s a good thing because art’s purpose is (sometimes) to push the envelope or to change society and culture. But in general, bad taste exists.


Doing what you love

But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

~ Paul Graham from,


There have been just a few bits about this topic arranged on the Internet. I’ve written several times here myself, and linked to many things like this one from Graham. The ultimate point that I’d like to make is simply that the necessary part of solving the problem for yourself is to ask yourself such questions.

If you’re simply going through life reacting to whatever you find before you, then any arm-chair, ivory tower, philosophizing about the meaning of life, one’s purpose, or finding one’s Life’s Work, is completely pointless. I’m not criticizing going through life in reacting mode; if one is crushed by situation or station, then you necessarily have your work cut out for you.

But presuming you have some slack—and be honest, you are on the Internet, so you have enough slack…

Presuming you have some slack, what questions are you asking yourself?


The size of your identity

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

~ Paul Graham from,


There are two ways I can think to aim this: outward as a way to lecture others, and inward as a way to lecture myself. Lately, I find I’m choosing to aim inward with every lesson I encounter. I’m frequently trying to catch myself being untrue to my morals.

Yesterday I was asking myself: What would it mean to be, “so good, they can’t ignore you?” Asking myself such things is an ongoing theme, and I’ve always considered it from the mindset of more; from the mindset of searching for ways to improve by addition. Yes, I’ve intentionally left the subject unspecified here. Thinking about Graham’s article this morning leaves me wondering if the best way—for me today at my current place in my personal journey—might instead be to improve by removing things.

What would that look like, specifically?


P.S.: The question, “what can I do to be so good they can’t ignore me?,” is part of my personal list of daily reminders.

Your model of the world

Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.

~ Paul Graham from,


I deeply love the concept of having a “model” of the world. I’m also deeply interested in having a correct model of the world. The model enables me to understand the world, to move through it, and to create the changes I wish.

I used to try to carefully create my model; for each question I encountered, I would try to learn everything that was important to determine the best answer. But that is an endless fool’s errand. The whole world become an endless field of rabbit holes. Each rabbit hole is wonderfully interesting, and it is immediately clear that exploring even a significant number of them is hopeless in one lifetime.

Instead, I learned to follow my curiosity—which is the recipe for rabbit-holes ad nauseum—but to stop when I’m no longer curious. Piece by piece a model of the world is assembled. Want to build a great model? …don’t focus on building the best model. Instead focus on this next piece of the model—the next thing you read, the next person you interact with, the next thing you do, the next thing you explore.

You have a model too, and you use it constantly. What are you doing to build your model?


That which in old days moved Earth and Heaven

Hilbert had no patience with mathematical lectures which filled the students with facts but did not teach them how to frame a problem and solve it. He often used to tell them that “a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution.”

~ Constance Reid, via Paul Graham from,


Today is a three-for-one; two attributions for the quote and a hat tip for my title, which I hope you recognize as being lifted from Ulysses.

I’ve been thinking recently about wisdom. I have countless aphorisms that hint, with a wink, at how it differs from knowledge. I’m certain I don’t know exactly what wisdom is, but I am certain I know what it rhymes with. Today I listened to an entire album, the way the artist hoped I would. Today I provided a bit of help to some people who are starting out in something that I happen to know about. Today I ate peanut butter and jelly using the same spoon in both jars while nibbling at the bread. Today I read journal entries I had written 6, 3 and 1 years ago. Today I spent time with a few people important to me. Today I sat in the sun. Today I played and ran and jumped on some stuff. Today, aside from the people I interacted with, I did not leave, (nor attempt to leave,) my mark in the world.

In a non-judging way, meant only to spur you on, I ask: What did you do today?


When it’s permanent

Anyone who must in some sense bet on ideas rather than merely commenting on them has similar incentives. Which means anyone who wants such incentives can have them, by turning their comments into bets: if you write about a topic in some fairly durable and public form, you’ll find you worry much more about getting things right than most people would in a casual conversation.

~ Paul Graham from,


I’ve previously talked about several reasons why I blog, but this article by Graham reminds me of another: An incentive to be honest.

What I write here is going to hang around for a while. (At least, that’s my plan.) I’m enticed to think a tad more deeply about things before I share them, select a quote or add my commentary. I’m only writing for myself, sure, but I’d like to look back years hence and find on balance that what I wrote was reasonable and useful.

How about you?


Lying to children

The first step in clearing your head is to realize how far you are from a neutral observer. When I left high school I was, I thought, a complete skeptic. I’d realized high school was crap. I thought I was ready to question everything I knew. But among the many other things I was ignorant of was how much debris there already was in my head. It’s not enough to consider your mind a blank slate. You have to consciously erase it.

~ Paul Graham from,


Sure, there are lies of expedience. (“What is thunder?” “It’s clouds bumping into each other.”) But it’s a water slide of lies when you start thinking about it. I know I never really thought about it; I certainly wouldn’t have expected a quick summary of the issues to be 5,000 words.

But there it is none the less, well done by Graham. It contains a litany of ways we all lie to children, (including those of us who don’t have or care for children in any way.) Frankly, some of the ways we all lie seem like an excellent thing to be doing. And if that’s the case, then we all have the we’ve-been-lied-to baggage Graham is describing.

Suddenly! (“It didn’t stop. It didn’t stop!”)

…I feel like I need to toss out the closets of my mind.