Samvit's Guide to the World Wide Web

28 Aug 2017

The bar for making this list is high. Note that the advice is primarily catered toward ambitious young people. Organized in descending order of general applicability:

Life Advice

The days are long but the decades are short (Sam Altman, Apr 2015)

2 Life is not a dress rehearsal—this is probably it. Make it count. Time is extremely limited and goes by fast. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled—few people get remembered hundreds of years after they die anyway.

3 How to succeed: pick the right thing to do (this is critical and usually ignored), focus, believe in yourself (especially when others tell you it’s not going to work), develop personal connections with people that will help you, learn to identify talented people, and work hard. It’s hard to identify what to work on because original thought is hard.

4 On work: it’s difficult to do a great job on work you don’t care about...Work very hard—a surprising number of people will be offended that you choose to work hard—but not so hard that the rest of your life passes you by. Aim to be the best in the world at whatever you do professionally. Even if you miss, you’ll probably end up in a pretty good place.

19 Go out of your way to help people. Few things in life are as satisfying. Be nice to strangers. Be nice even when it doesn’t matter.

22 This too shall pass.

Notes for the New Year (Sam Altman, Jan 2017)

[On What To Work On] It’s not easy to figure out what you actually care about– there are so many directions you can go. But rather than listening to where other people might push you, it’s worth trying to figure this out for yourself. Don’t chase other people’s ideas of what matters. The best way to succeed long-term is to deeply believe that what you’re doing matters.

[On Achieving Success] You should work really hard. You should be willing to do whatever it takes; society doesn’t owe you success. Be a doer, not a talker – history belongs to the doers.

[On Taking Risk] Simple tip – don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. If you’re doing something ambitious, you’ll be told “no”, a lot. Sometimes though, people will give you what you want. Those times will outweigh the pains of being rejected, so be aggressive.

[On Money] When I was young, I had a misconception that you get rich from making a nice salary. As I got older, I realized the way to get rich was by owning things that go up in value—i.e., equity.

Life Is Short (Paul Graham, Jan 2016)

Life is short, as everyone knows. When I was a kid I used to wonder about this. Is life actually short, or are we really complaining about its finiteness? Would we be just as likely to feel life was short if we lived 10 times as long?

Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it's impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.

If life is short, we should expect its shortness to take us by surprise. And that is just what tends to happen. You take things for granted, and then they're gone. You think you can always write that book, or climb that mountain, or whatever, and then you realize the window has closed. The saddest windows close when other people die. Their lives are short too. After my mother died, I wished I'd spent more time with her. I lived as if she'd always be there. And in her typical quiet way she encouraged that illusion. But an illusion it was. I think a lot of people make the same mistake I did.

Commencement Speech at Hamilton College (Peter Thiel, May 2016)

I did well enough in law school to be hired by a big New York law firm, but it turned out to be a very strange place. From the outside, everybody wanted to get in, and from the inside, everybody wanted to get out.

When I left the firm, after seven months and three days, my coworkers were surprised. One of them told me that he hadn’t known it was possible to escape from Alcatraz. Now that might sound odd, because all you had to do to escape was walk through the front door and not come back. But people really did find it very hard to leave, because so much of their identity was wrapped up in having won the competitions to get there in the first place.

Looking back at my ambition to become a lawyer, it looks less like a plan for the future and more like an alibi for the present... When I co-founded a technology startup, we took the opposite approach. We consciously set out to change the direction of the world: very definite, very big plans. Our goal was nothing less than to replace the U.S. dollar by creating a new digital currency... Outside, there were millions of people working in the global financial industry, and when we told some of them about our plans we noticed a clear pattern: the more experience someone had in banking, the more certain they were that our venture could never succeed.

They were wrong. People around the world now rely on PayPal to move more than $200 billion every year. We did fail at our greater goal. The dollar’s still dominant... [But] more importantly, we learned that while doing new things is difficult, it is far from impossible.

Let me end today by questioning two clichés in particular:

The first comes from Shakespeare, who wrote this well-known piece of advice: 'To thine own self be true.' Now Shakespeare wrote that, but he didn’t say it. He put it in the mouth of a character named Polonius, who Hamlet accurately describes as a tedious old fool, even though Polonius was senior counselor to the King of Denmark.

And so, in reality, Shakespeare is telling us two things. First, do not be true to yourself. How do you know you even have such a thing as a self? Your self might be motivated by competition with others, like I was. You need to discipline your self, to cultivate it and care for it. Not to follow it blindly. Second, Shakespeare’s saying that you should be skeptical of advice, even from your elders. Polonius is a father speaking to his daughter, but his advice is terrible. Here Shakespeare’s a faithful example of our western tradition, which does not honor what is merely inherited.

The other cliché goes like this: 'Live each day as if it were your last.' The best way to take this as advice is to do exactly the opposite. Live each day as if you will live forever. That means, first and foremost, that you should treat the people around you as if they too will be around for a very long time to come. The choices that you make today matter, because their consequences will grow greater and greater.

Follow a Career Passion? Let It Follow You (Cal Newport, Sep 2012)

Growing up, we were told by guidance counselors, career advice books, the news media and others to “follow our passion.” This advice assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, we’ll end up happy. If we lack this courage, we’ll end up bored and unfulfilled — or, worse, in law school.

As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But I chose to ignore it. The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world.

These traits can be found in many jobs, but they have to be earned. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time. For someone in a new position, the right question is not, “What is this job offering me?” but, instead, “What am I offering this job?”

To other young people who constantly wonder if the grass might be greener on the other side of the occupational fence, I offer this advice: Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.

Startups

How To Make Wealth (Paul Graham, May 2004)

Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast.

Startups are not magic. They don't change the laws of wealth creation. They just represent a point at the far end of the curve. There is a conservation law at work here: if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars' worth of pain. For example, one way to make a million dollars would be to work for the Post Office your whole life, and save every penny of your salary. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years. You do tend to get a certain bulk discount if you buy the economy-size pain, but you can't evade the fundamental conservation law. If starting a startup were easy, everyone would do it.

Measurement and Leverage

To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.

Measurement alone is not enough. An example of a job with measurement but not leverage is doing piecework in a sweatshop. Your performance is measured and you get paid accordingly, but you have no scope for decisions. The only decision you get to make is how fast you work, and that can probably only increase your earnings by a factor of two or three.

An example of a job with both measurement and leverage would be lead actor in a movie. Your performance can be measured in the gross of the movie. And you have leverage in the sense that your performance can make or break it.

I think everyone who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes. A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure.

Idea, Execution, and Market (Balaji Srinivasan, June 2013)

So which is most important: product/idea, execution/team, or market?

One answer is that for a startup veteran or someone who understands any machine learning, the debate is somewhat moot. All these factors (idea, execution, market, team, product) are important to varying degrees; the main point of saying “it’s the execution, not the idea” is to disabuse a novice of the idea that patents matter much at inception, or that a brilliant idea on a napkin1 has much value. You can think of these things on a continuum. Ideas range in quality from “a social network for dogs” to “Maxwell’s equations”, and execution ranges in quality from “I’ll start a company some day” to “sold or IPO’d company”. As important as the execution is, without a clear vision of where you want your company to go you will never come up with an idea that others want to copy. So how do you come up with a good idea?

Startups Must Pursue Large Markets

Even if you can build a product with an economy of scale, you need to ensure that it serves a large market. The annual market size is the total number of people who will buy the product per year multiplied by the price point. To get to a billion dollars in annual revenue ($1B), you need either a high price point or a large number of customers. Here are a few different ways to achieve that magic $1B figure in different industries:

Social/Local/Mobile, Virality, and Growth (Balaji Srinivasan, June 2013)

The Virality Equation

In thinking about virality, there are three components to the virality equation:

Most people’s intuition tells them that the ideal way to build something highly viral is to improve the content, namely improving the value of p. However, suppose that we quantify the number of users at successive timepoints who have seen the content via U(t) as follows, with U(0)=1:
$$ \begin{aligned} U(0) &= 1 \\ U(τ) &= (N p) \\ U(2τ) &= (N p)^2 \\ U(mτ) &= (N p)^m \\ U(t) &= (N p)^{(t/τ)} \end{aligned} $$
Here we have substituted t = mτ in the final line. We see immediately that if N ⋅ p < 1 we do not have viral growth. We can also ask an important question: what’s the relative impact of increasing p by 2-fold, increasing N by 2-fold, or decreasing τ by 2-fold? For concreteness, let’s say that p = .1, N = 50, and τ = 1 day.

Then after three days we would have roughly:
$$ \begin{aligned} U(3) = (.1 × 50)^{3/1} = 125\text{ users} \end{aligned} $$
If we doubled p to .2 we’d get:
$$ \begin{aligned} U(3) = (.2 × 50)^{3/1} = 1000\text{ users} \end{aligned} $$
And if we doubled N to 100 we’d get:
$$ \begin{aligned} U(3) = (.1 × 100)^{3/1} = 1000\text{ users} \end{aligned} $$
But if we halved τ to .5 we’d get:
$$ \begin{aligned} U(3) = (.1 × 50)^{3/.5} = 15625\text{ users} \end{aligned} $$
Wow! The impact of reductions in τ is highly nonlinear because it affects the exponent in the virality equation. Shorter incubation times mean rapid viral spread...

Putting these things together, we can start to gain more insight as to why the Reddit image macro is the Ebola meme. An image meme is instantly processed (τ → 0) and understood by a wide audience (N → ∞). It thus need only be shared by a small fraction of people to achieve incredible viral growth. Here are a few more historical examples of successful viral campaigns that illustrate various optimizations of p, N, and τ:

The concept of social, then, is intimately linked with virality. It is not enough that your user merely discusses your app with their friends; it must be compelling enough for at least some of your user’s friends to in turn share with their friends.

Footnotes


  1. From Idea, Execution, and Market: One argument is that a novel equation or figure is an exception, such as Ramanujan’s notebooks or the Feynman diagrams. Something like that truly is valuable, more in the sense of I’ve developed a low-cost way to launch objects into space than I have an idea for a social network for pet owners.

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