A friend a few years back to me said, “Conviction is the scarcest resource, not time.” It’s stuck with me, and I’ve developed a life philosophy around it. I struggle to write about it (though it’s very easy for me to talk about it in a Q&A format). I’ve reorganized some discussion notes/text chats that help start putting pen to paper and hopefully leave some helpful nuggets.
This is Part 1 in a multiseries blog post about conviction. Part 2, with more coherent bullet essays is here.
Chat 1: Giving advice to N
Summary: Navigating personal interests vs career paths, managing time on Twitter, maintaining conviction in one’s chosen field, and accepting the unpredictable nature of future opportunities. Book recommendations as well.
friend N -
do you ever personally feel that twitter makes you more mimetic? i think life with twitter has made it so that when I hear about things going on in a field im not in anymore, i feel fomo towards it, and this feels so disingenuous
Yeah twitters bad for focus
It’s always fun hearing about the cool stuff but every minute of that takes away from ur own work and your own cool ideas.
Twitters also like, 3 months behind on everything
I usually keep twitter to a few min/day – try to replace twitter with ethresearch or even like a tv show or something
After spending time around certain people, I just very strongly feel like, the real crypto discussions about the future are not happening on twitter lol
friend N -
What gives you your conviction on ZK? I find that I struggle to feel conviction towards something if I don’t see a concrete path for it working out, do you feel differently?
I think it comes back to the asymmetric bets
you’ll see this if you read the dream machine or skunkworks or any book with transformational tech
theres a certain feeling that theres an explosion of new ability that only a few people realize
zk is the only place I both feel that right now, and feel like I could’ve built a differentiated position in
friend N —
interesting – theres so many smart kids around, and they all feel it for many diff things; some friends with physics, y’all have had ZK for a while, some friends are doing cool robotics things, etc.
yeah its hard to choose, they are all very cool
I think its sort of like, you have to order your interests so that you go super deep on one
do something big, then completely retract and go super deep on another, and so on
you’ve done the first step of be curious about a lot of things
but now you need to switch modes a bit, and choose which of ur interests ur best timed in
it’s sort of an unintuitive switch/mode
you’re gonna screw yourself if you do two things at once or are constantly pining for some other interest, and not do anything big in either
like, I don’t expect to be doing zk for 10 years – I hope that in 5 years or whatever im sick of crypto, and decide idk longevity robots is my new schtick or whatever, and do that for a few years
But rn I think I’m well timed in zk, so zk it is
For struggles with conviction, I usually recommend the books ‘greatness cannot be planned’ and ‘feynmans rainbow’
You can see longer reviews for those here: https://goodreads.com/yushg
friend N —
makes sense – been meaning to read greatness cannot be planned for a while, saw the talk on it, seemed worth, will check those out this week
have you ever felt regret or doubt on this when you see other things picking up, or are you past that at this point?
i’m sure lots of people in AI over the last 2 decades felt moments of doubt and such when they saw other fields get their moment in the spotlight lmao
yeah I think when ai stuff started coming out, I was like ah, if id dedicated myself to that, I totally could have been a pivotal contributor to gpt X or whatever cool foundational AI model
but also, this is a signal that there will be soo many things like this in the next 10, 20, 30 years
so where am I maximally leveraged and maximally having fun
honestly, id potentially be pretty happy just watching anime and reading books for the rest of my life and not doing any work
So if I actually don’t care about clout (i.e. putting my name on gpt X), then how can I put myself in a place where I can be maximally leveraged to do things in the world that no one else is doing, that I almost feel like I have to do since im the only one who can
Maybe mitsoul.org is a good example of this – its super nonsexy, nothing is on twitter, etc, but I think better education will silently result in a bunch of massively smart ppl that seem like they came out of nowhere, and ill just be grinning in the background somewhere
unfortunately I had to make the v difficult choice to strongly prioritize my zk work over it
i can probably mention 2-3 people who’s thoughts on a field are basically 100x better than anything I can conjure up, so im pretty happy mostly cheering them on from the sidelines; but I think I have thoughts on zk that no one else 100xs me on
for agency I also recommend ppl watch the steward brand documentary We Are as Gods
this guy just did whatever the fuck he was curious about but he did it to the max – it resulted in a ton of cool unexpected things different from anything before it like whole earth catalog, apple computer etc, and I found it useful to free myself from expectations
friend N —
yea if it is true that you can simply work hard and eventually be rewarded for it, the things in the coming years should give plenty of chances
this might be semantics, I think I catch your meaning, but won’t others do ZK if you don’t?
yeah but basically 3 other people in the world care about + are able to technically execute on the specific zk project I care most about right now
and I could say the same for like second, third, and fourth places for zk niches I care about (note this is not true for like zkevm or zk rollups)
im just like not worried about being rewarded lol, worst case I write trading strats full time when I turn 35 if im still poor and need money to have kids or whatever; I am pretty confident that it will not come to that though LOL
but until then, the goal is to accumulate max social capital + technical capital
that can all be converted to financial capital anytime, but u cant go the other way
friend N —
is there anywhere specific you’d like to see yourself in 1 and 3 years? im curious where you want the path you’ve chosen to take you, if anywhere?
Maybe like, I have a cool product under my belt in 1 year, and in 3 years I’m helping to spawn and mentor a bunch of advanced cryptography projects beyond ZK? unclear
If u asked me this 1 year ago I’d be like completely off base from what actually happened, so I think this answer can basically be ignored lol
friend N —
yeah totally agree on that (see: futility of planning long term meme)
every time I think about these things (every month or so recently when some friend manages to trigger my FOMO lmao) I conclude that I should just work hard on things that seem fun and take it easy because theres no way I can plan this shit anyway, but the conclusion doesn’t stick, am looking at the books you recommended above rn, I think those will help retrain the brain
yup good takeaway, you need a full mental model from the ground up so only a book is gonna give u that
(also I feel like ive had this similar kind of conviction convo like 100 times lol, do u mind if I anonymize + summarize it and stick it on my blog to link to ppl in the future)
Chat 2: Mentors, Startups, and Principles (Notes from a chat with mentor 1)
Summary: Reflections on personal and professional growth, how humility can go wrong, original thinking, long-term commitment, embracing discomfort, and the role of mentors. It discusses the allure and challenges of startups, the deceptive nature of clout, and the need to align personal principles with actions. It also delves into understanding the value of intelligence and recognizing the power of long-term compounding in personal development.
This was a conversation I had when I went to a mentor I trust and respect. I was confused how to build my own principles and maintain humility, and how to deal with my desire to do startups. They are tailored responses for my specific situation and mindset at the time, but have some nuggets that might inform thinking about things adjacent to conviction.
- I asked how to maintain conviction without being arrogant; isn’t humility showing deference to people who are more experienced than you? If I defend my logic, isn’t that arrogance?
- If you don’t have your own beliefs, and are always being humble to those above you, then it means you can’t believe anything.
- Consider that experts themselves can have completely opposite views, and they are also very good at seeing the problem from their very specific vantage point of the world. They might be able to say statements about being good at their discipline, but they can’t describe how those map to your nuanced situation, and they can’t synthesize their own fields’ knowledge well to fields they don’t know about yet.
- Considering disagreement as arrogance isn’t sustainable, since then you can’t first principles think for yourself anymore.But disagreeing doesn’t need to be framed as arrogance.
- It can be like having a question. Until this question is answered, you can’t believe what they are saying. This is one framing to say that for you to believe them, you need to interact with them, till they first principles build you up to their viewpoint.
- If I agree with what 80% of what the mentor says, then there’s no room for originality
- The higher level advice is not really what helps or informs the day to day decisions – it’s why listening to thought leaders is ultimately pretty useless in decision making
- Mentors plant a seed in my brain but ultimately I call the shot: Mentors can maybe inform thoughts, but you need to have first principles beliefs about things – you have the most information about everything, and the compressed representation the mentor has may not be enough
- Old people have good heuristics, and good functions, and can say lots of general stuff, but don’t know whats going on in your head. Everyone else just has one lens on you
- It always seems really cool that friends are all doing startups
- Find the thing you’d do because it suits you – you’re in a different mindspace when you’re a fit for it from first principles
- On a meta level, you will basically always feel maximal FOMO – if you track your opinion over time, its gonna really suck
- When the company is doing poorly, there are a bunch of reasons you’ll say it wasn’t a good fit for me anyways
- Evaluate opportunity and don’t get hung up on regretting – if you’re only taking 100% shots, you’re not aiming high enough, or else it means your bet sizing is too small
- Do something that needs vested time/experience ‒ expertise is significantly less fungible than money
- The sorts of undergrads who read Techcrunch are very different from actually smart people
- Clout is a crutch – there’s no replacement for enthusiasm, and clout is the splenda for enthusiasm
- Someone else has set up a system and engineered what seemed “good” to them and memed into being the highest clout
- Two types of mindsets; process driven vs owning outcomes. These are opposites and can map to specific experiences
- Mentors are maybe more experienced in general domain, but not in what should you a specific person do with your specific life? You just need a set of principles that work for your life situation
- Wise people say they are most are happy when doing x – x is likely different than yours.
- I wont do anything I’m not emotionally convinced about, but if I build up to it, I can execute it with my whole heart; you need to be internally aligned to implement it well
- One VC/startup failure mode is satisfying your funders constraints from the start; you don’t have the time or space to decide your principles first
- Edit: Another coherent explanation of avoiding VC funding is for “staying power”; I’ve also often been frustrated that my hard work is kept closed source at VC backed companies, instead of benefitting the world maximally.
- Others will always be smarter; but there are always ways to position yourself better regardless. Either you do an overlap of two things really well, or you are in domain X but care about and do unusual thing Y that really accelerates you or whatever
- I can be creative enough to come up with great things I can do
- Would you trade your life for mark zucks life? If the answer is like, yes clearly obviously – there’s probably some mental block. I can say with full certainty that I prefer to be myself – what are the things you can do that could lead to that? What are things you currently have that you don’t want to let go of? How can you stretch those things into something unique that you’re excited by?
- Significantly influenced by a few specific individuals I personally know, and their values and beliefs
- Feeling like a follower is natural at the start, especially when learning from a great mentor. But you can’t settle for that
- Is different than the discomfort of like, asking a girl out or something. In this case, it’s about more having the courage to pursue something really hard you might like. This courage and authenticity coincidentally makes the former example easier, but is a different kind of discomfort that needs to come first.
- This kind of discomfort grows you in axes of you
- Long Term Compounding
- The long term stuff compounds: specific people we know in their 40s have built themselves an excellent reputation that over 20+ years of giving for the long term, and now can do whatever they want to do with the best people.
- For instance, someone working on an X company has been crazy obsessed with X for all 4 years of college – was really struck by the depth of this obsession from the start. Even though X is cool, I don’t think I could fully devote myself to it as much as they could.
- For instance, Travis from Uber cared the most about having a personal chauffeur. He was obsessed with that, for years and years. Although I personally like Ubers and I’d be sad if it was gone, I can’t visualize myself being excited by devoting years to manifesting myself a personal driver, especially not anywhere near the passion that Travis had.
Chat 3: Fun is Critical (A chat with mentor 2)
During this chat, I was mostly asking about choosing between a bunch of jobs – what should I apply to? What should I work on? What even are the factors I should use to make these decisions – I feel like my pro-con chart isn’t really helpful.
Project Classes and Startups
- I brought up that I wanted to do a startup
- He stopped me right there – you’re saying “I want to do a startup,” but instead you should be saying “this should exist”, and it should exist so badly that it’s the #1 thing you want in the world. Maybe a startup is the right vessel? Maybe building an open source community is?
- Success is more likely if pursued for the “right reasons”
- Researchers and startups may envy each other’s positions
- Glad he doesn’t work at startups; some of them can feel like a death march with no product-market fit
- Prefer project classes in university; they are a good way to gain experience without commitment, focused on learning and this kind of emotional introspection
The Importance of Fun and Simplicity
- I asked about where should I work? I have all of these choices and don’t know what to do.
- Important technology often starts as toys or simple ideas (see the Dream Machine for the history of computing, littered with examples of this)
- Focusing on simple, fun projects can lead to significant achievements; a lot of companies started like this for a reason
- Advancing humanity can also be achieved by having fun and staying focused on simple goals, and he prefers working on the set of problems for where this is true since there are so many problems, and “where I have the most fun” is a pretty good filtering function
- Where people are having the most fun, are the places that I personally respect most
- Vibe check these orgs to see if people are deep in the grind or having fun
- If people are really having fun, they’ll naturally make more progress
Academia and Research Labs
- Some people are comfortable publishing their work, but not everyone wants to write a giant academic paper and go through the grind to push out useful tech
- He’s personally turned off by the culture of academia and the obscurity of most of the research – most people say like, that’s not what it’s about, the system is a necessary evil to do good work, etc, but that’s not the culture he wants to surround himself by for years
- Big AI research labs like OpenAI and Deepmind can have politics and slow-moving processes; he knows a friend that quit Google Brain because of its lack of urgency
Personal Convictions and Focus
- It’s hard to give generic advice; personal convictions play a significant role
- You have to say no a hundred times for every yes – focus is a superpower, and your bar for what you aim that power at should be insanely high
- It’s effective and emotionally easier to do one thing at a time
- Being less goal-oriented and focusing on intrinsic fun and personal convictions is important
Work Environments and Company Culture
- I asked again about all my choices for where to work, feeling I didn’t get clarity on my specific choice yet.
- People tend to make more progress when they’re having fun and enjoying their work
- Large companies may have a low bar for talent, making it unclear if you’ll be matched with someone truly talented or someone who just studied hard once to past the interview – if you’re looking for mentorship, this is the wrong way
- Most people in quant finance are focusing on climbing ranks and increasing salaries, but this ladder mentality is super unhealthy and focuses you on the wrong things long term
Chat 4: Focus is the Superpower (A discussion with mentor 3)
I was asking this mentor how to deal with accelerating my projects, and feeling like I hadn’t done many concrete things the past few months even though I’d made progress on a bunch of projects, and so on.
Productivity and Output
- More people isn’t more output
- The “barrel” strategy where you task people to tasks in parallel is really hard: everything takes so much longer
- The nasty thing with parallel is that it hides that people may not be that great ‒ taking 3 days off is ok since no one depends on their work
- First ship the most important thing first, to show competence
- Don’t worry about monetizing right now, create soft power: you start attracting the best players
Focus and Commitment
- In college, it’s fine to have phases where you do not to feel focused enough – your goal is to try different things. Even then, shipping one at a time will be more productive and fun
- Now that you’re post college in a field, you need to be hungrier, stop maximizing optionality
- Remaining in this zone, where you even are doing 2 projects, is not like 100% going into 50%, it’s like 1000% is splitting into 50-50
- You can beat anyone with focus: this is the superpower
- No one’s committed ‒ everyone else doing random shiny crap: i.e. mutual X could be brilliant but he can’t choose what to do
- Spend time grappling with like, what single thing do I really want right now
- Don’t care about competition: everyone is incompetent and distracted
- What are you willing to sacrifice to get that 1000%? You need to stop living in group houses all the time, care about other things and put your time into those.
- Don’t delude myself that you’re productive in this group house – do a sober analysis, have friends that call you on your bullshit, and you must not trick yourself. How much time did you spend on each meal? On socializing? On doing things that weren’t your main task, that interrupted your day? What about the travel and planning, and mental overhead?
Chat 5: Focus on the flips (A chat with mentor 4)
This mentor is significantly older and wiser than the other mentors, incredibly well respected by many in tech, and speaks with decades of experience. This is more about doing things in general than staunch commitment or conviction.
- Common failure modes
- Often, young individuals get tempted by the potential rewards of wealth, fame, and reputation and fall into the trap of adhering to a set playbook.
- But this has a significant opportunity cost — particularly in your 20s — where the scope for exponential growth is vast.
- Don’t confuse precision and accuracy
- Don’t conflate a better path with what you should be doing
- It’s easy to stay on your current path and optimize for precision – a classic rationalist trope. But the changes that matter most are the ones where you’re completely inaccurate, and those are more important to seek out.
- Have a high standard of understanding
- Strive to fully comprehend, rigorously questioning if something doesn’t match your existing knowledge
- Be cautious of accepting answers that merely seem satisfying
- It will be obvious
- If you work back from what should I concentrate on, it’s harder to figure out what it might be – it will be obvious to yourself that you want to concentrate on something when it emerges
- Just focus on following your curiosity and doing hard things till then, which means you have to be comfortable with uncertainty
- Discomfort vs uncertainty
- I asked about seeking discomfort, and if Yes Theory’s principle was a good general strategy
- Discomfort alone might be counterproductive
- Seek uncertainty and not discomfort – uncertainty can be uncomfortable as well, but that’s a subtly specific type of discomfort
- You don’t want certainty on how you’ll approach time in college; if you have that, it probably means you haven’t explored enough
- Scarcity of secrets
- Contrary to popular belief, secrets aren’t scarce. They are plentiful. If you subconsciously believe secrets are limited, you risk overvaluing them and pursuing unproductive paths. The challenge isn’t finding secrets, but prioritizing them and extracting the most value from each one.
- What are you fascinated by
- Forget what’s best. Focus on what interests you most. What engages you when you aren’t trying to be “productive”? Remember that it’s possible to enjoy things deeply and that repetition and stagnation can lead to wasted time.
- Differentiated skills by accident
- At no point was I trying to gain these skills; I was already operating in low probability regions, doing a lot of things that very few other people do
- The higher order bit was to do rare things, not try to balance myriad threads of advice
- He never explicitly verbalized this before, but looking back maybe the takeaway is not to not think at all beyond this first bit
- There are often lots of grants where if you finish, you get the money – it’s default attractive, but you don’t want to choose it because of the money; those are often things that are outsourced because they’re not the most critical, hardest core technology and don’t lead to differentiated skills
- High conviction, differentiated mental model changes come from doing unexpected things, unlikely to work
- College choices
- In college, take classes just because they are interesting (Steve Jobs agrees)
- Once you’re out of undergrad, everything is directed and goal oriented, and it’s a lot harder to just re-enter college mode and learn random things for a few months
- He’d honestly be down to spend a semester at MIT even now just learning stuff, but too many life details would have to align in impossible ways to make him free enough to do that – it’s one of the best concentrations of high quality people with a desire to work on projects together
- Almost every MIT final class project, if you took it to the next level, are actually all quite interesting
- Uniqueness comes in the overlaps
- Be really good in a few fields, since it’s almost impossible to become the best in one
- Things collide and emerge in the overlap that only you can see or execute on
- Unique perspectives and opportunities often emerge in the overlap of different fields — areas where most of your peers won’t possess minimum competency.
- Look for things without labels
- Seek out ideas and experiences that resist categorization.
- The lack of labels often signifies the presence of unique learning and growth opportunities.