Conviction is the Scarcest Resource: Essays About Gaining Real Conviction


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. It’s easier for me to publish bullet notes than essays, so I’m gonna try to approach this in a map vs territory kind of way: I point at a map and say look, that’s the shape of that thing and here are some shapes that are not that thing, and hopefully it’s enough for you to fill in my point yourself.

This is part 2 in a multiseries blog post about conviction, here is part 1.

How to (and How Not To) Get Conviction

  • Motivation
    • The person who does every action and speaks every word the successful person did and spoke, may have the same outcome, but will not emerge with the same emotional consistency. They will not have the curiosity to build off what they did towards the future, or the enduring satisfaction that they followed what they believed in. They might have the money, but not the internal wealth or the long term means to create more and give the right advice.
  • Conviction
    • Ways to get conviction
      • Media
        • Reading books gives you conviction in certain ideas – that’s why it’s important to choose only the authors that are experts in their fields, who have fought the fights and been through the trials and tribulations. Read widely and differently. You get a download of an entire mental model from the ground up, Matrix-style. I usually recommend the books ‘Greatness Cannot be Planned’, ‘Finite and Infinite Games’, and ‘Feynman’s Rainbow’ to start – you can see longer reviews for those on my goodreads. If you’re not used to reading for fun often, start building that habit now.
        • Rereading/rewatching renews conviction as well. I used to be opposed to this, because I consumed content for the excitement of unknown stories, and the stories weren’t as novel the second time around. But if watching something gave you conviction in an idea, chances are that conviction will fade without constant rebuffing – and you really do get a chance to think about deeper artistic details that aren’t at the apex of the foreground.
        • I think I’ve committed the points and stories in this Steve Jobs 2005 commencement address basically to memory by this point. His three points are counterintuitive and exactly correct, and his stories are well told – I’m basically always asking myself if I’m settling now, and faith in the dots connecting is critical for doing what you want. If you never at least try to setup the dots you’d ideally want to connect, they never can get a chance to. Thanks to DC for the original rec.
      • Environment
        • A blog, whiteboard, and excited people around you are the biggest motivators. Letting thoughts marinate in your head in a vacuum is risky, I’ve found it leads to too many cases where you feel like you obtained conviction, but in reality you’re standing on shaky logical ground. Write your convictions down, test them by sharing them with people, and surround yourself by others who aren’t content with settling.
        • Though I loved my previous roommates, it was hard to get support for the weird things I was starting to explore budding convictions in: they’d often shoot the whole concept down when we got to something I wasn’t sure about, instead of encouraging me to build a stronger foundation on that point. Ultimately, it was healthier for me to separate and find new ones that supported me more.
        • If people ask you questions, do your thoughts hold up? This is often easier in physical conversation than online – online, it’s too easy to just not ask any questions, meaning you’re missing really thoughtful, high-engagement feedback.
      • Momentum
        • No one gains conviction in an evening – it takes time. You are curious to start with, then maybe you talk to some folks, read some things, do a small project, etc, and each of these things gives you momentum in some direction. The faster you move, the harder it is to change (and that focus can be powerful).
        • Momentum is needed to bring you to a world-class level, and deepens over time. Put this way: your goal is not “find the perfect topic”, but choose a topic that will lead to interesting things, then pursue it with increasing fervor built from reading books, doing projects, and talking to people in that field. This is a nice reframing of commitment, for the commitment-phobes of us.
        • This is how people do one thing for a long time. They just get more and more conviction, and better and better intuitions. Conversely, you do need to do one thing for a while for your conviction to be strong – you can’t just build it in one night. For examples, see the media in the ‘Optionality Kills Conviction’ section.
        • If the reasons for their conviction is ever broken, they either find new equally compelling reasons, or switch. Likewise, you should expect that if you start this process, you might find it not compelling for some reason or the other and leave – and that’s totally cool too.
    • Conviction needs sustained excitement
      • Just do things you enjoy or are passionate or curious about. The question, “what about this other thing I could have conviction in?” doesn’t apply nearly as strongly; you don’t have a good grasp of the field beyond a layman’s intuition, you don’t have a deep understanding of where to make a difference, and you will never be able to even start fathoming impact in that field till you have enough experience to see something few others can.
      • Where does conviction and success come from then? Sustained excitement. Really being interested in the thing for the sake of the thing, and pursuing it and asking deeper and deeper questions.
      • Try to have conviction on every level of the thing you’re doing: inspiration at the 10 year goal, interest in the subject and opportunity on the 1-3 year time frame, people you’d enjoy working with over months, interest in the day to day skills and activities, etc.
    • How to know you have conviction
      • Conviction needs emotional alignment – when doing the thing, you believe you are happiest doing that thing. Alignment seems wishy-washy, so here’s a formalism: you’ll have doubts – ones that happen every second, the ones you think of every few minutes, and the ones every few weeks. At each step, these doubts are outweighed by your conviction. You’ll always have doubts, but your emotions should still point in the same rough direction.
      • In fact, emotional consistency is necessary and sufficient – you can skip all the other steps, but be hyper aware of your emotional response to everything and confident in tapping into your own feelings to guide you. You can think of it as aligning your conscious brain with your “gut” response that your hunter-gatherer brain, having combined all of your goals and desires, expresses through muscle tension or intrusive thoughts.
    • Conviction is a resource/narrative
      • It can be “discovered” through aggressive exploration or emotional in-tune-ness, lost as one becomes disillusioned or the original reasons for that conviction no longer hold, and is scarce (but not fixed supply).
      • But this framing has its limits – conviction is equally a narrative; a powerful narrative you spin around your life, that almost delude you into the extra importance of some specific thing. That narrative is just as arbitrary as any decision or belief, but is extremely powerful in directing actions in a consistent, self-boosting direction.
    • Ways not to get conviction
      • As you mature and learn more, conviction becomes harder. Youthful arrogance is often a quick and easy proxy for conviction, but flawed in exactly that – we are looking for conviction based on truth, not an arrogant delusion of the truth.
      • Originality is a shortcut to conviction, but fake originality is a fake shortcut. If you use someone else’s thoughts and delude yourself into thinking non-first-principles thoughts are your own, you’re standing on a shaky tower; poking at those thoughts risk collapsing the whole tower. Use other people’s thoughts to inform your own, don’t copy (see: Steal Like an Artist). Following what the EA says will not give you your own conviction, it will give you the convictions of the loudest people.
      • Learning theory, as many people go through school doing, can build knowledge. But, it does not build conviction – knowing the theory people already know, will not give you a strong belief in any problem space or narrow field – that comes from experience. Side projects are great for this, or research.
      • There’s a story that Musk went to Bezos at the start of Blue Origin, and told him a few plausible-sounding failed ideas, to help him avoid doing the same. Jeff heard, then went ahead and did a lot of the same things – not because he willfully ignored Musk, but because he could trade that time and money for conviction. Giving his best foot to his most promising idea would give him the conviction he gave it a shot, without having to regret not trying. He’d learn the reason it still failed – so the whole team could trek forwards understanding 100% of why something and all of it’s variations couldn’t work, confident in the next idea they try.

You Can’t Fake Conviction

This was an essay I wrote for a fellowship a few years back. It’s a bit more concise than I would prefer, but gets the jist across.

I used to see time as the scarcest resource. As a result, I would optimize at the expense of experience: rushing home without appreciating the subtle satisfaction of ice crunching beneath my shoes, or 2x’ing TV shows without appreciating the nuanced filmography choices. My biggest change was seeing conviction, not time, as the scarce resource. This change came in two ways: by reframing my internal metaphors, and noticing what led to the strongest convictions.

Lakoff and Johnson’s writing helped me uncover the spoken analogies that dominated my thinking and invisibly directed my behavior. For instance, ‘running out’ of time or ‘saving’ time reinforces mental models where time is like money. But what if we conceive of conviction as the primary scarce and finite resource instead? Strong, value-driven reasons to do unique things are rare, and I became obsessed with cultivating it.

As I began to notice conviction around me, I began to name shortcuts I had taken. Real conviction is hard, because easy and fake paths abound. Youthful arrogance isn’t intellectually honest. Grinding on theory is a great way to learn something, but alone can’t impart personal conviction in a single idea. Listening to the chatter on Twitter might spark interest, but these incomplete mental models impart just fleeting moments of belief. Liking and disliking certain things form a set of preferences, but alone aren’t enough for a consistent conviction in a specific direction.

To get conviction now, I read strange books by experts, learn different fields deeply, and pursue only projects that showcase interesting ideas, inevitably spawning more. I no longer worry about optimizing each second, and feel excitement when I build.

Optionality Kills Conviction

  • Some media recommendations to orient yourself
    • There’s some great MIT admissions blog posts on optionality vs conviction that inspired a lot of my thinking, and looking backwards I can see that they hit the nail on the head. This post on pruning possible paths is a great inspiration – the conversations listed contrast the mentalities very well. Becoming yourself is also a great read.
    • I also loved this article about how a PhD student found their passion in space systems orientation and navigation. He describes in great detail how he slowly built up his own conviction in his own path, through undergrad classes he liked and could articulate reasons for, a fun research-y experience but with a real system floating out in space, etc.
      • He talks about escaping the life of an “excellent sheep”, like this paraphrase – “since many of the kids that go through college do so in a way that is super high achieving when the goals are set externally; set on a path, these kids fly like a fantastically directed arrow” (just like him, I was one of them).
  • On optionality
    • And so colleges pump out people who maintain optionality instead of specializing, who do things and don’t know why, but do well at them. People with talents in fields with lots of options, but fields they don’t have conviction in. And that’s the deadly tradeoff: conviction for optionality.
    • Building talent before having conviction in what you’re doing means there are two outcomes: either you find what you have conviction in and you discard a number of those talents, or you stick with your talents, overrule your own internal convictions, and continue to remain “lost” forever. Of course, if you enjoy those talents , then that can totally legitimately factor in to your conviction – you might have some insight or frustration or ability that does change your internal narrative, and those are totally fine!
    • You have to think for yourself from first principles to make unique conclusions that you have conviction in. This is the only way to be the chef, not the cook.
    • How do you know maintain independent mindedness? There are three main things you need to maintain originality: make sure ideas coming into your head have a guardian and pass your reprehensions, be fastidious about truth, and be curious. I think this comes from some Paul Graham essay.
    • Many people fail to make the transition between max optionality and max focus with correct timing. Staying in the former leads to you doing little of value, which requires extended focus. Staying in the latter means you settle for a topic too early, and may have preferred choosing a more interesting path.
  • Language splices out bad reasons for conviction
    • Writing communicates subtleties and reasons that go beyond the surface level
    • Information and thus meaning, is encoded in language/imagery. To really make sure your conviction is robust, you better be able to express your convictions through language, not just feeling.
    • The translation into language is often the step where you can identify other people who don’t have full conviction as well. Ask them questions, poke and prod till you fully understand what drives them.
    • Writing blog posts, even if no one reads them, is a great way to express your ideas and conviction in a manner that you in 6 months can look back on and understand. In the best case, it becomes a beacon for similar thinkers. There are a million Paul Graham essays on this that explain it better than I do. If you’re self conscious, try starting anonymously to relieve pressure.

Bad Forms of Conviction

  • My roommate is doing research he’s not super jazzed by
    • His eyes don’t light up with excitement, it’s just “going well”
    • Just wants to learn about ML and how to apply it, so he chose some random prof and field to work with
      • I disagree with this choice: I think to be a real expert and develop this compounding passion, you have to choose something that excites you and you’re curious about, and keep asking questions.
      • You can’t love doing a thing because you like the tools involved: you have to be curious about the thing itself, or else you are building knowledge in a field you will struggle to push yourself every day in.
  • The desire to be surprising, or desire to be impressive
    • You can’t let this desire to surprise people overwhelm your necessity to stay true to yourself
    • In fact, you shouldn’t let other people’s expectations determine anything. Not your parents, not your friends, just you. That’s a lot harder, since then your opinions stand fully from a tree of your own creation – it requires real intellectual honesty first, and confidence in that intellectual honesty second.
    • Many important things don’t start off sexy. Computers started off as some esoteric military calculator, blockchains started off as drug dealer money, Mr. Beast was just another guy in his basement.
    • Don’t let yourself be the final season of Game of Thrones: a victim of expectations, forced to be “surprising”, and arrogant off of their previous successes.
  • Just “doing”
    • Who is the thinker and the doer in your role? Again, the distinction between the cook vs the chef is critical – if you don’t yet see this dichotomy or think it’s important, you are likely the cook and not in actual full control of your own future.
    • You want to be the thinker, but that takes knowledge of the why and the theory and the high level
    • At the same time, still need to be highly technical to get it done when no one else can – doing is important, but not the most important.
  • Because you “should”
    • Noticing that you should probably do something is actually a bit of a red flag that might indicate that the motivation is placed on you externally, not internally.
    • The NVC book puts it well: Shame is a form of self-hatred, and actions taken in reaction to shame (i.e. shame from feeling you’re not doing what you should) are not free and joyful acts. Even if our intention is to behave with more kindness and sensitivity, if people sense shame or guilt behind our actions, they are less likely to appreciate what we do than if we are motivated purely by the human desire to contribute to life. Avoid shoulding yourself!
  • Misunderstanding Musk
    • If you don’t understand his drive for learning about space (i.e. reaching out to Cantrell, reading the 4 fat textbooks first, making himself the expert), then you won’t understand what led to his conviction and talent (say what you will about his personality, but those two are undeniable)
    • Doing something without first developing a deep understanding is like jumping down a rabbit hole with low confidence

Concrete Advice for College

  • Communities
    • It’s easy to get caught up in what is “cool” or prestigious in college – avoid groups for which this is a feature or advertisement of the group. If the reason to join their club is similar to having a lot of money, getting good internships, or having luxurious yearly retreats with a hot tub, then they are probably not enjoying the thing for the thing itself (i.e. building conviction), but are instead doing it instrumentally. If this is their attraction and what they are advertising, they probably don’t have the types of features you’re looking for.
    • Look instead for places where people are quietly doing good work. People building projects in their dorm rooms, people meeting to build projects without clout and just for fun, and people excited to understand things they’re curious about. These will be almost certainly be low status groups in your top college’s classical definition of “status”, but likely have the most real things you can learn and genuine people you want to work with. Good examples are Socratica and Hack Lodge, but even you and two friends is a great place to start.
  • My good friend Max recommends these three readings. Memetic desire in college, the death of fun at Stanford, and this interview with the creator of the most recent MIT documentary. These can guide broader mental patterns to drive awareness of other traps.

Read part 1 here, with specific advice from conversation transcripts with mentors.