sam altman

Choosing Projects, Creating Value, and Finding Purpose – Sam Altman on The Y Combinator Podcast

Check out the Y Combinator Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Take the time to pause, reflect, and make sure you’re working on things that matter 
  • “Take time to explore and try a lot of things. Try to have a beginner’s mind about what will and won’t work. Trust your intuitions. Pursue a lot of things as cheaply and quickly as possible, and be honest with yourself about what’s working well and what’s not… Then, cut all the stuff that’s not working, and focus down until you’re eventually focused on the one thing that’s really working.”Sam Altman
  • If you can afford it, taking a gap year has tremendous value
  • What risk actually looks like is you look back at the end of your career, and you realize, ‘F***, I wasted it.'” Sam Altman
  • The deferred life plan doesn’t work
    • If you want to eventually do something… DO IT NOW

Books Mentioned

  • The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello
    • “It’s really short. I recommend it a lot… It’ll take you like an hour to read. It was recommended to me by Naval. It’s a series of meditations on life.” – Sam Altman

Intro

Pause, Step Back, and Evaluate Your Work

  • “Minimize your own cognitive load from distracting things that don’t really matter. It’s hard to overstate how important this is, and how bad most people are at it.” – Sam Altman, from The Days Are Long But The Decades Are Short
  • Sam expands:
    • “It’s very easy to spend a decade being incredibly busy and stressed every day, and feeling like you’re working incredibly hard and creating a ton of movement, but not moving forward.”Sam Altman
      • This is a trap – avoid getting caught up in the urgent but unimportant
        • “I’ve found I have a fixed budget of cognitive output per day. I can spend that on whatever, but if I let it go on unimportant stuff, then I never have time to get to the really important stuff.”
    • So many people get caught up in the idea of “working hard” and focusing on input, without taking a pause to make sure they’re moving in the right direction
      • “I think checking in with yourself to make sure you’re working on things that matter, and making sure you’re working on an appropriate time horizon is really important”Sam Altman

How does Sam personally step back and reflect?

  • Every December 31, he takes time to journal on the following:
    • What went well the last year, and what didn’t
    • Goals for the following year
    • How effective he was at accomplishing to-do list items
  • Sam adds, on the above: “Because I know I’m going to do that every year, I stress about it less the other 364 days”

Advice We Can All Use

  • 🎧 “Take time to explore and try a lot of things. Try to have a beginner’s mind about what will and won’t work. Trust your intuitions. Pursue a lot of things as cheaply and quickly as possible, and be honest with yourself about what’s working well and what’s not… Then, cut all the stuff that’s not working, and focus down until you’re eventually focused on the one thing that’s really working.” Sam Altman
    • “I follow my interests. I try to pursue a lot of projects that seem interesting, but I realize most of them will fail, and I don’t care, as long as the ones that work really work.”

On Taking a Year Off

  • After selling his startup at age 25, Sam did just did that
  • “It’s tough to do in Silicon Valley, a place where social status is determined by your job and what you’re working on… But, if you are in the position between jobs where you can take a year off, I HIGHLY recommend it. I think it was one of the two or three best career things I ever did.” Sam Altman
  • What did Sam do during his gap year?
    • Read a ton of textbooks
    • Learned about nuclear engineering, AI, investing, and synthetic biology
    • Traveled 
    • Re-connected with his friends and family
    • “I had unlimited time, so if I met someone interesting who seemed good and needed help, I would just help them, and they’d teach me stuff or offer me the chance to invest in their startup” – Sam Altman
    • In summary: Sam planted a TON of seeds for things that ended up coming together later on

How do you know when to double down on a project and commit?

  • “It takes BRUTAL honesty with yourself about which projects are actually working, and which you’d like to convince yourself are working” – Sam Altman
    • This is NOT easy, but with time, you can become good at it

Learning from Poker

  • Sam played a lot in college, mainly live (not online)
    • “I strongly recommend it as a way to learn about the world, business, psychology, and business” Sam Altman
      • “The things that I think have taught me a lot about business are poker and angel investing”  

Productivity 101

  • Give Sam’s Productivity essay a read
    • His three main tips: Sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition
    • A few more pillars:
      • Make sure to get the critical sh** done
      • Don’t waste time on stupid sh**
      • Make a lot of lists 
  • On sleep:
    • “I try to sleep 8 hours or close to it as much as I can, and I get it most nights.” Sam Altman
      • If you’re trying to win on really big creative ideas… for me, skimping on sleep… is a terrible trade”
  • Sam has found that his most productive hours are during the first 3 hours of the day
    • “Man, do I put a huge premium on anything getting in the way of that” – Sam Altman
  • Many people over-complicate productivity:
    • “I think this whole productivity porn thing where you have systems and multi-variable charts and 3-dimensional whatever, those people never seem to be the people that move the world forward” – Sam Altman
      • Do what’s simple, do what works

Redefining Risk

  • “Things in life are rarely as risky as they seem. Most people are too risk-averse, and so most advice is biased too much towards conservative paths.” – Sam Altman, from The Days Are Long But The Decades Are Short
  • “What risk actually looks like is you look back at the end of your career, and you realize, ‘F***, I wasted it.'” – Sam Altman
    • “People aren’t programmed to think about risk this way. We’re very good at thinking about short-term catastrophic risk, and we’re terrible at thinking about long-term chronic risk”
      • For example, people tend to worry about nuclear disasters, but not about inhaling exhaust fumes

Perspective Shifts

  • “As you get older, getting a shift in perspective just gets harder and harder and harder. It’s an unbelievably valuable thing to get… Keeping the mental flexibility to look at things from fresh perspectives and new angles, man is that important to hold on to.” – Sam Altman
  • One way to facilitate these perspective shifts: Surround yourself with people who make you more ambitious/inquisitive, and change the way you think
    • “Almost 98% of people in the world will try to pull you back and say, ‘That seems a little too crazy,’ or, ‘That seems a little too ambitious.'” – Sam Altman
      • At the end of the day, most people serve to pull you back towards the mean

Has all the innovation happened?

  • NO
    • “If you just look at the rate of change in humanity in the last decade, it’s crazy” – Sam Altman
  • “If this one thing works, if we actually build AGI [artificial general intelligence] at OpenAI, that is more important than all of the innovation, sum total, in humanity so far”Sam Altman
  • For further reading, check out Sam’s essay – What Happened to Innovation

The Deferred Life Plan Doesn’t Work

  • If you want to eventually do something… do it NOW

The Necessities for Success

  • “To succeed at anything, it’s important that people are rooting for you. It’s important that people want you to win. Investors, the press, your team, whatever.” – Sam Altman
  • “Doing anything worthwhile takes a long time, and it takes a lot of emotional trauma. A lot of people telling you you’re an idiot, you’re wrong, or whatever. If you’re not willing to sign up for that, you’re not going to succeed.”Sam Altman

How will work evolve with UBI (universal basic income) and AGI?

  • “Our self-worth is so based on our intelligence that we believe it must be singular and not slightly higher than all the other animals on a continuum. Perhaps the AI will feel the same way and note that differences between bonobos and us are barely worth discussing.” – Sam Altman, from The Merge
  • 🎧 “I think one thing that will happen with the arrival of AGI is intelligence… will be less and less of a benefit” Sam Altman
    • “60,000 years ago… intelligence wasn’t that much of a benefit. Physical strength and endurance were much more important. 60,000 years from now, human biological intelligence, I don’t think will be that much of a benefit again”

Sam’s Exercise Routine

  • Despite being vegetarian, Sam says he’s gained ~18 lbs. of muscle in the last year with heavy strength training

What is Sam currently reading?

  • The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello
    • “It’s really short. I recommend it a lot… It’ll take you like an hour to read. It was recommended to me by Naval. It’s a series of meditations on life.” – Sam Altman
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