Two Degrees

A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of lunch with a friend when he posed an interesting question: What did wildly successful people do differently from the rest of us when they were our age?

I realized later that there are two ways to interpret his question. One is to examine people who are already successful today and ask “what did they do to become successful?” That’s a useful exercise, but since many of the most successful people today are a decade or more older than us (we’re 21), examining their success can only be so useful because they grew up in a different time. The technology they had access to, the resources they had at their disposal, and their cultural norms were much different from our age of smartphones, social media, and the on-demand economy.

So a better way to word the question would be this: what are people our age who are going to be successful in 10–20 years doing right now? To narrow this down, let’s focus on people who will be the most successful — the future Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages.

The tough part is that since the future-Zuckerbergs are by definition not extremely successful yet, we can’t identify them, so we’ll have to take our best guess about what work they might be doing and what kind of person they might be like.

Work

What work might they be doing? It seems like extremely successful people usually become so by 1) excelling in a particular vertical and developing a leapfrog innovation (Google and better search), 2) figuring out a complicated market (Facebook and social media), or 3) just getting lucky.

1) The leapfrog innovations that successful people are working on are hard to identify since they might not exist yet, or they only exist as an idea in someone’s mind, in a “side project” folder on a computer, or in a research lab somewhere. So simply saying “go work on X” is not a surefire way to guarantee success. The “X”s that are leapfrog innovations won’t be something that the layman can point to easily.

Google is an excellent example of this. It wasn’t the first search engine, although given its dominance today one might think so. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t start off building a search engine, either. While working on his PhD dissertation, Page built a web crawler and designed the PageRank algorithm to organize data gathered from backlinks by importance. Page and Brin then realized that Page’s algorithm would yield significantly better search results than existing search engines did at the time. Google was born.

Not even the advisors who encouraged Page to research mathematical properties of the web could claim to have predicted that his research would yield a search engine, let alone a leapfrog search engine, and, eventually, a tech monolith. And “mathematical properties of the web” was not the big, sexy problem of their time. So the “X” in “go work on X to be successful” is difficult to identify. Pursuing something you’re curious, knowledgeable, or passionate about is the best way to find it, even if—(especially if?)—everyone else is bandwagon-ing on an entirely different trend.

2) Finding people who are fixing (or can someday fix) a complex, aged industry could also lead us in the right direction. Healthcare and banking are two examples. Both industries are trainwrecks. In 50 years they’ll likely look very different than they do now, which means someone smart and brave is going to disrupt it. It’s likely that person is in his or her teens or tweens right now. If that person is 20+ years old, they might already be working in and becoming a domain expert in that industry.

3) Trying to identify people who get lucky is fruitless.

(But you can probably increase your chances of being lucky by being more knowledgeable. Reddit user u/Das_A_Checkmate posted an interesting and simple formula for increasing your chances of being lucky.

“Luck = number of events * probability of an event being lucky.”

The number of events is defined as how much you know. By being more knowledgable, you increase your opportunities for having a lucky break.) [1]

Two out of three of these paths share one major issue. The set of people working in an industry with an impending leapfrog innovation or disrupting a trainwreck market is massive. Only a few of them will become extremely successful, which means that even amongst that massive set, there need to be some differentiating factors that can increase someone’s chances of success.

Regardless, doing just one of those things still improves your chances at being massively successful (as opposed to following the crowd instead of your passion or avoiding un-sexy, intimidating industries).

Who are the people who are going to stand out amongst this massive set? What are they doing different than the rest of us?

Introspection

It probably makes sense to begin by looking introspectively on how we ourselves might be sub-optimal as opposed to examining successful people’s habits and searching for a silver bullet.

Silver bullets don’t exist. But bad habits and good habits do.

Bad Habits

It’s safe to say the average 21-year-old today wastes a lot of time and has a few — or more than a few — bad habits. Walk onto any college campus today and the weekend binge-drinking starts on Wednesday or Thursday. It feels like half the people I know regularly watch at least 3–4 TV shows. More than half don’t exercise.

The same seems to hold true for life outside of school, too. You get to work between 8–10AM, be fairly stressed and largely sedentary until 5 or 6PM, and then its either happy hour or a long commute home. Once you’re at home its TV time, or for the healthier ones amongst us, time to go on a run or hit the gym.

I doubt our generation’s Zuckerbergs are entirely avoiding happy hours, fraternity basements, and reddit. (I don’t imagine being entirely free from these habits would be healthy, either — being social and having fun aren’t bad things, and you can’t be truly productive if you’re working without pause.) But there’s a threshold beyond which bad habits will prevent you from being successful.

How can you get on the right side of this threshold? And once you’re on the right side, how can you build and maintain positive habits?

Two Degrees

Obama was recently featured in Marc Maron’s WTF podcast where he made an excellent analogy comparing countries and ships. It goes like this: a country is like a big ship. It’s large, has a lot of momentum, and a sudden, big change can be jarring. If you’re steering a ship, you don’t make an abrupt 50 degree turn — the ship will tilt and capsize.

Instead, you make small changes in your desired direction, a few degrees at a time. Make a small, two-degree change now, and 100 miles out at sea, it’ll result in a massive change.

The same principle applies to building habits. You don’t build successful habits by making drastic changes — those are the hardest to commit to and you’ll likely revert to your original habits before long. Instead, you should make and maintain small changes, and gradually ramp up. Like compounding interest, it increases with time. Drop by drop you get a lake.

If you want to start waking up at 6:30AM, set your alarm 15 minutes earlier every week until you’ve worked your way down to 6:30. If you want to start a running habit, start with a 10 minute run every day, and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your run.

You can apply this thinking to negative habits as well. If you’re partying three days a week, start by dropping down to two days a week. If you drink five cups of coffee a day, reduce your intake to four a day, then three, then two, and so on.

Good Habits

By doing the right things for yourself, you’re more likely to be successful. Fortunately, the right thing to do is often the obvious thing to do.

What are some changes you can focus on improving two degrees at a time? Off the top of my head, it boils down to three main categories: taking care of your body, being smart about your finances, and training your mind. If you have a healthy body, a sharp mind, and a sound financial plan, you’ve eliminated some of the major roadblocks to being wildly successful.

The path to having a healthy body and sound finances is fairly obvious. Exercising regularly, eating healthy, sleeping well, and avoiding smoking and excessive drinking will probably put you in the top 10% of the population. As for your finances, lowering your burn rate, living minimally, increasing your savings, and contributing to a retirement fund are all good ways to keep your bank account happy.

Training your mind is the area I’m most fascinated by. It seems that most wildly successful people have mastered this. I imagine the first step is reading and writing extensively. Reading a book is like living through another person — you learn from their experiences and can see things from a new perspective. Writing helps organize and articulate your thoughts, and has a symbiotic relationship with public speaking, which also boils down to your ability to communicate clearly and concisely. It forms a virtuous cycle of mental growth, where reading helps you learn new things and stumble upon insights, and writing and public speaking help you organize, articulate, and share those insights.

The flip side to mental growth is preventing mental “decay”. Taking care to avoid unnecessary stress is good practice. Stress has been shown to shorten your lifespan, so reducing it is a somewhat ironic win-win: you’ll live longer, and you’ll live happier. [2] There are lots of ways to reduce tension, such as exercising regularly, sleeping well, and meditating regularly. Regular meditation is another habit of successful people that comes up time and time again. It helps increase your focus and reduce tension, amongst other benefits, which vary based on the type of meditation you practice. [3]

Advice

It seems safe to say that the future Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs probably aren’t very different from us. They aren’t perfectly disciplined, and have likely spent their fair share of time in fraternity basements or scrolling through Snap Stories.

The best advice to folks my age seems to be the following.

For your work, become an expert in something you find interesting or an industry that appears intimidating. Don’t feel pressured to follow the crowd. There will be big hits other than VR and cryptos. Tackle a major problem people face, or work in a field where a leapfrog innovation feels necessary.

For yourself, make small, two-degree changes towards who you want to be one day. A two degree change you can commit to are better than fifty-degree changes where you capsize and give up. Small, positive differences in your habits will compound over time and make massive differences later.

This is good news. Working on what you find interesting and making small changes instead of big ones is hardly a big ask. And it could be the best way to increase your chances of being the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg.

 

Notes

[1] Here’s the link to the original Reddit post.

[2] http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4933

[3] There are lots of different kinds of meditation. This post by Giovanni Dienstmann explains the major ones quite well.