Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
The Bus Ticket Theory Revisited
In the first ever SIX at 6, I included The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius. Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, says that in the recipe for doing great things, one ingredient often gets overlooked: an obsessive interest. Since that first SIX at 6, I’ve read many more Graham essays. One of Graham’s obsessive interests seems to be the importance of having an obsessive interest. “Doing great work,” he writes in How to Do What You Love, “takes less discipline than people think—because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don’t have to force yourself to do it.” “The word ‘aptitude’ is misleading,” he writes in What You’ll Wish You’d Known, “because it implies something innate. The most powerful sort of aptitude is a consuming interest.” “A genuine interest in something is,” he writes in Earnestness, “the most powerful motivator of all.” Two more: “What you’re suited for depends not just on your talents,” he writes in How To Work Hard, “but perhaps even more on your interests. A deep interest in a topic makes people work harder than any amount of discipline can.” Last one: “it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower,” he writes in The Top Idea In Your Mind. And since that first SIX at 6, I’ve come to increasingly believe that Graham is right. In the lives of people who are really smart, creative, motivated, disciplined, resilient, etc.—you consistently see that they had/have an obsessive interest…
Can a conversation about genius not include Einstein? In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson sifts through the elements of Einstein’s genius. Einstein himself partially credits his slow verbal development (his sister recalled, “He had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn.”). Those without developmental delays, Einstein said, speed past the problems of space and time a young Einstein was stuck in. “Consequently,” he said, “I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have.” Just about everyone who observed or worked with Einstein and then attempts to explain his genius says some version of ‘he probed more deeply.’ The physicist Leopold Infeld: “His tenacity in sticking to a problem for years, in returning to the problem again and again—this is the characteristic feature of Einstein’s genius.” The physicist Lee Smolin: “He simply cared far more than most of his colleagues that the laws of physics have to explain everything in nature coherently and consistently.” Isaacson: “Einstein’s genius was his tenacity. He could cling to a set of ideas.” And Einstein again near the end of his life: “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.” As Graham has noted, our idea of “passion” has become distorted. Einstein had no special talents, he’s saying, he was only obsessively interested.
Be INTO It
The comedian Kevin Hart asked Jerry Seinfeld how he developed “one of the most brilliant minds in comedy,” as Hart puts it. “Comedy has been an obsession for me,” Seinfeld said. “It’s an obsession. It’s a love and an obsession,” Jerry said. “I don’t think it’s bad to be obsessive. Of course, there’s one step beyond everything. But I am completely obsessed. And the audience wants that, they pay for that. I don’t want to see someone who’s kind of into it.” Have you ever had the experience, Jerry asks, where you look at something and go, ‘wow, whoever made that—they were INTO it!’? “That’s what I care about. That’s all I care about. I don’t care what you do—I just want to see people and talk to people and be around people who are INTO it. And the dumber the thing is, kinda the cooler that obsession is to me.”
You Get Your Musts
Have you ever noticed the correlation between how motivated or creative you are and how badly something needs to be done? The classic example is the college student procrastinating on writing a paper for an entire semester then producing ninety pages in 24 to 48 hours. more.” For years, the entrepreneur Shaan Puri wanted to get in better shape. He tried five times and all five times, he failed to get in better shape. On his sixth attempt, he got in better shape. He was asked, how did you do it? “It became a must,” he said. “We don’t get our wants. We get our musts. When it becomes a must, it happens. When it elevates to something you have to do, the world starts to move. The method—how you should exercise, what you should eat, etc.—doesn’t really matter because the person for whom it becomes a must, they will figure a way to do it.”
If You’re Not Obsessed, It’s Not Going To Happen
The multi-hyphenate Judd Apatow talks about how, as a kid, he knew he could one day be a comedian and on TV because he saw that people who looked like him were comedians and on TV. In his book Sicker in the Head, he asked Mindy Kaling, “How was it for you, not being able to see people who looked like you on television?” “The one thing you’ve talked about,” she said, “is how if you’re not obsessed, it’s not going to happen. And I was obsessed as a kid. If you’re someone who just thinks that show business is kind of cool, but there are a couple other things you want to do, and you don’t want to stay late, you don’t want to work hard, then it’s just not going to happen. There are far more people who are less talented but who are obsessed who will make it than people who are super talented but don’t have the patience to put in the time.”
An Infinite Capacity For Taking Pains
Mindy’s answer reminded me of something Ryan Holiday says: if want to be a professional boxer just because there’s a lot of money in it, that’s not going to reassure you when you’re getting punched in the head. Thomas Carlyle famously said, “Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.” Paul Graham adds: the source of an infinite capacity for taking pains is the sort of infinite interest that bus ticket collectors have, that Einstein had, that Seinfeld has, that, you see where I’m going.