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Things You’ll Wish You Knew, Looking Beyond the Surface, & The Value of High Prices (Reading Notes 6.24.18)

Resource: What You’ll Wish You’d Known


There’s no need to pressure yourself to answer all the hard questions about what you want to do for the rest of your life. It’s better to seek out interesting questions and experiences than it is to fret over some grand answer or simple formula regarding your life purpose.

The only thing you really need to avoid are activities that waste your time. There are two kinds of activities that do this: 1) Dangers — things that are unhealthy or 2) Distractions — things that give quick boosts of stimulation (ie checking facebook notifications) without providing any creative challenges or intellectual growth. Everything else is free game.

Don’t be afraid of wasting your time on a subject, project, or job merely because it’s possible that you’ll want to do something different in the future. The probability that you’ll want something different in the future is high, but the things you work on right now will develop your intellect, your character, your skillset, and your self-knowledge that will be useful towards anything and everything you do later on in life.

It can be difficult to believe it when you’re young, but anything you do (provided it doesn’t fall into the category of dangers & distractions) will result in you having transferable skills. So don’t get lost in a fear of specificity. All learning has to be done through an engagement with specific activities. You can’t learn about music in general (if it that’s the formal name of the class you’re taking). You have to listen to specific songs by specific composers. You have to look at specific notes on the sheet music. You have to try playing a specific instrument. But all these specific activities are ones that lead to more general skills. By learning guitar, you learn concepts (ie notes, chords, harmonies, scales, dissonance) that apply to all instruments.

A basic level of discipline is needed to get through life, but not as much as we think. School conditions us to treat discipline as something with inherent value, but you have to find goals that make discipline worth the effort first. And you do this with interests.

If you have many different competing interests, just pick one and start a project even if it fails. If you can’t decide between multiple interests, pick the one that seems to give you more options later on.

The main difference between HS students and adults is not that adults have to earn a living. It’s that adults have to take intellectual responsibility for themselves. But this is something you can choose to do at any age.

Seek out things that are interesting. Then seek out hard problems or complex challenges with the realm of what’s interesting. Doing hard things always gives you leverage later on.


On why you don’t need to have an answer to all the big questions about your future:

“I’ll start by telling you something you don’t have to know in high school: what you want to do with your life. People are always asking you this, so you think you’re supposed to have an answer. But adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter. They want to know what sort of person you are, and this question is just to get you talking. They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does.”

On looking for what you like rather than rushing the answers:

“You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.”

On deciding your life’s fate too early on:

“The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans…And yet every May, speakers all over the country fire up the Standard Graduation Speech, the theme of which is: don’t give up on your dreams. I know what they mean, but this is a bad way to put it, because it implies you’re supposed to be bound by some plan you made early on. The computer world has a name for this: premature optimization. And it is synonymous with disaster. These speakers would do better to say simply, don’t give up.

Why biographies can be misleading:

“People who’ve done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can’t help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject’s life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius.”

On why we like to believe in genius:

“…I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they’d seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends. Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that’s one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it’s not our fault if we can’t do something as good.”

Laziness as a litmus test:

“if you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.”

On doing the opposite of the graduation speech approach:

“Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway. In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward. It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.”

On the value of doing hard things:

“The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t. Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard enough. There has to be suspense. Well, this seems a grim view of the world, you may think. What I’m telling you is that you should worry? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s exhilarating to overcome worries. You don’t see faces much happier than people winning gold medals. And you know why they’re so happy? Relief. I’m not saying this is the only way to be happy. Just that some kinds of worry are not as bad as they sound.”

On the real difference between teenages and adults:

“If you’d asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I’d have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It’s that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.”

On why hanging out with friends is like eating chocolate cake:

“Hanging out with friends is like chocolate cake. You enjoy it more if you eat it occasionally than if you eat nothing but chocolate cake for every meal. No matter how much you like chocolate cake, you’ll be pretty queasy after the third meal of it.”

Why curiosity is your real job:

“And what’s your real job supposed to be? Unless you’re Mozart, your first task is to figure that out. What are the great things to work on? Where are the imaginative people? And most importantly, what are you interested in? The word “aptitude” is misleading, because it implies something innate. The most powerful sort of aptitude is a consuming interest in some question, and such interests are often acquired tastes.

A distorted version of this idea has filtered into popular culture under the name “passion.” I recently saw an ad for waiters saying they wanted people with a “passion for service.” The real thing is not something one could have for waiting on tables. And passion is a bad word for it. A better name would be curiosity.”

How curiosity transforms work into play:

“Curiosity turns work into play. For Einstein, relativity wasn’t a book full of hard stuff he had to learn for an exam. It was a mystery he was trying to solve. So it probably felt like less work to him to invent it than it would seem to someone now to learn it in a class.”

The myth of discipline:

“One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.”

How great creators use curiosity:

“Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That’s why he’s so good. If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was when he looked at Maxwell’s equations and said, what the hell is going on here?”

Focusing on asking interesting questions rather than answering them correctly:

“If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was when he looked at Maxwell’s equations and said, what the hell is going on here?

It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name “mathematics” is not at all like what mathematicians do.

The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn’t like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting– only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly.

When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.

And not only in intellectual matters. Henry Ford’s great question was, why do cars have to be a luxury item? What would happen if you treated them as a commodity? Franz Beckenbauer’s was, in effect, why does everyone have to stay in his position? Why can’t defenders score goals too?”

On how to explore your curiosities:

“Great questions don’t appear suddenly. They gradually congeal in your head. And what makes them congeal is experience. So the way to find great questions is not to search for them– not to wander about thinking, what great discovery shall I make? You can’t answer that; if you could, you’d have made it. The way to get a big idea to appear in your head is not to hunt for big ideas, but to put in a lot of time on work that interests you, and in the process keep your mind open enough that a big idea can take roost.”

On just doing something:

“Just pick a project that seems interesting: to master some chunk of material, or to make something, or to answer some question. Choose a project that will take less than a month, and make it something you have the means to finish. Do something hard enough to stretch you, but only just, especially at first. If you’re deciding between two projects, choose whichever seems most fun. If one blows up in your face, start another. Repeat till, like an internal combustion engine, the process becomes self-sustaining, and each project generates the next one. (This could take years.)”

Prioritizing your interests over your ability to justify it:

“Don’t worry if a project doesn’t seem to be on the path to some goal you’re supposed to have. Paths can bend a lot more than you think. So let the path grow out the project. The most important thing is to be excited about it, because it’s by doing that you learn.”

Resource: The trap of insightful selection


Seth uses a great analogy here about buying strawberries at a farmer’s market. When the person in front of him was picking a quart of strawberries, they took a full minute. Seth observed that 90% of the strawberries are beneath the top layer and that our picks are based on a very small sample size. This small sample size is no guarantee of good strawberries on the bottom layer. He goes on to discuss how we sometimes make decisions by focusing on the surfaces and assuming what’s beneath is just as good. The challenge is to look past superficial metrics, nice clothes, and pretty sounding words to find out if the substance is worth fighting for, hiring for, or paying for.


“The thing is: 90% of the strawberries in a quart are hidden from view. They’re beneath the top layer. There’s no strategy to tell which quart is better than the other, unless you (erroneously) believe that the top layer is an accurate indicator of what lies below.”

“The real information comes from experience. If the farmer is the sort of person who won’t put the clinkers on the bottom, she’s earned our trust.”

Resource: The higher the price, the more they value it.


When thinking about the price tag you assign to your work, think about more than just how much money you need. Think about how much commitment you demand from your client. The more people have to pay for something, the more likely it is that they’ll exercise follow through. In order for people to perform well, they need to have skin in the game.


“Psychology experiments have shown that the more people pay for something, the more they value it. People given a placebo pill were twice as likely to have their pain disappear when they were told that the pill was expensive. People who paid more for tickets were more likely to attend the performance. When people want the best, they look to the price to tell them what’s great. They think the expensive wine tastes better. They think the expensive headphones sound better. Even when secretly, those things are no different than the cheap ones.”

“Tony Robbins, back when he was first getting successful, started charging one million dollars for personal consultations. His reason was surprising. It wasn’t for the money. It was because his goal was to help people improve their life, and his biggest problem was people not doing the necessary work after coming to see him. So if someone spends a million dollars, they’re sure as hell going to do the work. He says it kept his success rate at 100%. So it’s considerate to charge more for your work. People will appreciate it more, and get better results.”

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