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An Algorithm for Doing Great Work

I recently read How to Do Great Work by Paul Graham. A fascinating but extensive read that I aim to distill into actionable insights. “Work hard, and we’ll succeed” is a simplistic platitude. As someone who developed an early fascination with computers, I’ve come to understand that the landscape of professional achievement has grown increasingly intricate. The norms of work have evolved, yet our collective understanding lags behind. Let’s try to define what it means to “work smart” in a time where innovation and creativity hold the highest currency.

Our natural aptitude and undying passion form a composite function of our exceptional contributions. It isn’t about being skilled or talented; it’s about embodying a unique lens through which we engage with our domain, making it an irreplaceable asset over time. This unique lens through which we engage with our domain is not static; it evolves as we gain more expertise and widen our exposure.

Curiosity is far from a mere character quirk; it is the cornerstone of our professional existence. Curiosity systematically uncovers knowledge gaps and plots a path through them. This isn’t serendipity but strategy, a calculated drive toward groundbreaking contributions. A genuine interest in our domain acts as a performance turbocharger, enabling us to tackle complex problems as if they were trivial. Beyond guiding us, curiosity serves as the engine of our professional journey, propelling us toward uncharted territories ripe for innovation.

Remember “Challenge Everything,” the early 2000s slogan from EA Games? This should be our default approach to problem solving. Questions aren’t idle curiosities but catalysts for innovation, seismic forces that reshape intellectual landscapes.

Risk serves dual roles: an element to navigate and a resource to exploit. “Take as much risk as we can afford” is not a caveat but a guiding principle. This is a calculated leap into the unknown, often rewarding us with outsized returns. To hedge this, our mindset matters. Optimism and a sense of luck are essential parts of the algorithms for engineering great work. These attitudes not only make us risk-takers but also resilient comeback artists when setbacks do occur.

This brings us to rule-breaking, a calculated disobedience that liberates us from industry dogmas. It begs the question: What dogmas are people in your field clinging to, and what becomes possible when we discard them? The answers often unveil unexplored territories ripe for our curiosity and expertise. Yet, the art of rule-breaking requires discernment; it’s crucial to identify which rules are mere conventions and which are fundamental principles before wielding the rule-breaking axe.

The resource of time, often squandered, is best allocated in large, undisturbed blocks, enabling deep work. It’s easy to get caught up in the conundrum of time investment. The dilemma often exists between doing something we worry might be a waste of time and doing something we know for sure will be. The former carries the risk but also the potential for learning and growth, while the latter offers neither. The trick is to lean into the uncertainty, to embrace tasks that challenge our skills and expand our horizons, even if their immediate utility isn’t apparent. View these blocks of time not as mere expenditures but as investments that yield returns in learning, growth, and tangible achievements.

Learning transcends the superficial bullet points on a résumé. Each project evolves into a learning chapter, setting the stage for the next endeavor. The benefits of learning are exponential, yet often overlooked.

Our environment isn’t just a backdrop; it’s an active factor in our performance. A change in surroundings can act as a multiplier, augmenting the quality of our work from average to extraordinary or vice versa. Different cultures and workspaces are not mere variables; they’re coefficients in the equation of our work’s quality.

The phrase “copy with pride” isn’t a call to plagiarism; it’s a reminder that originality doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s nurtured by influences, shaped by experiences, and refined through iterations. Authentic originality is the ability to take existing elements and synthesize them in a way that is uniquely ours. Here, formality and affectation are your foes. Striving for a facade often leads to work that is more imitative than innovative. The key is to maintain a level of informality, allowing your genuine self to shine through your work. After all, originality isn’t an end in itself; its value is determined by its impact and the unique solutions it brings to existing problems.

In the end, what often holds people back from achieving great work isn’t a lack of capability but a blend of modesty and fear. It’s the humility that tells us we’re not ready yet and the fear that convinces us we’ll never be. These are not inhibitions but indications, reminders that the path to greatness is laden with both internal and external challenges.

Great work isn’t serendipitous; it’s engineered. Align natural talents and interests, fuel endeavors with curiosity, take calculated risks. This sets the stage for excellence.

Published on Monday, Sep 11, 2023. Last modified on Monday, Sep 11, 2023.
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