Do the Real Thing - Scott H Young

Great post.

Success largely boils down to a simple distinction. It’s glaringly obvious once you see it, but also easy to find ingenious ways of ignoring it: do the real thing and stop doing fake alternatives.

Consider one person who wrote to me saying she turned down a job working in French. She didn’t feel her French was good enough yet. So instead, she planned to listen to podcasts at home every day until she was ready.

You know what would have helped her get good at French? Working at the job in French.

Working at a job in the language she wanted to speak was the real thing for her. Listening to podcasts at home to prepare was the fake alternative she chose instead.

Or consider another person I spoke with who wanted to get better at writing music. He had come up with a complex analysis project. He was going to do a deep dive into past hits, figuring out what made them great. In all this complexity he ignored the obvious, real thing he should be doing: writing more songs. When I asked how many he had written so far, he said it was just three.


But how do you figure out what the real thing is? In this case, a heuristic might be how scary something feels.

I wonder how much this extends to learning “deep topics”. For example, suppose you want to do “algebraic geometry” (a very deep area of pure math I know very little about). It seems like just trying to prove theorems in algebraic geometry would not be the way to go. First you need to slowly work through enough prerequisites to at least be able to understand and hold in your head the basics of actual algebraic geometry.

I raise this because in general I’ve spent a lot of time doing depth-first learning and this is an issue that rears its head repeatedly, so I’m always looking for more effective solutions to it.

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I’ve run across this post before and agree it’s very good. Another related idea that’s helped me get more done recently is the idea of moving fast. I like it because it’s a different skill than smarts, skills (though it obviously interacts with those) and (for me at least) seems fairly amenable to improvement just by thinking about it a lot/trying to emphasize it.

I work for myself/am interested in the entrepreneurship aspect of this, but it seems to apply many places.

Some links:

Sam Altman (former head of YC, links in the Ben Kuhn post) has some good quotes on it too:

“The best founders work on things that seem small but they move really quickly. But they get things done really quickly. Every time you talk to the best founders they’ve gotten new things done. In fact, this is the one thing that we learned best predicts a success of founders in YC. If every time we talk to a team they’ve gotten new things done, that’s the best predictor we have that a company will be successful.” - Sam Altman

“Once you have figured out what to do, be unstoppable about getting your small handful of priorities accomplished quickly. I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is very successful.” - Sam Altman

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Thank you for posting. Excellent.