Exploring Limits v. Self-Destruction

Along with productivity, one of the topics that perpetually fascinates me is “how much time/effort is enough to have ‘given something your all’?”

On this topic, Paul Graham says,

Startups are not magic. They don’t change the laws of wealth creation. There is a conservation law at work here: if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars’ worth of pain. For example, one way to make a million dollars would be to work for the Post Office your whole life, and save every penny of your salary. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years. You do tend to get a certain bulk discount if you buy the economy-size pain, but you can’t evade the fundamental conservation law. If starting a startup were easy, everyone would do it.

During this time [when creating a startup] you’ll do little but work, because when you’re not working, your competitors will be. My only leisure activities were running, which I needed to do to keep working anyway, and about fifteen minutes of reading a night. I had a girlfriend for a total of two months during that three year period. Every couple weeks I would take a few hours off to visit a used bookshop or go to a friend’s house for dinner. I went to visit my family twice. Otherwise I just worked.

Like Paul’s “animal” test for finding the best people to work with, this analysis has been the stickiest that my brain has encountered so far. But I resent it like hell. Because I have a very goldfish-like ability (or even predisposition) toward being able to eat and eat and eat without noticing that I haven’t been hungry for days. Working 7 days a week until 3 A.M. seems to me quite dangerous, both physically and mentally. But I am crazy/stupid enough to try it, and I hear it beckoning.

So how much of that work is actually necessary?

Hell if I know. This is still step number twenty-something of 800.

But here’s what I do know. I do know that one has to push themselves further than seems possible. Rationing sleep is a start. Then you have to learn to be creative and productive and diplomatic despite the fact that you are tired and it’s hard to think straight. Then you have to dedicate yourself to consistent improvement at the same time you’re trying to get two feet on the ground. You can mess up sometimes, but it means you’re probably going to have to work twice as hard later to fix your mess up and do things better.

Add all that energy up, and how much do you have left over for the rest of your life? If it’s a pittance, is that OK with you? If it’s not, do you really think you stand a chance against those who are OK with it? Herein lies the paradox of dedicating oneself to an idea. Or really, dediating oneself to anything. There are other aspects of life that must be omitted, and you are making an implicit bet that you’ll get around to those things later. “The bet” calls the downside of passion “exploring your limits.” Most psychologists call it “self-destruction.” I’ll take the bet.

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