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A 3D geometric shaped logo of a object in green color Kirill So
A person crafting a hammer

Notes on how to do great work

/ 14 min read

These are the notes from Paul Graham’s essay How to do great work, sometimes summarised and sometimes reworded by me. I went through the exercise to think through every sentence and have a deeper understanding of the meaning of paragraphs.

I think this essay is one of the most important ones written in the past decade and everyone should take the time to read the entire piece.

How to decide what to work on

The work has to have 3 qualities:

  1. It has to be something you have a natural aptitude for
  2. You have to have a deep interest in it
  3. It offers scope to do great work

The only way to figure out what you are good at is to do it. Reflections, journaling, and talking to others will not grant precise results.

It’s okay to be wrong, trying many things will provide insight into different fields and connections.

Develop a habit of working on your own projects.

What are the projects worth working on

Work on projects that sustain the feeling of excitement. Your interests will change over time, but preserving that feeling is key.

The kind of feeling that combines curiosity and excitement will be the driver to show what to work on in the first place.

A good question to ask is: “What is boring for other people, but you are obsessing about?”

How to start

Expand knowledge on the subject of interest. Knowledge is like a fractal. From a distance, it looks smooth, but once you look closer you will see that the edges are not smooth and are full of gaps.

Notice these gaps. This takes time and skill because our brain is trained to make a simpler model of the world, as well as easily swayed by external influences of what we perceive as truth. Nonetheless, the greatest inventions came from questioning the conventional truth.

The stranger the answer is, the better. Great work happens on the edge of weird. Embrace it.

Chase outlier ideas. If they live on the edge, others won’t pay attention. If there is enough expertise to explain what is being overlooked, that’s a great bet.

To summarize:

  1. Choose a field
  2. Learn enough
  3. Notice gaps
  4. Explore the edge

Because steps 2 and 4 will require hard work, it is critical to work on things that you have a deep interest in, because getting to a finish line for other reasons will result in mediocrity and errors.

The three motives

  1. Curiosity
  2. Delight
  3. Desire to do impressive things

The convergence of these motives is most powerful.

The hard parts


The hardship of figuring out what to work on is not knowing:

  1. What the work entails
  2. How good you are at it
  3. If you like it
  4. What other types of work are there and learn about them

Ambition amplifies the problem. It comes in two forms:

  1. Extrinsic—preceding the subject of interest
  2. Intrinsic—stemming from the subject of interest

The mix of both will result in great work. If extrinsic is the main driver, it will be excruciatingly hard to decide what to do.

Educational system

In the current world, systems in most countries push to commit to a field long before we empirically know what it will entail.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. You are on your own. Some people get lucky by guessing correctly. The majority however will be zigzagging across the various subjects and paths.

Passivity, luck, and action

The main thing to avoid here is to passively drift along. The issue will not solve itself. Action will.

But there is no systematic procedure that people can follow.

Based on biographies of various people, luck is a huge factor. The discovery of what to work on came from:

  • Chance meeting
  • A book they picked up
  • A field they’ve stumbled upon

Hence, the goal is to be able to target luck, by being curious and taking action:

  • Try many things
  • Meet a lot of people
  • Read a lot of books
  • Ask a lot of questions


Optimizing for interesting things counters doubt. As you move along and try things, the subject and field become increasingly interesting as you learn. If that’s not the case, you shouldn’t be working on it.

Signals worth noticing


Notice what you enjoy and what others find tedious. It’s a good signal that the work suits you. If the work has a certain factor of “strange” it’s a good signal, because fewer people would be looking in the same direction.

Keep in mind though that you don’t owe your loyalty to a subject or field. During the process, you might discover another more exciting subject.


One way how to start is by making something for yourself:

  • The story you want to read
  • The tool you want to use

If you try to make things that you think others want, you’re lost. A lot of forces will lead you astray:

  • Pretentiousness
  • Fashion
  • Fear
  • Money
  • Politics
  • Biases
  • Frauds

Stick to what you find captivating. This way you won’t sidetrack.

Boldness and planning

Following interests requires boldness in the face of rejection and failure. The recipe is quite simple though:

  1. Work on hard and exciting stuff
  2. Something good will come out of it

The problem with planning is that it only works for predictable goals. You can strive for a gold medal and pursue it, but you can’t unveil natural selection.

Planning is not the right strategy.

When the decision time comes, the best thing to do is:

  1. Do whatever seems most interesting
  2. Provides the best options for the future


Working on the right things is not always straightforward. Sometimes the idea seems exciting, but this level of excitement is not always sustained.

Inspiration is not enough. There will be blockers and barriers, but there are also mitigations. For example:

  • Working too hard—causes fatigue and has diminishing returns.
  • It will be harder to start working than to keep working—in this case, you have to trick yourself over that threshold.
  • Starting new projects—asking “How hard could it be?” might help with crossing that bridge.
  • Finishing what you start—in most projects, the best work happens at the finish line.


There are two types of procrastination:

  1. Per day
  2. Per project

The second is far more alarming, given it might delay the ambitious endeavors for years. It also camouflages as work, as usually you’d be working on something else.

You get too busy to notice.

The way how to fight it is to stop and ask yourself: “Am I working on what I most want to work on?”

Over time, if the answer is “no”, it gets increasingly dangerous.


Great work won’t happen when you dread it for years. It happens by consistently focusing on intrinsically interesting things:

  • Writing a page per day
  • Iterating on features

The key is consistency. Doing a bit each day. When it compounds, you’ll get exponential growth. Most people do it unconsciously.

Exponential compounding

The downside to exponential growth is that at the beginning it feels flat. However, we are focusing on a short timeframe when evaluating it. Instead, it’s just the beginning of a compounding effect.

Something that grows can become extremely valuable. But it takes pushing through an unrewarding and insignificant beginning phase. One step at a time.

If you recognize this consciously, you can invest in exponential growth.


Work doesn’t always happen when it’s forced. Some activities can spark breakthrough by letting the mind wander:

  • Walking
  • Showering
  • Meditating

What has to follow is deliberate work after receiving the insight.

Aim high

Cultivate your taste in the field. You can’t do that without knowing what is best and what makes it best as well as what to aim for as a benchmark.

The aim should be to become the best.

If you don’t try to be the best, you won’t be even good potentially for 3 reasons:

  1. Ambition is a phenomenon where error is in one direction - almost all shells that miss the target miss by falling short
  2. Ambition to be the best is qualitatively different from ambition to be good
  3. “Good enough” is too vague of a standard

In practice, what would happen is that even though you don’t reach the highs, you’d be appending yourself to a higher standard and your work will be better than if you’d be aiming for “good enough”.

One practical way to be ambitious here is to make something people will care about in 100 years.

Avoiding status games

Style is distinctively doing things without trying to. Trying to is an affectation.

By trying to appeal to others, you lose differentiation and hence style. This is because it opens the doors for status games and fake impressions.

There is no need for it because the work will take care of itself. If the work succeeds, you become the person who did it.

Be earnest.

The main idea here is to be:

  1. Intellectually honest - to have a filter for the truth. Practically, that means the willingness to admit your mistakes, which you would have otherwise had to carry as a burden.
  2. Informal - focusing on what matters. Trying to appear in a certain way requires energy that could be put into something else. It comes with retaining boldness. Shipping things into the world instead of sitting in comfort and publishing criticisms.


Sometimes we need to start from scratch. Our monkey brain may take over and keep us in denial.

Have the confidence to cut.

The ego that prevents us from seeing the truth will not solve the current problem.

Sometimes it’s beneficial to strip things to their essence.


Hard solutions may have more prestige and impress others. On the other hand, there is also work that may take small effort and may become the best work, like exploration and discovery.

Even choosing a problem to work on can be considered exploration. Which is best served by creating something.


Make things that are non-restrictive. Since they will be used in ways you can’t predict.

The best ideas have implications in many different areas.

Hence, the best ideas are both true and new.

Originality isn’t a process, but a habit of mind.

Cultivating originality happens by working on things because these insights don’t come from purely just thinking about original ideas.

Original insights come from trying to build (and hence understand) something hard.

The two helpful ways to generate such insights:

  1. Changing context - if you visit a new place, talk to someone new, or work on things that you don’t yet understand in a completely new area.
  2. Talking or writing - both of these are crystallization mechanisms for thoughts that could spark new ideas once pushed into the world.

The caveat for changing context is not to spread yourself too thin. Switching attention comes at a cost.

Be professionally curious about a few topics and idly curious about many more.


The definition of a good idea seems both novel but also obvious. Which begs a question: “Why no one else is seeing the same?”

The contraction of obvious and new is because we need to be able to see the world in a new light.

We tend to see the world through specific mental models that both support and limit us.

When we change our minds, new ideas become obvious. These ideas will be easier seen after doing something hard.

Discovering broken models:

  1. Be strict - discovering clues by not being attached to the current reality. In other words, questioning things and not being attached to your status quo worldview (cognitive flexibility)
  2. Breaking rules - related to the first point, one way to leave the status quo is to do things beyond order. A novel idea will not be met with a standing ovation from the majority which means going against the convention. One rule is that the idea needs to have exciting and rich results as an effect. There are 2 ways of breaking rules:
    1. Passively independent-minded - ignoring the assumptions of the old world and being able to think critically despite knowing the existing boundaries
    2. Aggressive - this usually sparks more energy and drive to start

Turning off filters on ideas will help see more of them:

  • Too weird
  • Too risky
  • Too much work
  • too controversial

Another heuristic is to look at what is currently dogmatic and people protect it religiously without strictness.

Solving the problem

Unfashionable problems are overlooked and people tend to be more original in solving them compared to coming up with problems to solve.

Problems may also take years to explore, whilst solutions may take only a few days to come up with.

The perk of working on unfashionable problems is that there is no hype. The opportunists are occupied elsewhere. It’s also more satisfying to cultivate ideas that would otherwise not be touched.

To identify these, you again need to dive fully in, ignoring the voice that says that the problem is not important.

Most people are conservative in defining what constitutes an important problem. One may be around your house just now.

A good litmus test would be to ask yourself: “If you are going to take a break from serious work to work on something that would be interesting, what would it be?”


Big ideas should have more questions than answers. This is when people usually start with a solution instead of a problem. But these questions are probably more important, despite being uncomfortable.

There is a bigger chance of coming up with a solution if we already have questions in mind.

One way is to also look at questions we are carrying from the past years.

People think expertise is a certainty, but actually, the right way to think about it is how puzzled you are:

  • As long as the things you are questioning matter
  • No one else understands them either

You have to be ok with confusion, but not too comfortable that you are not keen on resolving it.

The best way to acquire new questions is to answer the existing ones.

It’s better to be promiscuously curious—to pull a little bit on a lot of threads and see what happens. Big things start small. The initial versions of big things were often just experiments, side projects, or talks, which then grew into something bigger. So start lots of small things.

Prolificacy matters. The more things you experiment on, the greater the chance of discovering new horizons. However, trying lots of things also means failing at a lot of things.

The prerequisite of having a lot of good ideas is to also have an equal amount of bad ones.

Starting and iterating

Coming back to focus and consistency the way to start is to take small steps and make iterations.

Start with the simplest thing that works. Don’t push too much stuff.

Refrain from planning again. It’s necessary when coordinating many people but completely avoidable in the beginning.

Take risk. Don’t look for certainty and predictability.

When failure happens, the benefit is that you’ve had an experience that nobody else had with questions nobody else asked.



  • Energy
  • Time
  • Optimism
  • Freedom


  • Knowledge
  • Efficiency
  • Money
  • Power

On copying

There is a good and bad kind of copying.

The powerful kind is taking something from one subject and bringing it into another. History is full of discoveries based on such mechanisms.

It’s also worth looking at negative examples as these can be a learning field, similar to the good ones.

Finding people

A lot of people who are good at their work are hobbyists and they are happy to talk about it.

Seeking people is an advantage, there is a lot that can be done with the right help given some projects require collaboration. That also means venturing into management.

Such as in relationships, external people affect you, so play long-term games with ethical people.

Quality over quantity.


Morale also compounds. Good work raises morale and it works the other way around too.

When you are stuck switch to easy work.

Setbacks will test morale. Hard problems will always test it and there is a time to go back to the drawing board.

Never giving up is not a good advice. At times its the right decision. A better version would be:

Never let setbacks panic you into backtracking more than you need to.

Learn to differentiate between good pain and bad pain. There is an effort and there is damage.


Look for people who energize you. Cut the ones who drain you.

Don’t marry a person who sees your work as competition for attention. Given your ambition, you need to work.


People who are ambitious and don’t achieve much become bitter and it’s dangerous not to do great work. They are also not the happiest, but they are happier if they would have otherwise been without it.

The prestige of a type of work is at best a trailing indicator and sometimes completely mistaken. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. So the question to ask about a type of work is not how much prestige it has, but how well it could be done

Don’t let competition drive your decisions.

Curiosity is the best guide. Your curiosity never lies, and it knows more than you do about what’s worth paying attention to.

Curiosity is the core. It will:

  • Choose the field
  • Get you to the frontier
  • Cause you to notice gaps
  • Drive to explore them

The whole process is a kind of dance with curiosity.

The factors in doing great work:

  • Ability
  • Interest
  • Effort
  • Luck

Most people should be doing great work, but what holds them back is a combination of:

  • Modesty
  • Fear

The discoveries are out there, waiting to be made. Why not by you?