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A theory of genius

I thoroughly enjoy the way that Paul Graham reasons through arguments. There’s something hyper rational about it. And even if you happen to disagree with his position(s), you still end up appreciating the way he has taken you through his logic. I guess that’s what you get when you combine a computer scientist with someone who clearly likes to write.

His latest essay is about how to do great work. Conventional wisdom, he explains, has it that you really need two things: ability and determination. That’s how you win. And that’s how you create new things. But Paul makes the case for a third ingredient — one that is arguably even more telling than the first two. Here’s an excerpt:

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.

Aren’t I forgetting about the other two ingredients? Less than you might think. An obsessive interest in a topic is both a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination. Unless you have sufficient mathematical aptitude, you won’t find series interesting. And when you’re obsessively interested in something, you don’t need as much determination: you don’t need to push yourself as hard when curiosity is pulling you.

He refers to this as his “Bus Ticket Theory of Genius,” because bus ticket collectors are an example, in his view, of a group with a “disinterested obsession.” They’re not collecting bus tickets for any particular reason, other than because of interest. And when you have this kind of obsession with things that (ultimately) matter, it can lead to important discoveries.

Think Darwin and his obsession with natural history.

But the other reason this topic resonates with me is because it makes the case for passion projects, side hustles, creative pursuits, and all other irresponsible things that seem to get harder to fit in the older we all get. I am believer in this. There’s tremendous value in indulging in the things that stoke our curiosity, even if they might seem to silly to others.

And so I will leave you all with this final thought/excerpt:

It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn’t be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?

1 Comment so far

  1. Scott Baker

    I spent 3 years, 2 months, working on a development project: 3,000 hours split between me and my engineer partner modeling it, and probably 1,500 hours over the last year and 3/4 trying to sell it (alas, too much waiting for responses in between, which has stretched the time at least a year beyond what’s necessary).
    Details & video here:
    The fourth ingredient is less inspiring: who you know and how much influence and money they have.


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