“Like most little kids, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement when I learned or did something new. As I grew older, this morphed into a feeling of disgust when I wasn’t achieving anything,” the Y Combinator co-founder said in a June blog post.
“The one precisely dateable landmark I have [for this] is when I stopped watching TV, at age 13.
How to Work Hard: https://t.co/gy9Voq3iq0
— Paul Graham (@paulg) June 29, 2021
Graham, 56, wrote about the memory in a blog post reflecting on what he has learned about achieving “great things” since he was a kid.
Hard work is key to success, Graham wrote, and giving up habitually watching TV (save for the occasional documentary) was a milestone — it was at that time he remembered developing an intrinsic compulsion to work hard, to get serious about work.
Our family used to watch TV for certain hours every evening, after dinner and homework, and before bed. It was a normal thing to do then. That's what I stopped doing. But I would occasionally watch specific documentaries about things I was interested in. E. g. Connections.
— Paul Graham (@paulg) June 30, 2021
And that drive is a particular kind of drive — “to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to,” he wrote.
“It’s straightforward to work hard if you have clearly defined, externally imposed goals, as you do in school,” he said.
But “what I’ve learned since I was a kid is how to work toward goals that are neither clearly defined nor externally imposed,” he wrote. “You’ll probably have to learn both if you want to do really great things.”
Graham said a compulsion to work hard is something he has in spades: “Now when I’m not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can’t be sure I’m getting anywhere when I’m working hard, but I can be sure I’m getting nowhere when I’m not, and it feels awful.”
In addition to hard work, great success requires natural ability and practice, too, Graham wrote.
As examples of these principles, Graham pointed to some of those at the top of their game: Bill Gates has said he did not take a single day off in his 20s when building Microsoft, according to Graham; soccer star Lionel Messi is known for his “dedication and his desire to win,” something he’s had since he was young, Graham wrote; and his own favorite writer of the 20th century, P. G. Wodehouse, rewrote sentences 20 times, according to Graham.
Hard work clearly served Graham well. But according to Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering and of organizational behavior at Stanford University, it’s important to remember that what has made Graham and those like him successful is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone.
People who have some success in life tend to judge others by how similar they are to themselves, says Sutton. For instance, “in thinking about what it takes to be successful, [Graham] considers what he knows about … himself, and assumes if people act like him they will succeed.” (Graham did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on this point.)
That said, Sutton, who studies innovation, leadership, scaling excellence, and workplace dynamics, also says “if you look at research on the link between personality and various measures of success, the best predictor…is [being] conscientious.”
In this respect, Graham’s hard work habits do seem to qualify, Sutton says.
As for Graham’s discarding TV, “hard work, effort, and perseverance are keys to moving us forward and being successful in attaining our goals,” says Mary Karapetian Alvord, a psychologist at Alvord, Baker & Associates in Maryland. “If cutting out certain activities is a way to prioritize your time, then it can improve your productivity or whatever it is that you want to achieve.”
However, “balance in numerous domains of life is critical,” says Alvord, who is also an adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Balance helps us build our resilience and cope with life’s challenges, increase our sense of self-mastery and happiness.”
Indeed, Graham himself noted that developing an internal drive to work toward a goal does not mean working all the time.
“In many kinds of work, there’s a point beyond which the quality of the result will start to decline,” Graham wrote. “That limit varies depending on the type of work and the person. I’ve done several different kinds of work, and the limits were different for each.”
For instance, Graham said he maxes out on challenging writing or computer programming at five hours per day. He was fine, however, to run his start-up Viaweb, a software company he co-founded in 1995 and sold to Yahoo in 1998, at all hours of the day for three years running. Still, even with Viaweb, Graham said he would have likely needed to take time off had he kept that up longer.