Good advice from Patrick Collison

Here is the whole post, here is one excerpt:

If you’re 10–20: These are prime years!

  • Go deep on things. Become an expert.
  • In particular, try to go deep on multiple things. (To varying degrees, I tried to go deep on languages, programming, writing, physics, math. Some of those stuck more than others.) One of the main things you should try to achieve by age 20 is some sense for which kinds of things you enjoy doing. This probably won’t change a lot throughout your life and so you should try to discover the shape of that space as quickly as you can.
  • Don’t stress out too much about how valuable the things you’re going deep on are… but don’t ignore it either. It should be a factor you weigh but not by itself dispositive.
  • To the extent that you enjoy working hard, do. Subject to that constraint, it’s not clear that the returns to effort ever diminish substantially. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy it a lot, be grateful and take full advantage!
  • Make friends over the internet with people who are great at things you’re interested in. The internet is one of the biggest advantages you have over prior generations. Leverage it.
  • Aim to read a lot.
  • If you think something is important but people older than you don’t hold it in high regard, there’s a decent chance that you’re right and they’re wrong. Status lags by a generation or more.
  • Above all else, don’t make the mistake of judging your success based on your current peer group. By all means make friends but being weird as a teenager is generally good.


"Go deep on things. Become an expert."

I think this is a new service on MR. Dating advice. Much appreciated.

Turns out this isn't even worth the time to mock, at least for anyone who is a parent. And after having spent just enough time to look at wikipedia, it appears that this young billionaire, age 30, is not a parent. Though if he travelled to SF and metz other people in 2003, he probably enjoyed a much more open and interesting city than what it is today.

Why does not being a parent prevent one from giving useful advice about what to do from age 10-20? I'm not following your point here.

If you click on the link, you will see this 30 year billionaire is only giving advice for 10-20 year olds. Though of course he himself experienced (one assumes quite atypical, at least according to the wikipedia article) that decade, his only perspective is internal, essentially (leaving aside peers, of course).

A parent has the perspective to be able to compare their own internal experiences with those of the next generation. Much of his advice (picking 2003 for his visit was intentional - he would have been 15 then) is fairly 'daneben,' to use a German expression. The idea that a 20 year old should make a pilgrimage to SF, with the hope of becoming a billionaire is not the sort of advice that many parents would give their children.

Though that would have been almost the same (not the billionaire part) about going to the grooviest city on the planet during the summer of love.

Forgot the punchline -

See, the older generation just doesn't understand how a 17 year old needs to ignore older people, and follow their dream. Whether it be a hippie utopia or a Silicon Valley dystopia (or vice versa, of course).

I agree that the advice that everyone should travel to San Francisco is kind of silly. Also, I think the idea that youth know better than their elders is overrated (though it is not always wrong).

Further, there is a danger that extremely successful people reason too much from their own success, and therefore they are not always the best people to take advice from.

Nevertheless, I find much of his list to be good, useful, and insightful.
Parents have additional perspective on youth, and are certainly worth listening to, but that doesn't mean they are the only people worth listening to. Also, the experience of being a parent may skew their advice in ways that are not always helpful For example, I think parents are often likely to be too risk-averse. Age 10-20 is a really good time in life to take risks (assuming you are taking good risks). However, parents don't want to see their children take risks and fail.

'I think the idea that youth know better than their elders is overrated (though it is not always wrong)'

This is a bit of the parent perspective (while taking into account of the naked emperor effect, that is generally the under 10 group) - whatever an 11 year old has to say about being more correct than older people can be pretty much safely ignored all the time. Particularly as it likely to extremely likely that after a few years pass, that no longer 11 year old will also remember just how silly they were.

'Further, there is a danger that extremely successful people reason too much from their own success'

Clearly so in this case.

'I think parents are often likely to be too risk-averse*'

This is where my lack of experience of the U.S. over the past 25 years is a real handicap. There is no question that the U.S. has become extremely risk averse in terms of children. Unhealthily so, to put it mildly.

'However, parents don't want to see their children take risks and fail.'

Call it that 25 year gap again, but why would a parent care that their 13 year old is not the fastest swimmer at the local pool, even if it means not doing something possibly more university application oriented? There are a number of trends in the U.S. which strike me as appalling. But having been able to miss out on them, while their existence is undeniable, it is not part of my personal experience.

You just sound like someone who was never smarter than the people around them. When I was 11, I did discover that those around me were bound by a variety of idiotic beliefs, whether superstitious, tradition, or just wrong.

"being weird as a muslim is generally good"

can I get an "amen"? hallelujah

Patrick is a smart guy, and a lot of fun to talk to, but on some of this he has the lack of perspective of youth and not having lived the most varied of lives, a common problem with someone whose life is as orderly as his. He reads as much as anyone else I know, but there are differences between intellectual understanding and feeling a lesson in your bones.

He says that his company has not won yet, which will keep him where he is, running a ship that would work just fine without him, and not refining his beliefs that much. It's both his loss, and the world's: I think he would do more for the world if, instead of trying to understand his company better, he tried to walk in very different shoes for a while. We are severely lacking in billionaires with perspective.

Anytime you ask someone who is unusually successful for advice on how to be successful, you risk getting answers strongly affected by either survivorship bias or by highly successful people just being unusual in many ways that make their advice less applicable for most people.

Tyler envies the rich and famous as if they have insight others do not. Prat

I am neither rich nor famous and Tyler has been polite the one or two times he has reflected on a comment of mine. So there's that.

Nobody is successful, by the way, unless the arc of their life leads from - let's use words here as well as we can - unless the arc of their life leads to less cruelty from a position of more cruelty, to less arrogance from a position of more arrogance, to less cruelty from a position of more cruelty.

That is how I assess people as they get older. I don't judge people, no more than I assess the probabilities of P or N/P (sorry Lubik): but everybody can see, with a little prayer and a little compassion and an active interest, whether another person is on an arc towards more arrogance and cruelty, or on a lifetime arc towards less of those attributes (*which is what we want*).

I have nothing to say about how you, in particular, can help a friend to get off an arc of more arrogance, or an arc of more cruelty, onto the better arc (of less cruel thoughts and fewer arrogant thoughts, as they age). That is your job, not mine. I will pray for you, though, if you ask, and that is a big offer: similar to the offer I made to my cat, who used to be my foster cat until I realized nobody would ever adopt a cat with several diseases and a temperament problem: anyway, like I said to my cat, we will never give up.

I'd still rather listen to a young billionaire's advice than a cuck like you, Bob.

How rude! Would you have had the courage to say that in person?

If yes, you are a lousy drunk, and can be better than that.

If not, you are one of those losers who says insulting things on the internet you would not say in person.

Either way, Bob is not the cuck, you are the - well, if Bob is not the cuck , and you are calling him one - what does that make you?

You can be better than that.

This is a weird criticism. He is one of the most successful people ever at his age, so he must be doing something right. If he had taken your advice a few years ago, would he have done "more for the world" or less?

Intended as a reply to Bob above.

'He is one of the most successful people ever at his age'

Depends on how one measures success. Which is also part of the parent perspective above.

How about this: when you are between 10-20, enjoy being 10-20. Catch frogs, play sports, ride a bike to nowhere, spend time with your friends doing crazy things, camp out under the stars, build a tree house, go to teen dances, fall in love, learn to drive, buy your first car, be a kid. Once you become an adult, you'll be one until you die. Don't waste your time building a CV. There will be time for that later.

His advice is not to all kids, only to those who have asked him "How do I change the world."

"How do I change the world."

Perhaps one of the most insidious goals of modern education. It's the last thing we should be telling young people with no experience or caution borne of failure.

1) change is hard, messy and often counter-productive. Forget about the world and start with yourself
2) the world is already changing for the better, and doing so faster than at any other time in history
3) big, world-encompassing change quickly becomes another Big Idea that prioritizes the group over the individual.

It's no accident that modern education's focus on big change has coincided with more dogmatism and less respect for intellectual diversity and expression.

How to change the world is often just a euphemism for how do I change people? It's the whisper of authoritarianism.

Great comment

Indeed, one of the best I've ever seen on MR.

As I look at colleges for my kids, I've developed one ironclad rule -- if the recruitment flyers stress how much the college is dedicated to "changing the world," they go in the trash.

Not really. Change happens whether you want it or not. Stopping change is the ultimate promise of authoritarians. Rather you must learn how to harness change to your advantage. This is capitalism.

"If you’re 10–20: These are prime years!
Go deep on things. Become an expert."

There are not many people -- and even fewer fields -- where one can become an "expert" by age 20. Even most athletes can't do this, unless they're LeBron James jumping straight from high school to the NBA.

"One of the main things you should try to achieve by age 20 is some sense for which kinds of things you enjoy doing. This probably won’t change a lot throughout your life and so you should try to discover the shape of that space as quickly as you can."

Half true. Sure, it's ideal to figure out early what you want in life and what you're good at. Easy advice to give, hard advice to follow at least for some people. Collison's advice fails to account for the people -- I've met several of them, four to be exact -- who didn't go to college or in some cases even finish high school and struggled for years at the resulting low-grade jobs open to them. And got sick and tired of that, went to their local community college, and discovered that they were smarter than they had thought and more importantly could learn advanced topics better than they thought. And thanks to college (and PhDs in at least three of the cases) now have much more fulfilled lives and infinitely better job prospects than they had before.

Would they have been even better off if they hadn't spent their teen years and early 20s mucking around and instead had followed Collison's advice and discovered "the shape of that space as quickly as" they could? Sure, but that's like saying they'd have been a lot richer if they'd bought stock in Apple or Amazon decades ago. Hindsight is 20-20. Reality is people floundering and making mistakes. Indeed to "discover the shape of that space" means people have to try different things and most of them will turn out to be less than fruitful until they finally find the right one. Collison advises getting that done before the age of 20. Great work if you can get it; a lot of people can't. I advise getting LeBronian skills and athleticism before the age of 20, that way you'll become a multi-millionaire in the NBA while still in your 20s.

Instragramming and YouTubing, professional video gaming, Quidditch, to name a few fields dominated by young experts. I'm sure there is no shortage of greenfields for young stars to excel in the next ten years, but like you, I'm an old fogey and am too set in my ways, fixated on things like "basketball", to appreciate it or imagine it. Should I ask my kids?

Well, when you become a billionaire, not because you invented anything or gained an advantage due to intelligence (but rather because you created the 100th messaging app), then you'd likely have a low bar for what it means to be an 'expert'. The world has validated his mediocrity with a lot of money, so he's very confident in his pretentious drivel.

Laughing at your bitter loser life, failing to even comprehend what it means to create value in the world.

I took that to mean to go beyond cursory familiarity. Kids at the younger end of the scale tend to zero in on an interest and become an "expert" before moving on. Are they cutting edge operators, no, but they've consumed most of the accepted knowledge on the topic.

You probably can't become a world expert in most intellectual fields by 20, but you can certainly become very knowledgeable in an intellectual field--enough so to be able to do useful work, understand what the interesting/hard problems are, and understand the high-quality work of others. For that matter, at 20 I was already a better programmer than most of the people I interacted with in the next few years of my life (working as a programmer). If you're going to college, then by 20 you're probably most of the way through your degree, and that should put you at least on the bottom rung of being an expert in one field. (A newly-minted EE or CS grad isn't an expert in that field, but he should have sufficient background in it to start doing productive, useful work, to know if this is the kind of work he wants to be doing for the next decade, and to climb that ladder of expertise.

Could one of the not stupid commenters, please give their version for 30-40? I'd appreciate it at the very least.

I don't know if I qualify as a "not stupid commenter," but my experience is that 30-40 is younger than you think it is at the time. And you get old after 40 a lot faster than you think. So get in good shape both physically and financially in your 30s, because both become much harder in the next decade.

Also, plan on making friends as you go, as bounds are much weaker than you think.


" So get in good shape both physically and financially in your 30s, because both become much harder in the next decade."

This may have been true in the past but will no longer apply in the 2020s, 2030s or 2040s. Both excellent health and wealth will be *much* easier to get in the coming decade as computer exponential power continues to increase exponentially. Just ask Uncle Ray.

As a 48yo, I could not agree with this more!!

Oh, and max out your 401(k).


Both your physical health/condition and your retirement outlook will get harder and harder to fix, as you get older. Lots of things that are easy to do at 20 and not so hard at 35 are very hard at 50.

I'm almost 49, and I walk through walls, yo.

Definitely agree with this one. Though I would say do all of this starting in your 20s. Your 20s is fun, but try to build a financial foundation rather than spending it all on avocado toast.

This is why millenials will never own a home. They spend all their money on avocado toast and Starbucks. If only they learned the value of a dollar. Trump will teach those entitled f*cks a lesson.

If you're asking for life advice when you're over 30 you're screwed.

Don't become a drug addict, and set up a healthy lifestyle. Shit will go downhill fast in your 30's if you behave like a 20something bro.

One very general piece of advice is simply to realize that your 40s and 50s aren't going to be much like your 20s. Getting married and having kids will be a lot easier in your 20s-30s, and may become impossible in your mid-40s.

Not convinced this advice maximizes happiness during the 10-20 years period for most people.

It might however build foundations for a happier later stage in life.

Regardless, it's highly a highly personal list that might work wonders for some and cause hell to many others.

Hey, these were a bit long for me so I shortened them for any other time stretched readers.

* Become a specialist.
* Become a generalist with the expertise of specialist in multiple areas.
* Go deep on whatever. But make sure it's useful. But don't worry if it's not.
* Work hard on one (or more) of the areas you're going deep on. To know which area to work hardest on see the point above.
* Spend more time on computers.
* Spend more time inside, in your own head.
* If you dream it, you can do it!
* Success is determined by status, influence, and money. Don't worry about having close friends what have those losers done for you lately?

Yes, the power of free will. Do you believe it? Collison advises, not to go West, but to go to the internet. Free will on the internet? If that's true, this whole Russia meddling thing is pure bunk. To be clear, Collison's overall advice seems designed as an exercise in free will. That's great advice. Of course, removing oneself from all the external influences may require the life of a hermit.

Aspire to make more thought-out comments. When you do that, they are often good.

Thank you for making my point: you didn't like my comment, so rather than making an argument, you make a snide remark that is at once insulting and complimentary. Facebook and Google wouldn't be worth many billions if their use of user data to influence behavior weren't effective. Does free will exist today? To accept the argument that it isn't is to concede that the libertarian project is at best futile.

Sorry, I was being too snide, but I really didn't understand what you were getting at or how it relates to the post. Your follow-up comment helped a little, but I still don't get it.

You make a lot of extreme statements that seem absurd if taken at face value, but if not taken at face value, then it's not clear what point they make in relation to the post.

Surely you don't literally mean that we are just slaves to what Google and Facebook tell us to think, therefore trying to set our own goals is pointless.

"Slaves" to Google and Facebook? What kind of nonsense is that? You don't understand my comments because you choose not to. At this blog we are often reminded that what we do is mostly signaling, including academic achievements, that we are not independent agents but followers of influences large and small, that mimetic desire shapes much of human behavior, that we are unaware of those influences, influences from birth until death (as Tabarrok points out in his post this morning). Stripe works because it is part of the same low level propaganda as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest. I'm not being critical, just a realist.

Make friends over the internet with people who are great at things you’re interested in. The internet is one of the biggest advantages you have over prior generations. Leverage it.
Aim to read a lot.

While the two points are not really at odds or anything it seems a bit strange to point out how the world has change and then suggest sticking with the old.

Especially when reading is not always a strong point for some (dyslexia anyone?). With the internet we now have much more access to expert information (or friends with skills) in better forms of consumption.

Add those to the "read a lot" thinking.

In a pre-literate society, all information is transferred by oral exchange. Such a situation exists for many even today. However, literacy expands not only the number of sources for current knowledge and information but also much of the totality of knowledge of the past. Maybe some casual acquaintance or youtube soapbox star could read Herodotus and Juvenal to an illiterate but he might be better off learning to read himself. How is reading an inferior form of consumption?

Reading is vastly more efficient than listening.

Can he do one for what you should do if you're like 37? Really wondering about that one :)

A snapshot of Trump's Amerika. How is that different from Komsomol?

This can best be summarised as "Patrick Collison giving advice to young Patrick Collison". Presumably based on his doing exactly what he did anyway.

I'd rather hear from someone who followed those rules but who's not subject to survivor bias.

Good luck finding that person!

Some good advice there that applies to people of all ages, but if Patrick does continue to grow up and out of his SF-bubble bullshit, he will be embarrassed by several points on that list by the time he's 40.

I've thought about writing something like this, but I decided not to, and to tell selected people this sort of advice instead. I did go deeply, esp. at age 9-15, and it changed my life. I asked various TASP (Telluride Association Summer Program) alumni at a party about this, years ago, and many had a similar story, or at least agreed with my account of it. The main reason to do it at this young age is, in my view, brain development. Your neurons are still making connections at huge rates, but their progress is gated by the risk/reward environment you accept. If you accept peer social limits, they become a gate that guides your connectivity. On the other hand, if the world becomes your limit, and you downgrade the pain of local social limits, then the world, not your peer group, becomes the oyster in which you grow. A prerequisite however is that at around age 9 you either decide to leave your peers behind, or you're lucky enough to be growing up in an environment so rich it doesn't limit you (say a Beverly Hills or Hunter College school in NYC or so). The Collinson piece is good on saying what the good side is, but it seems terrible to me in not stressing that one often has to make a decision about what to follow and abandon. In my case, a severe consequence of the decision i made is that I realized as a teen that i'd have to move out from where I grew up. That's not a small thing. Anyhow, thanks for the item here, TC.

Which is the better strategy: 1) play to your strengths, or 2) confront your deficiencies?

Here's a general piece of advice for your 30s-50s and further on: Don't stop learning! That is, don't assume that just because you've reached the point of being an expert in some area, you can stop learning. If you do, the world will absolutely pass you by, and you'll either work extra-hard to play catch-up or you will become less and less valuable and able to contribute.

Don't be afraid to learn new things, new tools, new ways of working, etc. Try to do stuff that challenges you, even when you're older, so your skills don't ossify.

Basically the point is this. Whatever age you are at, keep learning. There is no way in ^&*@ that even an expert has true mastery over a particular subject. Because nearly any subject you can think of is practically infinitely wide and open and can draw interconnections [and therefore advance the field] from other disciplines.

Learn to be consciously relentless. This means that only if you have analytically determined that a particular path is not worth going down on [for whatever reason], keep on using that shovel to build your route.

You should think of a skill as on a continuous line, rather than discrete steps. This means that the process of picking up a skill is "flowy" [changes back and forth and blends in] rather than in a ladder-like model with rungs [where once you have reached Level 5 you are somehow static there].

Health is important at any age, but will be more critical as you get older. So in your 30s-50s, ensure that you go all out to obtain as best health as you possibly can. This will require both stability [eating regularly] and adaptability [changing up exercise patterns when necessary]. Push yourself. But not so hard that you break.

Finally, don't be petrified of mistakes. You will inevitably make them, and sometimes in the most horrific of ways [usually unintentionally]. It's a part of life. Use it as fuel for growth, and learn from it. Try and spot opportunities wherever you go. This is much better than simply being "optimistic", as it is grounded in the tangible here and now.

There's my budget Tony Robbins for people in the 30-50+ group.

I don't see the actual point in putting limitations on yourself [e.g. "can't get married by...."], since you only really get one life. Might as well go for it as best you can, even into old age [with the appropriate consideration].

I'm puzzled by the 10-to-20 grouping. Doesn't everything change abruptly at 18 or so , when you (let's hope) leave home? This is a different life stage, with more agency, freedom and opportunity as well as more distractions.

Is he an expert on any of the subjects he mentioned himself (languages, programming, writing, physics, math) ?

Maybe not but its still better to have a billion dollars than to know the finer points of Faraday's law of induction.

Speak for yourself. The Left Hand Rule has provided me with countless hours of fun and excitement.

I like the list, but I find people at this age, and older, should more often be encouraged to learn about how their body works and how it contributes to their mood and ability to focus. When it comes to fitness, for example, we seem overly focused on athletic performance and sport. And it's amazing how much misinformation I see about diet. You'll often see people say that teens need to learn more about taxes and finance, but I'd also be happy to have them learn more about, to give one example, how to talk to doctors and how to navigate the bureaucracy of health care.

While he speaks to visiting SF, he really should suggest going to high school, or eighth grade, abroad for a year. Beyond learning a foreign language, it will expand someone's horizons in many dimensions and you'll be all the more self confident and independent thinking by knowing you can navigate a foreign culture which equally applies to the foreign culture that is US high school.

Comments for this post are closed