My favorite essays of life advice

I start each of my weekly reviews by re-reading one of my favorite essays of life advice—a different one each week. It’s useful for a few different reasons:

I’ve collected my favorite essays for re-reading below. I’ll keep this updated as I find more great essays, and I’d welcome other contributions—please suggest your own favorites in the comments!

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Paul Graham, Life is Short. Inspire yourself never to waste time on bullshit again:

Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.

Ok, so life actually is short. Does it make any difference to know that?

It has for me. It means arguments of the form “Life is too short for x” have great force. It’s not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It’s not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.

When I ask myself what I’ve found life is too short for, the word that pops into my head is “bullshit.” I realize that answer is somewhat tautological. It’s almost the definition of bullshit that it’s the stuff that life is too short for. And yet bullshit does have a distinctive character. There’s something fake about it. It’s the junk food of experience. [1]

If you ask yourself what you spend your time on that’s bullshit, you probably already know the answer. Unnecessary meetings, pointless disputes, bureaucracy, posturing, dealing with other people’s mistakes, traffic jams, addictive but unrewarding pastimes.

I’ve found that unless I’m vigilant, the amount of bullshit in my life only ever increases. Rereading Life is Short every so often gives me a kick in the pants to figure out what really matters and how to get the bullshit levels back down.


Derek Sivers, There is no speed limit, in which he learns a semester’s worth of music theory in an afternoon:

Within a minute, he started quizzing me. “If the 5-chord with the flat-7 has that tri-tone, then so does another flat-7 chord. Which one?”

“Uh… the flat-2 chord?”

“Right! So that’s a substitute chord. Any flat-7 chord can be substituted with the other flat-7 that shares the same tri-tone. So reharmonize all the chords you can in this chart. Go.”

The pace was intense, and I loved it. Finally, someone was challenging me — keeping me in over my head — encouraging and expecting me to pull myself up quickly. I was learning so fast, it felt like the adrenaline rush you get while playing a video game. He tossed every fact at me and made me prove that I got it.

In our three-hour lesson that morning, he taught me a full semester of Berklee’s harmony courses.

This was one of the major inspirations for Be impatient. Every time I reread it, I think of at least one thing where I’m setting myself a speed limit for no reason!


Sam Altman, How To Be Successful. Sam might have observed more successful people more closely than anyone else on the planet, and the advice is as good as you’d expect.

Focus is a force multiplier on work.

Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on. It is much more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours. Most people waste most of their time on stuff that doesn’t matter.

Once you have figured out what to do, be unstoppable about getting your small handful of priorities accomplished quickly. I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is very successful.

 

Almost always, the people who say “I am going to keep going until this works, and no matter what the challenges are I’m going to figure them out”, and mean it, go on to succeed. They are persistent long enough to give themselves a chance for luck to go their way.

… To be willful, you have to be optimistic—hopefully this is a personality trait that can be improved with practice. I have never met a very successful pessimistic person.

There are lots of different points here, so this one especially bears rereading!


R. W. Hamming, You and your research. Hamming observed almost as many great scientists as Sam Altman did founders. He had some interesting conclusions:

At first I asked what were the important problems in chemistry, then what important problems they were working on, or problems that might lead to important results. One day I asked, “if what they were working on was not important, and was not likely to lead to important things, they why were they working on them?” After that I had to eat with the engineers!

About four months later, my friend stopped me in the hall and remarked that my question had bothered him. He had spent the summer thinking about the important problems in his area, and while had had not changed his research he thought it was well worth the effort. I thanked him and kept walking. A few weeks later I noticed that he was made head of the department. Many years later he became a member of the National Academy of Engineering. The one person who could hear the question went on to do important things and all the others—so far as I know—did not do anything worth public attention.

… Some people work with their doors open in clear view of those who pass by, while others carefully protect themselves from interruptions. Those with the door open get less work done each day, but those with their door closed tend not know what to work on, nor are they apt to hear the clues to the missing piece to one of their “list” problems. I cannot prove that the open door produces the open mind, or the other way around. I only can observe the correlation. I suspect that each reinforces the other, that an open door will more likely lead you and important problems than will a closed door.

 

There is another trait that took me many years to notice, and that is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Most people want to believe what they learn is the truth: there are a few people who doubt everything. If you believe too much then you are not likely to find the essentially new view that transforms a field, and if you doubt too much you will not be able to do much at all. It is a fine balance between believing what you learn and at the same time doubting things. Great steps forward usually involve a change of viewpoint to outside the standard ones in the field.

While you are leaning things you need to think about them and examine them from many sides. By connecting them in many ways with what you already know…. you can later retrieve them in unusual situations. It took me a long time to realize that each time I learned something I should put “hooks” on it. This is another face of the extra effort, the studying more deeply, the going the extra mile, that seems to be characteristic of great scientists.

Hamming is an unusual combination of (a) a great scientist himself, (b) curious and thoughtful about what makes others great, and (c) honest and open about his observations (it seems).


Anonymous, Becoming a Magician—on how to become a person that your current self would perceive as magical:

The description was about five or six handwritten pages long, and at the time, it was a manifestation of desperate longing to be somewhere other than where I was, someone who felt free and cared for. At the time I saw that description as basically an impossibility; my life could never be so amazing in reality.

Fast forward about seven or ten years and I rediscovered the description when I was moving old notebooks and journals from one dusty storage spot to another. As I read through it, I discovered that 90% of the statements I had made in that description were true (or true in spirit). … It was incredible to me, despite all the changes that had happened in my life since when I wrote the passage, that I had basically become the person whose life I had dreamed of living as a teenager.

That’s pretty fucking cool.

 

And then came Sanatan Dinda. An Indian visual artist from Kolkata, he didn’t even make the finals the first year he competed, and the next year he placed second with a style that broke half a dozen of the implicit rules of ‘good artwork’ at the competition. … [T]he third year he came he won the entire competition by something like ten percent of the total awarded points over the next artist in second place.

… The thing that confused me though was this – I could not work out how he did it. Like, I had zero mental model of how he created that piece in the same timeframe we all had; how he came up with it, designed it, practiced it. Even though he placed first and I placed fifth and logically we both existed on a scale of ‘competence at bodypainting’ it seemed like the skills required were completely different.

The exercise they suggest is a really useful activity for weekly (or monthly or yearly) reviews. Highly recommended!


Dan Luu, 95th percentile isn’t that good. Great for cultivating self-improvement mindset by reminding you how easy (in some sense) it is to make huge improvements at something:

Reaching 95%-ile isn’t very impressive because it’s not that hard to do. I think this is one of my most ridiculable ideas. It doesn’t help that, when stated nakedly, that sounds elitist. But I think it’s just the opposite: most people can become (relatively) good at most things.

Note that when I say 95%-ile, I mean 95%-ile among people who participate, not all people (for many activities, just doing it at all makes you 99%-ile or above across all people). I’m also not referring to 95%-ile among people who practice regularly. The “one weird trick” is that, for a lot of activities, being something like 10%-ile among people who practice can make you something like 90%-ile or 99%-ile among people who participate.

It’s not weekly review material, but I also appreciate the bonus section on Dan’s other most ridiculable ideas.


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And suggest your own favorite life advice essays in the comments!

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Bill Zito

Great list, you included some of my favorites and some I didn’t know about but have now read and will return to. A few books I’ve reread parts/all of to help me think about improving are The score takes care of itself (details on practices/mindsets that led to football success) and Peak (details of deliberate practice).

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Zhengdong

Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror—Because I’m in college, to not compete in meaningless ways

Hume the humane—To be inspired by Hume, who wrote the Treatise by 26 and was still a pretty happy philosopher

The Mundanity of Excellence (a paper but as readable as an essay), The String Theory—Excellence isn’t special just hard

Even if you beat me—By Sally Rooney, on her college debate career— this especially stood out to me because I do college debate, and I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to get out of this essay. On one hand it makes me more competitive and want to work harder and win more, on the other hand it makes me want to quit and take a larger perspective. I think the point is that I don’t know which is correct.

What Does Any of This Have To Do with Physics?, That Eternal Question, Stargazing Before the Apocalypse—These three the same, to remind me not to chase things because they’re hard, like you’ve said before; there are things that matter more

Even artichokes have doubts—Don’t sell out when getting a job

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Cynthia Hartwig

Here is a fave life advice essay from Shane Parrish via Gallwey. I use the inner Game analogy particularly in narrative painting but it works with anything. Self 2 knows.

https://fs.blog/2020/01/inner-game-of-tennis/

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Arnav Shah

Wow, these were some great suggestions and I had not heard of most of them before (only had seen the PG and Sam Altman essays before, essays that I keep bookmarked and make sure to frequent).

Here’s are some interesting life advice essays I’ve come across:

Do the work. A simple sentiment that can move mountains when internalized.

Matthew Pearson

Hi Ben,

Thanks for this blog and this post. I’ve been a reader of it for some time now. Fifteen years ago or so a friend sent me the following article and I turn to it every year. I don’t think it’s quite in line with the rest of the articles here - more philosophical and perhaps less practical - but I felt inspired to share it nevertheless. Perhaps you will like it.

https://freedomcenter.arizona.edu/sites/freedomcenter.arizona.edu/files/Meaning%202015.pdf

Kind regards and happy new year.

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