reaction: sam altman's "how to be successful"

2021-02-18

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~2 min read

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368 words

I recently read Sam Altman’s 2019 blog post, How To Be Successful. Though the article is intriguing and full of good advice, I’m frustrated by one of the limitations of a single blog post.

It’s an issue that I run into often. When trying to address a topic as large as success, it is impossible to do it justice in a few hundred words. The options appear to be:

  1. Carry on. Blogs are not meant to be a full thesis.
  2. Frame it. Acknowledge the limitations of a blog and do what you can within that constraint.
  3. Abandon it. Unwilling to put a half-formed thought out, and unable to fully bake it currently, table the idea until such a time presents that it can be further developed.

Sam seems to have pursued the first strategy. Without discussion or note of the many definitions of success, Sam outlined thirteen strategies to achieve “outlier success” derived from “observ[ing] thousands of founders and [thinking] a lot about what it takes to make a huge amount of money or to create something important.” I guess that’s what success means.

As I mentioned, this limitation is something I’ve struggled with frequently. It’s why I remind myself that writing is just the beginning of the conversation. If I don’t, I will never attempt to write anything where there’s any possibility of debate. That said, I do wish that Sam had been more forthright in acknowledging that he was describing one type of success. After all, the definition of success (or the “Good Life”) is not exactly a settled question. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps I need to acknowledge that making this distinction is not Sam’s responsibility. Perhaps it’s the reader’s.

With all of that said, if you’re pursuing a life of huge amounts of money or creating something important (which feels incredibly squishy as a measure of success by the way - who defines “important”?), there’s a lot of good advice in it. There’s probably a lot of good advice even if you’re not pursuing those objectives. I certainly have been thinking a lot about it - and not just because I wish it came with a warning.


Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!