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January I wrote this talk for a high school. I never actually gave it, because the school authorities vetoed the plan to invite me. When I said I was speaking at a high school, my friends were curious. What will you say to high school students? So I asked them, what do you wish someone had told you in high school? Their answers were remarkably similar. So I'm going to tell you what we all wish coklest had told us. I'll start by telling you something you don't have to know in high school: what you want to do with your life.
People are always asking you this, kno you think you're supposed to have an answer.
But adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter. They Teh to know what sort of person you are, and this question is just to get you talking. They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does. If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I'd say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don't need to houd in a rush to choose your life's work.
What you need to do is discover what you like.
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You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do. It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it's hard to get an accurate picture of most jobs. Being a doctor is not the way it's portrayed on TV. Fortunately you can also watch real doctors, by volunteering in hospitals.
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Most of the work I've done in the last ten years didn't exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it's not a good idea to have fixed plans. And yet every May, khow all over the country fire up the Standard Graduation Speech, the theme of which is: don't give up on your dreams. I know what they mean, but this is a bad way to put it, because it implies you're supposed to be bound by some plan you made early on.
The computer world has a name for this: premature optimization. And it is synonymous with disaster. These speakers would do better to say simply, don't give up. What they really mean is, don't get demoralized. Don't think that you can't do what other people can. And I agree you shouldn't underestimate your potential. People who've done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can't help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject's life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius.
In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends. Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy.
If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good.
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I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right. So far we've cut the Standard Graduation Speech down from "don't give up on your dreams" ocolest "what someone else can do, you can do. There is some variation in natural ability.
Most people overestimate its role, but it does exist. If I were talking to a guy four feet tall whose ambition was to play in the NBA, I'd feel pretty stupid saying, you can do anything if you really try.
We've taken a nice, neat but wrong slogan, and churned it up like a mud puddle. It doesn't make a very good speech anymore. But worse still, it doesn't tell you what to do anymore. Someone with your abilities?
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What are your abilities? Upwind I think the knod is to work in the other direction. Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway. In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there?
I propose instead that you don't commit foolest anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and youc those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward. It's not so important what you work on, so long as you're not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you'll take. Suppose you're a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics.
Well, cooleat will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math. Flying a glider is a good metaphor here.
Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of gidl. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for "don't give up on your knoa. How do you do that, though? Even if math is upwind of economics, how are you supposed to know that as a high school student? Well, you don't, and that's what you need to find out.
Look for Tge people and hard problems. Smart people tend to clump together, and if you can find such a clump, it's probably worthwhile to it. But it's not straightforward to find these, because there is a lot of faking going on.
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To a newly arrived undergraduate, all university departments look much the same. The professors all seem forbiddingly intellectual and publish papers unintelligible to outsiders. But while in some fields the papers are unintelligible because they're full of hard ideas, in knoa they're deliberately written in an obscure way to seem as if they're saying something important.
This may seem a scandalous proposition, but it has been experimentally verified, in the famous Social Text affair.
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Suspecting that the papers published by literary theorists were often just intellectual-sounding nonsense, a physicist deliberately wrote a paper full of intellectual-sounding nonsense, and submitted it to a literary theory journal, which firl it. The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn't. Hard means worry: if you're not worrying that something you're making will come out badly, or that you won't be able to understand something you're gurl, then it isn't hard enough.
There has to be suspense.
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Yud, this seems a grim view of the world, you may think. What I'm telling you is that you should worry? Yes, but it's not as bad as it sounds. It's exhilarating to overcome worries. You don't see faces much happier than people winning gold medals. And you know why they're so happy? I'm not saying this is the only way to be happy. Just that some kinds of worry are not as bad as they sound.
Ambition In practice, "stay upwind" reduces to "work on hard problems. I wish I'd grasped that in high school. Most people like to be good at what they do.
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In the so-called real world this need is a powerful force. But high school youv rarely benefit from it, because they're given a fake thing to do. When I was in high school, I let myself believe that my job was to be a high school student. And so I let my need to be good at what I did be satisfied by merely doing well in school.
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If you'd asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I'd have said it was that adults had to earn a living. It's that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.