To do great work you need natural ability and determination. But computer scientist and essayist Paul Graham says there’s a third ingredient required in the recipe for genius at work: a disinterested obsession with something that matters.
And to understand, you need to spend a little time studying a group you have probably never thought about and certainly not in the context of genius: bus ticket collectors. They have an obsessive interest in old bus tickets and collect them, keeping track of distinctions between different types.
Most of us have no idea anyone would do that – after all, what’s the point? And Mr. Graham says for understanding career greatness that is the point: Their love of this art is disinterested. They’re not doing it to impress us or to make themselves rich but for its own sake.
“When you look at the lives of people who’ve done great work, you see a consistent pattern. They often begin with a bus ticket collector’s obsessive interest in something that would have seemed pointless to most of their contemporaries,” Mr. Graham writes on his blog.
“One of the most striking features of Darwin’s book about his voyage on the Beagle is the sheer depth of his interest in natural history. His curiosity seems infinite.”
He also points to Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose obsession with numbers led to a greater understanding of numbers theory and infinite series. It might be argued that Darwin and Ramanujan were laying the foundation for their contributions to knowledge. But Mr. Graham says that implies more intention than was the case: “Like bus ticket collectors, they were doing it because they liked it.”
Of course, there is a big difference between Darwin and Ramanujan, and a bus ticket collector. Evolution and math series matter, and bus tickets don’t.
So yes, you want a disinterested obsession in something – an obsession unrelated to personal gain. But it should be in something that matters. And, ironically, if you have that, you will probably have the other two ingredients in his recipe for success, natural ability and determination. It will also give you luck, he suggests, since as Louis Pasteur said, chance favours the prepared mind, and an obsessed mind is prepared.
Being disinterested might seem unnecessary. After all, why can’t we be self-interested as well as obsessive and focused on something that matters? That would seem a more natural combination. But he says disinterestedness is a filter for earnestness and helps you discover new ideas.
“The paths that lead to new ideas tend to look unpromising. If they looked promising, other people would already have explored them. How do the people who do great work discover these paths that others overlook? The popular story is that they simply have better vision: Because they’re so talented, they see paths that others miss. But if you look at the way great discoveries are made, that’s not what happens. Darwin didn’t pay closer attention to individual species than other people because he saw that this would lead to great discoveries, and they didn’t. He was just really, really interested in such things. Darwin couldn’t turn it off,” he writes.
Of course, it’s usually not clear what matters. Neither Darwin not Ramanujan knew. Mr. Graham offers these tips: It’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates; if something you’re interested in is difficult; and if it’s an obsession of talented people since when talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random. One other tip: It may be that to do great work, you also have to waste a lot of time.
It’s not the easiest theory to put into practical use. But it’s certainly provocative and worth pondering for your own career … in a disinterested way, of course.
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SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 20, 2020
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