My father is a mathematician. For most of my childhood he worked
for Westinghouse, modelling nuclear reactors.
He was one of those lucky people who know early on what they want to
do. When you talk to him about his childhood, there's a clear
watershed at about age 12, when he "got interested in maths." He
grew up in the small Welsh seacoast town of Pwllheli. As we retraced
his walk to school on Google Street View, he said that it had been
nice growing up in the country.
"Didn't it get boring when you got to be about 15?" I asked.
"No," he said, "by then I was interested in maths."
In another conversation he told me that what he really liked was
solving problems. To me the exercises at the end of each chapter
in a math textbook represent work, or at best a way to reinforce
what you learned in that chapter. To him the problems were the
reward. The text of each chapter was just some advice about solving
them. He said that as soon as he got a new textbook he'd immediately
work out all the problems—to the slight annoyance of his teacher,
since the class was supposed to work through the book gradually.
Few people know so early or so certainly what they want to work on.
But talking to my father reminded me of a heuristic the rest of us
can use. If something that seems like work to other people doesn't
seem like work to you, that's something you're well suited for.
For example, a lot of programmers I know, including me, actually
like debugging. It's not something people tend to volunteer; one
likes it the way one likes popping zits. But you may have to like
debugging to like programming, considering the degree to which
programming consists of it.
The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence
they probably are of what you should do. When I was in college I
used to write papers for my friends. It was quite interesting to
write a paper for a class I wasn't taking. Plus they were always
It seemed curious that the same task could be painful to one person
and pleasant to another, but I didn't realize at the time what this
imbalance implied, because I wasn't looking for it. I didn't realize
how hard it can be to decide what you should work on, and that you
sometimes have to figure it out from subtle clues, like a detective
solving a case in a mystery novel. So I bet it would help a lot
of people to ask themselves about this explicitly. What seems like
work to other people that doesn't seem like work to you?
Thanks to Sam Altman, Trevor Blackwell, Jessica Livingston,
Robert Morris, and my father for reading drafts of this.