The Only 2 Things You Must Get Right for a Great Career

Sam Altman’s vector theory of impact

Photo: Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash

The more you think of your career as the massive, complex, ever-changing pool of options it actually is, the harder you’ll find it to commit to a job you like — and the less happy said commitment will make you once you’ve made it.

You’ll constantly worry about which gig to choose next, and you’ll constantly feel anxious about whatever gig you’ve chosen. In other words: You’ll be right, but you’ll be miserable.

On Wait But Why, Tim Urban shares a great analogy about how our career landscape has changed in the past century: dots vs. tunnels.

He says traditional careers weren’t 40-year tunnels, but at the very least, they felt like it. “You picked your tunnel, and once you were in, that was that. You worked in that profession for 40 years or so before the tunnel spit you out on the other side into your retirement.”

Modern careers, on the other hand, are “long series of science experiments,” Tim says. We are the scientists, and each next job is a new dot in a connected, yet oddly shaped line of points. Referencing Steve Jobs’ connect-the-dots speech, Tim suggests our career paths look “more like a long series of connected dots than a straight and predictable tunnel.”

Seeing your career as a series of dots isn’t a mental trick to help you make decisions — it’s an accurate depiction of what’s actually happening. And seeing your career as a tunnel isn’t just unproductive — it’s delusional.

Everything Tim says is correct. There is incredible freedom in knowing not just that there’s an infinite number of great roles out there but also that, if you’re creative, you can make up your own. It is important to truly understand and deeply internalize this fact — and yet it is equally important to not remind yourself of it every single day, because if you do, you’ll never get anything done.

The human brain thrives on shortcuts. It is an incredibly complex machine, capable of computing the most intricate details — but if that’s all it does, it’ll forever spin its wheels. Imagine we had to direct conscious thought to every slight movement we make: You could barely read this article, and I’d hardly be able to type it. We need filters to operate, and sometimes, the most blatant filters help us get the most done.

When it comes to your career, Sam Altman offers such a filter. He calls it the “vector theory of impact.”

Sam Altman ran Y Combinator for five years. Y Combinator is the single-most productive startup incubator on the planet. Since 2005, they have supported and invested in over 2,000 companies. Here’s a small selection you might recognize: Dropbox, Reddit, Twitch, Stripe, Coinbase, DoorDash, Instacart, and, oh, Airbnb.

Sam has worked with thousands of founders, some young, some old, but all longing for a both successful and meaningful career. As such, it bodes well to pay attention when he talks about the topic. A few weeks ago, Sam shared his vector theory on Twitter, and it boils the convoluted subject of careers down into just two factors we must get right: direction and magnitude.

The expected value of your impact on the world is like a vector. It is defined by two things: direction and magnitude. That’s it.

In math, a vector is simply a geometric object. It’s a map that describes how to get from point A to point B — where do you need to go and how long will you have to walk? Vectors are usually visualized with arrows, you might remember graphics like these from high school:

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Image via Wikipedia

According to Sam, our careers are remarkably similar to these arrows, and direction is the main factor that’ll determine where you’ll end up:

Direction is what you choose to work on. Almost no one spends enough time thinking about this. A useful framework is to think on a long-but-not-too-long timescale (10–20 years seems to work), to think about where the world is going to go if current exponentials continue on (which is harder to do than it sounds like it should be), to think about what you’re genuinely interested in, and to think about what you can do better than anyone else (someone will always be better than you at any one thing — the easiest way to do something no one else can is to be 95th percentile at several skills, and to do something at their intersection). You also have to learn to trust yourself when people don’t see what you see.

I started working for myself six years ago. I gave myself every title in the book: entrepreneur, writer, freelancer, founder, translator, author, coach, investor, consultant, marketer — you name it, I “was” it. I was the arrogant kid yearning for every label that offered even a remote chance of fame and fortune.

About two years ago, I finally found the confidence to call myself a writer and writer alone. I cannot tell you how liberating that felt. It took a few years and the reassurance from seeing myself earn a full-time income definitely helped, but the truth is my frantic label-jumping was unnecessary all along.

In hindsight, it was easy to see that writing had carried me through all of it and to where I had gotten, and that it was the thing I kept returning to over and over again, no matter how shiny and promising other careers looked.

Being a writer is my direction, and while it in no way limits the specifics of how I’ll do the job each day (will I write books? Articles? Something else?), it is an amalgamation of the factors Sam talks about:

  • I can’t go from zero to world-class writer in two years, but in ten I can probably achieve a good deal.
  • The internet hasn’t even reached 100% of the world’s population, and yet every generation that follows is a generation of digital natives. Writing on the internet scales indefinitely for decades to come, and the cost of doing it and spreading the work is near zero, no matter how many people I want to reach.
  • I am genuinely interested in being genuinely interested. I can’t stick with any one topic for too long. I synthesize. I connect. I love spotting patterns from one arena in another, and while I’m neither the world’s greatest writer, thinker, trend spotter, or creative, I can pull together different ideas well enough to create something worthwhile you can learn from.
  • Having worked in this field since 2014, I’m 100% convinced that spending my time writing something that scales infinitely and can impact people for years to come is, in almost all cases, a better use of my time than doing one-off projects and freelance work, even if only a small fraction of what I write will ever reach the exact right person at the exact right time.

Choosing writing as my direction may sound like it makes my career a bit more “tunnel-y,” to go back to Tim Urban’s analogy, and, in a way, it does. Contrary to what you might expect from how Tim describes it, however, it provides me with a great sense of relief rather than depression.

For example, I still struggle sometimes — as we all do — to resist the call of money and fame. But now, if an opportunity comes a-knocking that’s well-paid but not aligned with my becoming a better writer at all, I find it much easier to say no. After all, there’s a reason we equate “tunnel vision” with target fixation — and when distractions abound, fixation can be a good thing.

Once your direction is set, magnitude will determine how fast you’ll reach your destination — and how far you’ll go in the first place, Sam says:

Magnitude is how hard you push in your chosen direction. Most people don’t push nearly hard enough — they give up too quickly, or care too much about what other people think, or don’t work hard enough, or something like that. Pushing hard is often uncomfortable, but it is how things get moved. Developing an early and strong sense of self-belief (but not so strong you don’t adapt to feedback and new data) is critical to this. Getting people to join your quest and inspiring them to outperform is usually critical — most really important things can only be done by teams. The easiest way to push hard over a long period of time seems to be to really care a lot about the work itself and the outcome you’re striving towards.

I was one lazy kid growing up. School was easy for me, so I got home, ate, did my homework in 20 minutes, and then played for hours. I cruised through life all the way until college, and even though that required me to step up my game quite a bit, I probably would have tried to keep avoiding work forever if I hadn’t developed a desire to be a writer — an unusual and unclear career path compared to everything I knew up to that point.

It took a lot of failure, motion without progress, and deep reflection for me to realize — at the ripe age of 21 — that no one was coming to save me, and that if I wanted certain things out of life, I would be the only one who cared enough to go out and get them. As a result, I worked hard from day one of self-employment.

Here’s how the magnitude factors Sam describes played out for me:

  • I was never tempted to quit writing because I always allowed myself to freely choose what I wanted to write about — at least to the point where I had always something fun to write that I was looking forward to.
  • I learned quickly that everyone has an opinion whether they share it or not, and while I did lose some friends over what I wrote throughout the years, the opinions of those people never felt like they carried enough weight to dissuade me. Everyone thinks they’re always right anyway, so I might as well keep doing what at least I know is right for me.
  • I worked about 60 hours on average each week for the first few years, and I did so mostly without fail. I often worked on weekends, and I took no two-week vacations, but I also enjoyed what I was doing, and I never really worked more than those 60 hours. I felt exhausted from time to time as we all do, but I never got even close to severe burnout or other mental issues.
  • With each piece I published, I became more confident, and now I trust myself enough to believe in what I publish above most irrelevant criticism — but I do I try to course-correct whenever someone shows me I’m wrong. For example, I updated my bio to a more true-to-myself version after a reader told me it sounded harsh compared to my usual writing tone.
  • The writer’s team-equivalent is an army of loyal readers. You can’t carry big ideas into the world alone, and I appreciate everyone who is or might one day be part of spreading an important concept of mine far and wide, whether it’ll be a book, an article, or just a tweet.
  • The more I write, the more I care that it matters what I say. Not in how it’s received but in how it’s perceived — by me and me alone. “Is this a unique enough twist? Have you ever seen this story before? Is this important or just indulgent?” I ask myself these things more and more.

To be clear: Direction trumps magnitude by a mile. It is no use to work extremely hard if you’re going entirely in the wrong direction. As Sam’s fellow world-class thinker Naval says: “Work as hard as you can. Even though what you work on and who you work with are more important.”

Working hard also isn’t just about long hours. Yes, it helps to put in time, especially in the beginning stages of your self-actualization journey, but don’t fool yourself: No one works consistent, productive 100-hour weeks.

The science is very clear on this. Cognitive function and creativity deteriorate significantly after about 55 hours per week, according to the famous Whitehall study among 2,000+ British civil servants. How much you can work productively also depends on your age. A study from The University of Melbourne with 6,000 participants indicates that for those over 40, anything more than 25 hours per week is unlikely to bear fantastic results.

All in all, magnitude is a calibration of your career’s direction rather than its primary determinant, for magnitude alone won’t mean anything without orientation — and, aimed at the wrong target, actively obstructs progress.

Freedom is wonderful. It is critical that we understand and make use of the freedom we have today when it comes to our careers. It is, however, not always conducive to be hyper-aware of this freedom all the time: In your everyday routine, you must take many little steps, and you can’t do so if you’re constantly busy worrying about the big picture.

Sam Altman’s vector theory is a useful tool in aligning yourself towards your true north while ensuring you keep marching without unnecessary delay.

Determining your direction will require a good amount of thought and reflection, but once it is set, it should not require constant revisiting — a few times a year or even less often should be enough.

Magnitude is a mere force multiplier on your chosen direction, and even though it is the less pressing part of your career vector, it is important enough to warrant the bigger share of your attention as you work day-in and day-out. “Am I working hard enough? Do I let other people make my decisions? What can I try here that I haven’t?” These are questions of magnitude, and they’ll help you accelerate once you’re going in the right direction.

It’s true that choosing a career has become infinitely more complex in the last few decades, but no matter how much freedom this complexity is attached to, giving it too much space in our brains will only make us unproductive and unhappy about whichever path we have chosen.

Humans thrive on simplicity, and even though our brains sometimes push this concept to the brink of naïveté and beyond, it is essential that we work with it rather than against it — that too is freedom, and a special kind at that. Or, as Sam would say when it comes to great careers:

I find it liberating that you only have to get two big things right!

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