We all want success in our businesses, so it’s important to know what traits are most likely to achieve success. Intelligence is important, but, according to Paul Graham, a computer programmer, writer and investor, it’s not the deciding factor. Determination is what helps us achieve success. Determination means you will stop at nothing to achieve whatever goal you are trying to reach. As we enter the new year, strategize for the upcoming OPE season. Stay determined to reach your goals, as success is much more likely to be achieved through constant will power. In excerpts from the following essay titled “The Anatomy of Determination,” Graham explains the importance of determination in achieving success.
Like all investors, we spend a lot of time trying to learn how to predict which startups will succeed. We probably spend more time thinking about it than most, because we invest the earliest. Prediction is usually all we have to rely on.
We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination. At first, we thought it might be intelligence. Everyone likes to believe that’s what makes startups succeed. It makes a better story that a company won because its founders were so smart. The PR people and reporters who spread such stories probably believe them themselves. But while it certainly helps to be smart, it’s not the deciding factor. There are plenty of people as smart as Bill Gates who achieve nothing.
In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination — partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while, determination starts to look like talent.
I can’t think of any field in which determination is overrated, but the relative importance of determination and talent probably do vary somewhat. Talent probably matters more in types of work that are purer, in the sense that one is solving mostly a single type of problem instead of many different types. I suspect determination would not take you as far in math as it would in, say, organized crime.
I don’t mean to suggest by this comparison that types of work that depend more on talent are always more admirable. Most people would agree it’s more admirable to be good at math than memorizing long strings of digits, even though the latter depends more on natural ability.
Perhaps one reason people believe startup founders win by being smarter is that intelligence does matter more in technology startups than it used to in earlier types of companies. You probably do need to be a bit smarter to dominate Internet search than you had to be to dominate railroads or hotels or newspapers. And that’s probably an ongoing trend. But even in the highest of high-tech industries, success still depends more on determination than brains.
The simplest form of determination is sheer willfulness. When you want something, you must have it, no matter what.
A good deal of willfulness must be inborn, because it’s common to see families where one sibling has much more of it than another. Circumstances can alter it, but at the high end of the scale, nature seems to be more important than nurture. Bad circumstances can break the spirit of a strong-willed person, but I don’t think there’s much you can do to make a weak-willed person stronger-willed.
Being strong-willed is not enough, however. You also have to be hard on yourself. Someone who was strong-willed but self-indulgent would not be called determined. Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline.
We can imagine will and discipline as two fingers squeezing a slippery melon seed. The harder they squeeze, the further the seed flies, but they must both squeeze equally or the seed spins off sideways.
Another consequence of the melon seed model is that the more willful you are, the more dangerous it is to be undisciplined. There seem to be plenty of examples to confirm that. In some very energetic people’s lives, you see something like wing flutter, where they alternate between doing great work and doing absolutely nothing. Externally, this would look a lot like bipolar disorder.
The melon seed model is inaccurate in at least one respect, however: it’s static. In fact, the dangers of indiscipline increase with temptation. Which means, interestingly, that determination tends to erode itself. If you’re sufficiently determined to achieve great things, this will probably increase the number of temptations around you. Unless you become proportionally more disciplined, willfulness will then get the upper hand, and your achievement will revert to the mean…
Achievements also tend to increase your ambition. With each step, you gain confidence to stretch further next time.
So here in sum is how determination seems to work: it consists of willfulness balanced with discipline, aimed by ambition.