The Anatomy of Determination

This essay, from Paul Graham, originally appeared on his website in September of 2009. While it’s geared toward investors and participants in start-up businesses, since authors (especially self-publishing authors) and small imprints are businesses, his comments and advice in this piece are also applicable to Publetariat’s audience.

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.

If determination is so important, can we isolate its components? Are some more important than others? Are there some you can cultivate?

Read the rest of the essay on Paul Graham’s site.

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