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Components of success: Paul Graham’s Anatomy of Determination



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I recently read a post on Paul Graham’s blog which dissects the concepts of success and determination. He puts forward a very simple yet powerful model for what he considers the most important contributor to success: determination.

The engineer within me loves to use models and analogies to explain difficult concepts and apply them to the real world. But a couple of things always need to be kept in mind with models:

  • Models can be simplified to a point where they are not effective in providing answers
  • We should always be challenging and developing our models
  • The output of a model is limited by the inputs (i.e. crap data in, crap data out)

Paul Graham’s model:

  • Success = Talent + Determination; where Determination > Talent in almost all cases
  • Determination = Willfulness + Discipline; where Willfulness = Discipline for best results
  • Ambition sets the target or direction of Determination

Paul Graham argues that talent is often overrated in the discussion of successful people. Far more important is determination, as this puts talent, skills and intelligence to work in achieving an outcome. The direction of this outcome is set by ambition, and tougher ambitions will require more determination. Determination is best achieved when willpower is balanced by discipline, to prevent the eroding forces of temptation.

Graham argues that ambition and discipline can be definitely cultivated, which is good news for anyone with any amount of willpower: we can all achieve success in some form.

Paul Graham writes “willfulness, discipline, and ambition are all concepts almost as complicated as determination” – this echoes my point above about developing our model.

How this model relates to me

What I like about Paul Graham’s model is that it links several complicated concepts together. I think it breaks down some difficult concepts enough to see which components are presenting our biggest barriers, and how we can overcome these to succeed.

I would say that I have strong willfulness. Until recently, if you were to ask me what temptation was, I would say obvious things like ‘television’. Now I see that temptation for me is switching between multiple projects, based on what captures my excitement at the time. This is an inefficient use of time and effort. I am unclear of where I am heading: I am unclear of my ambition.

The projects I switch between are all under the guise of progress, and this is how temptation slips under my radar. The reason I have so many projects is that my willpower is strong and my interests are wide. Thus I currently have a clear case of willfulness > discipline, owing to lack of clear ambition, so much so that I don’t even know how to measure success.

In past times when I have had strong ambition, I automatically up my discipline to achieve. So right now, I need to clarify my ambition, then discipline will follow as I forge ahead with only one project. Sounds simple right? This is why I love models and analogies.

If you liked Graham’s post on determination, you should also check out What You Can’t Say – a very thought provoking read, and full of wisdom.