Paul Graham: What You’ll Wish You’d Known

Paul Graham is definitely one of my favorite essayists. He wrote a piece in 2005 titled “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” which was originally a speech draft to a group of high school students. As a high school student in the U.S., I personally resonate greatly with many of his points in the essay as I juxtapose my own blueprint with Graham’s thoughts.

If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I’d say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.

It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it’s hard to get an accurate picture of most jobs. Being a doctor is not the way it’s portrayed on TV. Fortunately you can also watch real doctors, by volunteering in hospitals.

The curricula of most high schools are shallow. However, it is crucial to get an extensive understanding of different sectors, disciplines, and occupations. I was interested in tech entrepreneurship in my freshman year, so I ended up working at a startup over the summer because I had a lot of spare time. That was a good opportunity for me to get to know what these intangible ideas actually were.

But there are other jobs you can’t learn about, because no one is doing them yet. Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.

It’s very hard to foresee our society’s employment demands in the next decade. I was born in Harbin, China where my mother went to high school. Because everybody in her hometown thought that the Soviets would be the superpower at some point, my mom chose to learn Russian instead of English as her second language. No one had anticipated the breakdown of the Soviet Union, but if one had mastered the methodology of learning languages (not just learning one specific language), it shouldn’t be hard to pick up a new language.

It’s hard to predict the trend, so be adaptive, get ready, and be prepared for new things. Don’t waste your time on how to pass a calculus test (computers can easily solve the problems for you), learn to understand how to logically solve a problem instead. Be ready to surprise others, and don’t wait for the world to surprise you.

The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t. Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard enough. There has to be suspense.

Spot on. Challenge yourself.

If you’d asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I’d have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It’s that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.

Yes! Responsibility. But I think it’s not just about intellectual responsibility. In my boarding school, I find myself studying and living with upper middle class Americans, yet few are conscious of their privilege of attending an independent school in Massachusetts. I believe the amount of social responsibility we take should be at least commensurate with the privilege that’s bestowned upon us.

When I ask people what they regret most about high school, they nearly all say the same thing: that they wasted so much time. If you’re wondering what you’re doing now that you’ll regret most later, that’s probably it.

The only way not to waste your talent is to try your best and stop wasting time.

You may be thinking, we have to do more than get good grades. We have to have extracurricular activities. But you know perfectly well how bogus most of these are. Collecting donations for a charity is an admirable thing to do, but it’s not hard. It’s not getting something done. What I mean by getting something done is learning how to write well, or how to program computers, or what life was really like in preindustrial societies, or how to draw the human face from life. This sort of thing rarely translates into a line item on a college application.

Spend time on things that are meaningful, challenging, and have long-term impacts. This is also the reason I think American high school students need to get off campus and leave their homes more often and see what our society needs. (Paul Graham describes it as a “day job.”) Find a niche in society aside from being a young adult in your family and a student in high school: writing, programming, designing, painting, lobbying, or becoming an advocate for the causes that you support.

Right now most of you feel your job in life is to be a promising college applicant. But that means you’re designing your life to satisfy a process so mindless that there’s a whole industry devoted to subverting it. No wonder you become cynical. The malaise you feel is the same that a producer of reality TV shows or a tobacco industry executive feels. And you don’t even get paid a lot.

This might be obvious to many of us, but I’ve seen too many people who set their ultimate goal of high school life as “getting into a good college.” I’m pretty sure you will most likely get rejected by your dream school if you walk into their admissions office and tell the officer that your dream is to get in there. Similarly, if you spend all your time thinking about how to make billions, unlikely will you become a billionaire in the end. (Work hard, be smart, and make sure if one day someone offers you a billion-dollar paycheck, you’re prepared for it.)

When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.

Find a question! Find something that you like. Curiosity turns work into play.

But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Pretty much summarizes how important curiosity is. Good entrepreneurs, writers, engineers, and elites in their respective fields are not just good because they challenge themselves, but more crucially they enjoy what they are doing. Math may seem boring, but if you find economics really appealing to you, you should be grateful for having the opportunity to learn algebra (a lot of people don’t).

The important thing is to get out there and do stuff. Instead of waiting to be taught, go out and learn.

Your life doesn’t have to be shaped by admissions officers. It could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious adults. And you don’t have to wait to start. In fact, you don’t have to wait to be an adult. There’s no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I’m just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it’s restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

This! Take initiatives. Take responsibilities. You’re doing things for no one but yourself.

Please, please, please read Paul Graham’s entire essay, regardless whether you are or aren’t in high school. Many of his thoughts are also applicable to people of other life stages.

This post was originally published on October 15, 2017, when I was in tenth grade. I have made minor edits in July 2021 for clarity.