Accomplishing things takes a long time
At age 17, my future looked very promising. I had overcome a crippling learning disability, and discovered how to do research level math on my own. I knew that the entire K-12 infrastructure had failed to figure out how to teach the skills that I developed, and so I felt empowered to help others learn how to think about the world mathematically.
Things didn’t go as I had been hoping they would. My years between 18 and 28 consisted of a long string of failed attempts to help people learn math, and to promote effective altruism. I learned a lot along the way, but I didn’t have the outsized impact that I aspired to. On the contrary, I was only marginally functional, and I alienated most of the people who I tried to help. I found this profoundly demoralizing, and struggled with chronic depression. If I had died at age 28, my life would have been a tragedy.
Fortunately, at age 29, I’m still alive, and after spending a decade wandering in a wilderness, I’ve gotten my act together, and am back on my feet.
What I finally realized out is that my failures had come from me having very poor communication skills, something that I had been oblivious to until very recently. Recognizing the problem was just the first step. It’s still the case that most of what I try to communicate is lost in translation. I know that the issue is not going to go away overnight, or even over the next 6 months. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because my self-image is so closely tied with my desire to help people, and even now, in practice, most of my efforts are fruitless.
But I’m not concerned about that. I probably still have 30 or 40 productive years ahead of me. I’m ok with the fact that no matter how hard I try, I fail most of the time. Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham emphasizes the importance of relentless resourcefulness. Every failure is a learning opportunity. I know that if I keep experimenting and learning, eventually I’ll succeed. Figuratively speaking, I know that even if I lose dozens of battles over the next four decades, in the end, I’ll win the war. And that’s enough to keep me going.
Something analogous is true of everyone who has a strong passion, and is willing and able to learn from failure. Steve Jobs expressed a similar view in his 2005 Stanford commencement address (transcript | video):
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.