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.