Ideas From Sam Altman

11 Jul, 2020 | People Notes, Startups, Productivity


He places a massive emphasis on what you work on (the area/problem) and who you work with. Make sure you get these primary questions right.

Focus on areas with compounding forces. For business, that is ideas that have network effects. In your career, that is traits like managing capital, people or technology.


How to be successful? Some ideas:

  • All success is easier once you’ve achieved a baseline of success (either through hard work or privilege).
  • Look for compounding laws:

    • in your business = network effects
    • in yourself = career paths where you get more effective with time (capital, managing people, technology, brand, network)
    • For both of these, having a long term mindset pays off.
  • Think independently and critically - outsized returns require you to think something that few others agreed with. This means working from first principles.
  • Get good at sales - all success at some stage requires the ability to convince others in what you’re doing. The best way to be good at sales is to know what you’re selling is great. Anyone can get better with practice. Written communication is especially useful:

    • First, know that your thinking is clear. Know what you want to say.
    • Second, communicate it concisely.
  • Make it easy to take risks - most people over estimate risk and under estimate reward. Once you have basic obligations covered, be comfortable at taking risks (avoid lifestyle creep, be happy with less).
  • Focus - always know your small handful of priorities and work hard on them.
  • Work hard (and smart) - to be 99th percentile you need both. Working hard early is also beneficial, as it compounds over your whole life. Success begets success.
  • Be hard to compete with (personally). Best way is to build leverage:

    • Personal brand
    • Be good at the intersection of multiple skills
    • Have a good network
  • Build a network - You’ll need to be able to build teams. An effective way to network is to help people with no expectation of return. Build a reputation of treating people around you very well (with generosity on the upside).
  • Get good at discovering talent early on. Quickly spotting intelligence, drive, and creativity gets much easier with practice. Remember, you are looking for rate of improvement.
  • Own things - You get truly rich by owning things that increase rapidly in value. This can be a piece of a business, real estate, natural resource, intellectual property, or other similar things (How to be Successful).

On Startups

An important part of being a founder is having ideas. YC once funded an experiment of founders without ideas - all failed. So how do you get good at generating ideas? You want to be in the right environment and around the right people. The right people are smart, creative, positive, entertain improbable ideas, don’t care what others think, etc. The best ideas start of as fragile. You don’t want to be around people who will make you feel stupid for an idea. Stay away from people who belittle your ambitions. They hold on to your past, but you want to live in your future. Some practical ideas: 1) Projects yourself 20 years into the future and think backwards. What should happen? Or 2) Identify some massive change in the world and then an opportunity it unlocks. e.g. mobile. If you can say, I’m sure this is going to happen, I’m not sure if it will be us - thats a good sign! It’s good to think about early what can make this huge. Is there a property that drives an accumulating advantage as it grows? Another good sign, if you can easily articulate why some people think its a bad idea, but why you don’t believe that. Finally, think about why it’s the right idea or you. Founder/product fit is as important as product/market fit (Idea Generation).

How to Build The Future:

  • Career as compound interest. It’s better to do the work up front as then you benefit from everything that follows.
  • Burnout doesn’t come from working too hard. It comes from failing. Momentum is very energising. Failure is very draining. When you look at successful people and see that they are getting all these things done, its because they have the benefit of momentum.
  • How to think about risk in your career? Most people don’t take enough risk. Risk is actually not doing something significant. If you really believe in something, you should probably do it.
  • An important thing to strive for in your career: to be a doer not a talker. People tend not to do because its a) hard b) risky. History favours the doers and builders.

On Productivity

Why focus on productivity? Because it compounds. A small gain, but every day, leads to massive impact. So its worth focusing on your day-to-day productivity:

  1. It’s important to know what to work on - leave time to think about this in a big picture way. If you find yourself not liking what you are doing, seriously consider a job change. Try to develop string opinions about where the world is going. Tactics to know what to work on: read good books, hang out with interesting people, spend time in nature.
  2. What not to work on - Things you don’t care about or don’t like. Delegate these away. Btw, it helps to think who would like them instead.
  3. Prioritisation - Which basically means 3 lists: Year List, Month List, Day List - Start and end with something you can make good progress on (in order to foster momentum). Say no to things. Although, keep some open time to chance meetings and encounters. An open network is important. Save the mornings for your own stuff, the big tasks.
  4. Physical factors - Focus on sleep, exercise and nutrition. Also consider your caffeine and sugar intake.
  5. Other - Think of your environment; Light, quiet, etc. Think about what you can automate easily. Remember, that life rewards the doers. So focus on output and make sure you’re working on the right things (Productivity).


Sam /w Tyler Cowen

  • 2 - over time he has become convinced that at the early stage the only way to succeed (at seed stage) is to find best talent and trust over time they will figure it out. Their USP is that the run YC the same way they tell startups to run (unlike others VCs). YCombinator means a function that creates other functions (and the are a company that create ither companies). 
  • 5 - the biggest mistake in investing (and in life) is to be too pessimistic. Something good is around the orner. It’s tempting to look at the Current crop of big companies and think they’ll win forever. But historically it’s been a bad bet to not back new companies. Eventually some shift in technology will mean established companies can’t move quick enough or won’t take the risk. 
  • 9 - eco growth masks a lot of problems. Sustainable growth is almost always a moral good. A lot of current problems could be traced back to decline in growth. Getting back to a world were most people’s love get better each year and people feel that shared success.
  • 10.30 - why is being quick and decisive so important? Not sure. But correlation is Def there. Maybe it’s because speed, flexibility and ability to make non-diluted bets is only advantages startups have 
  • 12 - he’s met people smarter than him, but n out as many who are as curious as him. The point is, raw IQ isn’t the only deterrent. To be a successful founder - you do have to be smart, but you also have to have grit. Very rarely are successful founders born in real poverty or real riches. They tend to be smart middle class-ish. 
  • 14 - are the 5 factor personalities useful? No. Perhaps most important is relentless resourcefulness of personality and having a vision (that you care so much about to follow through). Also, communication as you become main evangelist.
  • 15 - most people who manage organisations are either good leaders or good managers
  • 16 - lots of great founders are also into extreme physical sports. Focus and determination and the desire to compete against yourself (internally driven, beat your own time). PG used to say the prototype for a good founder is James Bond (unflappable).
  • Books - The mind of Napoleon, Hyman Rickover - nuclear baby
  • 25 - the ideal superhero would be superman, because he’s not super at all. He’s just extremely smart, resourceful and motivated.
  • 26 - building artificial intelligence and choosing the terms we live with AI afterwards is the most important thing to work on right now. He believes AI could generate more economics growth than any innovation that has come before. 
  • 27 - there was a time when human x AI would win at chess. But eventually human slowed AI down. Made it worse. We may find that we actually make machines worse - not as smart as we think. Brain is limited. So biology will limit machines, rather than enhance. That’s a decision we’ll have to make. 
  • 30 - talent might be equally distributed, but what about the cultural frameworks that support founders. How to spread that so other countries contribute their share? Parents who support them and love them and encourage them. “The most important thing you can get to be a founder is to pick your parents well. I suspect the answer is education…” how can more people get that? 
  • 33 - why is nuclear unpopular? People are bad at hiding risk. We breath in dirty air and eventually die from cancer, not connecting the two. But when 3 people die from a reactor, we think it’s a disaster. The image of a mushroom cloud over Japan is scarring, even if the facts are okay. 
  • 37 - why has tech struggled with education? Because the biggest problem in education is a tech. It’s a human problem. It requires love and parenting.
  • 42 - Silicon Valley is close to the point where the costs (expensive, competition) outweigh the network effects t’s that made it successful. 
  • 47 - the hardest thing is business is to produce repeat innovations. Why? Because loss ever soon is so high. It’s hard to move from something that works to something new. You need to truly internalise that most doors are two ways.
  • 53 - it’s a feature not a bug that YC has no co-working space. Great ideas are fragile and coworking space can kill those. Also the average level of ambition and desire to work hard is low.
  • 56 - what will be the role of humans once AI succeeds? Loving each other. When it happens w need to decide how to live with AI.
  • 1 - is optimism vs pessimism nature or nurture. It’s a huge negative to be pessimism. You don’t want some, but maybe 1/10 or 1/50. 
  • 1.02 - biggest part of wealth is owning share in startup. Doesn’t mean you need to found it.
© 2022,