How to remain an expert in an ever-changing world

Original author: Paul Graham
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In this translation article, the author, a well-known entrepreneur and founder of Y-Combinator, discusses the variability of the world around him. Indeed, the way everything changes quickly is simply amazing. It is important to always keep this in mind when making decisions. The translation was made specifically for the corporate site blog on payment systems with rate monitoring, .

If the world around us did not change, our confidence in the correctness of our beliefs would increase with monotonous constancy. Our views are tested by life experience, the more this experience (and the more diverse it is), the less likely it is that they are wrong. Many people believe that this is true. Such an attitude is quite justified when it comes to views on things, they are practically unchanged in their essence, for example, such as human nature. However, for volatile phenomena, which can include almost everything else, you can no longer be completely confident in your views.

Experts are often mistaken in their predictions simply because they are experts on earlier versions of the world.

Is it possible to avoid this? Can you protect yourself from outdated beliefs? To some extent, yes. I spent almost ten years investing in startups that are in the early stages of development. Very curious, but my experience shows that the ability to recognize irrelevant ideas is the skill that can make you a successful startup investor.

Most really good startups initially look awful. Often they just seem to us like that, simply because the world is changing, and the changes that are taking place in it turn such bad ideas into good ones. I spent a lot of time studying the ways of recognizing ideas, and the techniques that I used can be applied to the selection of ideas in general.

The first step is a selfless belief in the constancy of change.People who allow themselves to become victims of that monotonously increasing confidence in their beliefs are people who have tacitly decided for themselves that the world in which we live does not change. By consciously reminding yourself that this is not the case, you immediately start looking for change.

Where should you not look for them? Unfortunately, in addition to the measure of useful generalization about the almost unchanging human nature, we can only say that change is difficult to predict. Yes, it sounds like one big tautology, but it will never be superfluous to recall: important changes usually come from where no one expected them.

Therefore, I am not even trying to make predictions. Periodically, during an interview, I am asked to make a forecast for the future. At such moments, I always have difficulty, because I have to come up with some kind of plausible answer on the fly, and I feel like a student who has not prepared for the exam. [1] However, unlike a student, it is not laziness that prevents me from preparing. The thing is that assumptions about the future are so rarely true that they are usually not worth the additional restrictions that they impose on the way of thinking of their author. Attempts to determine the right direction should be stopped by recognizing, instead, that you have no idea which direction is right, and by becoming much more susceptible to the wind of change.

In general, following the development of events and trying to guess their course is a very exciting pastime. Working hypotheses limit the freedom of your thoughts, but nevertheless, they can become a motivating factor for you, so building them is quite acceptable. However, you should be sufficiently disciplined and not let your assumptions turn into something more serious. [2]

I believe that such a passive model of work is suitable not only for evaluating new ideas, but also for creating them. New ideas do not appear when you are intentionally trying to come up with them, but when you are trying to solve a particular problem without neglecting the unusual options that intuition tells you in the search for a solution.

The wind of change is born unconsciously in the minds of specialists in a particular field of knowledge. If you are an accomplished expert in a certain field of activity, then for you any question that does not have an obvious relation to the case, any strange idea that comes to your mind, is worth checking already by virtue of the very fact of their occurrence. [3] When in the framework of Y Combinator we call the idea insane - this is a compliment, and, as a rule, more commendable than just a “good idea”.

Investors who invest in startups have unprecedented motivation to change their outdated views on new ones. Having managed to understand earlier than others that this or that, initially hopeless startup, in fact, is not such, they are able to earn a huge amount of money. Be that as it may, their motives lie not only financially. In the selection process, their beliefs are directly tested: when startups come to the investor, he must say “yes” or “no” in order to quickly find out if he made the right choice. Investors who said no to Google (there were several) will remember this for the rest of their days.

In general, any person who has to, in one sense or another, “place bets on ideas”, and not just comment on them, has the same motivation as an investor. You have the opportunity to feel it, like any other commentator. You just need to turn your comments into bets by writing, for example, about something so that it remains publicly available for a long period of time. Already in the process of writing, you will immediately notice that you have become much more attentive to what you write. In a casual conversation, everything would have been much “simpler." [4]

Another trick that allows me to protect myself from outdated ideas: I try to concentrate my attention on people, not ideas from the very beginning.It is difficult to predict the nature of future discoveries, but I, however, have learned to determine quite well what kind of people should be who make them. Good new ideas come from people who sincerely believe in them, are energetic and have an independent way of thinking.

Bet on people, not ideas. This approach has saved me countless times. For example, we considered Airbnb to be a bad idea, but we could definitely say that its founders were energetic, determined, and all had different views from the generally accepted ones (they even went to extremes in this). Therefore, we decided for some time to put aside our doubts and financed them.

There is another technique that seems to me quite suitable for use in the general case. Surround yourself with people who create new ideas.If you want to quickly determine that your views have become irrelevant, there is no better way than to make friends with people whose discoveries will make them so.

To be free from the captivity of your own professionalism is a task that is not easy in itself. Each time, it will become more and more difficult, since over time, changes will occur faster and faster. This story is as old as the world: changes began to gain momentum even in the days of the Paleolithic. Ideas generate ideas. I don’t think this will ever change. Although, how do I know for sure?


[1] Usually I manage to get out as follows: I talk about the present, but I talk about such assumptions, which most people do not yet know about.
[2] Especially if they become so famous that people begin to identify them personally with you. You must be extremely skeptical of the beliefs that you tend to believe in and as soon as a hypothesis becomes associated with your name, it almost certainly falls into this category.
[3] In practice, the concept of “established expert” does not require a person to be recognized as an expert by other people, since it is in any case a belated indicator of your ability to evaluate ideas. One year of hard work plus showing interest will be enough for most areas of human activity.
[4] According to my empirical observations, comments in places such as, for example, forums and Twitter in practice work in the same way as casual conversation, despite the publicity and indefiniteness of their existence. Perhaps the role of the dividing line between serious discussion and casual conversation is the presence of a clearly distinguishable title in your text.

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