Personal Principles for First-class Research: Part I

The internet is the biggest epistemic advantage we have over prior generations. It’s our generation’s superpower, and it’s fomenting a new wave of autodidacts. The internet enables instant access to knowledge and talent; and in our increasingly complex world, these are the perfect conditions for the savvy autodidact to thrive. Across all creative domains, important contributions—new ideas, insights, tools, and technologies—are increasingly coming from those on the outside. They don’t need the approval of gatekeepers, nor seek the status of traditional institutions. What they seek is to make important contributions to their creative domains and communities.

The desire to make important contributions is incidentally identical to the goal of scientific research:

“The ultimate goal of research is to arrive at new ideas, insights, tools, and technologies…” —Michael Nielsen, Researcher at Y-Combinator

Given the amount of excellent advice already written by world-class scientists, the goal of this essay is to distill the most important research principles for autodidact who seek to do first-class work.

1. Develop a vision

You can’t hit a target if you don’t know where it is. Your aim towards the target is your vision. To do great work, you must first develop a strong vision. A vision is not inflexible—you should update it as new information comes in; nor is it something you develop overnight. It’s an exercise of planning and introspection that you work at regularly to correct course. Even if you change your vision frequently, you are bound to learn something about yourself, and give yourself something genuinely exciting to pursue. That in itself makes it a worthy exercise.

A good vision incorporates 1) your personal values; 2) your long and short-term goals; and 3) strategies for how you will get there. A strong vision is what will motivate you to get out of bed in the morning. Michael Nielsen offers prompts for what a good vision addresses:

“What areas of research am I interested in? How am I going to achieve competence in those areas? Why are those areas interesting? How am I going to continue growing and expanding my horizons? What short-term steps will I take to achieve those goals? How will I balance the long-term goals with the short-term realities of the situation I find myself in?”

Developing a vision is hard, but you don’t need to have it all figured out. Great scientists don’t have it all figured out, but tolerate ambiguity very well instead. They are able to maintain a fine balance between optimism and pessimism: they believe in their ideas sufficiently to go ahead, but are also skeptical enough to revise them. If you are too optimistic, you’ll end up overlooking the errors; too pessimistic, and you won’t ever get started. In both cases, you are less likely to take decisive action.

1.1 First-class work demands first-class commitment

First-class work demands first-class commitment. People who do great work are not necessarily the most able, but they are the most committed. Talented people almost always turn out good work, but they seldom produce outstanding, first-class work. When you are deeply committed to a problem, your subconscious mind helps you in unexpected ways:

“If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off and doesn't produce the big result. So when you have a real important problem, you don't let anything else get the center of your attention—you keep your thoughts on the problem” —Richard Hamming

If “he who has a why can endure any how”, as Nietzsche observed, articulating a strong vision with deep commitment will keep you going even in the toughest of times. Sam Altman offers another version of the same advice: “it is hard to be wildly successful at anything you aren’t obsessed with.” Develop a vision that grips you to the depths of your subconsciousness.

Having developed a strong vision, Part II explores the principles for becoming an expert in your chosen field. Stay tuned!