Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The lazy way to being outstanding: go after hard things (deliber.at)
111 points by artpi on Jan 14, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

Definitely disagree with this one.

The way to be outstanding is to go after a niche and learn your way into the 20% of that field. For knowledge-based work this is not that difficult.

For example, a few years ago I stumbled upon payment fraud as an interesting area to learn about and quickly became somewhat of an "expert" in the industry. The whole Trust & Safety industry has only gotten larger ever since, and there's no shortage of product management/engineering/data science/program management/analyst jobs in this area.

Isn't there an element of being in the right place / right time though? I sometimes feel like my side-interest niches fall into two categories: things I came late to the party to, or things I thought would be a good thing to get into but not enough other people cared.

So that's where the point of the article comes in. If you are working at a corporation, the problem that seems hard (but probably really isn't) and would unlock a lot of value if solved, is a good thing to work on. Chances are, other companies have similar blockages and becoming an expert in that area is likely to offer a lot of career growth opportunities.

Yes, but that's true of a lot of things in life.

I mean you can find a professional niche that is already somewhat well known and study your way up to the top 80-90% from 0. My point is that it actually isn't that difficult to do if you make it your goal to do so.

My point is that the niche doesn't have to be objectively "hard".

> For example, a few years ago I stumbled upon payment fraud as an interesting area to learn about and quickly became somewhat of an "expert" in the industry.

So "payment fraud" was the elephant problem you tackled when no one else in your company would?

> learn your way into the 20% of that field

Agreed, but how do you do that though? My experience is that there is only so much you can learn without the challenge

Books and the internet?

I'm not joking.

I mean when you go to industry conferences for niches I feel like maybe half the speakers I listen to are just winging it. If someone who is objectively in the bottom 50% of expertise in a niche is speaking at an industry conference you can definitely learn your way to greater degree of competence than they are at.

You are right. My personal motto is "there are no adults" and I am constantly blown away how incompetent people are in the wider business world. Edit: sometimes I am blown away by amazing professionals, so I guess I am surprised by this variance :D

If you could, how would you rate the value of self-promotion compared with learning and education in your own industry?

Obviously learning is more important, but would you recommend spending, say, 1 hour of promotion or networking per 10 hours of learning, or 5 hours? What worked for you?

For what it's worth, I'm about 2-3 years into my career and see a lot of advice to spend a significant amount of time promoting yourself.

The majority of people read zero technical or business books per year. It's pretty easy to exceed that baseline.

This is a horrible article and borderline (maybe full blown) blog spam. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with going after unsolved problems, and making headway on one of them is a really important part of intellectual and professional maturity, it's not a panacea, and it doesn't come without severe existential risks. Nowhere is the downside of going after moonshots addressed, which is failing completely and having little to show for it. I have seen many a talented friend (and friend of friend) waste 7 years of prime youth going after something that wasn't just hard, but intractable. I can't put into words what an incredible hit to momentum, network, and skillset that is. A huge part of professional maturity and productivity is determining value at risk, using leverage, and getting outsized impacts out of reasonable amounts of effort.

Ha! Strong opinions!

I think my failure here is that I did not fully explain, that this applies mostly to the corporate environment of technology companies, where the risk of failure is much, much smaller and you distinguish yourself from the rest by having appetite for risk.

I of course totally forgot, that there is a whole startup world and convincing people to chase moonshots without any risk analysis should be indeed illegal. Young entrepreneur: YOU SHOULD WEIGH YOUR RISKS BEFORE YOU GO INTO THE WILD!!

I think that this caveat basically completely transforms the post. Take my admittedly strong opinion with a grain of salt, but I think rewriting this post with that context at the beginning (and from that angle) would really, really elevate it. If you get into a comparison of how risk-adverse versus risk-centric approaches can compare and contrast with career payoffs, I think you get much closer to a more detailed, useful comparison that helps folks think about their careers. With that said, I do think that courting risk as its own reward is flawed. It's risk weighted return that's the powerful part -- if you could make gigantic impacts risk free, you should do that.

In fact, to a large extent, I think this is a huge part of what senior engineering is all about. If there are table stakes things to be done that will make a big impact, you want to learn how to communicate that, negotiate implementation against roadmap, and then qualify and quantify the impact after executing. I believe and have observed what makes much of corporate software engineering so lucrative is the value you can add with relatively low risk. So, to court risk is give up a systematic advantage. It seems to be quite backwards to me.

There are problems and problems. I think the reader needs to adapt to their reality when reading the blogspot. Sometimes the reader needs to do some work and contextualize a piece of advice. I think the blogpost made total sense to me, in the context of my work. There is a (not-so-fine) line between embarking into a intractable or incredibly risky task and a hard problem that nobody wanted to do solve. Keep in mind that a hard problem is not necessarily what you find hard but what your colleagues find hard, that is the point. Go after something that you know can be done but nobody has ventured into. I enjoy a great amount of freedom at work because I've been tackling these hard issues. You see, when you address an elephant in the room, even after being solved, people will not venture to go there and they are happy to leave you alone since you are working on the elephant in the room.

Your friend can apply the 7 years of experience to something less risky.

It is often the case that you learn more from success than from failure. You recognize this when you work with and try and compete against peers who have been soberly building momentum their entire career without a low output quarter.

Here's the thing though, the hard things are hard becuase they are actually hard. OP talks about risk of failure only glancingly, for instance in quoting someone else: "We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail."

Right. So what happens when you do what OP suggests, and fail? This can happen, right, that's what "hard" and "risk" mean.

Some risks are burn-out, and destroying your career. This happens. I have seen it.

So, what do you to do mitigate those risks while still going after hard things?

What I wanted to convey by quoting Seth Godin is that we should be more comfortable risking failure like embarassment, getting out of the comfort zone, etc.

Failure of burnout and loosing your time is the risk of LONG work - not the type I advocate. It seems that I did not explain this clearly, but I wanted to point out that "slogging through" is not the right approach.

> Right. So what happens when you do what OP suggests, and fail? This can happen, right, that's what "hard" and "risk" mean.

It's a cliche and I wish I would have a better explanation, but:

- Your failure is above everybody else's success

- You get instant respect and credibility because you tried

- You learn a shitton.

Keep your personal burn rate low. Avoid debt. Maintain high savings and eventually financial independence to mitigate the downside of professional failure (ensure you won't starve or be homeless). Maintain good relationships with your family if you can if they would be willing to support you if necessary.

Figure out what failure would look like and plan for it. Does it mean losing your job? Ok, how long would it take you to find another one? Could you support yourself in the meantime? Does it mean declaring bankruptcy? What would you do to support yourself if you had to do that? Could you move somewhere cheaper? Take a lower paying job? In a professional sense there aren't a lot of truly catastrophic failures unless you're doing something illegal.

Sometimes these hard things are all or nothing where a switch has to be flipped with a very difficult but maybe not impossible way back.

In my experience, most of the time you can chip away at a hard thing, first in understanding it, then transforming it at its edges, getting a better understanding of what lies beneath, all the while taking small risks leaving what remains less hard and a smaller risk. At some point others can see the way through and you get buy-in for flipping that switch with certain precautions in place.

What if you keep working on the same "easy" things for years, and after all that, your career is still in the exact same place? Or the whole project or company fails anyway, because no one attacked the elephant problem?

Doing the "safe" things also carries a lot of risk.

The hard problems are always the fun problems. Yes there's risk, but life is full of risks. The learning that happens while tackling a hard problem is immeasurable, will take you leaps and bounds over your contemporaries, and that will set you apart. Subject matter experts aren't forged by solving easy problems.

There seems to be a great deal of "careerist" advice in the forums. That path can certainly lead to contentment, but it's slow, intellectual suicide. I was on this track before, but gave it up and couldn't be happier.

Edit: grammar

Definitely agree with this one.

The hard way to be outstanding is to go after a niche and learn your way into the 20% of that field (did some copy paste here, lazy to repeat arguments).

For example, if you want to be proficient in radar systems you can learn and read all the books on radar, and probably still become an average research student of radar technology.

If you can find a hard problem in radar and solve it somehow, you will become well-known in an established field without becoming a classical expert like writing book on radar.

The problem with this kind of advice is that it's not really actionable. It's only useful in retrospect.

If you are able to recognize these situations/opportunities, then everyone else would be able to recognize them too. It's not like my brain is all that different from those around me, after all.

You might as well tell me that the secret to flying is learning how to throw myself at the ground and miss.

Hard problems are usually hard problems for a reason, and when you spend time on them you often go nowhere.

Maybe better advice (that is actually actionable) would be something like this:

"Try to tackle hard problems that nobody else wants to tackle during 20% of your time, on the odd chance that you might stumble upon an easy solution and get big rewards from it."

Sort of like diversifying your stock portfolio. Keep some of your eggs in the nice stable investments with low returns, but maybe invest some allocated percentage on some riskier long shots too.

This essay is a bit weird because it systematically avoids talking about the reason people (rationally, I might add) avoid hard problems: they are risky. Yes the rewards are great, but so too is the risk of failure.

I, personally, have seen people pursue this strategy, flame out, and get fired for it.

I work to provide stability for my family. I don't take risks unless I get an explicit request from management to do so, and thus someone else to take responsibility. The whole idea that employees should be dynamic and "ask for forgiveness, not permission" is truly perverse in a capitalist context: your employer wants you to take the risks, but they definitely will take the benefits if you succeed. If you fail, hey, its your fault.

Doing risky stuff is fine but I don't do it unless I've got backing from management.

The thing is sometimes hard things are actually easy because there is a simple solution that hasn't been tried because people haven't worked on the problem because it seems hard and they don't feel smart enough.

The trick is to recognize these situations.

This is excellent advice.

I hope the author updates the article to explicitly include this suggestion, and I'll be looking for opportunities where this misunderstanding exists.

Is it excellent or a clever way of phrasing something empty? Presumably identifying hard problems that are actually easy problems is itself a hard problem, otherwise someone would have surely already figured it out (if the ends are valuable).

I mean its great if you can figure out such a situation, but how much time should you spin your wheels trying to find an easy solution to a hard problem before you're wasting your time? Also a hard problem exactly because its hard to figure out how hard a hard problem really is.

I disagree.

In my experience there are plenty of "hard" problems within organizations that in reality aren't actually hard to solve. The issue is that the organization has created policies or processes that make the problem hard to solve, and breaking through those artificial barriers can be fairly simple once you find the right approach.

Also, it's much lower risk to spend a limited amount of time exploring whether there are untried solutions to a "hard" problem than it is to publicly declare war on an actual hard problem and hope you find a solution.

Note that I was thinking of problems in terms of scientific research rather than business stuff but it was intentionally vague so that people can apply it to their own domain.

I will, noted!

That has been my experience as well!

> This essay is a bit weird because it systematically avoids talking about the reason people (rationally, I might add) avoid hard problems: they are risky. Yes, the rewards are great, but so too is the risk of failure.

Thank you for pointing that out! This is something I completely failed to include in the essay. From my experience, when you tackle hard things in the organization, there is virtually 0 risk. The worst outcome for you is that you feel bad, but this is not going to diminish your chances in career, quite the opposite.

The situation is a bit like here: I failed to include this vital section about risk in an article that is getting traffic right now. It is embarrassing, but I doubt if this will have negative repercussions for me. (I hope )

Anyway - that is why feedback is so critical.

You can address this by updating the essay!

Also, I don't see your oversight as equivalent with taking on a hard task at work.

If you fail at work (which is a real possibility if the task is actually hard), you've probably wasted time on something you were explicitly told not to do and caused others to have to pick up your slack in other areas, and will be labeled as both a failure and a poor teammate. If this is an organization you would like to continue to work for, this is devastating. You can mitigate this by working on the hard task on your own time, but frequently the benefits aren't worth the effort there.

On the other hand, your oversight can easily be fixed, and I agree it is unlikely to have negative repercussions for you because no one else is really invested in the outcome of your blog. That's rarely the case when you're an employee at a company.

"From my experience, when you tackle hard things in the organization, there is virtually 0 risk."

This seems far fetched to me. Every hour you spend on a project which fails is almost a complete waste of time. When the next crunch comes around and they look back and see you've done a lot of stuff that hasn't panned out, it seems like that might change your chances of making it through a contraction.

I think you have been very fortunate, then. I do not think your experience is typical or guaranteed.

You quote Seth Godin saying:

> We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail.

But you think this isn't true, the hard work you are suggesting has "virtually 0 risk"? It must not be the same kind of "hard work" Godin is talking about then, after all?

I am trying to keep my meeting today and still respond to these comments, so I apologize for the lack of clarity.

Some people would consider a whole category of "making fool of oneself" a risk and it has been in the past. Evolutionary, shame was a real threat and being left by the peer group sometimes meant death.

So we carry this mechanism in our brains to avoid perceived failure, perceived risk, and perceived embarrassment. It is in all of us to an extent.

I am no Seth Godin, but that is how I understand his concept of "hard work" - emotionally putting yourself out there.

But in reality, those things are not really risky in healthy corporate environements. I have been making a fool of myself repeatedly and if people see it was an honest try and it took guts - they will usually respect you for that.

Oh sure, if you're talking about "healthy corporate environments", I see what you mean.

Those exist? Half-joking (or I'm not even sure if I am), but what portion of your readers might work in a healthy corporate environment, I wonder. You are definitely lucky if you've had a whole career of them.

I would imagine in a healthy corporate environment going after the hard things isn't actually that unusual though? If the consequences of failure are lower, then the risk is lower, like Godin says the reason people don't do these things is the risk, if the risk is lower, I'd imagine lot of people would be doing them? Which is what you'd expect in a healthy corporate environment, I think...

One might argue that a healthy corporate environment is one where someone is tracking dollars in and dollars out. In such an environment, an expensive employee who doesn't produce a lot of value over a period of time would be headed to the chopping block, whether they are respected or not. Companies don't run on respect, they run on profits.

That said, I think in many situations what you say is true. Most people are not rational, even in a corporate context where you'd expect them to be. In those situations, being seen as a cool risk taker might be enough to keep your job.

Good review.

A related good piece of advice I got early in my career was to do the tasks no one else wants to do. Less risky than "do the hard things". You quickly become invaluable and those tasks become less painful the more you do them.

This is a double edged sword. It can be a great way to gain recognition and clout in your org. However, sometimes there's a good reason nobody wanted to do that thing, and you can get stuck just doing something that you don't really like doing.


You also get quite comfortable "putting the parachute on your way down"!

I struggle with a more basic issue here; there are plenty of things at my current job which are just "accepted". Lots of "this is the way it has always been", but are actually really bad for productivity and our ability to do business. I've tried to set out plans to address a few of these issues, and I'm willing to accept the risk that, if I fail, it might reflect so poorly on my career that I'd be fired to have to find a new job.

My problem is simple; how do I convince the person above me in the pecking order that they should even give me space to attempt the project? I keep getting rejected, presumably because if my project fails, it might also reflect poorly on them, and they're not willing to take the risk.

I guess the same would apply to people looking for funding for their mad, overly ambitious startups or projects.

tl;dr: how can you "go after hard things" if nobody is willing to back you because they think it's too hard.

I spent four years at an organisation rife with this. I found two major routes for getting to work on hard problems.

The first was joining initiatives that were in such utter disarray people were willing to take any risk to get out of the "someone's gonna get fired for this" hole. They were typically rich in hard problems (the chaos was usually caused by failure to address one or more of them) and people liked the idea that someone else was taking on responsibility and becoming the person who was most likely "gonna get fired for this". I was happy taking that risk, considering the payoff in getting to work on interesting problems worth it.

In the absence of disarray, I had to go down the much slower route of finding small things that received so little attention I could just do them; nobody cared about them enough to worry about success or failure, and the time input was small enough nobody got upset about it. Over time the cumulative impact would gain me enough trust to take on something bigger, and assuming that went well things would snowball from there. In this way I "trained" one of my bosses from flipping out at the most minor suggestion to pretty much leaving me alone to get on with what I felt like, on the basis I would usually find things to do that reflected well on him.

Unfortunately I never worked out how to get anywhere with the kind of person who benefited from the hard problems not being solved -essentially those profiting from either the prevalence of bullshit or non-essential things being done as per points 3 and 4 in the article's section on what happens when you do tackle the hard stuff.

I'd also caution in my experience it wasn't useful in advancing my career at the same company - I did see a big benefit in credibility but it was among peers and the people I depended on to "get a VIP pass around bureaucracy". This has been general across organisations in my experience: the career stage benefits only come when I move on and have a load of experience in problem spaces I simply wouldn't have encountered had I kept my head down and merely done my job.

Repetition. Human communication is a lot dumber than we think. Repeat the message consistently and in simple terms, let it incept. Persuade through persistence and your commitment.

And this makes sense, if people just changed direction based on one interaction the system / org becomes chaotic. There needs to be some sort of function that once a threshold is passed then something happens (like action potential).

As an aside, I realized this both from work experience and taking guidance from marketing / propaganda.

Ask for self directed learning time & use it to investigate, prototype and experiment. You can even tell your manager that you'll scope your learning material to things that could be useful for your job down the road... it's worth a shot.

Or is the main concern not the time to develop, but the actual deployment & interpersonal verification of the idea?

In my previous work, I was developing training tools for new heavy machinery workers. I wanted to do everything in VR since we had the 3D models from all the engineers using all kind of CAD software.

My boss also wanted to improve our division offering but no one at the upper management approved. That was our hard thing.

So we did it slowly. At first, only see the 3D model in VR (so you can feel how it would look later) and feature by feature we kept developing VR. (While still working on all other tasks)

At the end, we became the VR division. And old documentation were to be converted to VR.

It was a lot of fun and a lot of challenge in the CAD<->VR space.

tl;dr; Start slow until you have enough mass to convience others it worth it.

Without a bigger plan such as a domain-knowledge interest for personal, academical or business purpose, once you really hit the wall your game is pretty over though? Slogging is hard.

This article is probably sloppy but also somewhere implicitly implies - doing hard work requires privilege.

I think this is something that many comments here also allude to. By hard work I mean working on hard problems and not a slogger. By privilege I mean a mix of leverages via knowledge, experience and career circumstances.

Or you need to think hard why everyone else avoids it in the first place.

Did Elizabeth Holmes write this article?

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact