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Researchers and Founders (samaltman.com)
242 points by dmnd on June 19, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 105 comments

>Although there are always individual exceptions, on average it’s surprising to me how different the best people in these groups are (including in some qualities that I had assumed were present in great people everywhere, like very high levels of self-belief).

This is an interesting quote. From my experience and personal perspectives, many of the best researchers and scientists doubt themselves, a lot, and are typically hesitant to make definite statements in general. Research is inherently high risk and prone to failure... that's fundamental to what makes it research. If you work in research for awhile, you're wrong so often that it creates an environment of constant self-doubt and constant questioning of ideas.

On top of that, from my experience, the more I learn about an area or subject, the more I realize how little I knew before and the more I've discovered in terms of what I don't know. As the space of your knowledge grows, the surface area also increases and you eventually begin questioning things some fundamentally just accept while the deeper you dig, the more you know where the current frontiers of uncertainty and knowledge truly lie. Combine that with the understanding of where you started (knowing even less but thinking you knew more) and how in hindsight, you were so wrong.. leads to lower confidence in your assessments, even if most might consider you an expert.

I'll second that. In my anecdotal and limited experience, the outliers in successful entrepreneurship are the ones that project vulnerability/self-doubt, while the outliers in successful research are the ones that project a lack of self-doubt and create reality distortion fields around their work. The best of both seem to have self-confidence in their ability to succeed, and successful researchers seem confident that problems can be solved, and that they can solve them, but that seems to come with an embrace of uncertainty and an allowance for self doubt.

> the outliers in successful entrepreneurship are the ones that project vulnerability/self-doubt,

Isn't it exactly the other way around? Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg have a reality distortion field. The outliers in entrepreneurship sell a new world that they are going to create. When Elon Musk started talking about electric cars and space travel to Mars 99% of the people thought he was batshit crazy.

I'm referring to the outliers among that group. The first level of outlier is being successful. The second level of outlier is being full of self doubt and successful

Could you give some examples of these outliers?

I do not know any successful entrepreneurs that project vulnerability nor self-doubt. For a VC's that's a big no no. So you have made me curious and this is a sincere question.

I dont actually know of any off the top of my head, which is the point of my post. Successful, self doubting entrepreneurs seem rare, successful high arrogance researchers seem rare. I can think of a few executives that seem like decent people, but I cant think if anyone that doesnt act like they know all the answers

This is very true for _good researchers_. Unfortunately the grant system nowadays does not look kindly to self-doubt: your proposals have to be authoritative and confident for them to be funded; if there's any whiff of a "maybe" there it does not get funded anymore. Thus, professors who are over-confident (or, surprisingly often, even oblivious) about the potential pitfalls in their proposal are more likely to be funded, if they are even proposing something that's novel. Many researchers don't even bother writing the actual proposal, they write a proposal for a projct that's already half way done, so they know for sure it's going to work (and they can also provide preliminary data). When the money comes they will use it for a future project and then repeat the cycle applying for the grant for that project afterwards. Futile cycle to the drain unfortunately.

I love this quote from Jim Keller:

"I imagine 99% of your thought process is protecting your self-conception, and 98% of that is wrong."

Quote is at @1:23 (during the last half hour where the interview is mostly philosophical) of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb2tebYAaOA

Perhaps the idea is self-belief is more “I think I can get it done” versus “I think I’m right.” A lot of good researchers will fail every which way very quickly until finally getting somewhere that once looked impossible.

In research, this process is usually a personal one (perhaps with a lot of discussion). But in industry, a CEO is giving orders and dragging a lot of people along with what feels wrong, and the CEO isn’t in a position to show deep self-doubt if it exists.

Not sure here about the message, but am sure the wording as Sam has chosen is very poor.

Too much confidence in predictions is also a problem in current day deep neural nets. They would try to make their probability estimates close to 0 or 1, even for uncertain cases.

Being an academic researcher (kosurilab.org) and a founder (octant.bio), while I do think there are some similarities (working hard, etc), I think there are some really big differences too. Some of these might be more particular to academic research than research more broadly, but some quick thoughts:

1. Bias towards action & clear eyed => I think that's right, but there is another part of this too, that is more important as a founder – making decisions even under massive uncertainty. In a company, it's not just uncertain technical decisions, but also market decisions, cultural decisions, people decisions, etc. This is stomach churning, and most researchers can focus on the technical challenges in ways that founders can't. You have to do this in research decisions too; but as a founder it feels like it happens way, way more often with broader and broader sets of decisiosn.

2. One of the thing that I feel very different about founders is you have be honest about what the actual problems you have to solve are, and not turn your nose at the seemingly mundane and important tasks like managing a company. Great researchers are focused on their scientific problems over decades - founders are focused on building a lasting organization. These have pretty different consequences on what one chooses to spend their time on.

3. In academia at least, there are some really big differences in running a company versus running a lab. In a lab, my main mission is training people, while working on problems I find interesting... slowly moving towards my long-term scientific/technical goals. In a company, it's building a product that people will buy, and slowly moving towards those same goals. Again, this has pretty big consequences on what one spends their time doing and the types of problems you get to solve. There are positives and negatives to both approaches, some of which are quite subtle. For example, reputation games are far more important in academia than industry - I also find authority becomes a lot more pernicious in academia than industry. Anyways, lots here that are very different (but again this might be academia rather than research itself).

A small point only tangential to the main point of this post, but something I've noticed about Sam's writing before:

Is anyone else offput by the phrase "best people"? I get (or at least hope) it's a shorthand for "best at their respective job of researcher/founder," but it really seems to reduce people's innate worth and goodness to this single dimension in a somewhat unnerving way.

My issue with it is that a hand-wavy qualification that communicates only what you want it to mean.

How does one define "best" at all in this context? If you devote all your efforts to researching a problem no one is looking at and still come up with nothing, are you still considered one of the "best people"? What if you are researching a problem many others are investigating and then do find something new? It feels very much like hindsight bias to apply such a moniker.

People are emotionally affected by exclusion. The phrase "the best people are ___" is exclusionary if you don't match the fill in the blank. I don't think Altman is trying to offend anyone. He's trying to contrast the behavior of top researchers/founders with everyone else...

Social status is maybe the most important thing to people after their basic needs are met. Having someone publicly lower your social status is therefore extremely painful.

And it's a one-dimensional quantity, to a first approximation.

It's an expression, generally used to convey exactly what you said.

No. It seems clear to me he's talking about the best people in those groups from the perspective of their work output.

Work output as in financial success/reward, prestige or impact, or something else?

I wonder what these differing qualities are, then.

It sounds very generic, but I've found it to be true. If I spend time thinking about what's the best way forward, then just do it, relentlessly and persistently, and with a healthy disregard for cynicism and disbelief from others, I get a lot done.

It also reminds me of the concept of "taking ideas seriously": https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Q8jyAdRYbieK8PtfT/taking-ide...

> I wonder what these differing qualities are, then.

The most obvious is that researchers care about finding truth for its own sake even if that truth doesn't have any commercial value, and founders care about producing a product for a market, even if that means ignoring some truths.

In the link you posted, there's a disclaimer that the author no longer endorses the post. Do you know why/is there an updated post from the author? I'm curious what changed in the author's thinking and what particularly they no longer agree with.

I just noticed that too. No idea.

I also disagree with a lot of how the idea is presented in that text, but the idea itself - that if you get convinced of a basic point, you should extract the second, third, fourth and fifth order effect of that idea - is profound.

It reminds me of a story of a startup that did cybersecurity for SCADA systems, for factories. They would connect to diagnostics APIs, do anomaly detection, and could then alert on any cyber attacks.

Turns out factories are extremely sensitive to downtime (millions lost per hour of downtime), and a lot of them operate under "if it works don't touch it". So they pivoted - instead of actively tapping APIs, they would passively sniff network traffic, draw a picture of the network and what talked to what, and do anomaly detection on that.

But reality took the passivity idea seriously - and the value to factory operators ended up being visibility into the network topology. The company pivoted away from cybersecurity and into analytics and made a lot of money.

I wondered if maybe he'd posted something else in the blog and I think I found it. Something about bad style, too few details, and something about contributing to bad norms?


""Taking Ideas Seriously": Stylistically contemptible, skimpy on any useful details, contributes to norm of pressuring people into double binds that ultimately do more harm than good. I would prefer it if no one linked to or promoted "Taking Ideas Seriously"; superior alternatives include Anna Salamon's "Compartmentalization in epistemic and instrumental rationality", though I don't necessarily endorse that post either."

This appears to be his latest statement in that forum on that post.


I would have thought this was obvious- the archetype in Silicon Valley would be Fred Terman, but there are a lot of others. In particular, Arnold Beckman, who was an intern at Bell Labs where he learned to make vacuum tube amplifiers, moved to Caltech to be a professor and founded the amazingly successful Beckman Instruments company, invented the pH meter (which used a vacuum tube amplifier to turn the tiny signal into a useful one) and the DU spectrometer. He used his proceeds to fund the first transistor company in Silicon Valley, and made huge contributions to the US war effort.

I've worked with researcher/founders a lot; many of the people from my PhD program (Biophysics, UCSF) went on to start companies (Amyris, Zymergen) and we had strong educational pathways to learn how to start biotech companies. The two groups of people are definitely drawn from a highly overlapping distribution, although many scientists would make poor founders, and vice versa.

I'd love to hear a bit more about the differences.

I've spent my adult life in research environments (academic, nonprofit and industrial R&D) and while much of the activity seems entrepreneurial (particularly grant writing), the overarching structural differences between building something for profit vs. for the public good makes a lot of aspects of building a business a bit mysterious to me.

As much time as I've also spent time in R&D through industries, over the years it's moved from R&d to R&D to r&D... approaching D. The two, IMO, are converging.

There's awfully skinny budgets for most research these days and so much focus on 'success' (short term ROI) and '[financial] sustainability' (translating research into products/services in business form).

This is growing ever more true even in basic research, which is IMHO absurd. It's growing to the point it might as well just be 'D' with higher risks, less flexibility, and lower rewards which is making entrepreneurship more alluring.

I don't know who is going to fund long term research if the federal government doesn't. I suppose we can rely on the international market to produce research and hope it's useful. Businesses tend to be highly risk averse anymore.

Yeah I am with you on this. In my current role, I can do R in as much as it links with D. But really I spend a lot of time building that ampersand rather than R or D specifically: constructing a framework to translate research results into a product, testing that product and then being able to guide the research based on the performance of the product.

That is in and of itself interesting, and the work (making earthquake forecasts and seismic hazard/risk models) is generally fun and has a lot more positive human impact than studying earthquakes because they are simply fascinating geophysical phenomena. But there are regularly a lot of great research ideas that go unexplored because we don't have the resources or immediate incentive to investigate them.

I joined a small startup headed by a former professor, financed by a mix of SBIR grants and seed funding, and he was really poorly suited to running a hardware company. The biggest gap was the ability to push for schedule and manufacturability vs perfecting one of prototypes. Sometimes you have to say “this solution may be better, but the tooling costs and schedule impacts are untenable. Run with what we have” In his mind as long as we had money to keep making prototypes that was what we should do until it was absolutely perfect, it made for a great demo product that had no chance of seeing the light of day at scale. He didn’t really understand what it took to get from proto to EVT, investors did and they slowly faded from the picture.

It seems to me that a big part of the difference in some fields at least is a desire to build relatively solo vs in a group. In the social sciences/humanities researchers don't have to deal with any other people very often; in the lab sciences there's a very small organization to work with. And 2/3 of the things all academics hate the most are the things that involve having to work closely with others and bureaucratic organizations (faculty meetings/service and grant writing. The third, incidentally, is grading.)

I get the sense that the work of almost all founders involves having to get stuff from other people lots more pervasively, from funding to hiring to organization building.

(Different attitudes to risk might also be a part of the difference.)

> And 2/3 of the things all academics hate the most are the things that involve having to work closely with others and bureaucratic organizations (faculty meetings/service and grant writing. The third, incidentally, is grading.)

"This job would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers" --Randal, Clerks

Hah, funny, but not quite fair---if by customers we mean students, most academics quite like the students and teaching them---and many (myself included) think that the grading part actually harms the students.

> the overarching structural differences between building something for profit vs. for the public good makes a lot of aspects of building a business a bit mysterious to me.

Lack of respect for traditional authority, entrenched interests, and boundaries would be my take. Forgiveness > permission mindset, with a healthy risk tolerance above baseline.

Founders take their research and drive towards profitable exploitation of that knowledge relentlessly.

> Lack of respect for traditional authority, entrenched interests, and boundaries would be my take. Forgiveness > permission mindset, with a healthy risk tolerance above baseline.

This is an interesting take. A lot of researchers are pretty anti-authoritarian, at least initially, and the scientific process involves a lot of tearing down existing knowledge and rebuilding. We all really, deep down want to prove everyone else wrong.

However, when the funding comes from institutional sources, there are certainly limits on how rebellious one can actually be.

Furthermore the peer review process encourages a kind of camaraderie and politics where you compete with each other, and are actively tasked with finding fault in everyone else's work, but you are also stuck with them for decades, so you don't want to screw anyone over too hard, because their turn to review your grant proposal will come around soon.

> Founders take their research and drive towards profitable exploitation of that knowledge relentlessly.

Yeah, this latter part is what I've never really gotten. My goal is always to take my research and drive relentlessly towards... more research. Ideally while freely disseminating the products and tools used so that others can do the same, thereby letting everyone share in the fruits of the labor.

John Schulman's article provides better practical insights than the one Sam has authored himself. So, people looking for more concrete views and pieces of advice I'd suggest taking a look at the John Schulman article: http://joschu.net/blog/opinionated-guide-ml-research.html

I agree with this, definitely have seen this with the culture of the early R&D team at Genentech, where a number of the early employees had these attributes right from the beginning. I have reread the book below numerous times, which I recommend, which discuss the dual nature for being both a founder & researcher, having an incredible long-term vision that seems to be almost impossible, but remaining very focused in the short term. "Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech (Synthesis)" by Sally Smith Hughes (https://www.amazon.com/Genentech-Beginnings-Sally-Smith-Hugh...)

I’ve never heard of the phrase “problem taste” until this post, so if Sam just coined that phrase, well done!

This is such an important issue in the startup world. The most common mistake that founders I’ve worked with make is that they focus on the wrong problem or even worse focus on too many problems.

Having good “problem taste” is critical for anyone who wants to start a successful company or publish breakthrough research.

I'm not sure if the phrase itself is novel. The idea of having good taste in problems is certainly not; and is very useful -- Richard Hamming (cited by Sam Altman) spends a great deal of time talking about how to choose problems [1].

The basic idea is that you need to work on an important problem. But an important problem isn't what you think (e.g. time-travel, teleportation, antigravity, etc.) -- instead it is a problem for which there exists an "attack".

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html

What does "attack" in this context supposed to mean?

An attack is a reason to believe that you can solve the problem. I have no idea how'd I go about solving P=NP, but I did have some thoughts on provable security against transient execution attacks. Which is why I work on the latter but not the former.

A potential approach for tackling the problem that may work.

For a researcher, this difference can lead to deep unhappiness. I moved from a research-heavy institution to a founder-heavy culture thinking the freedom and increased salary would lead to improved happiness, however this was very far from the case. After about 1 year, my CEO began to understand the difference and support me, however, the time and stress prior to that point was very difficult. It required Investor-level individuals with research careers to validate my perspective. Sam's post validates my struggle and I am happy to see it publicized by someone with clout. I hope more founders will begin to give researchers a bit more room and support.

> They are extremely persistent and willing to work hard.

I think it might be important to quantify these terms, but then I think it is pretty hard to do so. If I worked on some idea for 2 months, then am I persistent enough? And if I worked on it 10 hours a day, have I worked hard enough?

I guess, you just know it when you work hard or are persistent enough, but sometimes you dont know and you are hurting inside that you are not working hard enough or being persistent enough as you don't see any success

This post would not survive blind review, though.

The author's brand makes it look very insightful but if you look closely it's really cliche. Yeah, no shit, successful people work hard on important problems, they have small-scale laser focus and also large-scale vision.

Seems like the wisdom tree has been plucked, these startup wisdom blogs are getting emptier and emptier (see also Paul Graham...).

I think it's common among many founders who became very successful for them to assume they have a special and deeper insight into how the universe works.

VCs, too. Interesting how researchers are a bit more humble or realistic about achievements.

This is entirely inaccurate. Researchers are not as you describe at all, at least those who become professors. They are exactly the same.

There is a type of professor that's exactly like a VC. The guy who wrangles a team of postdocs writing grant applications, farms out the funding to students and postdocs for them to do the actual work, and then puts his name on the resulting papers.

> There is a type of professor that's exactly like a VC.

The vast majority of professors, I'd say, are like that.

Why do you think "researchers" meant professors? That seems like a leap.

I think what they're saying is that there are plenty of researchers/professors with ego, who think they're God's Gift. At the same time, there are many more researchers who are very humble and realize their contributions are a small part of a larger whole.

In startups, it seems that a strong ego is an advantage - if not a necessity (see: Elon Musk, Adam Neumann, Steve Jobs). There's an attitude (usually explicit, but sometimes implicit) of "we're disrupting the _____ industry and changing the world!".

Overall, I think you can find strong egos in any industry or job. However, my guess is that if you (somehow) ranked researchers and founders by ego, you'd find that the distributions were quite different. My guess is that the majority of founders have strong egos, with a long tail of those less ego-centric and that researchers would be quite the opposite - generally less ego-centric, with a long tail of strong-ego individuals.

Right, but a professor specifically is someone who in most instances can at best be said to have once done some research before graduating into managing researchers (grad students). It's like saying "programmers don't behave like _____, based on my experience with mid-level managers in technical organizations."

PhD students are learning to research.

The only group not included in "professors" is "postdocs" then, who are temporary staff who usually leave academia after a year or two.

Almost all permanent research staff at universities are professors. Maybe the confusion is because some countries don't use that title?

Regardless, I'd say the definition of a "successful researcher" is usually someone who has become a professor.

Whilst there are many great postdocs, very few (any?) of the good ones become professors.

A mathematician once said something like, "if the solution to the problem in front of you is not obvious, then you are not yet ready to work on it".

Which is to say that intellectual pioneers are often necessarily humble about their achievements, yet worked very hard to get there.

One wonders if it might be the opposite for some founders who were in the right place at the right time to hit the VC/acquisition jackpot.

Your comment is the only Google result for that quote as is, so I'm not sure you have it right. If it were true about mathematics, then it would be almost impossible to work on unsolved problems. Working on the problems is how you become ready to solve them, and for many real world problems it is far from obvious that you have found a correct solution until much later.

>"if the solution to the problem in front of you is not obvious, then you are not yet ready to work on it".

This could be interpreted favorably toward unsolved problems, which some of us still have thousands of, most of which will remain unaddressed forever.

Any solution requiring significant (or especially massive) effort can most confidently be undertaken the more obvious it is.

To some extent might as well pick an obvious one to invest major effort, where even sporadic progress will at least all be in the correct direction.

It could be good to put a lot of that under your belt to help better approach the less obvious problems, even if there is already an unfair advantage about things which are not so directly visualizable.

There could be unique outcome among your obvious problems if you choose one where others do not see any visible solution at all.

And you can become more ready for things put in front of you.

Hence "something like". Paraphrasing. The message was conveyed though.

As a trained mathematician it certainly mirrors my experience. Banging away at a narrow problem typically either results in a) no solution or b) enough bullshit to convince everyone that you know what you are doing. The latter is sufficient to carry a career in many branches of pure mathematics.

What usually works better is understanding the holistic environment around the problem, which is not always obvious at the outset, and then the "problem" becomes this little hole in a fabric of understanding and we go "duh" and solve it.

How would you check whether someone has special and deep insight into how the universe works? Making a lot of correct predictions seems like some of the best evidence available.

Many people have accurate predictions, it's not so unusual. But not everyone has the ambition or circumstance to do anything about it (or even the desire). Being a successful founder is not always about anything other than an orthogonal motivation separate from intuition.

And how do you factor all the predictions that were incorrect? The success to failure ratio of a well-known founder is not necessarily any different than many "average" people, it's just been scaled up out of their own interests, and thus more visible.

Some people relish their position in the world as more than it is, that's all I'm saying, when in reality it is usually from factors beyond simple wisdom.

Making accurate, specific and surprising predictions.

Being the CEO of Ycombinator, the business consulting firm, would give him very special insights into the industry, as many new companies would come straight to Ycombinator, looking for advice. Altman was in a good position to study the whole industry.

You're saying he has special access to data, but it doesn't necessarily follow that he has special insight based on that data. That said, Sam is a smart guy, so he probably does have some special insight - but it's not immediately obvious and this is hardly an evidence-based argument.

Sam Altman's mind will never be beyond doubt. It's in his skull, so we can never know it. I'm just focusing on the concrete, observable details. I'll let the psychologists argue about Altman's mind.

Right? Feels like an absurdly low-effort attempt at "thought leadership" with easily made connections to recently popular topics like Hamming and that ML guide. As a researcher, I have also thought about the similarities between starting a lab / research agenda and a startup, but this is a superficial analysis.

> As a researcher, I have also thought about the similarities between starting a lab / research agenda and a startup, but this is a superficial analysis.

Yeah, academic research labs are strikingly similar to seed-stage start-ups (mid six/low seven annual burn for 3-20 employees laser focused on a particular vision). It's not at all surprising that the two career tracks attract similar types of people.

This is an interesting point. Why does it feel like these blogs are getting shallower? For PG, more of his older blog posts were more interesting than his newer ones, with more concreteness in advice and experiences. The latest ones seem more observational of trends instead, which can be more vague in nature.

Because they're getting further and further away from their maker/hacker roots, and are now fully in the investor/politician/executive role. Two very different kinds of thinking and seeing the world, and the former typically have a strong dislike for the thinking/operating style of the latter.

Speaking completely and only for myself, possibly because the people writing the blogs have grown and developed, whereas I haven't. How much extra insight does one need?

To me, it feels like Gary Vee's cancerous idea of 'there is never enough content, post everywhere, all the time' has infiltrated culture - people have realized that they can stay popular and receive the many perks that come with it, from simply posting 'content' that barely has any actual content in it :)

I couldn't comprehend why anybody would watch daily videos from a guy/gal who does nothing but films him/herself filming shit (Casey Neistat being the first I believe), but I think I've figured it out.

It's like having an internet friend - if they like you, it no longer matters what you do, the same way you aren't having deep conversations with your friends, you're just 'hanging out'.

Sam Altman is doing the daily video version of hanging out, except he does it in blog format because he's an 'intellectual' or maybe just camera shy and the frequency seems to be a week or two apart.

It used to be that people would actually provide some value - a blog would at least aggregate interesting news stories (Daring Fireball) and provide some insight, but people have realized that doing all that work of actually reading, thinking and providing insight, is optional - you just need others to want to consume whatever you're providing and the bar has turned out to be far lower than any intelligent person can readily comprehend.

There's also a great deal of 'ignorance is bliss' when it comes to people like Paul Graham. His posts on Twitter strike me as him sharing what he considers to be insightful or interesting. It's revealing that rather than actually studying people who've come before him and devoted their life to contemplation, he's perfectly content to have 'insights' about his children's latest quip. You can't fault someone for it and I don't think Paul has ever claimed to be an intellectual, so it is perfectly good that he gets to have his simple fun of re-discovering the tried and true, rather than working hard on attempting to discover the novel. It's when he generalizes his personal little joys into theories about the rest of the world without any felt need for diligence (besides editing) or response to feedback, that his simple-mindedness is revealed and catches people who haven't lived a while, off-guard. Sam Altman may fall into this category.

> people have realized that they can stay popular and receive the many perks that come with it, from simply posting 'content' that barely has any actual content in it :)

Mark Twain I think said: That man can pack the smallest ideas into the most words of any man I know.

Personal Hate: Essays that follow the NPR style of layering vast amounts of extraneous sub-anecdotes before getting to the point.

I think I know what you mean, but what do you mean by "sub-anecdote"? Pure curiosity.

AKA I'm going to talk about song writer who wrote many songs you may be familiar with. But first I'm going to talk about his Swedish grandfather who owned a dairy farm in Wisconsin.

But a surprisingly common alternative view is: it’s all about BORN TALENT, no amount of work will help you if you are not anointed.

Personally I find the born talent view to be lazy and not a little bit creepy.

I have a relevant anecdote for this!

I was placed into the "gifted" program in the 1st grade of elementary school and told for many years that I was somehow special or "very" intelligent.

I never believed them, of course, because of two observations:

1. The adults who were telling me this did a lot of stupid stuff, which undermined the credibility of their claims.

2. Despite their best efforts to insulate us from the normal students, I knew people my age outside of the gifted program who were as clever -- if not even more so -- than my so-called "gifted" peers.

As an adult, I'm glad I never bought their hype. It's a one-way high-speed trip to narcissism, laziness, entitlement, and creepiness.

I was in the "Talented and Gifted" program all throughout school. I never understood what the point of it was. Mainly it meant I spent a decade interacting periodically with the same teacher who I never really got along with. It was a huge waste of time and resources to have that program at least as it was implemented at our school.

Maybe to try and keep certain kids occupied?

I spent my school years getting kicked out and out back into those classes. Typically they would notice that the normal classes were too easy, put me in the "gifted" program which was just 100x more boring with a 10x larger work load, so I didn't do that shit, got kicked out and the cycle would begin a couple years again.

While there were certainly some very intelligent people in these classes, plenty of other struck me as not necessarily the brightest.

The one exception to this was in 5th grade, I was put into a gifted program that was markedly different from normal classes. For the most part, there was a lot of freedom to work on what you wanted, no busy work. Occasionally the rather group would go outside where we should chill and just discuss various things.

I can imagine in their time lots of everyday brilliant people used that as an excuse not to try and achieve if they couldn't be like DaVinci, Mozart or Edison were doing.

Not lazy icons these anyway.

I think it's because they just launched a new moonshot venture fund? Though in that context I'd be more curious about what they find different between researchers and entrepreneurs since presumably, they want to turn a lot of the former into the latter. What'll they have to do to bridge the gap and make their venture firm a success?

Yes, this is what I was hoping the post would be about.

What do you think the difference is?

> this post would not survive blind review

If I wrote a post like this, people would very reasonably wonder what sort of experience I had informing these generalizations. Sam's background is very relevant for figuring out whether his thoughts are worth paying attention to here.

If it weren't Sam Altman who published this article, it probably never would have made the HN front page. (None of my blog posts have done so, and I can say with confidence that my worst blog posts are still more fleshed out than this post.)

Sam, if you're reading this and want to challenge my hypothesis, all you need to do is make a pen name and register a domain name to go with it, then publish your next post of the same caliber under that persona and see how well it sinks/swims on HN.

That's pretty harsh, maybe because the expectations are unfairly high for Sam. It's just someone writing on their blog some thoughts they had, so maybe we should treat it like that.

But for some constructive criticism, there are some actual topics I'd be interested in hearing discussion about, on researchers vs founders. I've been a bit of both, and I'd say the more practical similarities are:

- "unlimited" freedom to work on what you think is important, usually in something you think is different, but with a existential constraint. For founders, it's the business model -- your pitch deck needs a convincing business model to survive regardless of the product (which is what a lot of founders really care about). Whereas in research, you need a long-term vision that is attracting to funding to survive, which can be a deep expertise in something societally-relevant, or evidence of success in doing something novel

- the game: there's sort of a game to play for both. With startups, there's the optimization of MAUs and acting like a startup and growing fast; there's the established ways of getting funding from angel investment to series of investments, attorneys and payments, and then different ways to exit. For research, there's the game of publishing, annual cycles of recruiting great students and advising, reputation and finding your niche, and the academic system in general.

- management: on both cases you're managing a small team, usually under 50 people, so small enough that you know everyone and can be a bit involved in what they're doing, but big enough that you need a bit of hierarchy.

There's also some major differences:

- Equity vs reputation. Early startup employees work for less pay (moreso in the past) for the chance their equity will be highly valuable. Early stage researchers (PhD students or Postdocs) work for less pay for the chance to discover/invent something amazing to become a tenured professor or leading scientist.

- Formal mentorship credit: researchers get credit for being mentors for people that leave and do well later. PhD students are partly known for who their advisor is. When a student does well at an institution and goes to another one, the first institution is acknowledged indefinitely. Papers credit the authors as well as the institution before a single line of text. In startups, when someone amazing leaves it's a major negative thing. When someone says "GreatProgrammer was previously at Foo startup with HappyCTO" there isn't that same admiration for Foo startup or HappyCTO as if you say "GreatResearcher did their PhD at Foo University in Professor Happy's lab."

> It's just someone writing on their blog some thoughts they had, so maybe we should treat it like that.

I don’t disagree, we should all be kind.

That said, this post gets voted to the top because it has (samaltman.com) next to it. If it had (jonnybeeble.blogspot.com), it’d get maybe a few upvotes and comments and that’d be that. But here it immediately gets upvoted to the front page, therefore receiving intensive scrutiny, and here we are at 80+ comments all kind of saying the same thing.

But the author's brand - his unique position working among world class talents - is what gives weight to the words.

But I think the post called for examples of specific founders/researchers and their situations, e.g. how they manage going deep in weeds vs. steering long term vision, either practically or emotionally, is there something special in how they manage this? Or on persistence is he seeing people sacrificing weekends for 2 years in a row or mastering deep work practices or...

Welcome to Sam Altman's blog, his posts always read like a poor attempt of Paul Graham-esque essays.

On the blog I can't even properly query who the author is! Clicking on the Twitter button triggers a weird referral that requires me to login? I'm inclined to submit this as a dark pattern [0].

[0] https://www.darkpatterns.org/

Sam’s name is the heading of the page, in the title and the domain name. The blog doesn’t have an about page.

Twitter is asking you to login because you clicked the “tweet” button to post a tweet linking the article and tweeting requires a twitter account.

Sam Altman is the former president of YC.

I was inquiring about an About page; of course the name is visible.

The Tweet button says "Follow @sama" which isn't about tweeting. The convention is to link to https://twitter.com/sama and not to ask you to log in.

I'm happy to know who he is now.

This article seems a little half-baked to me, like it's missing the great insight that ties these seemingly random observations together and then a conclusion.

Instead, it just kinda stops abruptly.

The title could be: Researchers and Founders and Mothers. I think mothers have a lot in common with successful researchers and founders. They are laser focused on tasks (can do many in paralell) and have long term vision (a family). Although mothers dont get attention and press. They are very underrated

Sam, I know that you now spent a couple of months with researchers, and thus can write "deep" articles on researchers vs. founders now. Everyone knows that the best kind of researchers in the world are all at OpenAI now, and that gives you a chance to observe them.

On a serious note, I beg you to write about things other than research and researchers. Leave them alone, outside of the media spotlight and your writings. You see the media and its spotlight have a tendency to disrupt and destroy value. If you truly want do good, leave them alone. Please.

Previous discussion of the “Hamming question” that Sam referenced: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4626349

I had the opposite experience pretty much. I've worked with researchers quite extensively, and they nearly universally have one massive weakness: they have a hard time committing to any kind of a product plan. They are great at throwing a bowl of spaghetti at the wall in creative ways, and at determining whether any of it stuck, but beyond that - caveat emptor, you better have a great technologist with product chops on board or you'll be stuck repeatedly throwing spaghetti until money runs out.

I like the comparison. Both types of people chase the most important problem.

Having met people from both groups, the other word I hear a lot is impact. That's a qualitative metric to define success.

I had to make the decision whether to start companies or pursue a career in research, and chose the former. I think I would've been happy with either. The thing I enjoy about both is that there are rarely closed-form solutions, as the problems are mostly open-ended in nature. This in turn has the potential to grant you absolute freedom to pursue what best matches your interests and values, even as they evolve. You just have to be okay with risk and uncertainty in the pursuit of what is interesting.

> They are creative idea-generators—a lot of the ideas may be terrible, but there is never a shortage.

I feel like I almost never have creative ideas - the entirety of my (short) engineering career has been spent working on school projects, contributing to a design team, or set projects at work.

Am I screwed if I want to be successful as a computer engineer? (specifically hardware)

Absolutely not -- in fact, being self-aware of your deficiencies is hugely important. You should find people that compliment your skillset. Not everyone needs to be a creative firehose. If you're capable of understanding and implementing other people's visions, you'll find a lot of success in almost any industry.

But also keep in mind -- creativity is a muscle that can be flexed. Don't sell yourself short. Work on it.

> Am I screwed if I want to be successful as a computer engineer?

Being able to do the work is really all it takes to be "successful" in the sense that you can support yourself and pay the bills.

Beyond that, it really depends on what your definition of "success" is. One of the biggest realizations on the path to maturity is that "success" has a different definition for basically every individual.

Related: PG’s essay on Design and Research


I am curious about the differences he observed between these two groups.

Reading all these comments makes my tummy grumble

People with the ability to "work hard" on "important problems" are not rare. People who have the privilege to do so are incredibly rare. It's disappointingly thoughtless not to acknowledge that in a post published on Juneteenth. If gatekeepers, like Sam, put a little more effort into acknowledging how they perpetuate systemic inequality, and trying to avoid it, they could have a huge impacts.

They are rare, friend. Most people havent grown up enough to be able to work on important problems, though they can be trained. Could you handle it, if you saw your best friend get struck by an explosive harpoon, fall into the ocean, drowning and bleeding to death in front of your very eyes? What about a mile long stretch of highway, almost a thousand charred bodies, dead or screaming in the middle of the night? How about watching an elderly woman waste away into nothing as her "caretakers" starve her to death? Can you really trust yourself to watch over millions of dollars for decades without stealing a little off the top? Are you ready for the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can occur when youre the only person who's willing or able to do the work?

I mean, youre always welcome to give it a shot if you think youre so good. I can guarantee though that the results will surprise you. Most people cant even handle raising a child, the most important work there is.

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