by Aaron Harris1/25/2018
I often think about things I want to learn and the reasons I cannot do so. I come up with plenty of excuses, from not having a practical need for learning that thing to not being smart enough to learn it. My biggest excuse, though, is that I simply don’t have the time. This is a particularly misguided excuse because it’s just true enough to discourage me from trying things, and just false enough to make me feel guilty about not trying.
Figuring out where this sense of not having time comes from ends up being about a lot more than just feeling pressure from my calendar and commitments. Fundamentally, the thing that scares me is that I’m worried about not being great at the things I do.
We’re culturally obsessed with greatness. We laud the 10x programmer, the best cyclists, the most and highest in everything. When I think about starting something new, I then consider the amount of time I’d need to become great.1 At that point, my fear is about much more than not having time over the course of a week to start learning, my fear is about failing to ever achieve greatness.
The consideration missing in this calculation is that learning is not and should not be about the end goal of being great. Learning is valuable in and of itself if – and it’s a big if – the learning is interesting. The challenge of getting better at something, of understanding something better than you did before is – though cliche – it’s own reward.
Given how my brain works, I find it difficult to set abstract goals about learning and then simply enjoy the process. I was able to do this in college – where I knew much of what I learned as a History and Literature major wasn’t strictly “useful” – because I loved it, had the time for it, and had a structure that encouraged me to do it. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to set up new projects for myself built around reasonable near and long term goals to make sure I’m getting the sort of dopamine hits I clearly need to keep going.
This doesn’t always work, but one place it is working is photography. I’d always enjoyed taking pictures and, while I had a basic understanding of it, never spent enough time with a camera to start getting “good.” The investment of both time and money was intimidating, but I was growing increasingly frustrated with the quality of pictures from my phone.
So I started doing research and immediately fell into the “gear trap.” I became obsessed over different cameras, lenses, straps, bags, software, etc. Then I started digging deeper and reading about Henri Cartier-Bresson. He’s arguably the greatest photographer of the last 100 years, and he used a single camera for the majority of his work. He didn’t spend time obsessing over technology, he saw his camera as a tool, and spent time with it to master it.
This realization shifted my view of learning. It’s so easy to find reasons why you can’t start learning something. Not having the “right” tools is a big one, and while it is sometimes true, it’s false as often as any other excuse. I used that realization to stop obsessing over having the perfect setup before I began, and move forward with just doing. I started carrying a camera with me nearly every day and regularly editing my pictures. I’m still not all that good, but I’m getting better.2
Much more important, to me, is how much I enjoy learning each new lesson. I have a better feel for how light interacts with the speed of my shutter and the aperture of my lens. I am starting to understand how to frame shots and find things that are interesting. And 1.5 years in, I look back at the hundreds of hours I’ve sunk into my camera and realize that if I’d known how little I’d have learned by now, I might never have started. When thinking about learning from the perspective of needing to gain total mastery, anything short of mastery feels like failure. But when I reframe this from the perspective of how much I’ve enjoyed then act of learning, then knowing I’ll never join Magnum3 doesn’t make me want to stop.
This lesson is something I should have been able to absorb much more easily. I had 4 different jobs, and 4 different career paths, in the 10 years after college. I was an investment banker, an analyst at a hedge fund, a founder, and then a partner at YC. Each time I started something new, I expected myself to be immediately great, and was hugely disappointed when it became clear that I was nothing of the sort. Each time I switched jobs and discovered this, I also realized that I’d gotten older, and started to fear that I did not have the time to get great. Maybe I did not even have the time to get good.
And then something funny happened. I let go of the need to be immediately great, and started focusing on getting just a little bit better at what I was doing.4 Now that I think about it, this is the same thing that happens when I work with startups to set weekly growth goals. With a startup, the goal isn’t to go from $0 of revenue to $1mm of revenue in a day. The goal is to build the first version of a machine that consistently delivers growth. As you iterate on the machine to make it a little better each day, the growth that results compounds on itself unbelievably quickly. When you look back over the growth curve of a great company, it seems impossible that it started out with nothing.
When you let go of that need to be immediately great, you are also able to better learn from the people around you. Rather than compare yourself to where people are, and decide that it would be impossible to match them in the time you have, you think more about how to get gradually better over the time you have.
There’s another strange thing that happens when you have this perspective – time moves far faster than you expect. Maybe this is because I’m older than I was, maybe it’s because I spend a lot of my life chasing after 2 small children, but periods of time that look impossibly long at their start look ever smaller when looking back. This is certainly frightening, but it’s also amazing. When I regularly focus on something – even in short increments – the time I’ve spent adds up faster than than seems possible.
I’d like to think that I’ll be able to devote myself to ever larger numbers of learning projects, both personal and career focused. Realistically, I know that’s not true. There is an upper bound on the time and mental energy I have. What I hope I continue to appreciate is that that bound is higher than I realize, and that the reward of pushing for it is both greater and more attainable than I’d ever be able to predict.
1.Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule might not actually be right, but it definitely takes a significant amount of time to become great at complex things.↩
2. And though this is scary, here’s some pictures I’ve taken: http://priime.com/harris ↩
3. https://www.magnumphotos.com/ ↩
4. Thanks Strat! ↩
Thanks to Craig Cannon and Strat Sherman for reading drafts of this.
Aaron was a Group Partner at YC and a cofounder of Tutorspree, which was funded by YC in 2011. Before Tutorspree he worked at Bridgewater Associates, where he managed product and operations.