Sam Altman on Choosing Projects, Creating Value, and Finding Purpose

by Y Combinator11/8/2018

In this episode of the podcast Sam Altman expands on ideas that have come up in several of his essays. Specifically: choosing projects, creating value, and finding purpose.

Sam’s the president of YC Group and co-chairman of OpenAI. You can find him on Twitter @sama.


:55 – From The Days Are Long But The Decades Are Short – Minimize your own cognitive load from distracting things that don’t really matter. It’s hard to overstate how important this is, and how bad most people are at it.

3:20 – Stepping back and evaluating your work

5:00 – Creating metrics for your projects

6:00 – Taking a year off

9:00 – Figuring out when to commit

11:00 – Poker

12:00 – From Productivity – Sleep seems to be the most important physical factor in productivity for me. Exercise is probably the second most important physical factor. The third area is nutrition.

14:30 – From You and Your Research by Richard Hamming – If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?’

16:00 – From The Days Are Long But The Decades Are Short – Things in life are rarely as risky as they seem. Most people are too risk-averse, and so most advice is biased too much towards conservative paths.

17:00 – Perspective shifts

19:45 – From Productivity – My system has three key pillars: “Make sure to get the important shit done”, “Don’t waste time on stupid shit”, and “make a lot of lists”.

22:00What Happened to Innovation

24:20 – From You and Your Research by Richard Hamming – He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.

26:20 – The deferred life plan doesn’t work

31:20 – From The Merge – Our self-worth is so based on our intelligence that we believe it must be singular and not slightly higher than all the other animals on a continuum. Perhaps the AI will feel the same way and note that differences between us and bonobos are barely worth discussing.

33:40 – Weight training

35:00The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello


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Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Sam Altman. Sam’s the President of YC Group, and Co-Chairman of OpenAI. You can find him on Twitter, @sama. For Episode 100, I wanted to try something new. Sam and I met up at OpenAI and we ended up discussing themes across several of his essays. We specifically covered choosing projects, creating value, and finding purpose. Alright, here we go. Alright, the return of Sam Altman. How’s it going?

Sam Altman [00:33] – It’s nice to be back, Craig.

Craig Cannon [00:34] – How are things?

Sam Altman [00:35] – Good, busy, good. YC’s going to be huge next batch. Interviewed more than a thousand companies.

Craig Cannon [00:41] – That’s insane.

Sam Altman [00:42] – OpenAI is going really well. Excited about that.

Craig Cannon [00:43] – So cool.

Sam Altman [00:44] – Yeah, I’m ready for this year to be winding down but, it’s been a good one.

Craig Cannon [00:49] – Excellent. I want to do something a little bit different for this episode, and just break apart a lot of your essays. I went back in time.

Sam Altman [00:56] – Sounds fun.

Craig Cannon [00:57] – We’ll see. I have a rough outline with a few general topics that you seem to have written about a few times. I figured we can kind of just go into each one. It seems like there are several categories from observing your thoughts, and then choosing what to work on, and then creating actual value, once you’ve chosen a thing. Then past that, purpose in general like purpose in your work. The first one, the first quote that I liked was from your essay The Days Are Long, But the Decades Are Short and that quote was “Minimize your cognitive load from distracting things that don’t really matter. It’s hard to overstate how important this is, and how bad most people are at it.”

Sam Altman [01:43] – It’s very easy to spend a decade being incredibly busy, and incredibly stressed everyday. Feeling like you’re working incredibly hard and creating a ton of movement, but not moving forward. This is like a big trap, and it’s so easy to get caught up in things that are urgent but unimportant. It is so easy to get caught up in the trifles of office politics and playing status and power games that don’t matter, but feel so fun and so important. Just random other bullshit that piles up in life. I’ve at least found for myself, I have a fixed budget of cognitive output per day. I can spend that on whatever. If I let it go on unimportant stuff then I never have time to get to the really important stuff. It’s so easy to get heads down and focused and sort of miss what am I actually accomplishing. The number of people who have said to me, “Man I thought for ten years I was doing incredible work because I felt like I was creating a huge amount of output. But in retrospect it was in the wrong direction,” is always depressing. You do need to focus and do stuff, but it’s really good to focus for some period of time and then step back and think, “Am I doing the right thing?” You also don’t want to make the mistake that’s the stereotypical Silicon Valley, 22 year old,

Sam Altman [03:19] – or 21 year old college dropout says, “I’m going to solve all the world’s problems in three months, and if I haven’t done it in three months I’ve failed, so I’m going to give up and do the next thing.”

Craig Cannon [03:27] – Yes.

Sam Altman [03:28] – Then they jump on some other project. That’s bad too, so balancing this is hard. Check in to make sure you’re working on things that matter and working on an appropriate time scale. Time artisan is really important.

Craig Cannon [03:41] – I wanted to address broadly, how do you even frame that? You have a certain amount of detachment that you need. How do you step back? When you need to?

Sam Altman [03:53] – How do I do that? I am pretty good about… in my downtime. I naturally just think about, do I feel like I am being maximally useful, and working on the right things? Or are there…. Should YC being doing something that’s totally different than we are today. Should be willing to throw everything out and re-think about it or is it going well? Do we need to scale? People find different ways to do that. One specific thing I do, which is sort of become this annual ritual I really like, is December 31st every year I take a break from vacation and I sit and I write down what went well the last year, what didn’t. I look at like how I did on my to-do list for the year, and I write the one out for the next year. Because I know I’m going to do that every year, I stress about it less the other 364 days. The fundamental pattern that has always worked for me is take time, explore a lot of things, try a lot of things, try to have a beginner’s mind about what will work and what won’t work. But trust your intuitions, pursue a lot of things as cheaply and quickly as possible. Then be very honest with yourself about what’s working well and what’s not.

Sam Altman [05:08] – And then the hard part is cut out all the stuff that’s not working, and focus down and down until you’re eventually focused on the one thing that’s really working. Or the two things that are really working.

Craig Cannon [05:16] – In terms of choosing… This sort of transitions into choosing what to work on and how to create value. But in terms of establishing those metrics, for you know, say you have like YC, OpenAI, and then the rest of your life. Do you create similar metrics for each one or does each one?

Sam Altman [05:34] – Definitely not. I am skeptical of these systems where you try to have everything on the same rubric. The best thing I can say is I follow my interests, I try to pursue a lot of projects that seem interesting. I realize that most of them will fail and I don’t care. As long as the ones that work really work. OpenAI really works, YC really works. I’ve done plenty of other things in the last five years that have not worked at all.

Craig Cannon [06:05] – We should explore that, because I think it’s something that’s not talked about. It’s to the detriment of everyone. For example, last year, year before, you were doing a lot of political stuff.

Sam Altman [06:15] – Yeah, I still think that is going to work. I am, that’s not, let me try to frame it in an area where a lot of things went wrong at once. But in a way that was really good. I sold my start up when I was like 26, something like that, and I worked the acquiring company for a little while, maybe 25. I don’t remember. Then I took a year off. In that year, which is hard to do, it’s really hard to do in the Silicon Valley. Because in a place where social status is determined by your job and what you’re working on, like when you show up at a party, and someone says “Oh what are you working on,” and you’re like, “I’m kind of just taking a year off,” you can sort of see in real time their eyes

Sam Altman [06:58] – look for someone else in the room to talk to. Doesn’t feel that good. But it’s an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do this, but if you are in the position between jobs where you can take a year off, I highly recommend it. It was one of the two or three best career things that I ever did. In that year, I read many dozens of textbooks, I learned about fields that I had been interested in. I didn’t have any idea they were all going to come together in the way they did but, I learned a lot about nuclear engineering. AI was starting to work so I learned a lot about AI, I learned about synthetic biology, I learned about investing. That was the year that I started, being like, well I had made like maybe four angel investments before this, but I was like alright, I’m going to get serious about this, and try it, see if I like it. I traveled around a lot, I kind of like, really got a feel for, much more of a feel for what the rest of the world was like. I met people that were working on all sorts of different things who were nice enough to talk to me. I got badly needed time to reconnect with my friends and family. I just got caught up on life, and I just sort of helped people that seemed, I had unlimited time, right?

Sam Altman [08:06] – If I met someone interesting and that seemed good and needed help, I would just help them. They would teach me stuff or they would offer me the chance to invest in their startup later. I left myself unscheduled so at the drop of a hat I could fly to another country for a conference. I started doing all this random stuff. Out of all of it, almost all of it didn’t work out. But, the seeds were planted for things that worked in deep ways later.

Craig Cannon [08:38] – You both sound like it was positive, and it was great, and you had a great time. When you said it didn’t work out how does that?

Sam Altman [08:47] – The individual projects. I invested in a bunch of companies that failed. I got really excited about a few companies I wanted to start that turned out to be bad ideas for different reasons. But that’s fine because that’s the thing. When you’re in explore mode, you try a lot of projects, and you accept that most won’t work.

Craig Cannon [09:04] – I know a few people that have gone through this. Maybe they say, “Alright, I’m going to go on vacation,” and lasts a couple months. They come back cause they’re meeting with people. Maybe they just immediately jump into something start researching whatever’s trendy, which is a separate problem where you’re just following everyone else.

Sam Altman [09:24] – That’s a mistake. Usually.

Craig Cannon [09:28] – Work on AI.

Sam Altman [09:29] – The crowd is right sometimes.

Craig Cannon [09:31] – How do you become decisive? Because you say a year–

Sam Altman [09:37] – Yeah so this is the trick.

Craig Cannon [09:38] – Relatively short period.

Sam Altman [09:39] – The trick is how do you figure what to commit to and when? This is where it takes brutal honesty with yourself about which projects are actually working and which you would like to convince yourself are working. I’ve been guilty of this mistake many times and I will many times in the future. This is a very hard thing to train yourself to do. To really step back and passionately look and say, “Am I desperately trying to convince myself that this is working or is this actually working?” But, I think it is a muscle that is buildable. Clearly people get good at that. It’s just hard because it means admitting failure in something. Every time I make a major investment in a company, I am convinced it’s going to work. You don’t go in expecting to lose your money. Or at least, I am prepared to pay for the expected value that I think it’s going to work. Once you’ve anchored that, it’s hard to go back and be like, “Man I was so wrong.” Which obviously happens all the time. The best thing about investing in a lot of companies is you learn to be, it’s very humbling.

Sam Altman [10:53] – You learn to be majorly wrong very frequently. You learn that that’s okay. As long as the magnitude of the successes pays for all of the failures.

Craig Cannon [11:03] – I haven’t thought about this before, but say you sold your company and had some money and weren’t thinking about being an angel investor, do you think it’s actually a good idea to angel invest a little bit before you start something else? Even if you’re not pulled in that direction?

Sam Altman [11:17] – The things that I think have taught me a lot about business are poker and angel investing. I recommend both of those.

Craig Cannon [11:28] – Fair enough.

Sam Altman [11:30] – By the way, as a quick plug for poker. I played a lot in college, like fairly seriously. It’s not for everybody, but I strongly recommend it as just a way to kind of learn about the world and business and psychology and risk and everything else.

Craig Cannon [11:51] – Did you play competitively or…?

Sam Altman [11:54] – Bay 101. I went to school on the peninsula and so I would go down there a lot.

Craig Cannon [11:57] – Wow. That’s great, did that fund your startup?

Sam Altman [12:01] – It did not fund my startup but it funded my like living expenses as a college student.

Craig Cannon [12:04] – Wow. Yeah I’m always surprised by the, I mean there aren’t infinite people who can do this, but there are enough people that actually make solid money.

Sam Altman [12:09] – But I would have done it for free. I just loved it so much.

Craig Cannon [12:12] – Yeah, okay. Did you ever get into the online stuff? Like ten hands at once.

Sam Altman [12:16] – I did, I did. That was not as fun and then it kind of stopped.

Craig Cannon [12:20] – Okay, alright, cool. You wrote the productivity post fairly recently. I thought that was really fun.

Sam Altman [12:26] – Thank you.

Craig Cannon [12:28] – Your three main tips were sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

Sam Altman [12:32] – For physical productivity. I think that’s a small fraction of the whole thing. But yeah.

Craig Cannon [12:36] – But in the end that’s core, cause if you don’t have a foundation, you’re off.

Sam Altman [12:40] – It is possible that I am incredibly genetically unlucky. These people who claim they only need to sleep four hours a night, it’s true. I suspect it’s not, I suspect it’s not. But I try to sleep eight hours or close to it. As much as I can and I get it most nights. If you’re trying to win on really big creative ideas, much better off, like cut something, have less of them, whatever, but for me, skimping on sleep, which I have tired at other points in my life, is a terrible trade.

Craig Cannon [13:21] – I’ve tried to optimize what I kind of think as of my best time, you know? I try not to sell my best time for anything other than the projects I want to work on.

Sam Altman [13:32] – Totally. It takes people a while but everyone figures out what that is. For me it’s early mornings. The first three hours after I wake up. Man do I put a huge premium, I don’t let anything get in the way of that.

Craig Cannon [13:47] – Right. How many hours do you think you have good hours every day? It’s always in flux, but..

Sam Altman [13:52] – If you take a modafinil or something you get 20.

Craig Cannon [13:56] – Yeah but, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best version of Sam Altman.

Sam Altman [14:00] – I would say. I mean I can definitely sit down and be super productive for eight hours in a row.

Craig Cannon [14:12] – No break. I mean go to the bathroom and whatever but no break.

Sam Altman [14:17] – Yeah. Which I think is more than most people can do.

Craig Cannon [14:20] – It’s more than me. I mean I think I can get four before I need to go work out or something.

Sam Altman [14:25] – But it’s definitely not like 16 and I think like the people who say 16, I feel like I get much more done than they do. I just don’t believe it.

Craig Cannon [14:32] – Maybe, yeah until we evolve and someone can get 16 done. In your broad writing on choosing what to work on, I love the Hamming lecture, I watched it a long time ago. He’s so much more prescriptive than most people are today, which I really enjoy the tone of. Do you remember that story of the lunchroom?

Sam Altman [14:55] – I do. You’re right, people don’t talk like that anymore.

Craig Cannon [15:02] – Not everyone. Not many.

Sam Altman [15:03] – Or not many. It’s been very interesting try to sort of help create a research institution here. I do think that we’ve done one of the more interesting research labs of the last couple of decades. The world isn’t set up to support this anymore. It’s a very interesting question about why. One thing I’ve learned from OpenAI is, if you sit down and say like, our research goal is to create AGI, that’s very far off and very hard. You work on anything you want that is going to help us get there. People are going to, no one’s said that before. That’s hard to do.

Craig Cannon [15:46] – How to you manage the psychology of multiple teams working on things that are all pointing towards AGI but in different directions. Maybe it’s robotics, maybe it’s gaming, and then all of a sudden someone gets a result, does that shift an entire team?

Sam Altman [16:01] – Yeah. I think it’s actually very similar algorithm to what we were talking about for how to figure out what to do with your life. Try lots of things, let people follow their intuitions and then when something starts working, put a lot more resources behind it. That’s worked for us really well.

Craig Cannon [16:17] – One other thing from The Days Are Long, But Decades Are Short, I liked your risk explanation. Specifically you say, “Things in life are rarely as risky as they seem, most people are too risk adverse, and so most advice is biased too much towards conservative paths.”

Sam Altman [16:37] – What risk actually looks like is that you look back at the end of your career, and you’re like, “Fuck I wasted it.”

Craig Cannon [16:44] – Oh, totally.

Sam Altman [16:45] – People aren’t programmed to think about risk that way. We’re very good at thinking about short term catastrophic risk and we’re very bad about thinking about long term chronic risk. We worry about, nuclear plant meltdowns but not about like inhaling coal smoke or whatever. There’s a very small handful of people that I would say I have taken interest in their careers because I think they’re going to do amazing things in the world. And I try to spend a lot of time with for no reason other than I want to help them. And consistently like, this is the thing I find myself pushing them on. Which is you’re thinking about, you’re thinking too small and you’re thinking about risk the wrong way. Or you need a perspective shift. Man, perspective shift, that’s something, I want to write about that at some point. As you get older, getting a shift in perspective just gets harder and harder and harder. It’s an unbelievably valuable thing to get. I think this is why people end up taking like lots of psychedelic drugs, I don’t know if

Sam Altman [17:57] – that’s the best approach, but keeping the sort of mental flexibility, to look at things from fresh perspectives and new angles, man is that important to hold on to.

Craig Cannon [18:09] – It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s like losing someone close to you, losing things or the psychedelic path has become very popular. Just on reading the research and limited experience you’re like it’s both abstracting you from your daily habits, and then giving you the motivation to pursue things that you were kind of on the fence with.

Sam Altman [18:35] – I don’t think you need drugs for any of that. I think you just need to commit to do it, and give yourself like a space, enough format, and people to do it with. The other thing that I found for all of this stuff, that really matters, is surrounding yourself with people who will make you more ambitious. Sort of be more, make you more inquisitive, shift your perspective more. It’s really important and basically all people, almost like 98% of people in the world will try to pull you back and say, it seems a little bit too crazy, a little bit too out there, a little bit too ambitious.

Craig Cannon [19:11] – Almost everyone wants you to be average because it fits their framework.

Sam Altman [19:15] – Yeah it’s just more comfortable.

Craig Cannon [19:17] – Oh totally, it works.

Sam Altman [19:18] – It works.

Craig Cannon [19:19] – Has any book you’ve ever read on risk helped you understand risk or is it just through experience?

Sam Altman [19:25] – Playing poker is one good way to do it. Reading poker books was good. Reading biographies of people who have done really amazing things, I think, is helpful. I love reading about sort of the great, the big iron science and engineering projects of history. I don’t think I’d ever, it’s hard to imagine I would ever get tired of reading books about the Apollo Program.

Craig Cannon [20:01] – Okay. Now that the next kind of theme, in a lot of your writings is about creating value, and say someone’s chosen whatever they might want to work on. In your productivity essay, you say, “My system is three key pillars, make sure to get the important shit done, don’t waste time on stupid shit, and make lots of lists.” I feel like you should have had shit in the last one.

Sam Altman [20:25] – You never get to get away from the things you’ve written.

Craig Cannon [20:29] – Actually, I think it’s good.

Sam Altman [20:32] – Well I do fundamentally, I maybe would have phrased it differently, but I do believe, I think people over complicate it. I think this whole productivity porn thing where you have these systems and these multi-variable charts and three dimensional whatevers, those people never seem to be the people who really move the world forward, I will observe. I think any system, as long as it keeps you disciplined and getting done what you say you’re going to get done, is fine. The simple ones really work. The one thing I would say is if you’re going to try to multitask a lot, written lists are very helpful. But beyond that, whatever you find that works for you is good and focus and prioritization are the keys here.

Craig Cannon [21:35] – I think that’s true. For the most part, you know what to do. And you know when you’re screwing around and not doing it.

Sam Altman [21:45] – One thing that I have found helps people, is if they have… A lot of CEO’s form these small groups of like accountability buddies. It happens very naturally during YC cause you have your batch mates and you have group office hours, and then you lose it and people feel their productivity sag. They re-form the groups by themselves and that seems to work.

Craig Cannon [22:08] – Yeah there was this guy, Nick Crocker, who wrote this post Elephants. I don’t know if you ever saw this post.

Sam Altman [22:13] – No.

Craig Cannon [22:14] – But yeah it was him and three of his friends. Basically weekly emails and then quarterly check-ins. It’s very simple and easy to follow. Would recommend it. The other thing you talk about in creating value, talk about these big projects. There’s this other essay you wrote called, What Happened to Innovation. It’s just this fear that many people have like, “Oh man all the cool shit already happened.” When in reality is it obviously happening, but you’re questioning how can we insentivize more of it.

Sam Altman [22:43] – If this one thing works, if we do actually build a AGI at OpenAI, that is more important than all the innovation sum total in humanity so far. Clearly not has all the innovation happened.

Craig Cannon [22:54] – Totally.

Sam Altman [22:55] – It’s an interesting question of why people feel that way. One is, it’s cool to seem sort of world weary. One is people like to complain. Another is that, it is true that most of the innovation recently has been in software, like in the internet. Now I do think the internet is a triumph of humanity. That’s where the frontier is, that’s where the best people want to go work. It is a fair criticism to say like, most recent big iron innovation has been on the internet. That is a criticism but it’s also a praise. There’s usually a small handful of frontiers where the most talented people go because that’s where you’re making the most progress. Sure it’s not physics right now, but that’s okay. If you just look at the rate of change in humanity in the last decade.

Craig Cannon [23:54] – It’s crazy.

Sam Altman [23:54] – It’s crazy. Now, it is, the internet will not solve all problems. It’d be a mistake to say we’re not making progress.

Craig Cannon [24:03] – Right. And what about funding mechanisms. I think that post was pre-OpenAI.

Sam Altman [24:09] – Yeah, I will have a lot more to share here hopefully in the first quarter of 2019. One of my big projects this year has been how you fund this stuff. And I think we’re close to an answer.

Craig Cannon [24:21] – Huh. On projects without, without the same appeal as AGI?

Sam Altman [24:28] – Yeah, well, if it’s not going to create a lot of value for the world at some point and still not have an answer.

Craig Cannon [24:34] – Right.

Sam Altman [24:35] – The things that will create value for the world but on a long time frame and in an uncertain ways, I think we’ll have some new structures to share.

Craig Cannon [24:45] – Okay. We’ll wait for that. There was a point that Hamming brought about in his lecture that he said, “He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions. But he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is, and what might be important.”

Sam Altman [24:58] – Yeah so this, figuring out the balance of how much random flux you accept in your life for how much wasted time is hard. At some point, and it takes a long time to get here, you get to like hire a couple of people who screen stuff for you. That’s great. But I didn’t have that luxury for a long time. There’s basically two things to do. One is you take a lot of random meetings, and you accept that 90% of the time, you’ll waste your time and be frustrated with yourself for wasting your time, for that one meeting that makes it all worth it. But the trade off for that is you have to work so much cause you got to do that in addition to your regular work.

Craig Cannon [25:40] – Do you allocate a percentage for that?

Sam Altman [25:42] – I used to, again, I’ve got sort of good screen systems now. I used to spend, I don’t know, 10, 15 hours per week in like random stuff. Most of the time it was just painful and sometimes it’s so valuable. If you cut it off entirely it’s disastrous. If you don’t have any flow of people outside your network, with new ideas or just a lot of talent that is underappreciated. It’s really bad.

Craig Cannon [26:12] – That’s a key point to that lecture. Where it’s like Nobel Prize Winners only work on important problems. And it removes them from–

Sam Altman [26:18] – Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can’t cut it off totally. But if you’re not willing to work really hard, I think you do have to just, cut it down a lot.

Craig Cannon [26:25] – I remember it was a funny moment at the Hackathon last year when you were there. There was some team who was like, we’re going to do this, and then we’re going to that, and then we’re going to work on rockets or like help work on the rockets. You said something that I thought was so great. Where you’re like, “If you want to work on rockets, go work on rockets.”

Sam Altman [26:46] – Yeah, I don’t believe on the deferred life plan. A common criticism of people in Silicon Valley, who I think have great futures in their past, are people who say some version of the following sentence. My life’s work is to build rockets, so what I’m going to do is spend, I’m going to make a hundred million dollars in the next three, maybe they say four, in the next four years, trading crypto currency with my crypto hedge fund, because I don’t want to think about the money problem anymore, and then I’m going to build rockets. They never do either. I believe if these people would just pick one thing or the other, you know, I’m obsessed with money, so I’m going to go make a hundred million dollars, however long that takes, but with a long enough time horizon that’s reasonable. I’m just going to build rockets right now. I believe they would succeed at either. But the problem, one of the many problems with the deferred life plan, is everyone can kind of tell that’s what you’re on. You’re not that serious, you’re not that committed to either and it just never works.

Sam Altman [27:52] – It must work sometimes, but I’ve seen it fail a lot lot lot. I understand the temptation of it, and I understand the degree to which people feel.. Well, they’re never like, “I’m going to make one million dollars, and then work on rockets, and just raise the capital.”

Craig Cannon [28:11] – Right.

Sam Altman [28:12] – It’s always like, they’re people that tend to be obsessed with making a lot lot lot of money. I understand the temptation to figure out basic financial security of course, I needed that myself, but I think one of the things that’s amazing about Silicon Valley is you actually can raise money as an unknown 22 year old to go make a rocket company. It’s happen several times at YC.

Craig Cannon [28:36] – Yup.

Sam Altman [28:37] – If that’s what you want to do, just get on with it. The company will pay you a salary, you’ll be fine. If you can raise money at all you’ll be fine, if you can’t raise money, think about something else. It is, I mean I could go on such a long rant that will just bore people and piss people off, but I would say the deferred life plan empirically, usually does not work.

Craig Cannon [29:06] – Right.

Sam Altman [29:07] – If what you want to work on is an ambitious company, and you are in Silicon Valley, and you’re competent, you very likely can figure out a way to just work on that problem. Maybe it means you have to go be an employee at Space X instead of being Elon Musk, but at least you’re doing what you want.

Craig Cannon [29:27] – But that’s fine, and it’s also like, listen dude, if what you really want is a hundred million dollars, and you just–

Sam Altman [29:33] – Then go for that.

Craig Cannon [29:34] – Exactly. Just call a spade a spade and make money.

Sam Altman [29:37] – But be willing to agree that that takes, you accept that that takes a long time. You can’t just sort of say, I’m going to compress this into three or four years.

Craig Cannon [29:44] – And that’s funny you don’t have time–

Sam Altman [29:45] – And I guarantee it doesn’t work.

Craig Cannon [29:46] – Totally, you don’t have to hide behind wanting to make rockets. You can just make money.

Sam Altman [29:50] – Well I think many people actually do want to make the rockets. But they also, you have to pick one, kind of. You can’t say I’m going to do this thing for this short period of time, and then do what I really want to do, or you’ll never motivate people to join you, and want you to win and work with you. People can sense authenticity. People can sense people’s motivation. People can sense if you’re doing something, if you’re doing something for the right reasons. I think to succeed in anything, it’s important that people are rooting for you. It’s important that people want you to win. Investors, the press, your team, whatever. That’s another one of the many problems with the deferred life plan.

Craig Cannon [30:40] – Yeah people have seemingly, any intelligence level, and almost any EQ level have amazing bullshit detectors. Like everyone.

Sam Altman [30:50] – Yeah, they do. Doing anything worth while takes a long time, and it takes a lot of emotional trauma. A lot of people telling you, you’re an idiot, you’re wrong, or whatever. If you’re not willing to sign up for that, you’re not going to succeed. People can also sense when you’re not willing to sign up for that. If you’re doing the cyrotp fund just to make money and not because you’re not a die hard believer in crypto. People can kind of tell.

Craig Cannon [31:20] – Yeah, it’s not even that. I’s just like riding this wave. Even making money, because if you’re doing the crypto fund to make money, that is kind of aligned, but if you’re not really into the crypto part of it.

Sam Altman [31:32] – Right, just like something about it is–

Craig Cannon [31:36] – I’ve had it with side projects where I’m maintaining code for months and months, and then I realize, I don’t know much I care about this.

Sam Altman [31:44] – Right.

Craig Cannon [31:45] – But then it’s hard to pull out at that point and you have to because it’s going to go nowhere.

Sam Altman [31:51] – Right.

Craig Cannon [31:52] – One of the last things that I wanted to talk about is purpose in work, in careers, in general and I think it’s kind of related to AGI. We’ll see. You wrote an essay, The Merge. A while back. And you said, “Our self worth is so based on our intelligence, that we believe it must be singular and not slightly higher than all the other animals on a continuum. Perhaps the AI will feel the same way, and note that the differences between us and bonobos are barely worth discussing.” This is a common topic. Work, purpose, UBI even. Where do you think that’s going in the AGI era. If it happens?

Sam Altman [32:36] – I think people find purpose in meaning in many different ways, and it is, the only thing I care about is that people find it somewhere. If it’s in raising a family, if it’s in, running an eSports team, I think that’s as valid as trying to build AGI. The thing I hate is just people who are apathetic and proud of it. There are what seem to be some human universals about ways that we get meaning in life, like human relationships for almost everybody, are the top of that list. Feeling like we’re creating value for others, feeling like other people feel highly of us and respect us. There are many ways to do those things. One thing that will happen with this sort of arrival of AGI is intelligence. I got lucky, I got born reasonably smart, will be less and less of a benefit. 60,000 years ago running around, intelligence wasn’t that much of a benefit. Physical strength, endurance, much more important. 60,000 years from now, human biological intelligence I don’t think will be much of a benefit again. It happens to be at a moment in society where it is really valuable.

Craig Cannon [34:02] – I’ve found in particular it’s out here. Like intelligence is so highly rated. That people seem oddly disconnected from their bodies. It’s been cool seeing you doing the whole workout plan now. The Sam Altman gun show, I know. How much do you weight now?

Sam Altman [34:16] – I think I gained 18 pounds of muscle mass this year.

Craig Cannon [34:19] – That’s crazy. Really?

Sam Altman [34:21] – Yeah and veterinarian too as a lot of us do.

Craig Cannon [34:23] – Interesting, so you’re heavy lifting, right?

Sam Altman [34:26] – Heavy lifting.

Craig Cannon [34:27] – You feel better?

Sam Altman [34:27] – I do, I do. Much better than doing like heavy cardio.

Craig Cannon [34:31] – Yeah, well the thing with, I’ve shifted over to lifting this year. I’ve found that, so first of all, you get way stronger way faster. Heavy cardio does almost nothing.

Sam Altman [34:41] – Yup.

Craig Cannon [34:42] – It just makes you eat a lot more. I was good at bike riding.

Sam Altman [34:45] – Yup.

Craig Cannon [34:46] – But now I actually see physical progress, which is crazy.

Sam Altman [34:49] – I mean the sad thing about it is… so I gained all this weight, which makes it harder to run, and I haven’t been running this year. I don’t even know if I could run a mile without stopping at this point. So in some sense I’m in terrible shape. But in other sense I’m really strong. But they are just so different.

Craig Cannon [35:06] – Yeah they’re diametrically opposed. There are people online that are like, well if you get your squat up to 500, you can bike anything and I was like, you don’t understand power to weight.

Sam Altman [35:14] – Right.

Craig Cannon [35:16] – Are you going to set a goal? For your fitness?

Sam Altman [35:18] – For 2019? I will on December 31st. I don’t know.

Craig Cannon [35:23] – Question mark.

Sam Altman [35:24] – I already hit my lifting goals for this year. But I’ll keep going to the end of the year anyway.

Craig Cannon [35:27] – Nice, congrats.

Sam Altman [35:28] – Thank you very much.

Craig Cannon [35:29] – That’s harsh. I think the last thing is like, what are you reading right now?

Sam Altman [35:37] – The last thing I read, it’s really short, I recommend it, a lot. It’s called The Way to Love, by Anthony de Mello. It’ll take you like an hour to read. It was recommended to me by Naval.

Craig Cannon [35:47] – Alright.

Sam Altman [35:48] – It is a series and meditations on life and it is a super fast read and, I just finished it, and I really enjoyed it.

Craig Cannon [35:56] – Excellent, I’ll check it out.

Sam Altman [35:57] – Alright.

Craig Cannon [35:58] – Alright man, thanks for coming in.

Sam Altman [35:58] – Thank you.

Craig Cannon [36:00] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.


  • Y Combinator

    Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon