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Sam Altman’s Take on “How to be Successful”

Sam Altman - How to Be Successful
Photo Credit: Vox

Sam Altman is a computer programmer, entrepreneur, and the current CEO of OpenAI. He was previously the CEO of the incubator Y Combinator and founder (at the age of 19) of a social network mobile app, Loopt. I recently came across a blog post Altman shared in 2019 titled, “How to be Successful,” where Altman shares 13 thoughts on how to achieve outlier success. I am going to read and comment on the 13 thoughts in his post and share my take with the Personal Kaizen community. Will some of Altman’s 13 thoughts be worth adding to my 10 Rules for Life?

This post is going to share my comments on each of Altman’s 13 thoughts. I have not read these thoughts yet, so I will be sharing my opinion on each section as I read them. We are likely to have differing opinions as we are different people in multiple ways. For example, Altman has a high net worth and was named in 2023 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. He is also 10 years younger than me, a vegetarian, Jewish, gay, and dropped out of Stanford.

I suggest you read this post by reading Altman’s 13 thoughts (here is the link) one at a time. After each section, read my comments on the advice and then reflect on your own thoughts. Finally, take a moment to consider and jot down for yourself, “What should I change about my life and beliefs?”

The compound effect of our decisions
Photo Credit: Sustainable Athletics

1.    Compound yourself

Altman begins with a focus on the compound effect (the concept of personal kaizen). Love it! He also begins by mentioning the growth mindset and he suggests choosing a career that allows you to grow and become better than a novice.

I like Altman’s suggestion “on adding another zero to whatever you define as your success metric – money, status impact on the world, or whatever.” Think big and be willing to take risks with a focus on the long term.

2.    Have almost too much self-belief

Self-confidence is important, but I get the sense that this suggestion for how to be successful is not written for the average person. I’m not a big fan of Altman’s advice here. It might be good input for someone who is already a successful person, but I feel like this advice can hurt more people than it helps.

3.    Learn to think independently

As I am writing this, I have two sons attending college. I really think this is good advice for them, but I don’t think they would know how to act on the advice. I also feel this input strongly encourages entrepreneurship over a 9-5 job. While I agree, this advice doesn’t help the average person as much.

4.    Get good at “sales”

Get good at "sales" - how to be successful

This advice is definitely worth sharing with my college-age boys! I strongly agree that excellent sales and communication skills will help you in any career and I agree with Altman that you get better at sales the same way you get better at any skill – practice.

I also like Altman’s suggestion to show up in person whenever it is important. I’d add the benefits of being proactive when you are young and tending to “say yes” to opportunities, as each opportunity offers new connections and skills.

5.    Make it easy to take risks

I feel like Altman’s first bit of advice was about the importance of taking risks. This is about putting yourself in a position to take them. I personally failed at this by having two lovely children before I was 30 years old, a decision that made taking risks harder. As Altman states, “Keeping your life cheap and flexible for as long as you can is a powerful way to do this.”

6.    Focus

This is related to Rule 1 and Rule 3 of the 10 Rules for Life. Be sure to focus your time and energy on an area that is a natural strength and enjoyable. Be proactive and spend time on what is important, not necessarily urgent.

7.    Work hard

Great tip, and very related to Rule 6 – Learn and Grow Throughout Your Life. And this quote is Rule 1 again:

Work Hard: How to be Successful

“One of the great joys in life is finding your purpose, excelling at it, and discovering that your impact matters to something larger than yourself. . . find work you like doing with people you enjoy spending a lot of time with.”

I also love Altman’s suggestion to, “…do it at the beginning of your career. Hard work compounds like interest, and the earlier you do it, the more time you have for the benefits to pay off.”

I don’t have a specific rule for life about working hard. I will certainly want to discuss the need for this in my 10 rules for life.

8.    Be bold

I feel like Altman has already discussed having a risk mindset and this is a bit repetitive. I do really like his suggestion, “Follow your curiosity. Things that seem exciting to you will often seem exciting to other people too.”

9.    Be willful

How to be Successful: Have a positive mindset

Altman states, “I have never met a very successful pessimistic person.” Amen to that!

Having a positive mindset is my Rule 4, and critical to a successful life. Again, most of this advice is related to taking risks. I do agree with Altman that you should “Ask for what you want. You usually won’t get it, and often the rejection will be painful. But when this works, it works surprisingly well.”

Don’t be afraid to apply for the job you aren’t quite ready for, accept the new responsibility you are offered, or ask what you need to do to earn a raise. As Altman notes, you’ll get what you ask for more often than you expect!

10.  Be hard to compete with

This is great career advice, especially as I look at the people and careers who are soon going to be competing with Altman’s ChatGPT and related tools. This mostly comes down to choosing the right career in the first place and then growing and advancing when opportunities present themselves.

11. Build a network

Great advice for anyone wanting to be successful. I especially like Altman’s focus on my Rule 8, Give Back to Others. My friends and I always have stories of how providing help to others (with no expectation of a return benefit) has resulted in receiving back great benefits anyway!

12. You get rich by owning things

An office space - get rich by owning things

This advice probably isn’t in the current iteration of my 10 Rules for Life but probably will be by the time I finish the book! I have always focused on “leverage” in life, but Altman has a simpler way of sharing this point when he states, “You need to own equity in something, instead of just selling your time.”

Nearly every successful person I know has found a way to earn money in their sleep. Owning a stock portfolio accomplishes this slowly, but starting your own company is probably the best way to have something increase rapidly in value.

13. Be internally driven

This is great advice to wrap up Altman’s blog post. Don’t do things just to impress other people. Again, I agree with Altman and feel I have lived my life this way but don’t know that this is one of my 10 Rules for Life. I do feel it is related to the concept of Personal Kaizen.

Altman writes, “The most successful people I know are primarily internally driven; they do what they do to impress themselves and because they feel compelled to make something happen in the world. After you’ve made enough money to buy whatever you want and gotten enough social status that it stops being fun to get more, this is the only force I know of that will continue to drive you to higher levels of performance.”

How to be Successful

How to be Successful

Overall, I found the tips helpful but also written for the small percentage of people in the world who are born with privilege. Altman has commented that one reason he is a proponent of universal basic income is the belief that it will give people enough of a start that they can take more risks. That would make his advice more relevant.

I believe my 10 Rules for Life are more fundamental and basic and more applicable to the average person. I do love that Altman ends the post with a return to my Rule 1:

“Eventually, you will define your success by performing excellent work in areas that are important to you. The sooner you can start off in that direction, the further you will be able to go. It is hard to be wildly successful at anything you aren’t obsessed with.”

I hope you benefitted from a review of Altman’s advice and my thoughts. Please let me know if you liked this read-and-response approach by connecting with us by email or leaving a comment below.

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