Two different perspectives on what to focus on more in life
Compare and contrast: Paul Graham on the top idea in your mind Charlie Warzel and Anne Peterson (Atlantic) on caring less about work
At first, these articles seem to be talking about two different things. Paul Graham's piece is about how hard problems you want to solve need to be "top of mind" (i.e. need to be where your mind naturally drifts). The Atlantic article is about how to find meaning outside of your work and prioritizing personal enjoyment over guilt fueled productivity.
Reading them, they seem to be intimately related. You need to avoid the trap of spending your mental energies on the unimportant, and focus on what is important. They are two strains of a good piece of life advice.
The only difference is how they define importance, and I think its worth talking about.
Framing the articles in terms of priorities
The main idea of Paul Graham's essay is that one idea has your top of mind, and it is chosen subconsciously. Your conscious and debatably rational mind can't pick. The subconscious will take the problems you experience, pick one that feels important, and drift towards it. This choice is not random, however. Problems that are urgent (he cites money and disputes) or time consuming tend to be where your mind drifts pack to. These thoughts will prevent you from focusing on what matters most to Graham: the hard problems you want to solve. Graham's advice is to try to use your conscious mind to shape your life so that your subconscious mind prioritizes the right idea to drift toward.
The Atlantic article focuses instead on prioritizing what you are intrinsic interest over work. Like Graham, Warzel and Peterson are not talking about time so much as focus: prevent work from being the axis of your life, and practice doing what you find joyful. Much of the article is spent highlighting how radical this choice is, how hobbies have become status symbols and personal enjoyment sinful. But at its core, it argues that you should use your conscious mind to shape your life so that your subconscious mind does not prioritize work.
Similarities and differences: focus and work obsession
What I find interesting about the juxtaposition of these two articles is that they clearly agree that many people allow their subconscious to pick the wrong priority to focus on, and conscious must be exerted to steer the ship back on course, while coming at the problem from two entirely different angles.
Graham wants to use conscious control to work more. Focus - no, obsess - over work and you achieve not just the additional hours you can put in, but the multiplicative benefit of the hard problem you are trying to solve being ever-present in your thoughts.
Warzel and Peterson want to use conscious control to work less. Work obsession makes it hard to relax and easy to burnout. It deprives you of the energy or attention to pursue random passions and forces you to allocate almost all of your time to work, non work essential chores, and recovery.
This is part of a larger trend which will hopefully be the subject of a larger post, of mentalities towards life. Focus is the most important resource you have, and the key is to allocate it with conscious thought to what you find important. The reason these articles differ is that the writers want to aid their readers in different ways. If you are a aspiring startup founder reading Graham's blog, what you care about is productivity, about generating the cutting insight that changes the world for the better. The average Atlantic reader, if I had to guess, is more focused on joy and fulfillment, which leads different advice.
The utility of life advice is its capacity to help one make better decisions. How do these frameworks accomplish that? Here is a summary of the actionable advice:
Differentiate immediate attention with obsession. Both of these things are often labeled focus, but are very different. Attention is easier to control, and as a result obsession causes more problems. To understand where your attention is going, ask what you spend your time on. To understand where your obsession is going, see where your mind drifts when doing nothing.
Evaluate your obsessions carefully. Graham specifically advises trying to steer towards the hard problems you are trying to solve, and Warzel and Peterson suggest trying to steer towards what you intrinsically enjoy. Avoid traps that inspire unwanted obsession, like interpersonal conflict and money issues as much as possible (easier said than done).
I’m going to try to post at least once a week on this blog, with minimal editing of what I write. In the last few months I realized that going through several editing passes kills the joy of writing for me, as well as makes me not post. If I ever get an audience, I will probably send my writing to friends to review, but for now I am writing for me, and what that means is getting into a habit I enjoy and can be proud of. If you enjoyed this or any other piece, subscribe!