Lessons from Sam Altman

  • As president of YC Sam Altman has seen lots of founders come and go, succeed and fail. So when he talks about patterns he noticed in terms of what distinguished the winners from the losers it’s worth paying attention.

Main Takeaways

  • Focus on what compounds (e.g. being nice, growing a business).
  • Spend more time thinking about what to focus on. Then focus and cut out the bullshit.
  • Place more asymmetric bets.
  • Be more ambitious. Time passes anyway and it’s just as difficult if not easier to work on ambitious projects.
  • You need to be an execution machine with superhuman work stamina. Make shit happen extraordinarily quickly even if you are not passionate about the task at hand.

On Ambition, Stamina and Risk

  • “It’s easier to do a hard startup than an easy startup. People want to be part of something exciting and feel that their work matters. If you are making progress on an important problem, you will have a constant tailwind of people wanting to help you. Let yourself grow more ambitious, and don’t be afraid to work on what you really want to work on.”
  • “I am willing to take as much time as needed between projects to find my next thing. But I always want it to be a project that, if successful, will make the rest of my career look like a footnote. Most people get bogged down in linear opportunities. Be willing to let small opportunities go to focus on potential step changes.”
  • Once you’ve gotten yourself to a point where you have your basic obligations covered you should try to make it easy to take risks. Look for small bets you can make where you lose 1x if you’re wrong but make 100x if it works. Then make a bigger bet in that direction.
  • “Extreme people get extreme results. Working a lot comes with huge life trade-offs, and it’s perfectly rational to decide not to do it. But it has a lot of advantages. As in most cases, momentum compounds, and success begets success.”
  • “Work stamina seems to be one of the biggest predictors of long-term success.
  • “Time is extremely limited and goes by fast. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled—few people get remembered hundreds of years after they die anyway.”
  • “You can be wrong on a lot of decisions if you are really right on a few huge ones. Optimize for the magnitude of your good decisions, not the percentage of the time you are right.”

On Focus

  • “It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored. So think about it more!”
  • “Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on. It is much more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours. Most people waste most of their time on stuff that doesn’t matter.”
  • “How to succeed: pick the right thing to do (this is critical and usually ignored), focus, believe in yourself (especially when others tell you it’s not going to work), develop personal connections with people that will help you, learn to identify talented people, and work hard.”
  • “Don’t waste time. Most people waste most of their time, especially in business.”
  • “Have clear goals for yourself every day, every year, and every decade.”
  • “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. Get rid of distractions in your life. Develop very strong ways to avoid letting crap you don’t like doing pile up and take your mental cycles, especially in your work life.”
  • “If you think you’re going to regret not doing something, you should probably do it.”
  • “In any given day there are 100 reasonable things that you could work on. It’s easy to get pulled into a fire on number 7, or even to spend time at a networking event or something like that that probably ranks in the mid-90s. The founders that are really successful are relentless about making sure they get to their top two or three priorities each day (as part of this, they figure out what the right priorities are), and ignoring other items.”
  • “Great founders care about being successful, not going through the motions to look successful.”
  • “It’s dangerous to spend all your mental energy on incremental improvements when what you really need is a step change. It’s a useful exercise to think about whether or not all the optimization work (or ad buying, for that matter) you’re doing is worth it, even if it all works.  It is usually not until you’re already quite successful.  Until then, you should focus relentlessly on making a product your users love (and making sure you’re going after a large enough market). Startups often ask me how to grow faster.  I usually say “build a great product, and you will be able to make it grow”.  The most sustainable (and cheapest) kind of growth is word-of-mouth growth.”
  • “work hard on stuff that matters. don’t work on stuff that doesn’t matter. (most people screw up the second part.)”
  • “Spend ~1 year exploring broadly, ~4 years relentless focus executing on the most interesting direction, repeat.”
  • “I’ve learned that I can’t be very productive working on things I don’t care about or don’t like. So I just try not to put myself in a position where I have to do them (by delegating, avoiding, or something else). Stuff that you don’t like is a painful drag on morale and momentum.”
  • “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”.”
  • “Many people spend too much time thinking about how to perfectly optimize their system, and not nearly enough asking if they’re working on the right problems. It doesn’t matter what system you use or if you squeeze out every second if you’re working on the wrong thing.”

On Agency

  • “A big secret is that you can bend the world to your will a surprising percentage of the time—most people don’t even try, and just accept that things are the way that they are. People have an enormous capacity to make things happen. A combination of self-doubt, giving up too early, and not pushing hard enough prevents most people from ever reaching anywhere near their potential.”
  • “Great founders get on planes in marginal situations.”
  • “Show up in person whenever it’s important. When I was first starting out, I was always willing to get on a plane. It was frequently unnecessary, but three times it led to career-making turning points for me that otherwise would have gone the other way.

On Velocity

  • “I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is very successful.”
  • “Mediocre founders spend a lot of time talking about grand plans; the best founders may be working on things that seem small but get them done extraordinarily quickly.”
  • “Great founders move fast. They make quick decisions on everything. They respond to emails quickly. This is one of the most striking differences between great and mediocre founders. Great founders are execution machines.”

On Entrepreneurship

  • ““I will fail many times, and I will be really right once” is the entrepreneurs’ way. You have to give yourself a lot of chances to get lucky.”
  • “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.”
  • “Mediocre founders try to hire people for the parts that they don’t like. Great founders just do whatever they think is in the best interest of the company, even if they’re not “passionate” about that part of the business.”
  • “It’s important to be in the right kind of environment, and around the right kind of people. You want to be around people who have a good feel for the future, will entertain improbable plans, are optimistic, are smart in a creative way, and have a very high idea flux. These sorts of people tend to think without the constraints most people have, not have a lot of filters, and not care too much what other people think.”
  • “How is the world changing in fundamental ways? Can you identify a leading edge of change and an opportunity that it unlocks? In such a tectonic shift, the world changes so fast that the big incumbents usually get beaten by fast-moving and focused startups. “

On Networking

  • “The size of the network of really talented people you know often becomes the limiter for what you can accomplish.”
  • “An effective way to build a network is to help people as much as you can. Doing this, over a long period of time, is what lead to most of my best career opportunities and three of my four best investments.”
  • “Talk to people more. Read more long content and less tweets. Watch less TV. Spend less time on the Internet.”
  • “Ask for what you want.”
  • “Go out of your way to help people. Few things in life are as satisfying. Be nice to strangers. Be nice even when it doesn’t matter.”
  • “Don’t judge other people too quickly. You never know their whole story and why they did or didn’t do something. Be empathetic.”

On Self-Belief

  • “Having the self-belief that you will be able to figure things out as you go along is critical to success at anything hard. Get started and trust yourself. No one has all the answers at the beginning.”


  • https://blog.samaltman.com/how-to-be-successful
  • https://blog.samaltman.com/the-days-are-long-but-the-decades-are-short
  • https://blog.samaltman.com/super-successful-companies
  • https://blog.samaltman.com/premature-optimization
  • https://blog.samaltman.com/hard-startups
  • https://taylorpearson.me/margin/
  • https://blog.samaltman.com/productivity
  • https://twitter.com/sama/status/1041727210158080000
  • https://twitter.com/sama/status/955900505875558400
  • https://twitter.com/sama/status/975913922891988992
  • https://twitter.com/sama/status/949401951174721537
Written on December 1, 2023

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