The Anatomy of Determination, by Paul Graham

“(…) the most important predictor of success is determination. (…) while it certainly helps to be smart, it’s not the deciding factor. There are plenty of people as smart as Bill Gates who achieve nothing.”


Paul Graham

Paul Graham

In his essay The Anatomy of Determination, Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed-stage venture capital Y Combinator, describes how determination plays the most important role in the success of a start-up. Furthermore, he goes on to remind us that what is true of start-ups is true in all walks of life.

In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent.

The Components Of Determination

Since determination is so important, the author suggests that it might be worthwhile to break it down into its components so as to better understand its nature and its role in success.

1. Willfulness: In its simplest form, determination is a reflection of the will to do what one really wants to. While circumstances can influence one’s willfulness to a certain extent, Graham sustains that it is primarily an in-born trait, and consequently not much within one’s control.

A good deal of willfulness must be inborn, because it’s common to see families where one sibling has much more of it than another. Circumstances can alter it, but at the high end of the scale, nature seems to be more important than nurture.

2. Self-discipline: According to the author, strong will is not sufficient in itself. Determination, he says, must be backed by a disciplined self.

Being strong-willed is not enough (…). You also have to be hard on yourself. Someone who was strong-willed but self-indulgent would not be called determined. Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline.

The fact that one can train oneself to be disciplined suggests that determination can be influenced over the course of one’s life.

If determination is effectively the product of will and discipline, then you can become more determined by being more disciplined.

Graham emphasizes that the amount of discipline one needs to exercise upon oneself varies with the willfulness.

The more willful you are, the more disciplined you have to be. The stronger your will, the less anyone will be able to argue with you except yourself. And someone has to argue with you, because everyone has base impulses, and if you have more will than discipline you’ll just give into them and end up on a local maximum like drug addiction.

3. Ambition: Ambition is the third major component of determination. It encourages us to set the goal worth being determined for. And it channels strong will and self-discipline towards that goal, giving determination the direction it needs to culminate into a tangible outcome.

If willfulness and discipline are what get you to your destination, ambition is how you choose it.

Paul explains that ambition, like discipline, can be cultivated. But most people don’t know instinctively how far they can stretch their limits of ambition without being unrealistic. It is only when they have the opportunity to benchmark themselves against other ambitious peers that they get the confidence to dream big.

(…) fortunately ambition seems to be quite malleable; there’s a lot you can do to increase it. Most people don’t know how ambitious to be, especially when they’re young. They don’t know what’s hard, or what they’re capable of. (…) When you take people like this and put them together with other ambitious people, they bloom like dying plants given water. Probably most ambitious people are starved for the sort of encouragement they’d get from ambitious peers, whatever their age.

Therefore, beyond ideation and talent, it is determination that characterizes success, and, to be more determined, one needs to train in self-discipline and fuel one’s ambition to support the will to achieve. However, Graham acknowledges another factor beyond determination that may influence success – it is finding something that one really loves doing. If you would like to read more on this subject, please refer to our article Do You Really Love What You Do?

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