Scott H Young

Building Cool Things


If you were given a room of 200 people, and only had time to ask one question about each person, which question would you ask to guess whether or not they would be wildly successful in life?

The obvious candidate questions would be, “are you smart?”, “are you ambitious?”, “hard-working?” But, as I think about this question, the more I feel that these would fail.

Plenty of smart people accomplish little. Some studies show beyond being moderately smarter than average, intelligence is only weakly correlated with success. In other words, being stupid hurts you, but being a genius won’t guarantee accomplishing greatness.

Ambition also seems like the wrong adjective. It’s certainly necessary, but it seems more reflective than predictive. As you become better at something, your ambitions increase. Nobody would say a thermometer is the cause of hot weather, and while ambition probably plays some role in generating success, I’d wager there’s a lot more correlation than causation.

Effort also matters, but it isn’t terribly discerning. If you knew how hard-working 200 people were, I doubt it would narrow your options for guessing success much. Some moderately hard workers will greatly outperform uninspired burnouts.

I believe a much better question for whether someone will be successful is to ask: do they build interesting things?

Cool Projects as the Signal for Big Accomplishment

I like this question because, first, it’s far more limiting than the more obvious questions. What percentage of people are ambitious? Maybe half? But ask which people are building interesting projects, and now I’d guess the number drops well below 5%.

Knowing who is hard-working in a crowd of 200 doesn’t say much. But if you knew that five of those people were working on interesting projects, I think it would be much easier to answer who will accomplish something great.

Interestingness is also a better dimension because projects are rarely formally measured by it. Instead we ask how hard it is, how much money it makes, how long it will take and how will it benefit society. To evaluate something by asking, “is it cool?” seems childish.

Why Build Interesting Things?

I feel there are a few reasons why working on interesting projects might cause great accomplishments.

First, interesting projects allow you to sustainably master a craft. If it takes tens of thousands of hours to become world-class at a particular skill, then this is an effort which must be sustained over time. That means willpower, guilt or external pressure won’t work—you have to actually like what you’re doing, which is a lot easier if what you’re doing is interesting.

Perhaps the biggest reason to choose interesting projects has nothing to do with them being intrinsically better than boring ones. Rather, interesting projects are easier to keep working on during the long gaps between external reinforcement. Boring projects tend to be discarded as soon as the prestige or money wears off.

Second, interesting projects allow you to attract people who help you do more. This was the biggest surprise in running this blog. That it enabled me to get in touch with people who would otherwise be outside the sphere of influence of a regular university student. I now get email from entrepreneurs, authors and even female rappers who like the ideas and want to help.

One of my favorite bloggers, Chris Guillebeau, has a maxim that has stuck with me, which loosely paraphrased is, “consider adventure over productivity.” Interestingness may be a more important criteria than sheer volume of work, since the adventure attracts people and opportunities which efficiency cannot.

Interesting projects also have a way of evolving into bigger accomplishments. Twitter was originally a side-project at Odeo. Dell began with a student wanting to build computers out of his dorm room.

I’m often asked where I got the idea to start a blog which will soon be my full-time job (I’m finishing my last term of university). The secret is, I didn’t.

Instead it started as a small project I found interesting and grew from there. I had hopes I could eventually turn it into something bigger, but in the beginning, it was just me, a default WordPress theme, and a few poorly written articles. It was interesting, however, so I kept working on it.

Becoming a Builder of Cool Things

People ask the wrong questions when they start projects. They ask things like:

  • Does it pay well?
  • Will it look good on a resume?
  • Is it popular?
  • Will people admire me for it?
  • Is it fun? (Note: fun is important, but interestingness is a much more selective adjective)

I even think that picking projects because they are important is probably the wrong criteria as well. Interesting things need to be at least minimally important, otherwise they are boring. If nobody cares about your idea and it doesn’t have any personal significance, it probably isn’t interesting.

However, choosing to work on ideas because they are important tends to ensure they aren’t too much fun. While fun isn’t a great criteria on its own either, it’s a necessary component to start a project you’ll actually finish. Without income or peer pressure, boring, important projects get dropped pretty quickly.

Obviously, there are mandatory projects you don’t get much choice in. I feel work and academics actively select against interestingness (at least until you reach a high enough level). That’s probably why so many truly interesting projects start as part-time ventures.

Why Aren’t More People Working on Interesting Projects?

All of this makes me wonder why more people aren’t working on interesting projects. Why, in a room of 200, would you reasonably expect at least 25-50 ambitious, smart or hard-working people, but far fewer actively building cool things?

Perhaps it’s because ambition, hard work and intelligence are easy to spot and easy to reward. When someone breaks our mental model and works on a project that is interesting, but doesn’t fit a standard life path, we have a harder time evaluating it. Maybe that’s also exactly the reason more people should start.


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17 Responses to “Building Cool Things”

  1. Jonah C says:

    Wow, this article has truly inspired me unlike any others you’ve written. Probably because it gives a more concrete idea of what to do. And also you mentioned Michael Dell, who actually started his computer building company in the dorm building I am in RIGHT NOW. Haha.

    I do have an idea of a project that’s been fermenting in my head for some time now. It’s just I decided to pack on the extracurriculars this semester. But I’m wondering, do you care if you succeed? Do you care if you get results or are you just trying to see what happens?

  2. Jonathan G says:

    Very interesting argument. It’s true that the best advice in that a student can receive is to start creating something related to their field. As a marketing student, starting a blog was the perfect way to try out many of the different types of online marketing. I know a few engineers who create websites for fun.

    With the tools required for producing and creating dropping so significantly in price, there is pretty much excuse not to get started doing/creating interesting things ASAP.

  3. Oh, Hello! says:

    Hi Scott,
    I enjoyed reading your article and I agree on many levels, however it provokes a question – not only in general but that can be applied to myself in previous years too…

    Some people create, build, work on interesting projects. They get them up and running, whether for profit or not, keep them going for a while, and then suddenly… fizzle… out they drop. Some people do this again and again, maybe ten times (I hold my hand up,) before they find the right path.

    Why do you think it is, that some people have great projects but fizzle out at different stages, sometimes frequently? How can they change their fizzling ways?

  4. ah says:

    is it possible that somebody find something interesting today,
    but no longer consider it fun after a while???

    what make something interesting to someone but not interesting to other??

    is there definition of interesting?
    there seems unknown as to what make up something interesting, for a while? forever?

  5. Scott Young says:

    Jonah,

    Of course I care if I succeed. The goal of interestingness is that the project has an intrinsic curiosity beyond just the rewards at the end.

    Oh, Hello!,

    Fizzling out happens. I like to think of it in terms of commitments versus experiments. Experiments are supposed to fizzle out, the whole goal is experiential and temporary. Commitments should be kept as much as possible, and experiments eventually transition to commitments when the problem is interesting/important enough.

    Finding the right balance of noncommittal experiments and projects you’re determined to finish is another question.

    -Scott

  6. For me an interesting project is one that will challenge me and lead to learning new skills. Hopefully if I keep doing projects that will stretch me then I will achieve far more than people who just do projects that are in their comfort zone. There are two reasons for this. Always doing projects that stretch me will improve my skills immensely, and also these projects are likely to be ones that make a difference in the world.

    I believe this is possible in work and academia, especially at a higher level. When you first set out, of course you don’t get much choice, but later you will have more choice as your skill set increases and more people recognie your skills.

  7. Wendy Irene says:

    I think the question you came up with is fantastic and I think most people would never think to come up with such an amazing way to distinguish who will be successful. This makes me think you would be a great talent scout in your area of interest!

  8. A.H.A. says:

    Excellent post. Resonated very well with me and what I try to get out of life.

    I think pulling off an Interesting Project requires a lot of non-standard qualities:
    -Above average smarts. Maybe not genius level, but have to be in a cognitive elite for sure. It may be a shock to you, but most people don’t read LessWrong for fun :)
    -Deferred gratification ability. You gotta be willing to work on your project for years on end even if no one else gives a rat’s ass.
    -Insatiable intellectual curiosity.
    -High standards for oneself and one’s projects.
    -High synthetic ability, ie cross-pollinating/SCAMPERing/connecting concepts to create new variants and uncover patterns. What you refer to as holistic learning, I believe. The value of a network increases exponentially with each node, and all that.
    -Ability to articulate one’s vision clearly.
    -Internal frame of reference. A certain disdain for popular trends (otherwise one would just latch onto some pre-fab life project (environmentalism? hipsterdom?) instead of spawning one’s own).

    Btw, my term for interesting-project-as-interesting-people-attractor: social honeypot.

  9. Elena says:

    I completely agree that building interesting things is a better predictor of success than intelligence or hard work. One thing that I find makes it difficult to focus on building interesting things is insecurity. Worrying about whether anyone else would find the thing I’m doing interesting.

    I guess showing a project to other people as early as possible is one way to get past that insecurity. If at least my friends find it interesting, that can be good motivation to keep going. And if nobody at all is interested, that can be a sign that it’s time to give up on that project and try something else!

  10. Milan says:

    I’m a regular reader of your blog and I think your last 2 posts were quite disappointing: Building Cool Things & The Empathy Problem. In my opinion, you are struggling a bit for creativity. Maybe you need a break. I don’t think that people will stop visiting your blog if you don’t write for a while. Most of them are subscribed by email or RSS. Both these posts lacked the depth and the insight we have come to expect from you. Most of your posts look at important aspects of life (and sometimes not so important) from a very different point of view. I’ve always recommended your blog to my friends. I’m not going to unsubscribe because of 2 not-so-good posts, because you have a great mind, but maybe it needs a little rest or a little change. Give it a thought….

  11. Deha Okulu says:

    For a project to be interesting and gain acceptance it should fill a gap: It should root in a common need. A common need can stimulate your ideas and inspire you only when the need itself is a deep and broad one.

    Lightening was a need and light bulb was interesting. Communication was a need too and a telephone was highly accepted.

    Faith and hereafter are the deepest needs and you see how interesting and highly accepted those religions which can satisfy this need better are.

    Best regards.

  12. JenP says:

    I love this post, not least because it helps me see myself in the “successful” category.
    I haven’t had a great career like some of my friends – they’ve stuck at one thing and got successful at it and made loads of money. Instead I’ve flitted between two careers and written a couple of books alongside. Neither book made me much money.
    But the projects I’ve undertaken have been really interesting!
    Perhaps when you’re doing something really interesting, one thing will become the thing that does generate success in more conventional ways i.e. income and recognition. Right now, I’m not that bothered about those things because I feel like I’m getting the most out of life.
    Thank you for the article! It’s inspiring!

  13. Broderick says:

    My desire to build cool things came when I had a lot of free time and no pressure. That’s probably why so many projects start in college. I remember I would finish up my coursework easily and have all this free time left.

    I think building cool things falls low on the list of priorities for most people. Sad. I think if they built one thing really cool, building/creating would move up in importance for them.

  14. Salman says:

    Interesting article indeed :)
    Made me gauge the things I do on the interestingness scale…
    In my opinion, this article loosely focuses on the interest factor… people who build cool things usually do them out of interest at first… that interest is linked to curiosity. If you are curious enough about something, you will sure enough start looking into it, and that would be the starting point of a cool project. At that specific point, I think, there should be no question of acceptance, approval, or any “outside” factor, so to say.
    Then, if you get more interested, you’ll surely build it into something that will be accepted, regardless of how bizarre, uncommon, or “unacceptable” it may seem at first.
    @ A.H.A. : excellent comments.

  15. […] Scott H Young: Building Cool Things […]

  16. David Rahimi says:

    I agree. Everyone claims to be hard working and ambitious. Or at least they say so on their resumes. But actually doing something creative, or interesting is definitely a way to stand out. And who knows, it just may lead to something much greater than you think it’d be.

  17. Meredith says:

    Making sure a project is interesting to the person working on the project is the first quality check of a project.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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