If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I’d
say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You
don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you
need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff
you like if you want to be good at what you do.
It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you
like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it’s hard to get
an accurate picture of most jobs. Being a doctor is not the way
it’s portrayed on TV. Fortunately you can also watch real doctors,
by volunteering in hospitals. 
But there are other jobs you can’t learn about, because no one is
doing them yet. Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years
didn’t exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast,
and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a
world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.
What they really mean is, don’t get demoralized.
People who’ve done great things tend
to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only
exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude
biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how
the story ends, they can’t help streamlining the plot till it seems
like the subject’s life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding
of some innate genius.
We need to cut the Standard Graduation Speech down to, “what someone
else with your abilities can do, you can do; and don’t underestimate
your abilities.” But as so often happens, the closer you get to
the truth, the messier your sentence gets. We’ve taken a nice,
neat (but wrong) slogan, and churned it up like a mud puddle. It
doesn’t make a very good speech anymore. But worse still, it doesn’t
tell you what to do anymore. Someone with your abilities? What
are your abilities?
In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be
in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there?
I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future,
but just look at the options available now, and choose those that
will give you the most promising range of options afterward.
It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting
your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your
options, and worry later about which you’ll take.
The best protection is always to be working on hard problems.
Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t.
Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that
something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be
able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard
enough. There has to be suspense.
Well, this seems a grim view of the world, you may think. What I’m
telling you is that you should worry? Yes, but it’s not as bad as
it sounds. It’s exhilarating to overcome worries. You don’t see
faces much happier than people winning gold medals. And you know
why they’re so happy? Relief.
If I had to go through high school again, I’d treat it like a day
job. I don’t mean that I’d slack in school. Working at something
as a day job doesn’t mean doing it badly. It means not being defined
by it. I mean I wouldn’t think of myself as a high school student,
just as a musician with a day job as a waiter doesn’t think of
himself as a waiter.  And when I wasn’t working at my day job
I’d start trying to do real work.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t hang out with your friends– that you
should all become humorless little robots who do nothing but work.
Hanging out with friends is like chocolate cake. You enjoy it more
if you eat it occasionally than if you eat nothing but chocolate
cake for every meal. No matter how much you like chocolate cake,
you’ll be pretty queasy after the third meal of it. And that’s
what the malaise one feels in high school is: mental queasiness.
for a charity is an admirable thing to do, but it’s not hard.
It’s not getting something done. What I mean by getting something
done is learning how to write well, or how to program computers,
or what life was really like in preindustrial societies, or how to
draw the human face from life. This sort of thing rarely translates
into a line item on a college application.
Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let
yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I
think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what
they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as
a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3
o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.
Kids are curious, but the curiosity I mean has a different shape from kid
curiosity. Kid curiosity is broad and shallow; they ask why at
random about everything. In most adults this curiosity dries up
entirely. It has to: you can’t get anything done if you’re always
asking why about everything. But in ambitious adults, instead of
drying up, curiosity becomes narrow and deep. The mud flat morphs
into a well.
Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it’s the same
with all of them. They have little discipline. They’re all terrible
procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves
do anything they’re not interested in. One still hasn’t sent out
his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago.
Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.
I’m not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You
probably need about the amount you need to go running. I’m often
reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don’t
run for several days, I feel ill. It’s the same with people who
do great things. They know they’ll feel bad if they don’t work,
and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks
to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over,
and discipline is no longer necessary.
If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity
about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein
was when he looked at Maxwell’s equations and said, what the hell
is going on here?
It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it
can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To
take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they
hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name
“mathematics” is not at all like what mathematicians do.
And not only in intellectual matters. Henry Ford’s great question
was, why do cars have to be a luxury item? What would happen if
you treated them as a commodity? Franz Beckenbauer’s was, in effect,
why does everyone have to stay in his position? Why can’t defenders
score goals too?
The way to get a big idea to appear in your head is not to hunt for
big ideas, but to put in a lot of time on work that interests you,
and in the process keep your mind open enough that a big idea can
take roost. Einstein, Ford, and Beckenbauer all used this recipe.
They all knew their work like a piano player knows the keys. So
when something seemed amiss to them, they had the confidence to
it’s by doing that you
Don’t disregard unseemly motivations. One of the most powerful is
the desire to be better than other people at something. Hardy said
that’s what got him started, and I think the only unusual thing
about him is that he admitted it. Another powerful motivator is
the desire to do, or know, things you’re not supposed to. Closely
related is the desire to do something audacious. Sixteen year olds
aren’t supposed to write novels. So if you try, anything you achieve
is on the plus side of the ledger; if you fail utterly, you’re doing
no worse than expectations. 
Your life doesn’t have to be shaped by admissions officers. It
could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious
adults. And you don’t have to wait to start. In fact, you don’t
have to wait to be an adult. There’s no switch inside you that
magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some
institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take
responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.
The only real difference between adults and high school kids is
that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school
kids don’t. That realization hits most people around 23. But I’m
letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can
be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn’t
how much time you wasted.
The key to wasting time is distraction. Without distractions
it’s too obvious to your brain that you’re not doing anything with
it, and you start to feel uncomfortable. If you want to measure
how dependent you’ve become on distractions, try this experiment:
set aside a chunk of time on a weekend and sit alone and think.
You can have a notebook to write your thoughts down in, but nothing
else: no friends, TV, music, phone, IM, email, Web, games, books,
newspapers, or magazines. Within an hour most people will feel a
strong craving for distraction.