I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among a few of the young programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs who I know at Stanford. I’ve learned that many of them share the same mistaken belief about success and how it works.

The Myth of the Superhuman

They believe, it seems, that “successful people” like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Paul Graham, Walt Disney, etc. have some sort of in-built superhuman awesomeness that makes them smarter, cleverer, more brilliant than the rest of us.

They believe that something about these people is unique, that their feats would be unachievable by anyone else.

To be fair, it sort of makes sense, right? I mean, these folks succeeded spectacularly where thousands of others failed forgettably. So, the successful people must be more brilliant than average folk like you and me, no?

An Anecdote: YouTube Instant

Something about this line of thinking doesn’t sit right with me. I know from my own experience building YouTube Instant that success oftentimes just happens without any foresight, pre-planning, or exceptional skill.

When I built YouTube Instant, I was certain that someone else had built something like this before. Sure, I thought it was a neat idea, but it didn’t seem that special to me.

I certainly had no idea that writing those 190 lines of JavaScript would change my life forever.

I never could have predicted that such a simple hack would go on to get 1 million visitors in 10 days, garner worldwide media attention, and earn me a personal job offer from Chad Hurley (who was YouTube CEO at the time; now the owner of Delicious). How could I possibly have predicted all that?

The truth is, I nearly watched a movie with my roommate instead of building YouTube Instant that night (the movie we were considering was Grave of the Fireflies if you’re curious). Needless to say: I’m so happy that I decided to code instead of watch a movie that night.

(Note: I am not comparing YouTube Instant to Apple, Facebook, or Microsoft. Building my little tech demo was nowhere near as awesome as starting a company. Yet, I still think that there are interesting lessons to learn from YouTube Instant that apply equally to the founders of Apple, Facebook, and the rest.)

So, what lessons does this teach us?

Lesson #1. None of us knows what we’re doing.

I wasn’t being especially brilliant when I thought of YouTube Instant. I didn’t have an epiphany, a secret how-to guide, or any awareness about the viral potential of the site. It was simply a random idea, like any other.

Here is the truth. None of us knows what we’re doing. We are all just winging it. Yep, that’s right. Even Fortune 500 CEOs, Nobel Prize winners, and U.S. presidents – all are really good at winging it.

The sooner you realize that no one knows what they’re doing, the sooner you’ll lose your fear of uncertainty and just go for it. Successful people aren’t by necessity any smarter than the rest of us.

Lesson #2. Don’t listen to successful entrepreneurs.

The folks who succeed have no way to know if their success was due to talent, skill, and planning, or merely dumb luck.

If you ask them though, they’ll confidently spout reason after reason why they – and no one else – could possibly own 90% of the desktop PC market, or whatever they achieved. In their minds, it couldn’t have turned out any other way. Most of this is just after-the-fact rationalization, though. The truth is, they succeeded and have no idea why. They’re just explaining it in the best way they can.

(I also think that some successful entrepreneurs are self-conscious about their success. They are afraid that people might think their success was only luck. So they start company after company trying to replicate their first success. On the other hand, most entrepreneurs just love building stuff – it’s in their blood. It’s hard to tell the two apart.)

Lesson #3. You can’t predict what will succeed.

With YouTube Instant, almost everything was luck. I was lucky to hear about Google Instant right when it came out. I was lucky to have the idea for YouTube Instant pop into my head – it was completely random. I was lucky to have 3 free hours that day to build the site (yep, I built the whole thing in 3 hours). I was lucky that someone I’d never met before decided to share the link on Hacker News. I was lucky that Chad Hurley was reading Hacker News when the link was on the homepage. And so on…

The only thing that was in my control, however, was whether or not I decided to show up.

Ninety percent of life is just showing up. – Woody Allen

I decided to build YouTube Instant instead of watching a movie. That decision was the only thing 100% in my control. I decided to turn off the incessant trivial chatter on Twitter and TechCrunch, get my hands dirty, and just build something.

Several Hacker News commenters lamented the fact that they didn’t build this first. Others derided the idea as obvious and trivial, and therefore not worth building. (post 1, post 2)

This comment captures my thoughts on the matter perfectly:

[YouTube Instant is] using existing mechanisms in YouTube’s JSON API to find suggestions and play them. All the true “magic” is provided by YouTube’s engineers. Not to take it away from someone who writes the right lines of JavaScript at the right time, but you don’t have to place the guy on a pedestal.

The real lesson here is for yourself and others here who think like you – if you tell yourself that things like this take superhuman efforts, how will you ever be able to produce something creative yourself?

Exactly.

Lesson #4. You can create your own luck.

Building stuff that people use – even stuff that goes viral – doesn’t take superhuman effort. It just takes a willingness to get your hands dirty (as discussed above) – something that most hackers and entrepreneurs already possess.

If you keep building stuff, you create your own luck. That’s how you learn and get better. But, first you have to believe that it’s possible.

Best thing to do: always believe that extraordinarily epic wins are possible. Conversely, don’t worry if you fail – just move on to the next thing.

Recently, a researcher studied the lives of 400 people over the course of 10 years and watched for any lucky breaks or chance encounters – both good and bad. Here is what he found:

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Lesson #5. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Look at the code for YouTube Instant. It’s butt ugly. I was pretty awful at JavaScript 9 months ago.

If I had compared myself to Brendan Eich, John Resig, Paul Irish, Alex Sexton, or other JavaScript badasses I would have just got depressed and never built anything. Better to write ugly code with a bunch of hacks than to write nothing at all.

When I interned at Facebook last summer, I heard from other engineers that early Facebook code quality was pretty awful. I also heard that Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t exactly the best programmer in the world (not sure how accurate this is, but I heard it from a few people).

The point is: he did the important things right. Zuck had great product vision and he didn’t fret about writing perfect code.

Done is better than perfect.

Bonus: Lesson #6. Stop reading Hacker News.

Hacker News is awesome – don’t get me wrong. It’s a great way to follow the goings-on of the hacker community. But, like everything else in life, it’s subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Easy question. Which is better: 3 more hours reading Hacker News? Or, 3 hours spent building YouTube Instant?

Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. – Morpheus, “The Matrix”

Thank you for reading. Happy hacking.

(If you liked this, you might like Travels in Japan.)

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Feross Aboukhadijeh Hey, thanks for reading! I'm Feross Aboukhadijeh, a programmer, designer, teacher, and mad scientist. I am currently building WebTorrent, a streaming BitTorrent client for the browser, powered by WebRTC. In my free time, I work on StudyNotes, a website to help students study better and get into college.

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