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advice to ambitious young people #2
"how do you find purpose through projects?" incoming freshman in cs
with hundreds of hours spent on coaching calls with ambitious young people, i'd thought i'd start open sourcing some perspective like matt mochary did with his coaching in public. his writing acts like a recipe allowing others to test to see what works for them.
“how do you find purpose through projects?”—incoming freshman in cs
some more background for this conversation: it’s a question from someone who’s worked the last year on different projects. she has used open ai’s api to build some chat bot style projects as well as go through online courses on machine learning development.
they’re searching for what to build next as they search for what aligns with what they care about.
here’s how the conversation went:
her: how did you find your purpose?
me: first, pick a color. and a number
(has list of randomly great questions from card decks like wnrs)
her: purple. and, um, 22.
me: purple, personal development.
22 is ‘what do you want to learn in the next 12 months?’
her: oh, such a good question. i want to go 0 to 100 in a project, like build something that people use! find a way to make something that helps people in a real sort of way.
her: i've been watching y combinator startup school videos, and it seems like a good next step.
(^ i'm checking to see if she has the itch to be a founder right now or if it can wait as that will determine which direction the conversation goes.)
her: being user centered and making something people want is important, so i want to focus on that to get users.
me: want another perspective?
me: when starting to redesign activate (for those who don’t know it’s second year global program in tks helping teens explore the world’s biggest problems, like poverty, climate change, cancer, and more) last year with the team, we met every 2 weeks asking what is success by the end of this program?
at first, we thought it was ship minimal viable projects around and get initial users. that was the north star. that's what we built the final project around.
then, one month before launching the last sprint, we decided to scrap it.
because shipping an mvp is good for building certain skillsets but it's not the most challenging part of working on a project. once you start building to ship, you lose your time for building to think.
and so for your first question on purpose, building what other people want can overstep you understanding what you want. this is as important (if not more) as you’re the one driving this forward.
while sometimes it can be done simultaneously, in your case, i think you may enjoy another path.
before outlining that, i want to make sure you understand the why behind ‘build something people want.’ this connects to the #1 that makes a startup successful: growth. one way to ensure growth is making sure people actually want what you build. you’d be surprised how many insights are n = <10 and do not scale because people don’t want to use those products or services.
another part of that is responding to market forces: will people eventually pay for this? this is great discovery bottom up when building a startup, but there is a different way of building that can start with purpose.
part of purpose is what does the world need? and another part of purpose, is what do you want to build?
her: hmm, i haven't heard this before.
this is you right now. in the middle of the lake of uncertainty.
exploring to find your purpose is like finding which direction you want to orient your project towards so you get onto the land of purpose.
each project helps you cross the lake like a stepping stone. each one moving you closer to one direction. when you focus on what people want, they become side steps in the challenges of go to market, product, and customer discovery. these can be figured out once you have the larger direction.
if you focus on them now, you may be limiting what you work on.
her: that's an interesting take, but i still don't see how that can help me directly connect that back to projects.
me: let’s see this through a story.
one example of this that stood out for me, was the first year of tks boston where we took a day trip to nyc to see evan, ceo of snap. there were ~50 tks innovates there sharing their work and projects.
in the q+a with evan, mukundh shared he was working on an lstm model to find a potential vaccine target for this new virus that was emerging—covid-19. out of all the yolo vision projects for this or the bci projects for that game… this project stood out.
because it connected what he was interested in (ai tools for drug discovery) with a problem he was curious about (this new emerging challenge of a novel viral disease.
it was a unique take on the same kind of project, replicating with what data and libraries are available online. it was unique to his path to purpose. through this project he talked with early stage ceos, developers at large companies, and found a supportive online community to get initial hypotheses out.
this was 10 days before the whole world shut down…
her: okay that’s beginning to make more sense. as i’m working on a project, how do i know i’m on ‘the right’ path?
me: ultimately there is no ‘right’ path. each project is a step in a direction finding what you care about. you can explore as long as you need to before you find your direction.
three questions that have helped me align myself alongside the building journey have been:
1. what gets you out of bed?
this usually helps show core motivations to overcome an inertial state.
2. what keeps you up at night?
this reveals what your brain thinks about the moment before falling asleep when you don’t really have to be thinking about anything.
3. do you want to solve this problem for the next 10 years?
this one takes time to answer as you won’t know right away. finding your purpose is like finding a best friend. it’s the person who’s with you through the highs and lows that you still want to hang out with.
those are good litmus tests for approaching your purpose. my recommendation is to continue exploring as you build.
no need to overthink the direction with it all figured out, but my main advice is don’t give up the direction to what others want.
discover what you want and pair that with what the world needs.
takeaways on how to find purpose in projects
seek purpose over popularity: building what others want can overshadow the essence of understanding your own personal purpose. the former can drive growth for a startup, but the latter drives direction.
every project is a stepping stone across the "lake of uncertainty" toward the land of purpose. it’s important to look at what’s ahead, not just the next step.
explore big questions: dive into questions about the world's problems, personal interests, unaddressed issues, potential people to work with, and scalable incentives. this will help you see your ambition.
some questions along the way: to understand your purpose better ask along the way:
what gets you out of bed in the morning?
what keeps you up at night?
do you want to solve this problem for the next 10 years?
pursue authenticity over external validation: embrace the exploration journey. while feedback is crucial, stay true to your curiosity and find a vision for the world that resonates with you. discover the intersection of personal desire and global need.
the best part of the nyt times cooking website is the comments. it’s a bunch of skilled cooks or new curious people starting a dialogue with questions + comments. if this post resonated with you add something below, would love to make that the most valuable part of this piece.