“Are there general rules for finding situations with superlinear returns? The most obvious one is to seek work that compounds.
“There are two ways work can compound. It can compound directly, in the sense that doing well in one cycle causes you to do better in the next. That happens for example when you're building infrastructure, or growing an audience or brand. Or work can compound by teaching you, since learning compounds. This second case is an interesting one because you may feel you're doing badly as it's happening. You may be failing to achieve your immediate goal. But if you're learning a lot, then you're getting exponential growth nonetheless.
“This is one reason Silicon Valley is so tolerant of failure. People in Silicon Valley aren't blindly tolerant of failure. They'll only continue to bet on you if you're learning from your failures. But if you are, you are in fact a good bet: maybe your company didn't grow the way you wanted, but you yourself have, and that should yield results eventually.
“Indeed, the forms of exponential growth that don't consist of learning are so often intermixed with it that we should probably treat this as the rule rather than the exception. Which yields another heuristic: always be learning. If you're not learning, you're probably not on a path that leads to superlinear returns.
“But don't overoptimize what you're learning. Don't limit yourself to learning things that are already known to be valuable. You're learning; you don't know for sure yet what's going to be valuable, and if you're too strict you'll lop off the outliers.”
“There are many variables that affect how good your work is, and if you want to be an outlier you need to get nearly all of them right. For example, to do something exceptionally well, you have to be interested in it. Mere diligence is not enough. So in a world with superlinear returns, it's even more valuable to know what you're interested in, and to find ways to work on it.”
“It will also be important to choose work that suits your circumstances. For example, if there's a kind of work that inherently requires a huge expenditure of time and energy, it will be increasingly valuable to do it when you're young and don't yet have children.”
- Paul Graham, Superlinear Returns