Sam Altman on Choosing Projects, Creating Value, and Finding Purpose | Summary and Q&A

November 8, 2018
Y Combinator
YouTube video player
Sam Altman on Choosing Projects, Creating Value, and Finding Purpose


In this conversation, Sam Altman discusses the importance of minimizing cognitive load, choosing meaningful projects, and finding purpose in work.

Install to Summarize YouTube Videos and Get Transcripts

Questions & Answers

Q: How can someone minimize cognitive load and avoid distractions to focus on important tasks?

Minimizing cognitive load requires being aware of distractions and consciously choosing to prioritize important tasks. This can include creating to-do lists, setting specific goals, and eliminating unnecessary or unimportant activities. By decluttering one's environment and managing their time effectively, they can reduce cognitive load and maintain focus on important tasks.

Q: What strategies does Altman use to evaluate and choose projects?

Altman suggests pursuing a variety of projects that seem interesting, even if most of them may fail. He emphasizes the importance of trusting one's intuition and being honest about what is working and what is not. Altman also recommends setting annual check-ins to reflect on the past year's achievements and set goals for the future.

Q: How does Altman view the concept of risk and the relationship between risk aversion and innovation?

Altman believes that people are often too risk-averse and that this bias affects their decision-making. He argues that things in life are rarely as risky as they seem and that most advice leans towards conservative paths. Altman encourages individuals to consider long-term chronic risks rather than solely focusing on short-term catastrophic risks. He suggests that taking calculated risks and embracing failure are essential for innovation and personal growth.

Q: How can individuals find purpose and meaning in their work?

Altman asserts that finding purpose and meaning in work is highly individual and can be achieved through various pursuits. He highlights the importance of human relationships, creating value for others, and being respected and admired. Altman suggests that people can find purpose in raising a family, pursuing personal interests, or working on ambitious projects that align with their values. He also emphasizes the significance of authenticity and staying committed to one's chosen path.


In this video, Sam Altman discusses various topics related to productivity, purpose, and innovation. He shares insights from his own experiences and offers advice on how to choose what to work on, how to create value, and how to find purpose in your work. Altman also touches upon the importance of sleep, exercise, and nutrition for productivity and the need for perspective shifts and surrounding oneself with ambitious people. He encourages individuals to be decisive and committed to their goals and warns against the "deferred life plan." Altman also discusses the future of work and the potential impact of artificial general intelligence (AGI) on society and finding purpose in the AGI era.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the importance of minimizing cognitive load from distracting things?

Altman believes that it is crucial to minimize cognitive load from distracting things as it is easy to get caught up in trivial matters that are urgent but unimportant. Many people spend a decade being incredibly busy and stressed, but they do not move forward or make progress. It is important to focus on the things that truly matter and have a long-term impact. Altman suggests being mindful of how one's cognitive output is spent and making sure to allocate it to the important tasks rather than getting caught up in unimportant distractions.

Q: How can one determine if they are working on the right thing?

Altman advises periodically stepping back and evaluating if what one is working on is aligned with their goals and purpose. He mentions the trap of being busy and stressed without actually moving forward or creating value. Many people realize after 10 years that they were working on the wrong things and not making progress. Altman suggests making regular checkpoints to ensure that one is on the right track and being honest with oneself about what is truly working and what is not. This includes considering if the projects being worked on are truly important and if they align with the desired impact and time horizon.

Q: How can one create a system for stepping back and evaluating their work?

Altman shares his personal practice of taking a break on December 31st every year to reflect on the past year and plan for the next. During this break, he evaluates what went well and what did not, looks at his to-do list, and sets goals for the coming year. Altman believes that having a consistent process like this allows him to stress less about it throughout the rest of the year. He also mentions that different people may have different ways of stepping back, and it is important to find a practice or ritual that works for them. The key is to make time for reflection and honest evaluation of one's work.

Q: How can one determine whether a project is actually working or if they are just trying to convince themselves that it is?

Altman emphasizes the need for brutal honesty with oneself when evaluating the progress and success of a project. He mentions that many people fall into the trap of convincing themselves that they are on the right track when they are not. Altman states that admitting failure is a difficult but necessary part of the process. He advises taking a step back and dispassionately looking at the results and impact of the project. This requires being able to admit when something is not working and having the courage to cut off projects that do not show promise or align with the overall goals.

Q: Can one use angel investing as a way to gain experience and make decisions before starting their own project?

Altman believes that both poker and angel investing can provide valuable lessons and insights about business and decision-making. He recommends trying both as a way to learn about the world, psychology, risk, and other aspects of business. While Altman acknowledges that angel investing may not be accessible to everyone, he suggests that those who are interested can start with small investments and learn from the experience. He believes that it helps in developing decision-making skills and understanding risk.

Q: How can one find purpose in their work and career?

Altman stresses the importance of finding purpose and meaning in one's work. He believes that everyone has different ways of finding purpose, and it is essential to find it in some form. Altman mentions that human relationships and the feeling of creating value for others are common sources of meaning for many people. He encourages individuals to pursue what truly interests them and aligns with their values, whether it's raising a family, working on innovative projects, or pursuing other passions. Altman emphasizes the value of finding one's own path and not worrying about what others may think or expect.

Q: How do funding mechanisms need to change to support projects with uncertain long-term value?

Altman mentions that he has been working on new funding structures for projects with uncertain long-term value. He believes that there is a need for new mechanisms that can support projects that may not have immediate and clear value but have potential long-term impact. While he does not provide specific details in the video, Altman mentions that he hopes to share more information in the first quarter of 2019. He acknowledges that traditional funding mechanisms may not be suitable for projects that are not focused on short-term returns or that operate in uncertain domains.

Q: How can one balance the need for focused work with the importance of staying open to new ideas and perspectives?

Altman suggests that staying open to new ideas and perspectives is crucial but can also be challenging. He recommends taking random meetings and exploring different projects or topics at times, even though most of these interactions may not be valuable. Altman believes that these random experiences can lead to unexpected connections or provide valuable insights, making the effort worthwhile. He advises balancing this exploration with focused work and disciplined productivity to ensure that important tasks are not neglected.

Q: How can one find ambitious people to surround themselves with?

Altman believes that finding ambitious people to surround oneself with is important for personal growth and achieving success. He mentions that most people tend to pull others back towards mediocrity because it is more comfortable. However, he emphasizes the need to find individuals who push one to be more ambitious, inquisitive, and open to new perspectives. Altman suggests seeking out like-minded individuals through networks, events, or communities who share similar values and goals. He also mentions forming small groups of accountability buddies where individuals support and challenge each other to achieve their ambitions.

Q: How should one handle the pressure of choosing what to work on and finding purpose in their career?

Altman suggests that individuals should be honest with themselves and make genuine commitments to their goals and ambitions. He acknowledges that the process can be challenging and may involve facing emotional trauma, criticism, and self-doubt. Altman emphasizes the need to be willing to endure these challenges and not give in to apathy or ambivalence. He believes that finding purpose and meaning requires making choices and staying committed to those choices, even when they are difficult. Altman advises against the "deferred life plan" and urges individuals to pursue what they truly want, whether it is building rockets, making money, or working on other ambitious projects.

Q: What are some human universals in finding purpose and meaning in life?

Altman mentions that human relationships and the feeling of creating value for others are common sources of meaning in life for almost everyone. He believes that feeling respected and highly regarded by others is also significant for finding purpose. However, Altman emphasizes that there are many ways to find purpose and meaning, and what matters is that individuals find it in some form. He encourages individuals to explore different paths and pursuits to discover what resonates with them personally and aligns with their values and goals.


Altman emphasizes the importance of minimizing cognitive load from distractions and focusing on tasks that truly matter for long-term progress. He encourages individuals to regularly review their work and make sure they are working on the right things. Altman suggests taking time for reflection and evaluation, whether it is through annual rituals or other self-assessment practices. He emphasizes the need for brutal honesty when evaluating the success of projects and the importance of surrounding oneself with ambitious people who challenge and inspire. Altman advises against the "deferred life plan" and encourages individuals to commit to their goals and pursue what truly interests them. Finally, he believes that purpose can be found in various ways, and it is important for individuals to find meaning in their work and lives.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Altman emphasizes the significance of minimizing cognitive load by focusing on important tasks and avoiding distractions.

  • He highlights the trap of busyness and the need to prioritize tasks that move you forward rather than being caught up in unimportant activities.

  • Altman shares his personal approach to evaluating and choosing projects, advocating for a balance between exploration and honest reflection on what is truly working.

Share This Summary 📚

Summarize YouTube Videos and Get Video Transcripts with 1-Click

Download browser extensions on:

Explore More Summaries from Y Combinator 📚

Summarize YouTube Videos and Get Video Transcripts with 1-Click

Download browser extensions on: