Today, I delved into Paul Graham’s (PG) How to do great work essay. He provides great insights into the topic and extensively discusses it (and I mean extensively…). However, there seems to be an aspect that is not addressed in the conversation – the people who are in survival mode or have recently emerged from it and how this affects their ability to do great work.

When someone is in survival mode, they are primarily focused on meeting basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare. This can make it challenging to pursue personal interests, hobbies, or ambitious career goals because so much energy and resources are dedicated to just getting by. It’s a significant issue that many people face. Those who have just come out of survival mode are confronted with the challenge of unlearning some of the habits that got them out of survival mode and try to adjust to the new state, often while still carrying the mentality of survival mode.

Let’s take a look, one by one, at the article’s arguments and how the above two could affect how to do great work.

The four steps

PG prescribes the following four steps:

  1. Choose a field that aligns with your natural aptitude and deep interest (leads to harder work and diligence).
  2. Learn about your chosen field until you reach the frontier of knowledge. (Hard work needed).
  3. Notice the gaps in knowledge that others might overlook.
  4. Explore these gaps (fractal buds), especially the ones that others aren’t interested in. (Hard work needed).

Now if you are in survival mode, the first step needs to be modified to: “Choose a field that aligns with your natural aptitude, can help you get by, and you have a deep interest in”. If the deep interest part doesn’t directly correlate with the ‘sustain’ aspect, you will most likely prioritize sustainability; but try to cultivate your interest over time as you stabilize your life. It may not be that difficult if the aptitude part of it is preserved.

For those who have recently exited survival mode, they have likely made some compromises in the first step. The challenge lies in breaking free from the survival mentality and allowing themselves to pursue fields that may not immediately contribute to their survival but align with their interests and aptitudes.

Embracing curiosity and adaptability

PG touches upon the intricate journey of discovering one’s true calling. He argues that understanding the essence of a profession requires immersion and experience, often leading to a long, overlapping process of exploration, learning, and self-realization. He prescribes engaging in a broad spectrum of experiences, fostering curiosity and openness to increase the chances of discovering one’s passion. PG argues that if a field fails to captivate you as you delve deeper, it’s likely not your true calling. The importance of adaptability and the courage to change paths when a more exciting opportunity presents itself is highlighted. Finally, he warns against the distractions of societal pressures and external influences.

For survival mode and the life thereafter folks, the most difficult part remains about avoiding distractions due to societal pressures. This gives rise to the additional constraint of needing to ‘get by,’ and a marked increase in the difficulty level of adaptability and courage. For the folks that are just out of survival, the fear of falling back to it is the biggest deterrent.

Overcoming Inertia and Procrastination

Subsequently, PG touches upon navigating the journey of work requiring strategic management of time and energy. He argues that overcoming the initial inertia to start work often requires self-deception, like underestimating project complexity. He states that completion of projects is vital as it often leads to the most valuable outcomes. Furthermore, he warns of per-project procrastination, which can disguise itself as productivity and suggests regular self-checks to help stay on track.

The strategy of self-deception can be particularly useful for those transitioning out of survival mode, who may face additional challenges in starting new projects due to the lingering survival mentality.

Excellence, consistency and long term value

PG highlights the importance of aiming for the best in your field. This can be a challenging but rewarding goal for those in survival mode and for those transitioning out of survival mode.

Consistency in doing great work is crucial. It’s not about getting a lot done every day, but about getting something done consistently. This principle holds true even more for those in survival mode or transitioning out of it. Every small step taken consistently can lead to significant progress over time.

PG encourages us to aim to create something that will still be valued in a hundred years. This long-term perspective can guide your work and help ensure its lasting impact. For those transitioning out of survival mode, this perspective can provide a beacon of hope and a powerful motivation to strive for greatness, helping them break free from the survival mentality.

Unlearning misconceptions and embracing experience

In the journey from survival mode to a state of thriving, PG emphasizes the need to shed misconceptions and embrace the wisdom of experience. He challenges the passive learning model ingrained by traditional education systems, advocating for an active approach where educators are seen as advisors rather than authority figures.

For those transitioning out of survival mode, this shift in perspective can be empowering. It encourages self-reliance and autonomy, essential traits when navigating life beyond survival. PG warns against seeking shortcuts or ‘hacking the test’ for success, a mindset often adopted in survival mode. Instead, he emphasizes that real achievement comes from addressing overlooked problems and producing quality work.

PG also advises against depending on external validation or ‘gatekeepers’ for success. This is particularly relevant for those emerging from survival mode, who may be accustomed to seeking approval or assistance from others. Instead, he encourages focusing on self-improvement and producing quality work.

Finally, PG highlights the importance of learning from both positive and negative examples and the value of transferring ideas from one field to another. This can be particularly beneficial for those transitioning out of survival mode, as it encourages flexibility and adaptability, key traits for thriving in new environments.

The influence of people

In the pursuit of greatness, the surrounding people can significantly shape your journey. Colleagues who inspire and challenge you can stimulate your growth and push you towards your goals. As you transition from survival mode, it’s crucial to surround yourself with individuals who fuel your optimism and maintain high morale. This positive cycle can enhance your work and drive you towards success. In my small personal experience, individuals who you can look up to due to their own dedication, focus and optimism are a great source of positive energy. Moreover, individuals that are in similar financial position as you and still are driven by things other than money are great motivations.

Your audience, even if small and dedicated, can provide the necessary motivation and feedback for continuous improvement. Their appreciation and support can be a powerful catalyst, especially when transitioning out of survival mode.

While prestige can be appealing, it’s important to remember that the value of your work should not be solely determined by others’ opinions. Instead, focus on excelling in your chosen field and making it prestigious through your own efforts. Curiosity, a powerful guide, can lead you to new discoveries and achievements.

In this journey, the influence of the right people can be a game-changer.


As you transition from survival mode to a state of thriving to doing great work, remember that the discoveries are out there, waiting to be made. Embracing the right internal and external shifts can go a long way.