Naval Ravikant and Kapil Gupta on Hard Work

Transcript of Naval and Kapil's podcast on truth and hard-work

On December 25th, 2018, Naval Ravikant released a podcast where he along with Kapil Gupta, MD philosophized upon truth, hard-work, and the truth of hard-work.

It’s a podcast I keep going back to and believe is a must listen for everyone! The two wise men speak about what truth means to each of them and how hard work is just a bi-product of something more innate. Desire.

Kapil had some really insightful thoughts on how hard work is just another romanticized concept, like meditation.

Though the original podcast audio is available here on Naval’s website, sometimes having a transcript of the same doesn’t hurt. Since I couldn’t find the transcript anywhere on the web, I took the task upon myself, given how useful it will be.

I’m posting the same below for all of you, with slight edits for brevity.

[0:00] Naval

This is Naval Ravikant, I’m here with Kapil Gupta and we’re just having a conversation as two friends who like to explore topics fairly deeply. And in a way that we’re just trying to understand the truth. ‘Truth’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot.. and there are multiple definitions of it, in fact this might be a good question, how do you know when something is true? 

In my mind, very often, I know something is true just because it feels true to me. It feels very true. You know it when you hear it even if you don’t like it. Another definition I use is that truth is that which has predictive power. You can use it to predict the future a little bit. The more accurately you can use it to predict the future, the more true it is. But I’m sure you, Kapil, have a very different definition, so why don’t you give me a definition or two of how you know something is true.

[1:04] Kapil:

I very much agree with your first answer which is that it relates very much to feel. Often times when you hear the truth, the inner sensation that you get of a resonance is beyond the intellect. And I think that is a great sign, because often times we’ll feel something what someone says and we’ll feel it viscerally as soon as it is said and at the very same time we will have a hard time intellectually framing it and understanding it. And that is a very good sign that something is true because in very many ways we are beings in spite of our intelligence. We tend to use our intelligence as the machinery with which to process things, however that’s a very limited domain intelligence. And so when it cuts straight through that into the essence of something - something within our core for which we have receptors so to speak seems to grasp that. I think that’s a very good sign of truth. 

[2:16] Naval:

And very often sometimes it just leaves as silence, sometimes it actually creates an emotional response, especially if it’s aimed at your identity or at your ego. Like little kids have a way of telling the truth in a way that adults don’t like. If you’re fat, a little kid will come and say ‘Hey you’re fat’, in a way that adults won’t. And sometimes that can provoke a reaction from an adult because they’re not ready for that - that level of truth you’re not supposed to go around saying to the society. It’s not socially acceptable.

Anyway, I don’t want to get caught up in definitional games too much, I wanted to get into a specific topic which is, you recently wrote a discourse about hard work, which I thought was really really interesting. And I have a bunch of view on hard work, maybe I’ll start off with very high level. Like I think hard work is important, but I think hard work is an effect of something that you know needs to be done. Like if you need to do hard work to get something done that you care about then you work hard. But a lot of what I see going around these days is hard work for its own sake. 

And I think we live in a very different era than the one we evolved in. We live in the era of almost infinite leverage, and that means when you’re working your decisions echo larger. So there’s code working for you, there’s people working for you, there’s money that’s working for you, and there’s machines working for you. It isn't just that you’re standing there with your bare hands and tearing at something. We’re tool bearing creatures and because of all these tools available our judgement matters much more than hard work. So even though I think sometimes you do need to work hard and you should never shy away from it if that’s what it takes to succeed in whatever you want, I do think that it gets overplayed in society. So that’s kind of my view on hard work - I think it’s probably a little more conventional than yours. So I just wanted to explore it together with you a little bit. How do you think about hard work?

[4:15] Kapil:

I think hard work is yet another example of a prescription to be honest with you. I think it’s done largely out of anxiety. I think hard work is largely out of fear. I think one of the common things that you will often hear in the world of sports and business is that if you’re not working hard than the next guy is, and if you’re only putting in four hours he’s putting in twelve, and so hard work has become its own game. It’s like meditation - meditation becomes a competition. 

So the thing that you were really seeking actually becomes replaced by the game of hard work and hard work like effort becomes sort of its own goal. And that seems to be the pattern behind things, as when you follow a prescription or intermediary then that intermediary tends to replace the ultimate goal and that becomes your new game. 

The person who needs to work hard will work hard, but it isn’t that he needs to be told to work hard and he needs to strive towards working hard. I think hard work is the result of something. I think whatever needs to be done when a person has a sufficient and requisite degree of desire he will do, and from that outside that will come off reflecting as hard work to those who are looking. But it isn’t the opposite, it isn’t that if I work hard then I will get this because then that introduces what I call a gap. And that gap is I must introduce some step in the middle, that I’m being promised that if I fulfill that step, that some power or some force out of the universe will grant me what I want because I have satisfied that step. And I think that is the fault. I think that is the way that everyone looks at things and is being taught to look at things. 

Many things are named and in the naming problems exist and problems arise. So if someone wants to arrive at the top of their field, does that mean that they don’t work hard? No. But they would never view that as working hard. They would view it as ‘I will do whatever needs to be done to get there and I don’t consider that work necessarily’.

[6:40] Naval:

You look at the experts and to them what may look like hard work from the outside, its play from the inside. In fact one of the things I really think people should focus much more on is figuring out what feels like play to them but looks like work to others. Because that’s your superpower and that’s where you’ll just outperform everybody. 

I see that with startups all the time - I see a lot of people who work really hard but still fail and often you know the most common reason is that they just pick the wrong thing to do. The world is a big place, it’s very hard to figure out what’s going to work before it works. ‘Product-Market Fit’ is this thing that gets thrown around coined by Marc Andreesen. It’s a very difficult thing to achieve, you’re trying to predict what the market wants, you’re trying to build a product exactly for the market and sometimes hard work alone won’t get you there. 

I think what you choose to work on, and who you choose to work with, and actually how badly you want it, which is more than just working hard are more important than just the raw hours you put in. There are a lot of people running restaurants and other business not in the startup world who out-work startup entrepreneurs. But yet they don’t succeed or they do succeed with much lower numbers or much lower magnitude.

[7:54] Kapil:

Right, and I would say that a large reason for that is society has been sold romantic ideas. Romanticism is a very big part of things. Society very much seems to value effort, effort is a big deal and effort is sort of an arrival of sorts for the society that ‘Look how hard I worked’, ‘Look how much effort I’m putting in and therefore I’m doing the right thing by doing that’. And the problem that arises from that often times is that those who are very efficient are demonized.

Very often you will find in every domain those who don’t work nearly as “hard” as everybody else but they get ten times the result. And they are considered to be lucky. I like to pattern things around nature and if you look at nature, it doesn’t work hard. If you look at gravity, it doesn’t work hard. If you look at a tree and a leaf falling off of a tree, it doesn’t work hard. If you look at the water going down the river, it doesn’t work hard. So everything moves according to its own rhythm. And whatever necessities are there - they’re there. And therefore they need to be worked around. But working hard is an added extra romantic step in order to put another feather in the cap which says I succeeded by working hard. 

[9:30] Naval:

Sometimes I also think of work as a set of things that you have to do that you don’t want to do. If you want to do it, it’s not work. Example is that you might be grinding at work for 10 hours and its suffering, its painful, and then you get home and to relax you play video games. But to an alien watching from outside playing video games is more intense than whatever you’re doing at work. You’re running around with a gun shooting at people, you’re jumping over collecting mushrooms, gold coins, whatever it is; that could be constituted as hard work but because you want to do it, because you can lose yourself in it, there’s no suffering. 

So I don’t think people get burned out on work, they just get burned out on work they don’t wanna do, which is a form of suffering. And of everything that you need to do, not every step of it is going to be pleasant, of course. But it’s really important to align yourself with work where you’re not suffering. So when I find engineers who are out trying to be sales people or sales people who are out trying to be engineers, it’s better to team up with someone who really enjoys the other side of it and stick to what you’re good at, and team up. 

That’s where I think founding teams are very powerful. You have one person who can build and one person who can sell because then neither one feels like they are doing hard work, each one is doing what they enjoy. But together the company from the outside looks like it’s working really hard. And as we know that in a billion dollar company the employees aren’t working any harder than a million dollar company, they’re just doing the right thing in the right way. 

[11:07] Kapil:

And I think one of perhaps, the key element of hard work, which I must say is an elephant in the room which is rarely discussed in the world is that - hard work is considered to be a door prize as sort of preparing for a better failure. I think that a lot of times hard work is done in order to have an excuse for the mind when the mind comes attacking and says how come you didn’t make it. And if a person is armed with the ammunition that I have worked hard then he has an answer for the mind, whereas if he just sat on the couch and did nothing, he would not have that ammunition. So many times people do hard work in order to have an answer for the mind that they know they’re gonna fail anyways.

[12:00] Naval:

And externally, if I’m an investor in a company and it fails, the entrepreneur worked hard that feels more forgivable socially than someone who was just like ‘Oh I tried it; I took a shot; the market didn’t want it; I gave up quickly’. 

I used to have an engineer who worked for me, who was absolutely brilliant and he would create great products and he would work an hour or two hours a day and then he would very blatantly sit around watching cricket matches or playing Counter Strike while all the other people in the office were looking at him, and he just looked really lazy. And people complained to me about him all day long but he added tons of value by creating the right product, the right way, the right time. So you can get away with it. And he didn’t have this pretence of sitting around the water cooler and talking or going to meetings, he didn’t wanna waste time on those things. He basically was enjoying himself or he was working on what he thought was effective. I think his talent to some extent allowed him to get away with it but just given the era that we live in talent matters so much more than hard work and he would exemplify that. 

[13:09] Kapil:

And it’s interesting because all the books that have been coming out in recent years from “Outliers” to all the books related to talent being secondary to hard work. The 10,000 hours and everything, it’s the exact opposite message that hard work supersedes talent. And I think that’s a separate sort of discussion, but there is a truth to the fact that humans tend to do many things in order to satisfy those who are watching them, and they also tend to do many things in order to satisfy the idea of having tried and romantically failed. 

Failure is also something that is considered not only okay but, almost lauded. As I say these words I am certain that some in the audience are getting ready to say that one must fail in order to succeed, and quite frankly I’ve never looked at that as failure. When I say failure I’ve always looked at that personally as ultimate failure. Not getting to go where you want to go ultimately. Everything besides that I call experimentation. Everything is experimentation, there is no failure along the way.

[14:36] Naval:

Yaa I agree, specially it’s the speed of iteration is what drives learning. So in Gladwell and others they say 10,000 hours of grinding. I don’t think its quite that simple - if I do the same thing for 10,000 hours, that’s not going to be very effective. If in 10,000 hours I run 100 experiments that’s great but its not as effective as if I run a 1000 experiments, or 10,000 experiments. So the speed of iteration matters, that said its still not hard work alone because I could play golf for 10,000 hours and I would never be Tiger Woods. And if Tiger Woods played golf for 10,000 hours, yes it was hard work but it was also for the sheer love of it. He enjoyed most of those days, most of those times and it was sort of in his nature and character by some point to not look as golf as hard work. He looked at that as thing he most wanted to do that day. 

So this idea of suffering and sacrifice although its romantic and it levels the playing field a little bit, I think it also misleads us in the thinking that everybody can be everyone. One interesting hypothesis I heard is that in modern society, one of the reasons we have more unhappy people is because of the myth that everyone can be everything. If you think you can be Larry Page or Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg but you didn’t make it - it’s because you didn’t work hard enough and then you feel lousy about yourself. Whereas the reality is that their talents intersected in the right way, at the right time, and they put in hard work for the thing they were meant to create. Your talents are gonna intersect in a completely different way, in a different place at a different time. 

And a lot of life is just searching for what it is that you’re uniquely good at and where and when to apply that thing.

[16:28] Kapil:

That’s exactly right. The last line that you mentioned I think is the key. This may sound sort of really counter-intuitive, but I don’t think anybody fails because of not working hard enough. I don’t think that that creature exists. I think people fail because they didn’t really want it. I don’t think that a sufficient degree of desire exists in a given person, but because he just didn’t “do enough work” that he failed. I don’t really buy that. I would say that if he didn’t do the “work” or do whatever was needed to be done, it’s because of the desire. You gotta look more upstream - I don’t think the desire is bursting through you and that you chose to hold back that desire and not do it. I don’t think that’s the case.

[17:33] Naval:

I’ve always had the belief that companies don’t fail when they run out of cash, they fail when the founders and team run out of energy. When they basically say okay we’re done here, at some level you have to give up on something. And it’s pragmatic, there are other things that you want to do more by that point, but if you have an unswerving desire to do something then usually you’ll get it. Although I think in this modern age we tend to have too many loosely scattered imitative desires. There’s that great old Chinese saying ‘Man who chases two rabbits catches none’. Lot of it is just about cultivating your desire and being ready.

[18:12] Kapil:

There’s the want with the small ‘w’ and there’s the Want with the big ‘W’. 

[18:18] Naval:

I’m reminded of this Antoine de Saint-Exupéry line where he basically said something like “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” And that is a lot of the role of a leader - to inspire people. Another great definition I once heard was that ‘Management is telling people what to do, leadership is getting them to want to do it themselves’. 

[18:52] Kapil:

Correct. I think a leader is far more hands-off than what the business world tells him he should be. I don’t think it’s about managing anybody, I think it really is becoming someone that others look at that leader and see in him what they would love to see in themselves. 

[19:16] Naval:

I was actually talking to a founder the other day of a company that’s now worth almost $10 Billion and has done obviously quite well, and I asked him what would you do differently if you were doing it again. And he said he would micromanage people less. Which I thought was really interesting. I did not expect that answer, I thought it would be some other answer about how he could’ve been even bigger but he actually just felt like he made a mistake by constantly trying to order people around.

[19:41] Kapil:

I think it also matters how what you just said is going to be heard. Because often times things are heard through the lens of morality, and right and wrong, and correct and incorrect, and good and bad, and so that might be heard as you are right, it is wrong to micro manage people, you should leave them alone and I would say it’s far more - it wasn’t that that was “wrong” or “immoral” but that that was ineffective.

[20:18] Naval:

Exactly. When we get to morality for example, one of the things that Silicon Valley likes to talk a lot about is 10x engineers. Now it’s broadened a little bit to be a bit more politically correct  - 10x performers. But it is true that you can have individuals especially when they are leveraged through code or capital like hedge-fund managers or engineers or even on the sales side where someone can literally accomplish 10x what the next closest person in the organization can. And the easiest way to see this is as founders. One founder can build a company 1000 times more valuable than the next founder. 

So there’s this idea of 10x performers and obviously it can’t be through hard work because they’re not doing 10x of the work, that’s impossible for anyone. So everybody wants to hire them but then we go around paying them 1x - 1.2x because society doesn’t wanna hear this idea that you can actually pay a 10x performer 10x. So what happens is 10x performers all end up leaving and starting their own companies. Because they’re not getting paid 10x otherwise so that’s the only way to do it. 

So we have a few socially acceptable areas where you can get paid 10x. Basically if someone else is not making that decision, if you made it by yourself or for yourself then you get to be a 10x performer. But I think that one of the things that’s utterly broken in the startup ecosystem is that we all know and acknowledge that 10x performers or higher 100x, 1000x exist, especially within certain circumstances and situations yet we do not compensate them at those levels because it is socially unacceptable to do so. That one’s worth covering in another discussion but its an example of how real truth is hard to speak because it offends people it hurts your sensibilities about equality, it hurts your sensibilities about how the world ought to work, it hurts your sensibility about morality. 

But you can always fix things in another way - it’s better to acknowledge how the world actually works and then figure out how you maybe wanna change it as opposed to live with your head in the sand. And everyone has to speak the same way in the same language and the same coded words and you may actually end up just denying how the world actually works. In that process you end up deluding yourself. 

[22:43] Kapil:

Ya I think humans seek truth to some degree so long as it has conditions. It must fit within the framework already established or it’s not accepted. So the problem isn’t that the truth is wrong, the problem is that there are too many frameworks. 

Everyone’s walking on eggshells because so many eggs have been created. Morality, to what is correct, what is right, what is fair, then society as an institution created around the idea of enforcing fairness. Quite honestly the jungle in the wild is far more fair, and equitable, and moral than any fabricated society in this world.

[23:39] Naval:

I think we’ll end on that. Thank you Kapil.

Hope this was a good investment of your time.

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