An interesting note: I asked many people I respect to also share their advice, and most of it ended up being completely different from what both I wrote and within the group of respondents. So, I guess there’s no right answer on what to do if you’re young and ambitious. But I tried to pull out some of the common, recurring themes in the below. Maybe the only universal truth is that there are many valid paths to a good outcome :)
Are you ambitious?
Most young people underestimate the probability of doing highly impactful work. If you start early, the odds are in your favor. A standard trajectory will yield standard results - what should you do to achieve outlier impact?
Learn a lot about fields that speak to you
Build something excellent
Learn how to manage yourself
Get obsessed with a topic
This is the best time in your life to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. You might ask, ‘in what fields’? Find what you enjoy. Find ideas that make you so excited you can’t sleep. If a field does not yet exist around an idea you’re particularly drawn to, that might be a very good sign.
Isaac Newton’s Cambridge notebooks (freely available online) from his Annus Mirabilis and age 21-23 are excellent in this regard. He has a page (list of topics here) with very silly sounding questions. He is 21, alone in his college dormitory, and obsessively covering notebooks with questions like ‘what is heat?’, ‘why do things stick together?’, ‘what is light?’.
Learn to think original thoughts. Nurture your curiosity. Most people don’t know how most things are defined or work, and most of the answers you have been given in this regard start to fall apart when you really poke at them. To test this, try asking an adult why the sky is blue or how planes fly.
The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply. Grothendiek (one of the most famous and influential mathematicians of the 20th century) famously became completely confused in college by what a teacher meant by ‘volume’. This is a simple concept everyone learns in high school. Grothendiek was completely confused by the explanation most high school students accept as rote. He subsequently made some of the most important mathematical advances in the 20th century. Learn to be very skeptical when everyone talks about something as though it is obvious - few things in science are, at their core.
Start a notebook. Write down all of your ideas, particularly your questions.
Build something excellent
Work on a project, you have more time now than you ever will.
Say you are 14, and plan to go to college at 18. You have 4-5 years, an equivalent length of time to many graduate students or postdocs. Use this time to pick a significant project and make real progress.
The free time you have now is valuable. If you are unschooled, your time is even completely your own. You can spend 40+ hours a week learning and doing original research. For some, only a few hours a day will suffice. When you go to college, you will lose this free time.
Pick one project and work on it for at least one year. Pick a research question appropriate for a graduate rotation student in a lab, if applicable. Discriminate between projects ‘for show’ and work that you truly find good and original.
To get started quickly, find subjects that don’t require spending money or buying expensive equipment, such as writing, math and programming.
If you want to work on something which requires a biology or chemistry lab, it may take ~6 months. Be persistent. Email every scientist you can find with a concise note describing your interest in their research, and you may find one who will help you. Do whatever it takes to get to the lab. Make it your personal mission to leave the lab every day with one person very glad you were there. Ask as many questions as possible.
Find and cultivate mentors
Find the best person in your field. Grill them relentlessly on which problems they find interesting. Outstanding experts can suggest problems that are perfect next intellectual steps for you. See Erdos and Terrance Tao.
Show your mentors that your interest is real. Experts commonly encounter young people who just want to win competitions or get into a good college. They may assume that is why you are talking to them. If you can convince a great scientist of your genuine interest, you will have the ultimate ally. Read Richard Hamming’s ‘You and Your Research’.
Help your mentor. Michael Faraday attended all of Humphrey Davy’s lectures and presented him with a bound book of lecture notes at the end of the course. This led to him getting a job, and changed his life. Writing a summary of the work of someone you admire and presenting it to them can work well.
Don’t overfit or hero-worship once in a lab. Many scientists are not great. Don’t be surprised if some graduate students are disappointingly illogical or uninterested in original work. Find people with child-like wonder and enthusiasm, and a history of results.
Learn how to manage yourself
Stay humble and focused
The most common way smart teenagers neuter their success is by becoming addicted to wunderkind fame. This phenomenon is at a fever pitch in the modern era of social networking. Being a TedXYouth speaker should not be your goal. Status is an infinite treadmill. You can spend your entire life trying to chase it and achieve little societal value.
The best people, teenagers or not, are somewhat embarrassed by anything successful that they do, and immediately refocus on the next goal out of a desire to not think about the achievements of the past. Be that person. Do something significant with your life. Significance doesn’t come from getting all sorts of badges on your LinkedIn profile. Significance comes from denting the universe in a positive way.
Adults who know nothing of your field may tell you that you are great because of what you are doing at your age. Be nice but internally skeptical when they do.
Public recognition can be helpful, but treat it like a dangerous resource.
The hard stuff
You may feel depressed, anxious or lonely. Know that you are not alone. In almost all cases, things will get better, and you will make it through. My Dad used to tell me ‘it always gets darkest before dawn’. I didn’t understand what he meant when I was a kid, but now I do.
Find friends. If you don’t have them, find a place (Silicon Valley for entrepreneurs, Cambridge or Caltech for those more scientifically minded) where you can find people who are driven like you. Being around optimistic, motivated, intelligent peers is like intellectual rocket fuel. Read about people you admire and relate to. Biographies are a great way to journey through life with the most interesting people in history.
Build a network of people you will work with for the rest of your life. Read about the X Club (Darwin and Huxley) and the PayPal Mafia. Optimism, ambition and genuine niceness are great attributes in these types of groups. A good way to seed one is to set up a recurring dinner club with 5-6 people, or a chat group.
Have fun with your friends. Go to the beach together at midnight, light a bonfire and talk about ideas. Camp and hike together. Share life stories. Bake cookies and watch movies in your living room under a fort like the ones you constructed as a kid. Build robots together, do chemistry experiments at home. Living with a great group can be truly exceptional.
Don’t rely on being young too much. This is a finite resource. Someone may be kind to you because you are at a particularly vulnerable stage of life, but relying on this will leave you psychologically crippled when you are an adult and realize you are not young anymore. It’s uncomfortable to consider, but know the various non-merit based reasons why someone might take a first meeting with you and don’t expect to rely on them as you become older.
Action comes before motivation. Learn to get work done even if you don’t feel like it at first. Find which actions lead to the flywheel of effects (positive reinforcement from others, successful completion of tasks you enjoy) that will motivate you to pursue a certain path. Carefully design systems for yourself. You may feel extreme motivation after watching the Social Network movie, but in the 11th hour get bored and tired of chasing down some abstract programming bug - you must ensure that, if there is an important goal you’d like to achieve, the clear-eyed version of yourself sets up a system to ensure that a later, less motivated of yourself will get it done.
So, in closing, here’s the gist. If you’re a teenager trying to push ahead, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the world is against you: older people will shower you with confusing compliments, your body will go through some funky adjustments, and you’re not likely to get the tools and access you need to fully achieve your success.
On the other hand, you’re in the 21st century. The Internet is at your fingertips. You found this very post, for example. Let that be a reminder to you of what else is possible and how little effort it takes to combust success in your own life. Don’t worry too much. Plenty of time to have your existential crisis in your 50s. For now, focus on finding something practical to work on, mentors that will value you for your true work, books that will delight you and peers that will inspire you. There’s never been a better time to be an ambitious teenager.