Hacking and Grinding: The Balance Between Passion and Self Control


I think a lot about what makes people successful, both in a general sense and also on an individual basis. The model I’ve been working on for the last couple of years has to do with hackers vs. grinders, or passion vs. self-control.

Basically, some people, like myself, are successful because they are passionate about something that happens to make them money. But it’s a simple matter of luck. I got lucky enough to be driven to excel at information security. A good analogy would be that I’m on a leash connected to a diesel (my passion) headed toward a town named success. In other words, I’m successful despite myself.

That’s one extreme.

The other extreme is the guy who graduates high school and goes to college for 8 years with no real breaks. They get up at 5am every day to go to the gym. They eat a perfect diet. They never get in fights. They never pay a bill late. They avoid stressful relationships. Then, at the end of the 8 or 10 years, they land a job in their field and start making 200K a year.

I envy these people. I really do. I envy people who have a lot of self-discipline. I envy people who decide to start a masters degree while working full-time and then graduate on the exact day, 3 years later, that they planned. I think that’s phenomenal. But I see something lacking in most of these people that I could not bear to live without.

Passion. Interest. Desire.

Perhaps these people are able to control themselves so well because they don’t have any desires wildly pulling on their leashes. Politics? Meh. Technology? Meh. Gadgets? Meh. Science Fiction? Meh. Crazy Sex Life? Meh. Well, if you don’t have any of these things pulling at you, it’s going to be a whole lot easier to have self-discipline.

In fact, that almost wouldn’t BE self-discipline because you’re not countering the same types of forces that someone is who’s passionate. But that’s potentially just a cop-out coming from a passion-based person.

But here’s what I’m saying: passion and interest are what make people happy. If you lack those things you will be unhappy regardless of how much money you make. You have to enjoy what you do and feel motivated to excel at it for more than a simple sense of accomplishment. So the extreme of being a robot who finishes 15 years of college and makes one million a year is often not enjoyable (although the bimbos and the BMWs can often help with the pain).

I know many people who are the hyper-disciplined types and most of them I’d describe as at least somewhat depressed. They keep excelling and can get themselves to do almost anything, but the thing they’re searching for remains elusive. They just want to find something that they want to do, rather than something that they should want to do.

Then you have me. I am over 250 lbs. because I eat every meal out. I still don’t have my bachelors degree after four years in school. Why? Because I am/was too busy doing the things I love. And I’m happy. Ah, but not perfectly happy. Why? Because I hate the fact that I don’t have enough self-control to prepare my own food or exercise daily.

When I get home I am consumed by ideas of what to read or write. And I’d much rather go hungry than have to get the kitchen ready to cook in, much less wait for the food to cook and then have to clean up afterwards. So I go find the fastest thing I can, and I consume a full meal in less than two minutes. It’s quite lame.

Why? Because I don’t want anything interrupting my thought. I don’t want anything to interfere with my interests.

So, we have two extremes. Limitless self-control and no interest in anything. And a long list of passions which are extremely rewarding, but no ability to control the way in which life proceeds. Naturally, and this is a common theme with me, a balance is in order. That’s what I’m working for now — especially at work.

The goal is to be mostly me, but with some moderate additional measure of self-control.

But perhaps these two things (hacking and grinding) are mutually exclusive. Perhaps the more interested you become in something the less you can control your life outside of that thing. And perhaps the more you’re able to control yourself, the less interest you have in the things that you do. That, of course, is a highly depressing thought. And if forced to choose I’d have to go with passion.

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Some definitions are in order, by the way. Hacking = Passion. Hacking is where you get obsessed with things (computers, math, science, music, etc.) and you seem unable to do anything else. Grinding is where you just chug through any obstacle, such as a graduate degree with little to no effort, and you arguably can do so because nothing you see as you pass by is attractive to you.

Ok, so now for the fun parts.

  1. Which are you? What made you successful? Being a hacker, or being a grinder? And are you happy with your answer? Would you like to be more of the one you are not? Why or why not?

  2. What model makes for a better citizen? What percentage of each would citizens have in an ideal society? Who would bring more value to society?

All these combinations already exist in society. The best combo is high passion and high control, but very few have that. I’d argue that most of them are very successful, assuming a high intelligence. Then at the other extreme you have those with little passion, little control, and not much intelligence. These people are best described as “dim”, and it makes me depressed just thinking that some people live that way.

Intelligence is key, by the way. Intelligence lets people identify and take advantage of opportunities. Without intelligence the passion is not nearly as likely to yield any traditional success. And without intelligence it’s a whole lot more difficult to grind through a masters degree (unless you’re backed by a family with infinite money and infinite patience, of course.

The Point

I suppose the point of this is to figure out how to be happy. Not for me, but as a model for anyone to follow. What portion comes from being able to accomplish complex, long-term goals, such as advanced degrees (and then subsequently land big jobs with big money) vs. being driven by a passion to do something? That’s the question.

I happen to believe that being pulled by a passion is one of the most direct ways to happiness. Or perhaps it’s the only path. I’d argue that if you find people who are truly happy, they’re all pretty much being yanked along by a desire.

But does ambition count? Greed? Does that count as a guiding force? I’d say it does to some degree, but it’s more likely to be hollow and fleeting than a genuine passion such as for photography or cooking or building things.

So anyway, again with the questions:

  1. Which are you? What made you successful? Being a hacker, or being a grinder? And are you happy with your answer? Would you like to be more of the one you are not? Why or why not?

  2. What model makes for a better citizen? What percentage of each would citizens have in an ideal society? Who would bring more value to society?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. And I apologize for the rambling tone of the post; it’s not something I feel I have a strong enough hold on to write definitively about yet.:

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