Attracted to hard problems

As an ambitious person, I am naturally attracted to hard problems. I've had to train myself to ignore their allure so I can focus on the hard problem at hand. Incidentally, I think that is another reason rapid prototyping works for me as a burnout antidote.

There are a lot of hard problems out there. You can steer yourself in the direction of hard problems that also line up with your desired career path.
In the startup career path, just as it can not be enough to just build something people want, it can also not be enough to just solve a hard problem. If you need any evidence, just walk into any research university and have a look around.

I'm not necessarily talking about consciously choosing a particular hard problem (though I do think you should pick an ambitious idea in general). Most of my biggest decisions have been more fluid.

What I mean is being a bit more self-aware about how these choices can significantly impact your life path. Really hard problems almost by definition take a considerable amount of time. For example, I'm now about five and a half years into DuckDuckGo, and in many ways it feels like we're just getting started.

In my last company I was attracted to the hard problem of engineering a viral flow, and I succeeded. But in so doing I completely ignored everything else -- building a company and for the most part building a product around it that reached its full potential. I have no regrets in that we did well, but if I had thought a bit more holistically about what I was doing I it might have been much bigger.

Often it is the opposite. People focus too much on technically hard problems surrounding product and not enough on traction, which is often actually the harder problem for the company. That's why I strongly advise a 50/50 split.

In retrospect, a good mentor could have helped me see the bigger picture, which is why that is my number one piece of advice to new entrepreneurs who have chosen to get serious about the startup career path.

Every day hard problems that I'm passionate about haunt me because I'm not working on them. I take solace in that I know when it is time then I will focus on them in the most effective way I can muster.


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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.