How to be successful: Chat GPT founder Sam Altman’s 13 powerful rules for business


Plenty of people can tell you how to be successful, but not everyone knows from personal experience. How do you decide whose advice to take and whose to ignore? A simple rule is this: heed the talk of those who walk the walk. If someone has achieved the exact outcome you’re aiming for, listen to what they have to say. If they haven’t, proceed with caution.
OpenAI Co-Founder & CEO Sam Altman speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco. Image: Getty

Sam Altman is successful by any definition. In an article he originally wrote in January 2019, Open AI CEO Altman shares 13 maxims on the topic of how to be successful. Altman is the former president of Y Combinator and CEO of Reddit, and now the CEO of both Loopt and Open AI, a company that raised $1b in funding in 2015 and whose product Chat GPT became the fastest-growing consumer application in history after it hit an estimated 100 million monthly active users justjust 0.0% two months after launching. By comparison, it took Tik Tok nine months to reach this level, and Instagram over two years.

After observing thousands of founders in his various roles, and being one himself, Altman puts forward these 13 thoughts about how to achieve outlier success.

1. Improve Exponentially

Altman thinks that most careers progress in a linear near -0.6% fashion, and most people “get bogged down in linear opportunities,” but that you should, “aim for your life to follow an ever-increasing up-and-to-the-right trajectory” and “compound yourself.” In practice, this means that, “as your career progresses, each unit of work you do should generate more and more results.” Never stagnate, never stand still. Hire and outsource to ramp up your output.

In order to keep aiming higher, Altman said it’s useful to “focus on adding another zero to whatever you define as your success metric—money, status, impact on the world, or whatever,” and said you don’t need to rush into your projects. It’s better to take your time and find the project that, “if successful, will make the rest of my career look like a footnote.” How to do this in practice? “Be willing to let small opportunities go to focus on potential step changes,” Altman added.

2. Have Almost Too Much Self-Belief

Believe that you can’t, and manifest inability into reality. Believe the opposite and become unstoppable. Altman said that the most successful people he knows, “believe in themselves almost to the point of delusion.” They persevere because they are sure they are onto something. They suspect they can, so they do.

But it’s not just a case of thinking positively and winning big. “The more ambitious you are, the more the world will try to tear you down,” said Altman. You will deal with naysayers and pessimists. You will hear all of the reasons why it shouldn’t work. He differentiates between self-belief (which you want) and self-delusion (which you don’t), explaining that, “truth-seeking is hard and often painful,” but also necessary.

3. Learn To Think Independently

If you do what everyone is doing you’ll get what everyone is getting. And quite often that’s the square root of not much. The big wins come from boiling everything down to what people really want, and how that will manifest in the future, and going from there. Just like how Elon Musk solves problems, Altman said, “thinking from first principles and trying to generate new ideas is fun, and finding people to exchange them with is a great way to get better at this.”

Dream up your crazy ideas, hang out with people who will help you explore them, and go down rabbit holes until you invent the next tool that people can’t wait to use. “The next step,” added Altman, “is to find easy, fast ways to test these ideas in the real world.”

4. Get Good At Sales

You can’t just think up the ideas and hope they will take off. Altman said you, “have to be able to convince other people of what you believe.” Steve Jobs had a talent for communicating his vision on stage and amassing superfans. Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos’ letters to shareholders are widely read beyond investors in Berkshire HathawayBRK.B +0.1% and AmazonAMZN +2%. If you think sales and communications belong in a separate department, think again.

“The best way to be good at sales is to genuinely believe in what you’re selling,” said Altman. Create a service or product that you’re insanely proud of, that you know the world will love. Another lesson from Altman is to, “show up in person whenever it’s important.” Throughout his journey he was, “always willing to get on a plane,” which he said has served him well.

5. Make It Easy To Take Risks

Altman advised that you, “have your basic obligations covered” then, “make it easy to take risks.” Cover your living expenses and place daring bets with anything else. “Most people overestimate risk and underestimate reward,” he said. But the big rewards go to the people who can afford to audaciously take the wild leaps.

Don’t let lifestyle creep prevent you from playing the hand that could secure the jackpot. “Keeping your life cheap and flexible for as long as you can is a powerful way to do this,” said Altman, who knows this comes with trade-offs. What’s the level of lifestyle you could happily sustain while you pour everything else into your big idea? Decide your plan and make it happen.

6. Focus

By focus, Altman doesn’t just mean working solidly with tunnel vision, blocking out the world. The focus he swears by happens long before that point. “Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on.” Don’t just do, think. For an extended period of time.

Not only does Altman believe, “it is much more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours,” but he knows, “most people waste most of their time on stuff that doesn’t matter.” We switch to autopilot, ticking off tasks and ploughing through actions without considering if we should be doing them at all.

How to be successful: the Chat GPT founder’s 13 powerful rules for business
How to be successful: the Chat GPT founder’s 13 powerful rules for businessGETTY
7. Work Hard

“Extreme people get extreme results,” Altman simply said. So be extreme in your work. Shunning the popular anti-hustle rhetoric of following your energy and taking plenty of time for leisure, Altman explained that, “Work stamina seems to be one of the biggest predictors of long-term success,” and that “working hard [at your maximum possible impact] should be celebrated.”

It’s refreshing to hear a successful founder admitting they spend a long time working on their business, and Altman advises this practice starts early. “Hard work compounds like interest,” he said, “and the earlier you do it, the more time you have for the benefits to pay off.” Forget wasting your twenties travelling and partying, get honing your craft and pushing on with those moonshots.

8. Be Bold

Boring companies don’t spark the imagination. Not only will you not be excited to get to work, but other people won’t be inspired to help. The flipside is also true, accordingly to Altman. “If you are making progress on an important problem,” he said, “you will have a constant tailwind of people wanting to help you.”

His advice is to, “follow your curiosity,” because, “things that seem exciting to you will often seem exciting to other people too.” Hearing someone enthusiastically geeking out over their invention is infectious. You feel compelled to get involved. You help them out, and you make those introductions that can make all the difference.

9. Be Wilful

Altman believes that, “people have an enormous capacity to make things happen,” but said that, “a combination of self-doubt, giving up too early, and not pushing hard enough prevents most people from ever reaching anywhere near their potential.” Don’t be that guy. Similar to having almost too much self-belief, get intentional about what you want to achieve.

There is always a way, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. “Ask for what you want,” said Altman. Don’t pray for people finding you, don’t hope to be picked, just ask the question and be surprised by how many times the answer is yes. Altman also thinks optimismoptimism -0.6% is key to success, adding that he “never met a very successful pessimistic person.”

10. Be Hard To Compete With

Too much competition and you enter a race to the bottom, so find your unfair advantages and put them to work. “The best way to become difficult to compete with is to build up leverage,” said Altman, which he said might come in the form of, “personal relationships, by building a strong personal brand, or by getting good at the intersection of multiple different fields.”

What do you have that sets you apart? What are those strengths that you’ve taken years to collect? Emulating others is a trap, so don’t fall in. “If you’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing, you will not be hard to compete with.” Your differentiator has to be more than price, so think hard about what it is before you move forward.

11. Build A Network

Building your network starts today, by “help[ing] people as much as you can.” Altman said that doing this, over a long period of time, is what led to his, “best career opportunities and three of my four best investments.” Karma is a long-term gift that keeps on giving, and Altman is, “continually surprised how often something good happens to me because of something I did to help a founder ten years ago.”

Network equals traction, in Altman’s story. He said the size of the network of really talented people you know often becomes the limiter for what you can accomplish,” and he finds those talented people by asking himself, “is this person a force of nature?” whenever he meets someone new.

12. You Get Rich By Owning Things

“Almost no one in the history of the Forbes list has gotten there with a salary,” said Altman. “You get truly rich by owning things that increase rapidly in value.” Forget the monthly retainer and the commission bonus, it’s all about the shares and the stock options. Own more to amass more wealth as you build your assets.

Altman wants you to own, “a piece of a business, real estate, natural resource, intellectual property, or other similar things.” Some way or other, “you need to own equity in something, instead of just selling your time.” While you should absolutely purchase the time of others, your own is not for sale.

13. Be Internally Driven

Altman’s final lesson separates those who are internally and externally driven, which he said is a key trait of the most successful people he knows. His internally driven friends, “do what they do to impress themselves and because they feel compelled to make something happen in the world.”

Whose approval are you trying to win? Answering this question matters for your future, because, “it is hard to be wildly successful at anything you aren’t obsessed with.” Be obsessed, be extreme, and perform, “excellent work in areas that are important to you.” It really is that simple.

Understand how to be successful from observing and listening to people who are. Whatever your version of success, it makes sense to internalise the guidance of those a few steps ahead on a similar journey.

This story was first published on and all figures are in USD.

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