I was recently asked in an interview if I thought everybody should do Praxis. I write and speak pretty openly about the shortcomings of traditional paths to “success” and how our conceptions of what it takes to be successful are often wrong, so it might make sense to say that anybody who wants to be successful should do Praxis. But Praxis isn’t for everybody. It’s the combination of a hard work and of the persistence of going against the grain. This doesn’t take just any kind of person — it takes somebody with a special combination of work ethic and self-esteem — it takes somebody who knows that success doesn’t happen overnight and is comfortable working hard while other people might say that they are crazy for doing what they do.
The fact of the matter is that this isn’t most people. Most people probably think that they possess work ethic and self-esteem, but when the going gets tough, they give in to just doing the work that their job description says, just taking the conventional path, and just doing enough to make themselves comfortable. The conventional knowledge is that success comes from emulating successful people — going to their schools, meeting the people they meet, doing the jobs they do, etc. The truth is that this will only get you so far. Emulating a successful hedge fund manager might make you an investment banker, but it’s not going to take you above and beyond.
To do this, you need to do something different. These are the people who do best with Praxis — they’re different in both the way that they have a strong work ethic and that their personal sense of success or failure is not dependent on the opinions of others.
In short, Praxis is for the extraordinary.
These are five traits that I have noticed are possessed by all of our best applicants:
1. Bias for Creation
Some of our best applicants are those who possess a bias for creation (like a bias for action, necessary for success). These are people who feel most fulfilled when they are creating value in some way — whether through writing, selling, building a company, or building a project. Bias for creation is directly connected to one’s work ethic and one’s self esteem. Rarely do individuals with low self-esteem engage in creation — they get too caught up in worrying what other people will think of them, how it might affect their chances at something someday in the indefinite future, and whether or not they are worthy of creating something. Often, although not always, they create for their own sake.
This can be communicated a variety of ways. One is simply a track-record of creating. Those who have actually gone out there, built something, and shipped it are the best examples. The project doesn’t need to have succeeded, but it needs to have been built in the first place. Another is the excitement at the opportunity to create and ship included in the Praxis experience. We emphasize showing off what you can do through doing it — if this excites you, you’re probably a good fit. If this scares you, you’re probably not.
An important corollary to the bias for creation is a fine-tuned sense of focus. Also called follow-through, focus is a necessary component of actually shipping something. There are a lot of people out there who like to jump on new ideas and projects because they excite them, but there are many fewer who actually have the focus to follow them through to completion. I especially like to see this in those who did decide to forego the traditional route of going to college, because it shows that they did, indeed, have better things to do than sit fluorescently-lit cinderblock cells for four years. A lot of people say they get bored with school and some leave for that reason. What is important is if you leave, is it because you don’t have focus, or because your focus is best spent on something greater than school? The latter person is a great fit for Praxis. A sense of focus can signal both work ethic and high self-esteem. People who are involved in highly-focused, long-term projects not only need to work hard to complete them, but they also need to be sure enough of themselves to keep on working through when other people are telling them that it isn’t worth it.
I like to see intellectual and complex logistical or physical projects as examples of focus. Why? These projects not only tend to take a longer period of time to complete, but they also require people to delve deeper than school projects traditionally do. Writing a book/launching a regularly-updated blog, building a machine, or launching a program are good examples of this.
3. Intellectual Honesty & Curiosity
One of the main reasons that people avoid intellectual curiosity and are intellectually dishonest with themselves is that they don’t like the discomfort of having to confront the fact that they may be wrong about very important beliefs of theirs. People with high self-esteem are not arrogant, contrary to some popular belief. In fact, it is those who are unsure of themselves and who possess a sense of arrogance who have the lowest self-esteem. So, intellectual honesty is directly connected to these factors. People who don’t silo themselves in one discipline or one school of thought tend to be the most curious.
This also ties back pretty closely to #1, Bias for Creation. Some of the top creators I’ve met are those who are also some of the most curious. It’s through a process of taking in a lot of high-quality information (e.g., not the news) that they are able to put out a lot of high-quality content.
The intellectually curious read often and not just those things that are assigned to them. When asked if they have a favorite thinker or a favorite book, they don’t have to grasp at straws.
This doesn’t mean that every excellent candidate has to have a professorial knowledge of a subject — in fact, it is those with a mix of experiences and interests that are able to synthesize information most readily as Praxis participants while engaging in the education component of the program.
4. Organic Forward-Tilt
You can often tell how engaged somebody is in a conversation based on their body language. People with a “forward-tilt” are ready to jump on an opportunity, to engage, and are active listeners. These are people who are leaning forward in interviews and conversations about opportunities, not sitting back, slouching, or unengaged.
I say “organic forward-tilt” because sometimes people try to “fake it until you make it” with body language and they end up looking incredibly uncomfortable. Organic forward-tilt is possessed by those with the most eagerness to go out and create value and the best idea of how they will actually achieve that themselves.
5. Personal Optimism
Somebody who is personally optimistic knows that their life is ultimately in their own hands and that whether or not they rise or fall in this world is largely within their control and not the control of other people. This is a key consequence of work ethic and self-esteem. This person might occasionally get pessimistic about a project, their favorite sports team, or current events (if they’re unfortunate enough to follow current events), but they will never feel like their life is spinning out control in the hands of somebody else.
I don’t mean to make it sound like the personally optimistic person is always a bucket of joy and flowers. They probably aren’t because they are focused on building their life and growing their personal and social capital. But they are somebody who doesn’t find themselves to be helpless when it comes to building their life. They question actively the best ways to build this life for themselves and are content with their decisions when they act. It’s really the culmination of traits #1-4. They are responsible, they are measured, they are focused, they are honest, and they happiest when building.
Are You Extraordinary?
This doesn’t describe most people. A lot of people might have one or two of these traits, but very few possess all of them. Those who do are truly extraordinary. They’re the people who we want with us in Praxis and those who will get every ounce of value from the program.
Neither is this list exhaustive. There are other traits that make a great applicant for Praxis, but these are just the ones that have stuck out to me over the past several years of building our classes of self-guided, ambitious young people.