A Leading Venture Capitalist On Racing And Human Performance

By Tom Martin

June 11, 2019

Sam Altman is Chairman of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm known for funding Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, Reddit and DoorDash. Y Combinator's portfolio has an estimated value in excess of $80B. Maybe he knows some things of value. He happens to be a racer, so we naturally were even more interested in his thoughts.

We recently heard Altman hold forth on a variety of subjects as part of the excellent podcast series Conversations With Tyler hosted by Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University. During the Sam Altman edition of the podcast, it became obvious that a central part of Y Combinator's approach is understanding how to assess human capital, particularly that of company founders. But it is also obvious that Sam Altman has thought deeply about human performance. Here's what he says about racing specifically:

COWEN: I’m from the Northeast. When I watch racing cars, I see a bunch of little things on TV go around and around the track, and I’m totally bored. What am I missing?

ALTMAN: It’s not that fun to watch, but it’s very fun to drive.

COWEN: Fun to drive.

ALTMAN: There are very few activities that are high enough adrenaline to totally stop thinking about work, and racing cars is certainly one of them. But watching it is not that fun.

ALTMAN: A surprising number of YC’s best founders are also into some sort of extreme physical something.

COWEN: Why do you see that correlation? What do you think?

ALTMAN: Something about focus and determination and drive to win and perform at your highest level. I think one thing that is a really important thing to strive for is being internally driven, being driven to compete with yourself, not with other people. If you compete with other people, you end up in this mimetic trap, and you sort of play this tournament, and if you win, you lose. But if you’re competing with yourself, and all you’re trying to do is — for the own self-satisfaction and for also the impact you have on the world and the duty you feel to do that — be the best possible version you can, there is no limit to how far that can drive someone to perform. And I think that is something you see — even though it looks like athletes are competing with each other — when you talk to a really great, absolute top-of-the-field athlete, it’s their own time they’re going against.

The rest of the interview covers an array of interesting subjects including how long it takes to evaluate people, nuclear fusion, universal basic income, Napoleon, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, Open AI and more. Check it out here