Quote in context:
From your letter, and especially from your list of people you like to read, I think that at the moment you’re in love with the idea of being an intellectual rather than with some topic for thought. You’d like to be the kind of person who writes books like Regarding the Pain of Others or the Lam-rim chen-mo, rather than being already deeply enmeshed in the toils of thought about some particular topic. This may be a sign that you’re not yet serious, that, as Augustine said of himself in his salad days, you’re in love with love rather than simply in love. Most people who’d love to be novelists don’t write novels, and that’s because they’re not really interested in doing so. They’re infatuated with an image and a rôle rather than with what those who play that rôle do. So, perhaps, with you; if so, the infatuation will fade as you grow older, and you’ll do something closer to the rough ground of material necessity.
Some other gems:
"So: Find something to think about that seems to you to have complexity sufficient for long work, sufficient to yield multifaceted and refractory results when held up to thought’s light as jewelers hold gemstones up to their loupes. And then, don’t stop thinking about it."
"You need a life in which you can spend a minimum of three uninterrupted hours every day, excepting sabbaths and occasional vacations, on your intellectual work. ... You need this because intellectual work is, typically, cumulative and has momentum."
"The most essential skill is surprisingly hard to come by. That skill is attention. Intellectuals always think about something, and that means they need to know how to attend to what they’re thinking about. Attention can be thought of as a long, slow, surprised gaze at whatever it is."
"Don’t do any of the things I’ve recommended unless it seems to you that you must. ... Undertake it if, and only if, nothing else seems possible."