#276 Paul Grahams Essays Part 2



In the episode, the host delves into the nuances of startup success, emphasizing the importance of distinct and innovative thinking, as exemplified by companies like Microsoft and Airbnb. The conversation explores the spectrum of independent versus conventional mindsets, with the former being crucial for startup founders and original researchers, and the latter more suited for structured roles like middle management. The discussion highlights the significance of surrounding oneself with independent thinkers and the value of historical perspective in fostering an independent mindset. The host also touches on the challenges that arise as startups scale and the original spirit of independent-mindedness gets diluted, often leading to founders feeling more at ease discussing ideas with peers from other companies rather than their own employees. Additionally, the episode underscores the role of curiosity in driving the pursuit of novel ideas and the importance of aligning work with personal curiosity to maintain engagement and productivity. Lastly, the host shares personal anecdotes of illness and extensive reading, setting the stage for the next discussion on the hard work required to achieve greatness, as illustrated by the dedication of figures like Bill Gates and Lionel Messi.

Summary Notes

Thinking Differently in Work

  • Certain types of work require a unique perspective, where ideas must be both correct and novel.
  • Startup founders are an example of individuals who must think differently to succeed.
  • Starting a company based on a universally agreed good idea is likely to face existing competition.
  • Novel business ideas often seem bad to most people but are actually good, such as Microsoft's software for hobbyist computers or Airbnb's concept.

"There are some kinds of work that you can't do well without thinking differently from your peers. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel."

This quote highlights the necessity of original thought in certain types of work, such as entrepreneurship, where success is often predicated on having a unique and correct idea.

Independent vs. Conventional Mindedness

  • Independent mindedness is crucial for certain types of work, and it's often inherent rather than learned.
  • Misalignment between one's nature and their work can lead to unhappiness.
  • People are frequently mistaken about their own level of independent mindedness.
  • Independent thinkers may not realize how unconventional their ideas are, while conventional thinkers may believe they are more independent than they are.
  • Surrounding oneself with independent thinkers can foster independent mindedness.
  • Reading history can help one understand different perspectives and foster independent thought.

"Independent mindedness seems to be more a matter of nature than nurture, which means if you pick the wrong type of work, you're going to be unhappy."

This quote emphasizes that the degree to which a person is independently minded is intrinsic and can influence their satisfaction in their work.

The Impact of Independent Mindedness on Startups

  • Startups initially require independent thinkers for success.
  • As startups grow, the influx of conventional thinkers can dilute the original independent spirit.
  • Founders often find it easier to communicate with other founders than with their own employees.
  • Having even one or two independent thinkers to converse with can be beneficial.

"A place where the independent and conventional minded are thrown together is in successful startups."

This quote discusses the dynamics within startups, where independent mindedness is critical at the beginning but becomes diluted as the company grows and hires more conventional thinkers.

The Role of Curiosity

  • Curiosity is closely linked to independent mindedness and is a predictor of it.
  • People who are deeply curious tend to be independent minded, while those who are not curious tend to be conventional.
  • Engaging one's curiosity is crucial, and if work doesn't do this, it may be worth considering a change.
  • Curiosity can lead to the discovery of novel ideas and should be indulged as it often leads to more questions and further curiosity.

"Independent mindedness and curiosity predict one another perfectly."

This quote connects independent mindedness with curiosity, suggesting that a curious nature is indicative of an independent thinker.

Avoiding Intellectual Fashions

  • Intellectual fashions should be avoided as they can stifle the discovery of novel ideas.
  • The best ideas are often found where others are not looking.
  • It's important to examine all influences, including implicit ones, and to observe how ideas spread through groups.

"Because unfashionable ideas are disproportionately likely to lead somewhere interesting."

This quote advises against following intellectual fashions, as unique and unfashionable ideas are more likely to yield interesting results.

Hard Work and Natural Talent

  • Great work requires a combination of natural ability, practice, and effort.
  • Even those with great talent need to work hard to achieve greatness.
  • People with both talent and drive are exceedingly rare, making the combination of hard work and talent essential for exceptional achievements.
  • Working towards undefined and self-imposed goals requires learning how to work hard in the absence of external structure.

"They had as much natural abilities anyone could have, and yet they also worked about as hard as anyone could work."

This quote highlights that even those with exceptional natural talent must work extremely hard to achieve their full potential.

The Feeling of Not Working Hard Enough

  • Not working hard can trigger a sense of stagnation and discomfort.
  • The internal drive to work hard can be both motivating and relentless.
  • Achieving new things as a child can evolve into a self-critical drive in adulthood.

"When I'm not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can't be sure I'm getting anywhere when I'm working hard, but I can be sure I'm getting nowhere when I'm not."

This quote captures the internal pressure to work hard, emphasizing that a lack of effort is equated with a lack of progress, which can be distressing for driven individuals.

Disgust Towards Idleness

  • Paul Graham experienced a shift from boredom to disgust when not achieving anything.
  • The landmark moment for him was when he stopped watching TV at age 13.
  • Patrick Collison, founder of Stripe, also found idleness distasteful around the same age.
  • Both Graham and Collison view idleness as something that does not lead to happiness.

"Disgust when I wasn't achieving anything. The one precisely dateable landmark I have is when I stopped watching tv at age 13, when I asked Patrick Carlson when he started to find idleness distasteful."

The quote demonstrates Graham's realization that being idle was not fulfilling and his decision to stop watching TV as a step towards productivity. It also references Patrick Collison's similar disdain for idleness.

School as an Obstacle to Serious Work

  • School can make work seem boring and pointless.
  • The school's approach to work can lead to a negative association with work in general.
  • Paul Graham believes that to be great at what you do, you must feel a pull towards it, not just see it as a chore.

"Strangely enough, the biggest obstacle to getting serious about work was probably school, which made work, or what they called work, seem boring and pointless."

This quote highlights Graham's perspective that school can sometimes hinder a person's understanding and appreciation of what meaningful work is.

Understanding the Shape of Real Work

  • Real work is the kind of work that you want to do, and it fits well with your desire to do it.
  • There is a limit to how much one can work before the quality of work declines.
  • Paul Graham's personal limits vary depending on the type of work, with a maximum of 5 hours for intense writing or programming.

"But as I learned the shape of real work, I found that my desire to do it slotted into it as if they'd been made for one another."

This quote encapsulates the idea that once you understand what real, meaningful work is, your desire to do it aligns perfectly with the work itself.

Working Limits and Balancing Effort

  • Finding the limit of how much you can work is an ongoing process.
  • It's important to be honest with oneself about being lazy or working too hard.
  • Crossing your limit is the only way to find it, and this requires constant attention and adjustment.

"The only way to find your limit for working is by crossing it. Honesty is critical here in both directions."

Graham emphasizes the importance of self-awareness in understanding one's working limits and the need to sometimes push past them to find the true limit.

Motivation for Hard Work

  • Motivation varies with the type of work and the individual's personal circumstances.
  • Fear of failure and the desire to improve one's work can both be powerful motivators.
  • Paul Graham mentions that he was driven by fear of failure at his startup, ViaWeb, and later by the flaws in his essays.

"When I was working at via web, I was driven by the fear of failure."

This quote reflects Graham's personal motivation during his time at ViaWeb, where the fear of failure propelled him to work diligently.

The Essence of Hard Work

  • Hard work involves tackling the core of difficult problems, not just the periphery.
  • The consensus on important problems is often wrong, presenting opportunities for innovation.
  • Working on something that feels easier for you than for others can lead to some of the best work.

"Working hard means aiming towards the center to the extent that you can."

Graham conveys that the essence of hard work is to focus on the most challenging aspects of a problem, as that's where the greatest progress is made.

Interest as a Driver of Work

  • A deep interest in a topic can compel people to work harder than any amount of discipline.
  • Finding work that feels like play can significantly boost productivity and satisfaction.
  • It's important to find a balance between what you find interesting and what you're good at.

"A deep interest in a topic makes people work harder than any amount of discipline can."

The quote suggests that genuine interest in a subject is a more powerful motivator than discipline alone.

Choosing and Switching Fields

  • It's common for people to switch between types of work before finding what they love.
  • The decision to stick with or switch fields should be based on one's own judgment and the results they're getting.
  • Interest is a reliable indicator of whether work is worth pursuing.

"If you're working hard but not getting good enough results, you should switch."

Graham advises that personal judgment on the success and enjoyment of one's work should guide decisions about persisting in or changing one's field of work.

Interest as a Predictor of Importance

  • Interest in a topic can be a strong indicator of its significance.
  • Being captivated by a subject suggests it may have substantial value or impact.

"Is the most interesting. People are the most interested. So this idea is like, who knows better new? What's better predictor of its importance than whether it's interesting?"

The quote emphasizes that what captivates people's attention is often a reliable measure of what is important or will become important.

Work and Productivity

  • Working hard involves a complex, dynamic system that must be finely tuned.
  • Understanding the nature of work, personal strengths, and setting appropriate goals are crucial.
  • Judging one's capabilities and performance accurately is necessary for effective work.
  • Maintaining a balance between work hours and quality of output is essential.
  • Honesty and clarity in work efforts lead to optimal productivity.

"Working hard is not just a dial you turn up to eleven. It's a complicated, dynamic system that has to be tuned just right at each point. You have to understand the shape of real work, see clearly what kind you're best suited for, aim as close to the true core as you can. Accurately judge at each moment both what you're capable of and how you're doing, and put in as many hours each day as you can without harming the quality of the result."

This quote outlines the multifaceted nature of work and the need for a balanced, self-aware approach to be genuinely productive.

Access to Essays and Continuous Learning

  • Essays by Paul Graham are available for free online and are recommended for periodic re-reading.
  • Engaging with these essays can provide new insights as one's perspective changes over time.

"I would just go to paulgram.com all the time and just pick an essay. Random they're all listed there. Just what headline or title sounds most interesting to you? And then I do think the benefit is like rereading them intermittently. They definitely change. I've read that. I've read some of them who knows how many times, and every time I learn something different because I've changed as a person since then."

The quote suggests that revisiting the same material can yield fresh learnings as personal growth alters one's understanding and interpretation.

Wealth Preservation and Loss

  • Understanding how to preserve wealth is as important as knowing how to accumulate it.
  • Most fortunes are lost not through excessive spending but through poor investment decisions.
  • Bad investments often bypass the mental alarms that excessive spending triggers.

"In fact, the way most fortunes are lost is not through excessive expenditure, but through bad investments. It's hard to spend a fortune without noticing. Whereas if you start trading derivatives, you can lose a million dollars or as much as you want in the blink of an eye."

This quote highlights the common misconception about how fortunes are lost and underscores the stealthy nature of financial loss through bad investments.

Time Management and Fake Work

  • Spending time on activities that seem productive but yield little value is a major pitfall.
  • Activities resembling work can prevent recognition of time wastage.
  • Identifying and avoiding 'fake work' is crucial for effective time management.

"The most dangerous way to lose time is to not spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work. If I woke up one morning and sat down on a sofa and watched tv all day, I'd feel like something was terribly wrong... But if you do fake work, kind of bypasses that alarm just like a fake investment, right?"

The quote draws a parallel between financial investments and time expenditure, suggesting that 'fake work' can be as deceptive and wasteful as bad investments.

Schlep Blindness and Startup Challenges

  • Schlep blindness is the inability to recognize valuable business opportunities because they involve tedious tasks.
  • Successful businesses often involve undertaking unpleasant but necessary work.
  • Recognizing and confronting these challenges can lead to significant opportunities and less competition.

"A schlep means a tedious and unpleasant task... The most dangerous thing about our dislike of Schleps is that much of it is unconscious. Your unconscious won't even let you see ideas that involve painful schleps. That is schlep blindness."

This quote defines schlep blindness and explains how an aversion to difficult tasks can prevent people from recognizing and pursuing potentially great business ideas.

Learning from Startups and Recurring Problems

  • Startups frequently encounter similar problems, regardless of their industry.
  • Advising startups is not formulaic; each startup's unique circumstances must be considered.
  • Founders often repeat the same mistakes, highlighting the importance of learning from others' experiences.

"The first thing that came to mind was that most startups have the same problems. No two have exactly the same problems, but it's surprising how much the problems remain the same regardless of what they're making."

The quote reflects on the commonalities in the challenges faced by startups and the potential for learning from these patterns.

Founders' Misjudgment of Problems

  • Founders often struggle to identify the real problems their startups face.
  • They may focus on less critical issues while overlooking those that could be fatal to their company.
  • Founders may come in to discuss one problem but reveal a more significant one during the conversation.

"Founders will sometimes come in to talk about some problem, and we will discover another, much bigger one in the course of the conversation."

This quote highlights the common scenario where founders are not fully aware of the severity or nature of the problems their startup is facing.

"Often founders know what their problems are, but not their relative importance."

The relevance of this quote is to point out that founders are typically aware of their startup's problems, but they fail to prioritize them correctly.

Startup Success and Product Viability

  • The quality of the product is crucial for user acquisition and company success.
  • Founders must critically assess whether they would use their product if they hadn't built it.
  • The advice given is to focus on creating products that the founders themselves would want to use.

"Would you use this yourself if you hadn't built it? And the founders, on thinking about it, said, no. Well, there's a reason you're having trouble getting users."

This quote underlines the importance of creating a product that even the founders themselves find valuable and would use, implying that if they wouldn't, users likely won't either.

The Value of Experience and Historical Insight

  • Learning from the past and understanding the counterintuitive nature of startups is essential.
  • Founders often don't listen to advice because it contradicts their intuition.
  • Historical knowledge of successes and failures in business can provide valuable insights.

"So much about startups is counterintuitive."

This quote suggests that startups often operate in ways that go against common sense or typical business practices, which is why founders might disregard advice that seems incorrect on the surface.

The Importance of Focus in Startups

  • Early-stage startups need to concentrate on the most critical problems.
  • Founders should be decisive in addressing issues but also flexible in their overall strategy.
  • Speed and focus are essential for the rapid execution and success of startups.

"Focus is doubly important for early stage startups, because not only do they have 100 different problems, but they don't have anyone to work on them except the founders."

This quote emphasizes the necessity of focus for startups, especially when resources are limited and the founders must address many challenges.

The Role of Y Combinator (YC)

  • YC provides valuable advice and a network of colleagues, which can significantly benefit founders.
  • The community of founders within YC can inspire and assist each other, fostering a collaborative environment.
  • YC is designed to be a cluster of great startup founders, providing a unique and energizing atmosphere.

"That's where a lot of YC's value lies in helping founders get an extra increment of focus that lets them move faster."

This quote explains one of the key benefits of YC, which is to help founders refine their focus, thereby enabling them to accelerate their startup's growth.

"Speed defines startups. Focus enables speed."

The significance of this quote lies in its succinct expression of the relationship between speed and focus in the startup world, with focus being the catalyst for rapid progress.

The Generosity of Startup Founders

  • Startup founders are often willing to help each other with advice and support.
  • This generosity can create a positive and productive community among entrepreneurs.
  • YC creates an environment where founders are surrounded by individuals eager and capable of providing assistance.

"That's the happiest thing I've learned about startup founders. How generous they can be in helping one another."

The quote captures the spirit of camaraderie and mutual support that often exists among startup founders, particularly within the YC community.

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