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Paul Graham: On Determination & Success, Hard Work, Wealth Creation, Startups, Programming and Art.

Paul Graham is a programmer, writer, and thinker, mostly known as the co-founder of Y Combinator, the world’s most successful startup incubator. In 2004 he released an anthology called “Hackers and Painters” which explores a variety of topics, from social and cultural issues to technical aspects of programming languages.

Graham after graduating in computer science started studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and at the Academia di Belle Arti in Florence. He developed his career and identity by straddling two dichotomies: technologist – artist, but also entrepreneur – writer.

The co-founder of Y Combinator decided to follow his authentic interests. And combining his art background with technical genius helped him become one of the most successful entrepreneurs, investors, and writers in Silicon Valley.

Paul Graham is a comprehensively gifted and genuinely curious polymath who developed interesting thought patterns and points of view that inspire people and touch a variety of topics. Considering how his essays had a great influence on my thinking, I decided to gather his thoughts and put them into a consistent blog post. Enjoy!

1. Determination and Success.

“Like all investors, we spend a lot of time trying to learn how to predict which startups will succeed (…) We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination

Determination is the crucial feature of any success. Paul Graham in his widely-spread essay called “The anatomy of determination“ was trying to break it down in the broader context, highlighting the key components of how determination works and how to take advantage of understanding it.

Paul Graham notices that we often overestimate talent and underestimate the power of determination. The purest and simplest form of determination is sheer willfulness. In short, it means that if you want something, you have to achieve it, no matter what. Talent and the pure genius’ imagination moments are good PR stories that often are the opposite of how reality looks and ignore the crucial aspect of determination.

“There are plenty of people as smart as Bill Gates who achieve nothing. In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent.”

The components of determination are: willfulness, discipline, and ambition. The good news is that you can improve at least two of these components.

A successful programmer and writer stated that a good deal of willfulness must be inborn. However, circumstances are a good tool that we can use to alter and improve willfulness.

On a higher level, it seems that our nature is still more crucial and deterministic than circumstances, although we should work on our environment to improve the state of things, even if it’s a small change.

it’s good to have the three elements of determination at a satisfactory level. Paul Graham stated:

“Bad circumstances can break the spirit of a strong-willed person“

Another element that is also the most malleable is the discipline that we can master. And this has further implications that we can benefit from. Because if discipline can be cultivated, we have the power to influence and guide our course of life. Graham added:

“If determination is effectively the product of will and discipline, then you can become more determined by being more disciplined.“

Strong will, a great environment with cultivated discipline empower our determination which means that we can directly increase our odds of succeed. Paul Graham shared a great analogy on that topic:

“We can imagine will and discipline as two fingers squeezing a slippery melon seed. The harder they squeeze, the further the seed flies, but they must both squeeze equally or the seed spins off sideways.“

The final element of determination is ambition, which seems to be also quite workable.

“If willfulness and discipline are what get you to your destination, ambition is how you choose it.“

To our advantage, ambition seems to be pretty malleable, and we can increase the state of being ambitious by doing great things. It may seem counterintuitive, but you can increase your ambition by simply working hard on your goals. In short, our achievements allow us to gain confidence in doing the next and more challenging steps, which in the long-term sets us in the right direction.

Finally, Graham encourages us to start liking things we are not optimistic about because most types of work have at least one aspects that we don’t like.

2. On how to work hard.

“One thing I know is that if you want to do great things, you’ll have to work very hard. I wasn’t sure of that as a kid. And the reason famous adults seemed to do things effortlessly was years of practice; they made it look easy.“

It might seem that’s not too much to talk about hard work, but counter-intuitively as often is Graham’s approach, there is a left space to add valuable thoughts on putting in the work.

As in the previous example on determination, Paul Graham also breaks down the hard work into three components that influence our great work: natural ability, practice, and effort. And, obviously, it’s better to have all three ingredients at a decent level.

“Bill Gates, for example, was among the smartest people in business in his era, but he was also among the hardest working. “I never took a day off in my twenties,” he said. “Not one.”“

We can deduce that we need both workable components on a decent level: practice and effort. And since you don’t have an influence on really how much natural ability you have, great work comes down to working as hard as you can.

The problem we face with working hard is that often it’s not clearly defined nor imposed how to move towards goals. You’ll need a lot of discipline, and probably you will learn as it goes. However, hard work is not a lottery ticket, and there are things you can do to influence your work and increase your odds of success.

One of the things you can do in terms of hard work is to follow your inner guide and sense of duty. For example, Graham following his guts and inner voice decided to stop watching TV at the age of 13 to be more focused on productive things.

And you can’t be sure if your work moves you forward, but you can be sure that you’re going nowhere without working hard. So we can imply that is worth following your gut feelings when it comes to hard work, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. As a successful polymath and venture capitalist, Graham wrote:

“The most basic level of which is simply to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to. Now, 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, and it feels awful. “

Additionally, it’s worth having a deep interest in what you do, since it makes people work harder than any amount of discipline can. However, it can be harder to discover your interests than your talents.

The best test of whether it’s worthwhile to work on something is whether you find it interesting. That may sound like a dangerously subjective measure, but it’s probably the most accurate one you’re going to get. You’re the one working on the stuff. Who’s in a better position than you to judge whether it’s important, and what’s a better predictor of its importance than whether it’s interesting?

Earlier, I mentioned that when it comes to working hard is worth following your inner voice. To find if something is interesting, you have to have a similar approach, which means that it’d be good to be honest with yourself. Here’s what Graham recommends to do:

For this test to work, though, you have to be honest with yourself. Indeed, that’s the most striking thing about the whole question of working hard: how at each point it depends on being honest with yourself.

The venture capitalist goes further in the concept of being honest and encourages us not to lie and procrastinate. He considers procrastination as a form of lying.

Additionally, Graham recommends working on increasing our level of discipline, which translates directly to the ability not to get distracted and not to give up when things go wrong. And it has a significant effect on our great and hard work.

“But if you’re consistently honest and clear-sighted, it will automatically assume an optimal shape, and you’ll be productive in a way few people are.“

Working hard is a complex and dynamic system consisting of natural ability, practice, and effort. However, we can improve that system by being honest, following gut feelings, not getting distracted, and working on interesting things.

3. Wealth creation

“The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful. Let the nerds keep their money launch, and you rule the world.“

Paul Graham has written several essays on the subject of broadly understood wealth. Additionally, what is worth noting is that his way of thinking about wealth goes beyond narrow points of view. He captured the idea of wealth in the bigger context, combining his knowledge and experience with startups, history, and the economy.

Graham connects many areas and gives a broader picture of wealth creation that is firstly pragmatic from the individual perspective and secondly insightful from the global perspective, providing information on how wealth has changed throughout the centuries. One of the most popular wealth-oriented essays written by Graham is “How to make wealth“ and “How people get rich now“.

The wealth we used to see is quite different from the wealth made these days. The main difference between wealth creation in the old days and today is the source. Once wealth came from an inheritance and these days from starting a company:

“In 1982 the most common source of wealth was inheritance. Of the 100 richest people, 60 inherited from an ancestor. There were 10 du Pont heirs alone […] How are people making these new fortunes? Roughly 3/4 by starting companies and 1/4 by investing. Of the 73 new fortunes in 2020, 56 derive from founders’ or early employees’ equity (52 founders, 2 early employees, and 2 wives of founders), and 17 from managing investment funds.”

Additionally, there’s also a transition in what companies are making the most wealth. For example, companies that brought the most wealth in the eighties operated in the oil and real estate industry. But today’s unicorns are born in the tech sphere. And it provides conclusions about the structure and how to scale companies using the technology.

Technology enables to drive down the cost of building products and acquiring customers, which led to shifting the balance of power between founders and investors:

Back when starting a startup meant building a factory, you needed investors’ permission to do it at all. But now investors need founders more than founders need investors, and that, combined with the increasing amount of venture capital available, has driven up valuations.

The further conclusions regarding the technology and its effects are that the decreasing cost of starting a startup increase the number of founders and eventually rich people. On top of that, the scale that technology brings allows today’s companies to grow faster than they used to.

This trend has been running for a long time. IBM, founded in 1896, took 45 years to reach a billion 2020 dollars in revenue. Hewlett-Packard, founded in 1939, took 25 years. Microsoft, founded in 1975, took 13 years. Now the norm for fast-growing companies is 7 or 8 years.

That’s why founders sometimes get so rich so young now. The low initial cost of starting a startup means that founders can start young, and the fast growth of today’s companies means that if they succeed they could be surprisingly rich just a few years later.

Paul Graham also notices an existing difference between the essence of wealth and what people mistakenly consider wealth. Tech enthusiast says that most people view money as wealth, but the reality is quite different, and what we should want is wealth, not money. However, in practice, these things are highly interchangeable.

“Money is just a convenient way of trading one form of wealth for another. Welath is the underlying stuff the good and services we buy“

Wealth is related to doing something that people want. Since you made what people want, you get a reward, and probably you got rewarded with money. It implies certain conclusions, and Graham shares a piece of advice, especially towards young people. After you graduate you don’t necessarily need to get a job and join the company, but you should be focused on doing things that people may need:

“Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job, as if the important thing were becoming a member of an institution. A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that. […] For most people the best plan probably is to go to work for some existing company. But it is a good idea to understand what’s happening when you do this. A job means doing something people want, averaged together with everyone else in that company. “

Besides doing what people want, to get rich, Graham advises seeking out two things: measurement and leverage. You have to be in a position where it’s easy to measure your performance, and you’re capable of making a big effect by doing your work. Examples of jobs that meet these two conditions are CEOs, CTOs, and leading actors in a movie. Some jobs have only the measurement, and it’s not enough. For instance, doing piecework in a sweatshop or any manual job you have a measurement but no leverage. To get rich, you have to seek both.

“I think everyone who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes.”

However, you don’t need to become a CEO or a movie star to be in the position of measurement and leverage. You need to be a part of a small group working on difficult problems.

Graham encourages us to start by picking a hard problem and take the difficult path at every point in our decision-making process.

4. How successful startups work.

“You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.”

One of the best ways to get rich these days is to make a bet with the world that a given startup will be successful and either start or join a startup at the earliest stage possible. Paul Graham wrote:

“If you wanted to get rich, how would you do it? I think your best bet would be to start or join a startup”

One of the crucial aspects of the startup is the idea behind the company. And a lot of people falsely think that a startup has to have an as innovative idea as it’s even barely impossible to come up with, but as Paul Graham stated it’s quite the opposite. It often has to be just a straightforward idea that is better than what already exists. For example, Google, the guiding light in the world of startups has a simple idea to create a search site that is decent and better than existing solutions.

“They had three new ideas: index more of the Web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. There were some kind of technical tricks, but overall it was simple idea.”

Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route, to name a few: IBM, Microsoft, and Twitter was originally meant to be a platform for podcasting. What’s more important than idea is people behind the startup.

Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, found that hiring the right people is a crucial factor in a startup’s success. Brian hired people himself up to two hundred employees, trying to find out if they fit the company’s culture.

“When you start a company, the most important cultural decisions you make are the people you surround yourself with. Hiring is the most important thing to culture because you’re bringing people in and so the culture becomes the people around you.”

About people, Graham added:

“What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can’t save bad people.”

Paul Graham said that the essence of startups is growth and everything that comes out of it. Startups are the kind of companies designed to grow rapidly, and they need scale to do so. But to be able to scale, you have to do something that you can sell to a big market. That’s the key difference between Microsoft and restaurants, Google, and barbershops. And there are two things we should be focused on to create a successful company:

”For a company to grow really big, it must (a) make something lots of people want, and (b) reach and serve all those people.”

Successful startups can somehow capture the notion of one connection between ideas and technology. Rapid changes in technology can uncover huge and also soluble problems of ideas in other areas. And for grasping that correlation between ideas to solve and rapidly changing technology should strive founders.

Graham said that successful founders can see different problems and invisible patterns. And that was the case for the founders of Google or Steve Wozniak:

Steve Wozniak’s problem was that he wanted his own computer. That was an unusual problem to have in 1975. But technological change was about to make it a much more common one. Because he not only wanted a computer but knew how to build them, Wozniak was able to make himself one. And the problem he solved for himself became one that Apple solved for millions of people in the coming years. But by the time it was obvious to ordinary people that this was a big market, Apple was already established.

Successful startups set the directions and seek out new ways of doing things. But it all should take into consideration the crucial aspect, next to the idea and people, which is making a product that customers want. And to know what customers want, Graham gave straightforward advice. Watch them and pay attention to the niche markets.

Additionally, you should aim to make a product easy to use, better than existing technology, and inexpensive. It’s worth mentioning that Stephen Hawking’s editor told him that every equation he included in his book would cut sales in half.

“A 10% improvement in ease of use doesn’t just increase your sales 10%. It’s more likely to double your sales.”

And the best odds are in niche markets. Graham added:

If you build the simple, inexpensive option, you’ll not only find it easier to sell at first, but you’ll also be in the best position to conquer the rest of the market.

Understanding growth is a crucial part of successful startups. Starting a startup is the commitment you make to solve a harder type of problem than ordinary businesses do. You’re committing to search for one of the rare ideas that generate rapid growth.

And it all has to be done in the long-term framework. You have to be persistent because it usually takes longer than you think.

5. How to become a good programmer

“Young programmers are better off not starting with the theoretical foundations of CS, but by eagerly writing crappy programs.“

I’m not an experienced programmer. However, Paul Graham sowed a seed of coding curiosity in me through his famous anthology. And I enjoy coding my side projects, especially when I have to use TypeScript, my favorite programming language. So, I wanted to gather his technical wisdom and draw a couple of conclusions about learning how to code and becoming a good programmer.

1) Find a friend or mentor who can direct you through your coding journey, explaining popular concepts, best practices, and complex issues.

“Finally, find friends who like to write programs. They can answer your technical questions; you’ll get new ideas from talking to them; and they’ll be the audience for your first efforts. “

2) Hold a program in your head

“A good programmer working intensively on his own code can hold it in his mind the way a mathematician holds a problem he’s working on“

Paul pointed out the eight steps that allow you to hold your program in your head, make you a better programmer:

3) Write a lot of (crappy) programs by doing small steps.

“The way to be good at programming is to work (a) a lot (b) on hard problems. And the way to make yourself work on hard problems is to work on some very engaging project.“

4) Learn about specific problems that you finding a way to solve.

“Your code is your understanding of the problem you’re exploring. So it’s only when you have your code in your head that you really understand the problem.“

5) Modify the code.

“A good way to begin is to take an existing program and modify it to do something new.“

6) Be questionable and seek an innovative way of doing things

“Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers’ general attitude of obedience. But that disobedience is a byproduct that make them good programmers“

Programming comes down to practice and solving problems, but the crucial question is what problems to solve. That’s why we see good cohesion between startups and tech. Founders of rapidly growing startups have to constantly working on solving problems and decide what’s the critical problem.

6. Art – learn by doing. Hackers & Painters.

“What hackers and painters have in common is that they’re both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things. They’re not doing research per se, though if in the course of trying to make good things they discover some new technique, so much the better.”

People mistakenly consider hacking as a cold, precise, methodical, and technical-oriented activity that is the complete opposite of painting which is the pure expression of some primal urge. And both images are wrong. They have more in common than it seems.

First and foremost, Hackers and painters are doers. The code can be as beautiful and clean as the color palette. And the painting can be methodical and precise as great lines of code.

In his most famous essay “Hackers and Painters“ and the book named after that essay Graham shared his experience as a painter and draw analogies on a deep level between the programmer and artist.

Co-founder of Y Combinator believes that hackers can learn from painters the art of craft. Because you learn painting mostly by doing it, and the same for hacking. As Graham said:

“Most hackers don’t learn to hack by taking college courses in programming. They learn to hack by writing programs of their own at age thirteen.”

Additionally, because painters leave traces of work, you can study and watch them learn by doing. You can look chronologically at the works of a famous painter and see how he was studying and developing ideas. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was working on Mona Lisa in 1503, left it unfinished, and then finished it after almost 16 years.

“If you look at the work of a painter in chronological order, you’ll find that each painting builds on things that have been learned in previous ones. When there’s something in a painting that works very well, you can usually find version 1 of it in a smaller form in some earlier painting[…] I think most makers work this way.“

Considering how you mostly learn hacking by doing is a sign that hacking differs from the sciences. Scientists learn mostly by doing labs and setting problems, they don’t learn science by doing it.

Another way how doers learn is from examples and having a point of reference. For painters, the museums are the libraries of techniques and the source of inspiration. Hackers, likewise, can learn coding by looking at the source code and studying other programs.

The same way writers learn. Benjamin Franklin learned to write summarizing the points of Joseph Adisson’s and Richard Steele’s essays and try to reproduce them.

“For hundreds of years it has been part of the traditional education of painters to copy the works of the great masters, because copying forces you to look closely at the way a painting is made.“

Another point we can learn from the paintings is how they were created by gradual refinement. Paintings usually start with a sketch and gradually the colors, lights, and details are put in. It’s not an instant process. The same way hacking should work:

“You’re better off if you admit this up front, and write programs in a way that allows specifications to change on the fly.“

Both painting and software require fanatical devotion to be beautiful. And relentlessness wins because invisible details become visible, and the effort started to overshadow the rest.

“In hacking, like painting, work comes in cycles. Sometimes you get excited about some new project and you want to work sixteen hours a day on it.“

Graham was growing up believing that there’s no such thing as good taste, and it’s just a matter of personal preference. And like a lot of things we grew up believing turn out to be false. Graham stated that when you’re a doer, just like painters and hackers, taste becomes a practical matter.

This belief that you’re able to do great things is not only right but also useful. It has crucial consequences for young and ambitious people because they started to believe that they can realize their potential.

“The idea that you could make great things was not just a useful illusion. They were actually right. So the most important consequence of realizing there can be good art is that it frees artists to try to make it. To the ambitious kids arriving at art school this year hoping one day to make great things, I say: don’t believe it when they tell you this is a naive and outdated ambition. There is such a thing as good art, and if you try to make it, there are people who will notice.“

The last thing is that painting just like most software is intended for a human audience. So hackers, like painters, must have empathy to do great work. You have to be able to see things from the user’s point of view.

For more insights like this, I encourage you to follow me on @Twitter and join our @Discord community!

Summary:

  1. Determination is underestimated. Strong will, a great environment with cultivated discipline empower our determination which means that we can directly increase our odds of success.

  2. Working hard is a complex and dynamic system consisting of natural ability, practice, and effort. However, on a deeper level, it comes down to being honest with yourself.

  3. To be wealthy, you have to be in a position of measurement and leverage. The position where it’s easy to measure your performance, and you’re capable of making a big effect simply by doing your work.

  4. Growth is the crucial feature of successful startups. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the people behind the idea are far more important than the idea itself.

  5. To become a good programmer, learn how to hold a program in your head and work on that by doing simple steps.

  6. Learn to see things from the user’s point of view.

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