Paul Graham 101
There’s probably no one who knows more about startups than Paul Graham. Having helped thousands of startups through Y Combinator, the startup accelerator he co-founded, there’s a thing or two to learn from his essays. And Graham’s wisdom isn’t limited to startups either; his essays, read by millions, touch on education, intelligence, writing, society, the human mind, and much more.
I’ve read all of Paul Graham’s published essays (200+), ending up with enough notes to fill a book. This post tries to summarize the parts I’ve found most insightful and provide an accessible starting point for someone new to Graham.
Whenever possible, I’ve included links to his essays so you can easily go to the source when something interesting catches your eye. (Indeed, I recommend it - use this post as a gateway to the good stuff rather than a complete account in itself).
If my description of Graham’s idea sounds interesting, expect his essay to be 100x better. Always go back to the essays, where the ideas are fleshed out in full. This post is a very shallow overview.
Nevertheless, I hope this post inspires you to read Graham’s essays. They’re worth your time.
Boring disclaimer stuff:
- I made a Google Docs version of this post, in case that's easier to navigate.
- I’ve included all essays that were published before November 2021 (Beyond Smart is the latest essay included). You can find a list of all essays on Graham’s site.
- The info included is based on my interests at the time of reading the posts. Had I read an essay a year earlier or later, I’d likely have included something else. Plus, with over 200 essays, I’ve just downright overlooked and forgot important stuff. Again, I recommend you explore the essays yourself.
- This post does NOT cover Paul Graham’s thoughts or essays on programming / coding. I’m simply not interested in or knowledgeable about that stuff, so I didn't think it fair to talk about it. He’s written a lot about coding, so if that’s your interest, explore his essays yourself.
- Finally, if something seem off or missing, let me hear about it and I’ll fix it: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter
Okay, let’s jump in.
Paul Graham on Startups
Unsurprisingly, many of Graham’s essays are startup-related. Given his experience on the topic, there’s a lot to unwrap, including some classics like “Ramen Profitable”, “Do Things that Don’t Scale” and “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. Let’s start with an overview.
- Pick good co-founders.
- Launch fast.
- Let your idea evolve.
- Understand your users.
- Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.
- Offer surprisingly good customer service.
- You make what you measure.
- Spend little.
- Get ramen profitable.
- Avoid distractions.
- Don't get demoralized.
- Don't give up.
- Deals fall through.
For a detailed account, try How to Start a Startup.
This section presents some of Graham’s core ideas around startups, including the principles above.
Essays mentioned in this section:
Startups are fundamentally different
Startups aren’t ordinary businesses. “A startup is a company designed to grow fast”, it is fundamentally different from your standard restaurant or hair salon. All decisions reflect this need to grow. Indeed, Graham says: “If you want to understand startups, understand growth”.
“Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast.” (From How to Make Wealth)
Startups are also vastly different from your school experience. Your tests at school can be hacked, but success at startups is unhackable. At school, you learned that the way to get ahead is to perform well in a test, so you learned how to hack the tests. But in startups, you cannot really trick investors to give you money; the real hack is to be a good investment. You cannot really trick people to use your product; the real hack is to build something great. Valuable work is something you cannot hack.
So you don’t need to be a good student to be a good startup founder. In fact, if your opinions differ from those of your business teacher, that may even be a good thing (if your business teacher was excellent in business, they’d probably be a startup founder). In a startup, credentials don’t really matter - your users won’t care if you went to Stanford or got straight A’s. (Related: A Student's Guide to Startups).
Starting a startup is fundamentally different from a normal job, too. In a startup, experience is overrated. The one thing that matters is to be an expert on your users and the problem; everything else can be figured out along the way. “The most productive young people will always be undervalued by large organizations, because the young have no performance to measure yet, and any error in guessing their ability will tend toward the mean.” (From Hiring is Obsolete). By starting a startup, you can figure out your real market value.
So, startups are fundamentally different from other companies, school and “normal work”. But why don’t more people start them? Graham has listed common excuses (and rebuttals) in Why to Not Not Start a Startup.
Startups are wealth-creation machines
So, startups are fundamentally different. You cannot really understand them by looking at other things. But what are they then?
Startups are one of the most powerful legal ways to get rich. If you’re successful, you can, in a few years, get so rich you don’t know what to do with all the money. But perhaps even better than the money is all the time a successful founder saves:
“Economically, a startup is best seen not as a way to get rich, but as a way to work faster. You have to make a living, and a startup is a way to get that done quickly, instead of letting it drag on through your whole life.” (From The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn)
In How to Make Wealth, Graham shows why startups are optimized for wealth-creation. (And for clarity, wealth is different from money: wealth is what people want, while money is merely the medium of exchange to get it. So a startup doesn’t actually create money, it creates wealth; in other words, it creates something people want, and people give money for that. This distinction may seem small but it’s important: “making money” seems really complicated while “making something people want” is far easier.)
Why are startups optimized for wealth-creation?
Leverage: If a startup solves a complex problem, it only needs to solve it once, then scale it infinitely with technology. So a startup, once it cracks the code, can create a lot of wealth rapidly.
Measurement: The performance of every employee in a startup is easier to measure than the performance of every employee in a big organization. So if you perform well and create wealth, you’re in a better position to get paid according to your value in a startup.
More detail in How to Make Wealth.
Good startup ideas come from personal need and they don’t sound convincing
While there are many ways you could get startup ideas, Graham has observed that most successful startups were founded because of a personal need. Fix something for yourself, and don’t even think that you’re starting a company. Just keep on fixing the problem until you find that you’ve started a company. (From Organic Startup Ideas)
He’s also observed that good ideas tend to come from the margins - places you’d not expect. The idea is often very focused - like a book store online or a networking site for university students - so it isn’t obvious how it would change the world; we dismiss the idea until it becomes obvious.
So, good ideas don’t initially sound like billion-dollar ideas - what even is a billion-dollar idea? Certainly not something we could recognize in advance. Indeed, the initial idea is usually so crude and basic that you’ll ignore it if you’re looking for a billion-dollar idea. The really big ideas may even repel you - they are too ambitious.
A good idea doesn’t sound convincing because, for no one to have already taken it, it must be a bit crazy or unconventional. “The most successful founders tend to work on ideas that few beside them realize are good. Which is not that far from a description of insanity, till you reach the point where you see results.” (From Black Swan Farming)
Indeed, when someone presents a crazy new idea to you, and if they are “both a domain expert and a reasonable person”, chances are that it’s a good idea (even if it sounds like a bad one). “If the person proposing the idea is reasonable, then they know how implausible it sounds. And yet they're proposing it anyway. That suggests they know something you don't. And if they have deep domain expertise, that's probably the source of it.”
Graham also emphasizes that it is not the idea that matters, but the people who have them.
Oh, and "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." (Graham quoting Howard Aiken)
Nevertheless, if you’re in need of inspiration, Graham has some good starting points for coming up with startup ideas.
Founders make the startup
“The earlier you pick startups, the more you’re picking the founders.” Throughout his essays, Graham emphasizes the importance of the founders. More than anything - target audience, trends, TAM… - a startup’s success is influenced by the founders. (Obviously, the other employees matter, too. But founders are special, they are the heart and soul of the startup.)
“Cofounders are for a startup what location is for real estate. You can change anything about a house except where it is. In a startup you can change your idea easily, but changing your cofounders is hard.” (from Startups in 13 Sentences).
Indeed, Graham notes that most successful startups tend to have multiple founders.
Earnestness and resourcefulness make a good founder
If the founders are the most important factor for a startup’s success, it is critical to understand what makes a good founder. Indeed, this is the topic of numerous essays.
According to Graham, a good founder is:
“The highest compliment we can pay to founders is to describe them as ‘earnest.’”
An earnest person does something for the right reasons and tries as hard as they can. The right reason usually isn’t to make a lot of money, but to solve a problem or satisfy an intellectual curiosity. This is why it’s important to figure out your intrinsic motivation or embrace your nerdiness (both of which we’ll discuss later).
“A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.”
Relentless = make things go your way
Resourceful = adapt and try new things to make things go your way
Relentlessly resourceful people know what they want, and they will aggressively try things out and “hustle” until they get what they want. Consider the Airbnb founders and selling cereal.
Graham noticed a pattern around resourcefulness: when he talks to resourceful founders, he doesn’t need to say much. He can point them in the right direction, and they’ll take it from there. The un-resourceful founders felt harder to talk to.
It is not the most intelligent who succeed, but the most determined. Smart people fail all the time while dumb people succeed just because they decide they must.
Make something people want
If there’s one piece of startup advice to take from Graham, it’s this: “Make something people want”. (As you may know, this is also Y Combinator’s motto)
Yes, it is obvious. But it’s also pretty much the only thing that matters in a startup: if you just make something people want, you’ll attract users, employees, investors, money. “You can envision the wealth created by a startup as a rectangle, where one side is the number of users and the other is how much you improve their lives.”
Indeed, many early-stage startups are “indistinguishable from a nonprofit”, because they focus so much on helping the users and less so on making money. Funnily, this approach makes them money in the long term.
“In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn't want the product. For most, the cause of death is listed as ‘ran out of funding,’ but that's only the immediate cause. Why couldn't they get more funding? Probably because the product was a dog, or never seemed likely to be done, or both.” (From How to Start a Startup)
So how do you make something people want? Get close to users, launch fast, then iterate.
Get close to users
“The essential task in a startup is to create wealth; the dimension of wealth you have most control over is how much you improve users' lives; and the hardest part of that is knowing what to make for them. Once you know what to make, it's mere effort to make it, and most decent hackers are capable of that.” (From Startups in 13 Sentences)
“You have to design for the user, but you have to design what the user needs, not simply what he says he wants. It's much like being a doctor. You can't just treat a patient's symptoms. When a patient tells you his symptoms, you have to figure out what's actually wrong with him, and treat that.” (From Design and Research)
Since you may not precisely know who your users are and what exactly are their needs before you launch, it’s useful to yourself be a user of your product. If you use and like the product, other people like you may, too. This is why successful startups tend to arise from personal need.
Launch fast, then iterate
The importance of iterations is highlighted in “A Version 1.0”, “What Microsoft Is this the Altair Basic of?” and “Early Work”, among others. (If you understand the importance of iterations, then you understand that you must release a version 1 as soon as possible, so you can start iterating sooner.)
Some ideas from these essays:
- Don’t be discouraged by people’s ridicules of your early work. Just keep on iterating. (There will always be Trolls and Haters. Don’t mind them.)
- Don’t compare your early work with someone’s finished work. (If you wanted to compare your work to something, it’d optimally be a successful person’s early work. But people tend to hide their first drafts, precisely because they don’t want to be ridiculed.)
- When in doubt, ask: Could this really lame version 1 turn into an impressive masterpiece, given enough iterations?
Iterating and getting through the lame early work never gets easy. But Graham has listed some useful tips to trick your brain in “Early Work”.
Execution is a pathless land, but there is advice to be given
Mostly, a startup shouldn’t try to replicate what other startups do:
“If you do everything the way the average startup does it, you should expect average performance. The problem here is, average performance means that you'll go out of business. The survival rate for startups is way less than fifty percent. So if you're running a startup, you had better be doing something odd. If not, you're in trouble.”
Startup execution is a pathless land; there’s no formula to follow, even though many blog posts and thought leaders want you to believe otherwise. This is why it’s so important for the founders to be earnest and relentlessly resourceful: they need to figure it out themselves.
Even though there isn’t a connect-the-dots type of way to succeed in the startup world, Graham has observed hundreds (if not thousands) of startups from a very close distance, so he has identified general principles that help:
“Think of startups not only as something you build and you scale, but something you build and force to scale.”
“Startups take off because the founders make them take off. If you don’t take off, it’s not necessarily because the market doesn’t exist but because you haven’t exerted enough effort.”
At some point, your startup may grow on autopilot. But before you’re there, you need to do seemingly insignificant things, like cold emailing potential clients, speaking to people at conferences or offering “surprisingly good customer service”.
The “Do Things that Don’t Scale” advice helps us remember that building something great is only one part of the equation; we must also do laborious, unscalable work to get initial growth, no matter how great the product is.
Ramen profitability = a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.
“Ramen profitability means the startup does not need to raise money to survive. The only major expenses are the founders’ living expenses, which are now covered (if they eat ramen).”
Significance: Ramen profitability means that the startup turns from default dead into default alive. The game changes from “don’t run out of money” into “don’t run out of energy”. While running a startup is never not stressful, reaching ramen profitability does take a weight off your shoulders.
To increase your startup’s chances of succeeding, increase your chances of survival; to increase your chances of survival, reach ramen profitability.
To get into the making/building mindset, you need big chunks of time with no interruptions. You can’t build a great product in 1-hour units in-between meetings; “that’s barely enough time to get started”. If you think of the stereotypical coder, they prefer to work throughout the night, probably because no one can distract them at 3am.
“When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.”
If you want to create great stuff, you need to be mindful that a manager and a maker operate on very different schedules. If you’re the manager, try to give big blocks of time for the maker; if you’re the maker, try to schedule all meetings on two days of the week so the rest is free for creating.
Holding a Program in One's Head expands on some of these ideas.
What not to do
Graham has also figured out something about the inverse: what not to do. Or, as he puts it, “How Not to Die”.
- Keep morale up (don’t run out of energy)
- Don’t run out of money (for example, hire too fast)
- Don’t do other things. The startup needs your full attention. (Procrastination is mostly distraction. Avoid distractions and you’ll avoid procrastination. Note, though, that you can procrastinate well.)
- Make failing unbelievably humiliating (to force you to give your everything)
- Simply don’t give up, especially when things get tough
To summarize this part on execution, here are Paul Graham’s Six Principles for Making New Things:
- Simple solutions
- To overlooked problems
- That actually need to be solved
- Deliver these solutions as informally as possible
- Starting with a very crude version 1
- Then iterating rapidly
The more you focus on money, the less you focus on the product
Graham doesn’t often talk about money, and when he does, I get this weird feeling. It’s like “sure, we’re talking about money... but I’d rather we talk about the product instead.” Let me explain:
In Don’t talk to Corp Dev, Graham says all a startup needs to know about M&A is that you should never talk to corp dev unless you intend to sell right now. So it’s better to focus on the product until you absolutely must think about M&A.
In The Top Idea in Your Mind: “once you start raising money, raising money becomes the top idea in your mind”, instead of users and the product. So your product suffers.
When you get money, don’t spend it. “The most common form of failure is running out of money”, and you can avoid that by not spending money, not hiring too fast.
One instance when you should think about money is if your startup is default dead. “Assuming their expenses remain constant and their revenue growth is what it has been over the last several months, do they make it to profitability on the money they have left?” If you know you’re default dead, your focus quickly shifts to turning the ship around and reaching profitability; avoiding The Fatal Pinch.
In the long term, it’s obvious that the company that focuses more on the users and product beats the company that obsesses over investors and raising money.
Paul Graham on What to work on
What to work on is one of the most important questions in your life, along with where you live and who you’re with. While Graham’s treatment of this question definitely leans on the side of startups, you can also view his ideas from the perspective of side hustles, hobbies, projects (in or outside of a career) and so on.
Essays mentioned in this section:
Follow intrinsic motivation
If it’s something you’re intrinsically motivated about, that’s something where you have infinite curiosity, and that’s something you’ll eventually do well in. (Later, we’ll discuss how curiosity leads to genius.)
“If something that seems like work to other people doesn't seem like work to you, that's something you're well suited for.” Put another way: the stranger your tastes seem to other people, the more you should embrace those tastes.
Because of the internet, you can make money by following your curiosity. This is a revolutionary shift: in the past, money was gained from a boring job, and you satisfied your curiosity during the weekends. But now, you can make real money just by following your curiosity, whether it’s from a startup or a YouTube or Gumroad account.
The two greatest powers in the world - money and curiosity - are getting more aligned each day. There has never been a greater time to follow your intrinsic motivation. Now, the important question is what to work on, not how to make money, because if you figure out an answer to the former, the latter question will answer itself.
Turns out, nerds are far closer to figuring out the answer than non-nerds. (Nerds - or earnest people - do something for the sake of it, not to become popular or rich). Nerds in high school tend to be unpopular, not because they couldn’t figure out how popularity works and game the system, but perhaps because they don’t really want to be popular. That makes high school a tough time for them, but real life becomes much more fulfilling: while others are stuck in the popularity/status rat race and compete to work on Fashionable Problems, the nerds can follow their own curiosities, thus work on stuff no one else is working on, thus discover new things, thus succeed. Plus, they have a much nicer time doing so.
A question to figure out your intrinsic motivation and what to work on: “What are you a big nerd on?”
Let’s end this part with a sharp and practical observation from “How to Do What You Love”:
“To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that's pretty cool. This doesn't mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that's pretty cool.”
You should be working on your own projects
The logical conclusion of following your intrinsic motivation is that you should be working on your own projects (or other people’s projects where you have significant ownership).
You may have noticed that projects you start on your own feel fundamentally different from tasks handed to you by a manager or teacher. And there’s a reason for that: “You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss”.
In that essay, Graham makes the argument that even though working in a large organization is the default now, it’s not how we evolved to work. A large organization is similar to the modern diet - consisting of pizza, candies and other processed foods - while a small group (like a startup) is the hunter-gatherer diet. One is easy and safe and appealing in the short term (but terrible over time) while the other is hard and unappealing, but more natural and better in the long term.
While working in smaller groups makes you happier and gives you more freedom, it’s also the way to do great work, as Graham argues in “A Project of One’s Own”. If a project feels like it’s your own, you have motivation and skin in the game that you don’t otherwise have. You’re much more willing to obsess over the details and make something great.
Work on things that you want to take over your life
“It's a mistake to insist dogmatically on ‘work/life balance.’ Indeed, the mere expression ‘work/life’ embodies a mistake: it assumes work and life are distinct. [...] I wouldn't want to work on anything I didn't want to take over my life.” (From “A Project of One’s Own”)
For startup founders, the startup is their life - there is time for little else, even sleep. Why would they willingly work 80+ hours a week and eat nothing but ramen, with no guaranteed financial reward, when they could work 40 hours a week and eat lobster at a big company? Because the startup is a project of their own, and they have - hopefully consciously - decided it’s something they want to take over their lives. “People will do any amount of drudgery for companies of which they're the founders.”
How do you know if something has taken over your life? Here’s a simple test: Do you think about it in the shower?
In “The Top Idea in Your Mind”, Graham argues that if something is really important to you, then your mind will think about it subconsciously and ideas will appear in your head whilst walking or showering. Indeed, if this does not happen, you’ll have trouble doing great work - that’s your sign to reconsider what you work on.
Paul Graham on Thinking & Decision-making
Startup founders are an interesting group of people: they seek to change something about the status quo, which means they see something non-obvious that could be improved and they believe in that improvement so much that they’re willing to work 80+ hours a week and eat ramen until their vision becomes a reality.
What drives them? It can’t be just money - there are so many founders who’ve already gotten rich, and they still work in their companies and start new startups. And why aren’t there more founders? What qualities are there in a founder that you don’t find in non-founders?
By trying to understand this group of people, Graham has discovered a lot about thinking, decision-making, and the human mind in general.
Essays mentioned in this section:
Independent-mindedness vs conventional-mindedness
Independent-minded people prefer to think through things for themselves, and because of this, they may seem weird to conventional-minded people (who follow the average and agreeable). Hence, it is almost a tautology to say that new ideas and new startups are the work of independent-minded people.
In The Four Quadrants of Conformism, Graham goes a bit deeper and differentiates between aggressive and passive forms of independent-mindedness and conventional-mindedness. Notably, aggressively independent-minded people tend to question existing norms and rules, working against them, while aggressively conventional-minded people work to maintain the norms and rules. There’s a clash between the groups, so it’s important for independent-minded people to “be protected”, be given space to innovate, break norms and come up with new ideas and things. (These “protected areas” are important for innovation. You could think of Silicon Valley as one.)
If you know someone is conventional-minded, you know a lot about them. Their beliefs and actions match the average, and you know what the average is. Whereas, if someone is independent-minded, you don’t really know them; they think things through for themselves, and thus they may arrive at conclusions you can’t imagine. In fact, on one issue, independent-minded people can be in the political left, and on another issue, in the political right; they are politically moderate by accident. A conventional-minded person is more likely either in the left or right for every issue.
Conventional-minded people have what Graham calls Orthodox Privilege: it seems to them that everyone is safe to express their opinions because everything they think about is conventional and uncontroversial. “They literally can't imagine a true statement that would get them in trouble.”
So if you do express your controversial, new ideas to them, they may regard them as untrue heresy. Novelty and Heresy go hand-in-hand. “It doesn't seem to conventional-minded people that they're conventional-minded. It just seems to them that they're right.” To them, anything that is unconventional is likely to be false; to the independent-minded, anything too conventional seems suspicious. So if you express your independent-minded thoughts publicly, you may want to learn How to Disagree.
In How to Think for Yourself, Graham shows there are some types of work that you can only do well in if you think differently from others: Scientists aim to discover something new, so being conventional-minded won’t get you very far; an investor who thinks exactly like everyone else will not get rich; a startup founder who shares the same ideas as everyone else won’t build great new stuff. You need to be right and most other people need to be wrong.
Of course, not every type of work is like this. You can be a good administrative worker without thinking differently from others; it’s not essential that everyone else is wrong. Generally, independent-minded people want to work in areas where newness is rewarded.
In How to Think for Yourself, Graham shares some exercises for training your independent-mindedness muscles.
Genius comes from infinite curiosity, intelligence, hard work and courage
We tend to think some people are just blessed with genius, that it’s an innate thing. But Graham has taken this black box apart and argues genius is something you can influence.
“Those who do really great work have an unexplainable obsession about something”. Infinite curiosity leads to surprising discoveries, simply because you think about and play with the topic more than any rational person would expect. And all that thinking and tinkering feels like play to you (but looks like work to others) because an obsessive interest “is a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination”.
There’s a difference between wisdom and intelligence. If wisdom means a high average outcome across all outcomes, intelligence is a spectacularly high outcome in a few situations. If we think of “genius”, it tends to fit the latter description: you can be a terrible fool about everything else, but if you discover relativity, you’re a genius.
High curiosity in something + high intelligence in that domain are a great beginning. But not necessarily enough to discover important new ideas. As Graham elaborates in Beyond Smart, there are smart people, and then there are those who have important new ideas; “There are a lot of genuinely smart people who don’t achieve very much.”
Intelligence and curiosity are perhaps necessary to become a genius, but not sufficient; you also need hard work to uncover new ideas and courage to pursue them, as developing something new challenges your ego (and irritates the conventional-minded people).
Hard work and courage
Even when you’re undeniably brilliant, you cannot avoid hard work. (Indeed, just knowing How to Work Hard can get you closer to sheer brilliance.) Hard work in itself isn’t the goal, though. Output matters (output being, in this context, important new ideas): “If I paint someone's house, the owner shouldn't pay me extra for doing it with a toothbrush.”
When you start to do or learn anything new, you’ll Be a Noob at it first. But “the more of a noob you are locally, the less of a noob you are globally.” In How to Be an Expert in a Changing World, Graham notes that if your opinion was right once, it may not be right anymore because the world has changed. So it takes intellectual humility and courage to update your opinions to the new world, instead of clinging to the opinions you formed in the old world.
Putting together Graham’s thoughts, it seems like genius is not an innate quality that you can’t influence, but a combination of multiple qualities like curiosity, intelligence, hard work and courage.
Good taste is necessary for good work
Good taste is a quality related to genius. Some people seem to have an “eye” for design or an “ear” for music, but Graham shows, again, that taste is something you can develop.
”Taste is subjective” isn’t true, and you see it as soon as you start designing or writing or building things. There’s good art and there’s bad art, good writing and bad writing, nice design and less nice design. Saying “taste is subjective” is lazy and won’t help you improve your work.
So if you want to create better stuff, you need to realize that you may have poor taste and you need to develop good taste, normally by getting better at your craft or studying those who have good taste. “Good work happens when you see something is ugly, understand why, and have the ability to fix it into something beautiful.” (From Taste for Makers)
So what is good art or design? Graham gives a list (I redacted a few points):
- Solves the right problem
- Often slightly funny
- Looks easy
- Uses symmetry
- Resembles nature
- Often strange
- Often daring
Good work isn’t necessarily the most popular work; “There are sources of error so powerful that if you take a vote, all you're measuring is the error.” But if you do good work, eventually, people will appreciate it.
Is your argument testable?
If you read Graham closely, you notice that often when he makes an argument, he immediately considers what kind of test is needed to validate the argument. He’s thinking like a scientist: only accepting an argument if it’s testable.
Watch him do it in How to Do What You Love:
“To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that's pretty cool. This doesn't mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that's pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.”
And in The Island Test, he presents a test to figure out what you’re addicted to:
“Imagine you were going to spend the weekend at a friend's house on a little island off the coast of Maine. There are no shops on the island and you won't be able to leave while you're there. Also, you've never been to this house before, so you can't assume it will have more than any house might.
What, besides clothes and toiletries, do you make a point of packing? That's what you're addicted to.”
In some cases, the way to make a point (and make it practical) is to devise a test. In How to Start a Startup, Graham explores what makes a good startup employee. He could just say “they are determined and will do whatever it takes”, but that’s not a testable argument, and not very practical for someone who’s hiring.
Instead, Graham devised a test: “Could you describe the person as an animal?” If you could say “Jaakko is an animal” and don’t laugh but rather take the description seriously, that’s the person you want in your startup. An animal of a salesperson simply won’t take no for an answer; an animal of a programmer will stay up all night to finish the code; an animal of a PR person will pitch every newspaper in the city until your startup gets featured.
Fun evening activity: Go through an essay you’ve written and see if each of the arguments you make is testable.
Paul Graham on Writing
Paul Graham is known for incredibly clear and simple writing. Each of his essays is easy to understand, no matter how complicated the topic.
You can learn a lot about writing just by reading Graham, and doubly so if it’s an essay on the topic of writing. Fortunately for us, there are many such essays.
For starters, Graham has summarized his writing philosophy in Writing, Briefly. It’s an entire writing course, condensed into one (long) sentence. I recommend you read it now before continuing below.
Essays mentioned in this section:
Writing is how you get ideas, develop ideas and improve your thinking
If you read Writing, Briefly, as you should, you noticed this:
“I think it's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”
From an idea perspective, being a good writer is better than being a good speaker. You need good ideas to have good essays, but you can do a good speech without saying much at all. Though speeches can be better for motivation and personal touch, writing is better for ideas.
Don’t write to persuade, write to discover something new and useful
There are roughly two types of essays: those where you know exactly where it’s going before you start, and those where you have no clue where it’s going.
We’re taught to write the first type of essay in school: we write the thesis statement in the introduction and ensure that the rest of the essay supports that thesis. We’re writing to persuade the reader, so that they’ll accept our thesis. A listicle is equivalent to that type of essay, and writing one doesn’t help you discover new ideas or knowledge. “I worry that if I wrote to persuade, I'd start to shy away unconsciously from ideas I knew would be hard to sell.”
Paul Graham is a supporter (and practitioner) of the second type, writing to discover. In his mind, an essay is supposed to be two things: new and useful.
An essay should be new
If an essay doesn’t share something new or surprising, what good is it? When we write to discover, we want to surprise ourselves and the reader. Most surprising = furthest from what people currently believe.
But just anything new doesn’t cut it. There’s constantly new info and news, and that doesn’t make a difference in our lives. What we should aim for is something General and Surprising. “Ordinarily, the best that people can do is one without the other: either surprising without being general (e.g. gossip), or general without being surprising (e.g. platitudes).” If you can do some combination of general and surprising (at least to some people), you’ve got a winning essay.
An essay should be useful
What does it mean for an essay to be useful? Graham offers some ideas in How to Write Usefully:
- When something is useful, it’s correct. If it’s merely persuasive, it could be false. “Good writing should be convincing, certainly, but it should be convincing because you got the right answers, not because you did a good job of arguing.” (From The Age of the Essay)
- “Useful writing makes claims that are as strong as they can be made without becoming false.”
- “Useful writing tells something important that people didn’t already know” (again, going back to the “surprise” idea)
Good writing is rewriting (in particular, rewriting to make the text simpler)
Just like in anything involving skill, the way to get better is through iterations. Good writing is rewriting. Because we can’t see someone’s drafts and rewrites, we compare their end product to our Early Work, then get discouraged looking at the gap. Instead, we must appreciate that something bad now could become great, if we iterate enough.
“My strategy is loose, then tight. I write the first draft of an essay fast, trying out all kinds of ideas. Then I spend days rewriting it very carefully.” (From How to Write Usefully)
And when you rewrite, your main goal is to make your writing simple. Most of the time, the simplest words and simplest sentences are better than decorative, complicated words. Your purpose is to convey an idea, not to use fancy words and make the reader “do extra work just so you can seem cool.”
In Write Like You Talk, Graham shares a trick for writing simply: explain your ideas to a friend by talking; then, use that transcript as a draft for your essay. The spoken and written version of your idea should be as close to each other as possible. “If you simply manage to write in spoken language, you'll be ahead of 95% of writers.”
When possible, find a metaphor for your idea
This is not direct advice from Graham (though he does recommend you write simply, and what’s simpler than a great metaphor?)
Instead, this is a theme you notice if you read a lot of Graham. Metaphors are a weapon he wields often.
Some of my favorite metaphors from Paul Graham:
“There's an Italian dish called saltimbocca, which means ‘leap into the mouth.’ My goal when writing might be called saltintesta: the ideas leap into your head and you barely notice the words that got them there.” (From Write Simply)
“People don’t realize that scrapping things together is how big things get started. They unconsciously judge larval startups by the standards of established ones. They're like someone looking at a newborn baby and concluding ‘there's no way this tiny creature could ever accomplish anything.’” (From Do Things that Don’t Scale)
“The list of n things [listicle] is in that respect the cheeseburger of essay forms. If you're eating at a restaurant you suspect is bad, your best bet is to order the cheeseburger. Even a bad cook can make a decent cheeseburger. And there are pretty strict conventions about what a cheeseburger should look like. You can assume the cook isn't going to try something weird and artistic. The list of n things similarly limits the damage that can be done by a bad writer.” (From The List of N Things)
“Sometimes it's because the writer only has very high-level data and so draws conclusions from that, like the proverbial drunk who looks for his keys under the lamppost, instead of where he dropped them, because the light is better there.” (From Economic Inequality)
“If I paint someone's house, the owner shouldn't pay me extra for doing it with a toothbrush.” (From Mind the Gap)
“I'm not sure why. It may just be my own stupidity. A can-opener must seem miraculous to a dog.” (From Taste for Makers)
“A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.” (From How to Make Wealth)
“The independent-minded thus have a horror of ideologies, which require one to accept a whole collection of beliefs at once, and to treat them as articles of faith. To an independent-minded person that would seem revolting, just as it would seem to someone fastidious about food to take a bite of a submarine sandwich filled with a large variety of ingredients of indeterminate age and provenance.” (From How to Think for Yourself)
Paul Graham on Society
Startups turn into big companies, startup founders turn into billionaires, products used by hundreds turn into products used by millions... If you’re working to help startups, you’re working to change society in a big way.
Essays mentioned in this section:
“Reducing wealth inequality” isn’t as great as it sounds
As we established earlier, a startup is a wealth-creation machine. As such, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Graham discussing wealth inequality and why it isn’t the demonic thing many believe.
Wealth inequality is a divisive topic, and one I’m no expert in, so I’ll try to provide a general overview without twisting Graham’s ideas into something they aren’t. You might want to read the essays in full if you’re interested in the topic.
By default, we think wealth inequality is inherently bad.
In Mind the Gap, Graham presents three reasons why we think wealth inequality is inherently bad:
- The Daddy Model of Wealth: We confuse wealth with money and think there is a fixed amount of it. And if there’s a fixed amount, we believe it should be distributed equally. (By now, you should realize that wealth is different from money, and that you can create wealth; there is no “fixed amount” or “fixed pie”; you can increase the pie)
- We think people get rich today like they got rich earlier: In the past, the rich people tended to get rich by stealing (through war or taxes). So some people still believe rich people have gotten rich by stealing, even though today the much better, more reliable, faster and legal way to get rich is by creating wealth, not stealing it.
- We don’t understand leverage: Technology increases the gap between the productive and the unproductive, thus increasing wealth inequality. If a CEO is 100x richer than an employee in the same company, we think it unjust because there’s no way the CEO works 100x more than they do. But because of leverage, the CEO can easily be 100x more productive than an employee, or make decisions that are 100x more valuable. “I have no trouble imagining that one person could be 100 times as productive as another.”
Wealth inequality can be a sign of good things.
“Variation in wealth can be a sign of variation in productivity. (In a society of one, they're identical.) And that is almost certainly a good thing: if your society has no variation in productivity, it's probably not because everyone is Thomas Edison. It's probably because you have no Thomas Edisons.
In a low-tech society you don't see much variation in productivity. If you have a tribe of nomads collecting sticks for a fire, how much more productive is the best stick gatherer going to be than the worst? A factor of two? Whereas when you hand people a complex tool like a computer, the variation in what they can do with it is enormous.” (From Great Hackers)
“By helping startup founders, you’re helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality should be decreased, no one should be helping founders. But that doesn’t sound right.” (From Economic Inequality)
There are many causes of economic inequality. Some of them are bad, like corruption and stealing. But some causes are generally good, like variation in productivity. Some people are vastly better at creating things people want, so it’s unsurprising they are able to make more money than other people.
Remember that startups grow the pie: they get rich by making other people richer. Because they are rich doesn’t mean you must have been screwed over. It’s more like the opposite: the Google founders are rich because they have made life easier and richer for billions of people.
Of course, wealth inequality isn't only due to startups (although startups create the most extreme results). Some people’s salaries are higher than others’, again, because some produce more wealth than others. Salaries are closer to market price than ever before, and get constantly closer, as people are more free to start their own companies, switch companies and work internationally.
Taxing the rich reduces economic inequality, but may not lead to the results you’d hope for.
If you want to make the poor richer - as is probably the intention when you want to reduce economic inequality - you can either take the money from the rich, or make the poor more productive so they’ll get richer (through education and infrastructure, for example). But if you make people more productive, some people will create 1,000x the results as another, so economic inequality remains.
So if you want to reduce economic inequality, the only way is to push from the top - to take money from the rich (see Inequality and Risk). Thus, you reduce the rewards for creating or funding startups and business activity, thus you hinder technological innovation. This doesn’t sound as positive as “reducing economic inequality”. Especially when you consider the many different kinds of inequalities beyond income equality.
The gap between rich and poor is increasing in monetary terms, but probably closing in wealth terms. Today, the average person lives a relatively similar life, materially, to a rich person: both have a fridge, a car, a phone, Netflix… 100 years ago, the rich had a car while the poor didn’t, they had things we now regard as “essentials” while the poor didn’t. Through businesses, essential products are getting cheaper and more accessible to everyone. In many cases, the rich can pay to have a flashier version of something, like a sports car or brand watch, but the basic, affordable version is still good enough.
Today, the difference is appearance and what brand your stuff is; in the past, the difference was either having it or not having it. So yes, the income gap is increasing, but with it, the gap in quality of life is decreasing.
“You need rich people in your society not so much because in spending their money they create jobs, but because of what they have to do to get rich. I'm not talking about the trickle-down effect here. I'm not saying that if you let Henry Ford get rich, he'll hire you as a waiter at his next party. I'm saying that he'll make you a tractor to replace your horse.” (From Mind the Gap) Trickle-down economics is a bad argument because it misses the point. We need to look at how wealth is created, not how it’s used
When you’re allowed to keep the wealth you create, people can get rich by creating wealth instead of stealing it. People take bigger risks if they can keep more of the upside when those risks pay off. A startup founder never captures all of the wealth created; most of the wealth is transferred to other people, so we should encourage those who want to get rich, not discourage them.
Based on these ideas, you can probably guess Graham’s opinions on capitalism vs communism (something he discusses in the essays linked in this section, particularly in How to Make Wealth and Mind the Gap).
Not everything we think is true is true, and not everything we think is false is false
“At every period of history, people have believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you risked ostracism or even violence by saying otherwise. If our own time were any different, that would be remarkable.” (From Taste for Makers)
“And yet at every point in history, there were true things that would get you in terrible trouble to say. Is ours the first where this isn't so? What an amazing coincidence that would be.” (From Orthodox Privilege)
Not everything we think is true is true, and not everything we think is false is false.
Graham comes back to this idea repeatedly, particularly in the essays discussing independent-mindedness and conformism (see above). But you can see tones of this idea in his startup essays too; after all, a successful startup has a vision of a future that most other people do not believe in at the time.
Graham deep-dives into this idea in What You Can't Say, an essay I consider one of his finest - one you must read for yourself. In fact, the whole essay is so intellectually important that I’d do it a disservice by summarizing. Instead, here’s the main takeaway I was left with:
There are things you believe that are incorrect, horribly so. To you, they seem correct without question. Stay open-minded.
Paul Graham on Life
If we accept that writing is thinking (as we addressed earlier), Graham, with over 200 essays and decades of writing, has done a lot of thinking. When he shares life wisdom, you’d be smart to listen.
What You'll Wish You'd Known is sort of Paul Graham’s compilation of life wisdom, targeted at high school students. It’s also one of his most popular essays. While you should read it yourself, here are a few major points that stood out for me:
- It’s okay to not have a plan. In fact, it may be better not to fixate on one plan when you’re young. Optimize for optionality. If you’re unsure, go with the option that gives you more options later down the line.
- Build something. Work on something hard on your own, doesn’t really matter what it is. You’ll learn so much about yourself in that process. This is a shortcut to finding what you want to work on, which is one of the major questions in life. “If I could go back and redo my twenties, that would be one thing I'd do more of: just try hacking things together. [...] I should have spent less time worrying and more time building. If you're not sure what to do, make something.” (From The Power of the Marginal)
- How you succeed in school is in no way representative of how you succeed in life. “One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it's only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them.” At school, stuff is forced on you; in real life, it is the stuff you initiate that matters and defines your trajectory.
- “There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. That’s not how you become an adult. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age. [...] The important thing is to get out there and do stuff. Instead of waiting to be taught, go out and learn.”
Beyond that essay, there are a few bigger themes I want to highlight below.
Essays mentioned in this section:
Life is short
“Life is short” is one of those statements everyone kind of agrees with, without giving it too much thought. But Graham has explored the idea a bit deeper.
For starters, a startup itself is a way to appreciate the shortness of life or adapt to it; instead of a 40-year career, you compress your income-making to a few startup years and thus free up time for activities beyond making a living. The average human lifespan is increasing while the minimum possible time it takes to be set for life is decreasing; startups are one way to maximize the gap.
Whether you agree with the premise that Life is Short, it’s easy to agree that one way to make life seem less short is to minimize anything unimportant. If you do nothing for 5 hours, that 5 hours will feel excruciatingly long. The more we have going on, the shorter life feels. So we should cut all the things we don’t like doing, the stuff that we think life is too short for (Graham calls this, bluntly, “bullshit”).
And if we invert the argument, we realize that we should dedicate more time for the important stuff. If people and relationships are important to you, your calendar should reflect that. When life is short, we must ruthlessly cut the unimportant while making time for the important. Sounds simple and easy to dismiss, but somehow, Graham applies weight to it in Life is Short.
It’s surprisingly easy to waste your life if you’re not careful
Since life is short, it’s easy to let it slip away in a blur if you’re not careful.
One thing you get easily sucked into is “anti-tests”. These are tests you can try to excel in, but the way to come on top is to not care about the test at all, to ignore the test. So you could try to be popular in school, but you probably shouldn’t care about popularity; you can try to become important and high-status in life, but you probably shouldn’t care about that. Just because there’s a test doesn’t mean you should try to perform well in it.
Ignoring tests is especially hard for intelligent, ambitious people, because their ambition provides the motivation and intelligence the means to do well in the test. But try not to get sucked into the anti-tests in life; they are the kind of “bullshit” life is too short for.
Another thing that can corrode your life, if you’re not careful, is addiction. We know to be careful with the standard stuff like alcohol and gambling, but it’s harder to avoid addictions that everyone has because those seem normal to us. In The Acceleration of Addictiveness, Graham makes a division between two normals: statistically normal (that which everyone does) and operationally normal (that which works best). Being addicted to social media and your phone is statistically normal, but not operationally normal. “Technology tends to separate normal from natural.”
“You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly.” For example, if your approach to consumerism doesn’t seem a bit weird, you probably own too much Stuff.
But being careful about pleasures and self-indulgence and “the bullshit” isn’t enough. We must also be careful about the things we do that feel important and productive. In How to Lose Time and Money, Graham writes:
“It's hard to spend a fortune without noticing. Someone with ordinary tastes would find it hard to blow through more than a few tens of thousands of dollars without thinking ‘wow, I'm spending a lot of money.’ Whereas if you start trading derivatives, you can lose a million dollars (as much as you want, really) in the blink of an eye.”
Similarly, for a fairly ambitious person, it’s hard to waste your time by watching TV or laying on the sofa - your brain will start thinking “this is a waste of time” sooner or later. But you can easily work 12h a day for 2 years on something that, in retrospect, was a complete waste of your time.
If you’re not careful about where you invest your time and money, life passes by surprisingly easily.
You have a lot of unconditioning to do
What’s a lie you were told as a child? Stuff like “if you swallow an apple seed, a tree will grow in your stomach” is easy to identify as a lie. But stuff like “be careful with strangers, they are dangerous”? Less so.
In Lies We Tell Kids, Graham shows that we’ve been lied to as kids, for a variety of reasons (some better than others). Some falsities have flowed into our heads at home, some at school, but the main idea is that we’ve woven lies into our understanding of the world at a young age. And if it’s something we learned as a child, it feels undeniably true as an adult; it takes serious effort to take apart these deep-held beliefs.
As a rule, if you think it’s true because you learned it in school or in your childhood, assume it is not true. It’s better to verify it for yourself, even if it turns out to have been true all along.
If childhood beliefs are a good place to start unconditioning, a good place to continue is whatever you identify as (democrat, minimalist, crypto bull…). This is because we have a terribly hard time thinking clearly about something that’s part of our identity, so you may have taken in opinions one-sidedly. If you identify as x, criticism against x feels like a personal attack because x is a part of your identity, part of you. The bigger your identity, the more you have to process and rethink.
Another thing to uncondition comes from Cities and Ambition. When most people talk about the essay, they consider the obvious implication: you should go to the city that matches your ambition. So if you want to be in the show biz, go to Hollywood, or if you’re into startups, go to Silicon Valley (or, increasingly, the right corner of the internet). But there’s an inverse consideration, too, and it’s an important one: the places you’ve already lived in have subconsciously influenced your ambition. So, yes, we could match the city we live in to our ambition, but before we do that, we should figure out whether our ambition really is our own or if it’s simply a product of where we have lived in so far.
This idea of unconditioning links back to the earlier point: because you’ve been conditioned a certain way, you’re set on a path that you may not wish to be on, had you consciously made the choice. So unless you do uncondition yourself, it’s easy to waste your life.
You have a lot of unconditioning to do. So better get started.
Paul Graham’s 5 commandments for life
Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, made a list of the biggest regrets of the dying:
- Forgetting your dreams
- Ignoring family
- Suppressing emotions
- Neglecting friends
- Forgetting to be happy with what you have
In The Top of My Todo List, Graham inverted the regrets into his 5 commandments to live by:
- Don’t ignore your dreams
- Don’t work too much
- Say what you think
- Cultivate friendships
- Be happy
Paul Graham’s Best Essays
Paul Graham’s favorites
- What You Can't Say
- How to Think for Yourself
- You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss
- How to Make Wealth
- How to Lose Time and Money
This has been nothing but a short introduction to Paul Graham’s ideas. There are so many essays and ideas and topics that weren’t included here, so, who knows, maybe at some point there will be a PG 201.
Anyhow, I hope this has inspired you to explore the essays yourself and gives you a convenient way to find the essays that interest you.
If you found this summary useful, please feel free to share around. It took me nearly a year to read all the essays and turn my notes into something useful, so it’d be awesome if many people knew about this.
Thanks for reading.