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Paul Graham on Doing Things Right by Accident (themacro.com)
368 points by runesoerensen on Feb 18, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

Off-topic but: Hooray for transcripts! I can see the benefits of being able to hear the pauses, tone, inflections, etc. but even leaving aside the deaf and hearing-impaired, there are so many advantages to having the text (it's searchable, you can read it while listening to music, it's quicker to read it than to listen to it).

The color codings with the names of the speakers helped a lot too. Very different to an unformatted wall of text, which you'll often see with podcast transcripts.

Also much easier to understand for us with English as secondary languge.

Fun fact: The HTML5 video stuff has a Javascript API so that you can access the subtitle-data. This means if the subtitles are well-made, you can "re-generate" a searchable/seekable "transcript" from the same data.

Example: https://gist.github.com/DHager/2e01f0b82e5d3f5a39e6

"Plus, then, I had given this talk about the Harvard Computer Society, and I said, “If you want to raise money, raise money from people who made the money doing startups. And then, they can give you advice, too.” And I suddenly noticed, they were all looking at me. And I had this horrifying vision of them all e-mailing me their business plans. Which is funny, because that’s what YC turned into."

That gave me chills.

The entire startup experience, the essence of being an entrpepreneur for me is in that moment when your brain subconsciously processes all the data around a problem and throws out something obvious and audacious in the same breath. And before you can conciously object BAM you have said it outloud and the adventure begins.

Please, for the ignorant (no offense intended, as I am an entrenched member), can you more precisely/consisely explain your critiques? The reasons behind your "chills" are foreign to me.

My intuition often betrays my experience.

"Gives me chills" in that context is not a criticism, it means (roughly) that he really liked and related to it.

I believe "frisson" is the word you are looking for.

It's the same thing. Though "gives me chills" is more common in English. I only knew "frisson" because I speak French, I'm not sure I've ever heard an English speaker use it. (until now)

Eh, reddit is responsible for some weird things. Popularizing[1] a rare word would hardly be the weirdest.

1: http://www.reddit.com/r/frisson

I use it, (e.g. phrases like "a frisson of doubt") and I certainly wouldn't consider it rare. Though I will grant that it is used less commonly than "gives me chills" and its variants.

I don't think frisson is that unusual, or that it means the same thing as "gives me the chills" -- the latter implies that you're frightened, IMO.

It depends on context, but "gives me the chills" certainly can mean what they're talking about upthread.

Well, I'd agree but chilly has something to do with cold, whereas goose bumps would rather correlate with warmth from a suddenly increased blood pressure. I'd say thrilled (say frilled) was a good compromise, if it wasn't preoccupied. Anyway, I'd not get a kick out of the remark so I wouldn't know what it really means.

I think "gives me chills" is pretty synonymous with "goosebumps" if that helps at all. I think creepy/makes-me-shudder for the negative usage and breathtaking/awe-inspiring for the positive usage.

>>Paul : It is actually a trick for interviews. If someone asks you a boring question, just answer the interesting one they might have asked, and nobody complains.<<

That's classic...

An example of how to actually live "your" own life in this world...not paying a great deal of attention to uninteresting things that others bring up; rather molding those same things so that they become interesting, and illuminate parts of your life and the lives of others...

In my estimation, my life is what it is--one I'm very happy with--because of my having just that attitude...

And, yes, I totally agree:

>>Paul : When I was a kid at Christmas, the Sears Catalog was your reference work.<<

I generically agree with your sentiment, but there are often times where a simple question causes me to reconsider humanities' goals. These "boring" questions become stratified and ultimately challenge and provide friction to my strongly held beliefs, where that which was once uninteresting has become supremely relevant.

PG is a boss and has done more for startups than anyone I know, but he isn't beyond critique. Boring questions are ripe with depth outside the capacity of CS and tech entrepreneurs, and deal with the realities of everyday people.

When I was practicing law, my first job out of law school was working for a local defense lawyer who was somewhat of a celebrity. He always told me the trick to dealing with the press is not to answer the question you were asked, but rather the question you wish you were asked. He was right.

This reminds me of a bit from "The Dilbert Future" (1997):

> Most people won't admit how they got their current jobs unless you push them up against a built-in wall unit and punch them in the stomach until they spill their drink and start yelling, "I'LL NEVER INVITE YOU TO ONE OF MY PARTIES AGAIN, YOU DRUNKEN FOOL!"

> I think the reason these annoying people won't tell me how they got their jobs is because they are embarrassed to admit luck was involved.

> I can't blame them. Typically the pre-luck part of their careers involved doing something enormously pathetic. Take me, for example. I'm a successful cartoonist and author because I'm a complete failure at being an employee of the local phone company.

Absolutely, people seem to find/get jobs for reasons that look very much like insane luck. I found my current job through a long chain of "crazy" coincidences.

In reality, what looks like luck is very normal. Humans are prone to think coincidence is much less likely than it actually is. This is where most religious belief and conspiracy theory come from.

Or, often, what seems like a coincidence is actually a predictable systematic phenomenon that we cannot yet explain. E.g. The regularity of comets was once thought merely a coincidence. Edmund Halley was the first to posit a system behind their regularity.

People don't like to tell of the coincidences that led them to their jobs because other people are liable to over-estimate the effect those coincidences had to said person's career.

The probability of any given event happening is negligible. However, something is going to happen. When that something happens, its probability will have been negligible too, yet, here we are.

You can consider this concretely a bit by imagining a lottery in which every human being in the world is given one ticket. The probability of any given winner is negligible, but somebody is going to win, in what for them is an against-all-odds outcome.

The a priori probability of this particular string of words ever being combined together into a post on Hacker News was negligible. Yet, here we are.

"You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight... I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!"

- Richard Feynman

Or, when two people meet, and find that incredibly they have multiple characteristics in common -- name, age, hometown, favorite book, childhood dog name, etc.

I like to imagine the two people are sitting, and rolling dice over and over again, squealing with wide eyes every time their dice rolls match.

If I met someone with whom I shared numerous characteristics, I wouldn't find the coincidences interesting nearly as much as the engaging conversation with someone who was effectively a stranger a few moments ago.

For the one it is luck, coincidence or divine intervention.

For the other an opportunity disguised as hard work and taking risks.

I have been lucky quite a few times along my career path. However that "luck" was usually the result of identifying a good opportunity, and taking a risk. There are many people "stuck" in their current jobs because they don't see opportunities for what they are, or because they're too afraid to act on them. Fortune favors the bold.

And some bold people lose or never get the opportunities. I don't claim that character isn't an important factor, but what we normally would call pure luck is also an important one. That someone is stuck doesn't mean that they don't dare or don't see the opportunities. They might just be unlucky.

Misfortune also favors the bold. Sustained boldness depends on the capacity to withstand misfortune. That is to have been fortunate.

Which other people have also done and so you just ended up being the lucky one who got it.

Then again: "The more I practice the luckier I seem to become".

That reminds me of this amazing talk called Why Greatness Cannot be Planned:


TLDV: Innovation is not driven by narrowly focused heroic effort. We'd be wiser and the outcomes would be better if instead we whole-heartedly embraced serendipitous discovery and playful creativity. We can potentially achieve more by following a non-objective yet still principled path, after throwing off the shackles of objectives, metrics, and mandated outcomes.

This also matches my experience 100%. All my best discoveries are accidental.

+1. As a writer, literally all of my best work is completely unplanned. On hindsight there was preparation, background, context, etc, but still.

So what is your writing process like? I'm personally really interested in how well designed things are created. It seems like there is a paradox, you can't force great things to happen with objectives and planning. But you can objectively tell that something is great. So are you personally concerned about whether a specific piece of writing is objectively great, or are you more interested in your ability to write well in general?

>So what is your writing process like?

Thanks for asking! I have several different but interconnected processes:

1. I have a regular writing practice where I just open up something (Evernote, Byword, notepad, whatever) and start writing about whatever comes to mind. This is primarily just to develop the habit of writing. I mainly do this with my 1,000,000 word writing project [1].

2. I do content marketing for work, which is much more systematic and planned out– I work backwards from common queries and search terms. The most successful post I've ever written, though, was something that I had written out of curiosity [2].

3. Sometimes 'inspiration' hits: somebody asks the right question, or something happens and I feel a need to respond– and everything just comes right out of my subconscious, almost as if it were already written. But when I examine this, it's clear that I was already ruminating about it for a long time before.

> It seems like there is a paradox, you can't force great things to happen with objectives and planning.

Not exactly a paradox. The objectives and planning aren't about making great things happen; they're about creating a stable context in which great things happen. It's about putting in the hours of practice so that you can improvise freely when the moment calls for it.

> So are you personally concerned about whether a specific piece of writing is objectively great, or are you more interested in your ability to write well in general?

I think I cycle between the two, back and forth, depending on what I'm doing. If I'm working on something with a sense of purpose, I want it to be great. Otherwise I'm happy just working on my craft on a day to day basis.


[1] http://www.visakanv.com/1000/

[2] http://www.referralcandy.com/blog/47/

Congrats on being a Quora Top Writer!

I agree...the best ideas "come in on little cat feet"...

Thanks! And to riff off of the cat feet analogy, you have to be comfortable enough to let the cat come to you. You can't scare it away by getting anxious. That sort of calm comes with lots of practice.

I've heard this sentiment expressed for the creation of music and art as well.

I'm a composer as well as a software developer. There is no way in hell I could plan an interesting piece of music. You really just have to wait for it to come, however importantly it does mean you have to be ready to listen: i.e. put yourself in environments and states of mind that are most receptive and be extremely well-honed on your craft on a technical level so you can execute well.

I think this is a sentiment most people share, because most creative people only output—at most—a few masterworks in their lifetimes.

I bet the people who are constantly pumping out works that, on their own, would be considered achievements—the Picassos and Frank Zappas and Stephen Kings of the world—have a pretty different view on how much of creating something good is inspiration vs. a schlepp.

Any famous writer I've ever read about has said that the amateur waits for inspiration, whereas the professional just sits down and gets to work.

12 months from now you won't be able to tell what you wrote while inspired and what while schlepping.

> 12 months from now you won't be able to tell what you wrote while inspired and what while schlepping.

I've been writing almost every day for probably about a decade now. The reality of it is a little more nuanced that that.

It's more like... 20% of the time you were inspired, you'll realize that what you produced was still crap.

Similarly, about 20% of the time you were schlepping, you'll realize it was actually pretty good.

And about maybe 20-30% of the time, you'll find yourself getting 'inspired' midway through a schlep. And as you do it more and more often, you start subconsciously preparing things in anticipation of the work.

So, 20% chance of crap while inspired, 36% to 44% chance of good while schlepping?

I'll take those chances. Especially if it increases my chance of getting started at all.

Remember, the only option with 0% chance of great is not doing anything.

Yup, exactly!

Yes, this is so important to communicate. I think "waiting for inspiration" is a bad approach and bad advice for anyone who want to do something professionally. Unless you are inspired 20-40 hours per week, only hobbyists have the luxury of waiting for inspiration.

Also, how will you ever improve in something if you only do it while inspired? And how will your inspired work be any good if you have no practice and experience to build upon?

The main thing is that getting 4 masterpieces is extremely likely if you produce 10,000 works, and next to impossible if you produce only 4.

> The main thing is that getting 4 masterpieces is extremely likely if you produce 10,000 works

Yes and no. Once you succeeded in creating a masterpiece it can become incredibly hard to ever create something worthwhile again because success (especially when rewarded by the markets) can screw up your mind for good. You loose your sense of wonder, you feel the pressure to have success again and so on. It could very well be that you just create more of the same or get worse due to this. I think bands that are considered one hit wonders might provide a good example.

It's a bit like an optimization algorithm that found a local optimum but can't escape its current neighborhood.

Also, you (hopefully!) learned something while failing at those 9994 attempts that you fed into the 4.

This reminds me of John Cleese’s [wonderful lecture on creativity](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qby0ed4aVpo). A rough [transcript](http://genius.com/John-cleese-lecture-on-creativity-annotate...).


You're just playing around with stuff, create a lot of drafts and play with them if you feel that they're fun. And then, suddenly, one of the drafts doesn't get dull; surprisingly, it gets more and more interesting the more things you add to it.

And then you realize that this one is actually done.

Maybe, although in my experience a piece of work is never really done, you just eventually realize you have to declare a stopping point and move on to the next project.

A software's features could always be improved, a book can always be revised further, a song could always be tweaked or rearranged, you can always knock the sand castle down and try to make the parapets straighter this time.

Most of my projects have a wishlist of features, 80-90% of them eventually get cut when I decided I was finally, finally going to release the damn thing.

Dude, this is an awesome talk!

Kinda reminds me a lot about Edward DeBono: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFFZ0XSfCRw

He was, in turn, recommended by Alan Kay for learning and creativity: http://www.squeakland.org/resources/books/readingList.jsp )

Now going to order "Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned".

Discussed a few days ago at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11078635.

It's a profound talk, but incomplete in my view. It's mostly that we're culturally far too used to linear and predictable (culturally only because we know very well about randomness, laughter and surprise is wired in our brains). Also, we cannot predict the path, nor the number of possible paths that will approach a given structure.

Great video! Everyone on HN should watch this.

Reading about how his original motivations were purely pecuniary, he was keen to sell his company as quickly as possible and his ambition was to go back to essay-writing and hobbyist programming, I can't help thinking young PG probably wouldn't get accepted into YC these days...

This is an interesting thought. Might be the kind of thinking that led to the YC fellowship?

"Early-stage startups are just fast-moving chaos. That is a constant. That was true in Henry Ford's day, it was true when we started YC."

Interesting quote. There must be some organisation to early startups, otherwise they wouldn't work. Is the chaos just a description of what cannot be observed and described?

Fantastic read. Liked the bit about straw-drawing to talk to customers.

The "organization" at startups is to do whatever makes sense and to not waste energy on internal politics. Obviously, that requires the founders to be naturally well-aligned in what they do.

"do whatever makes sense and to not waste energy on internal politics."

Your right, small team organisation is what startups must succeed in. So obvious, I missed this.

I guess PG is a genius. I realized a bit painfully, that I may be much mediocre in comparison. I know comparison is wrong/etc. But what the heck?

I also wonder now, that what I think (and say to friends) of as my life style business tech startup, is actually a Zombie? Did we really manage to hit the magic break even (revenue = comfortable salary + expenses). Hmm...But something in me tells me that, there's more to it, as my effort has been ongoing, although its little less than thrice of the time PG spent on Viaweb.

One motivation, which also contributes to make me keep working in it, is my earlier partners, who still have a stake, and they contributed a lot, to this in the early years. Somehow, there's a feeling in me that they should get a good return on that effort. Which also means that my returns will be more, so its not a pure selfless line of thought there.

Just some musings, after reading the very good interview transcript. And just want to assure that there is no irony/sarcasm in my post (I think, it may come across like that in the early part). And also no "sympathy" replies please. As I actually feel quite upbeat about things.

Apologies for being tangential (if I have been), just felt like writing this.

I find interesting the part where PG says that a startup either makes its founders rich either goes down, and basically discards the possibility that it ends up to be just enough to pay its founders a good salary. I think it can be a pretty nice outcome but then again YC must select founders who are very ambitious.

It has to do with what YC selects for in part, but no startup in the PG sense of the word (hyper growth, mass adoption/virality, high risk) would ever give the founder(s) a good job and nothing more. YC is not in the business of pulling off $30k a year in draws from a sustainable business.

You have the big exist or you shut it down and try something else. There's no middle ground, which is part of why "startup" has a very specific definition, and why YC doesn't invest in SMBs.

e-commerce was not my life’s work. I didn’t actually want to spend my life working on this. I did it to get money and make that money.

Aaron : Yeah. This is such an interesting thing because it’s so opposite from what you tell people a lot of the time, what YC tells people, certainly, of “Don’t do things just because there’s a business there,” right?

This is it, right here. If you want to know what most successful businesspeople have in common - not the unicorns - it's that they were prepared to sell their first venture and/or give away a lot of equity to the right people to make it work. Once they have the money, comnections and track record, they can have much more control in their next company.

We went a completely different route. We've tried to change the world... :)

"Superior work has the quality of an accident"

-Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

I can't believe one of the founders was doing this alongside grad school and PG was like yeah you know, you have a lot of spare time there.

And here I got so much work with full time studying that I can barely finish reading a single book alongside. How can people say university is enjoyable, fun, lots of spare time? For me it's just endless hard work and barely any breaks inbetween.

Depends on what program you're in? In general I think grad school (esp. the PhD level compared to Master's) typically gives the student a lot of freedom. At the PhD level often you are basically an independent researcher and might meet with your advisor once every three weeks or so.

If that were the case, and you could complete enough work to keep your advisor happy within one week, that gives you two weeks of time to use...

> might meet with your advisor once every three weeks or so.

Only if your advisor is fairly senior (ie. Not pre-tenure)!

yeah that bit didn't ring true to me either - I can't imagine Grad school being "loads of free time" unless perhaps you didn't care when/if you got your masters/PhD (and so just let everything slide).

It was definitely true for me. College didn't take that much effort in terms of learning. Most of it was busy work using the term homework.

It's amazing the lengths to which people will go to avoid Windows programming. I know I have :)

I've done a good amount of mobile and python development, and Windows programming used to be awful, but it seems to have gotten a lot better, especially with ASP.NET.

I prefer it and I'm a lot faster programming using C#/Visual Studio than I am with Javascript + framework + text editor.

I love listening to (success) stories. You should make more of those.

luck = opportunity + preparedness

Full-of-himself !

Hard to know what you're referring to, but it's surely a case of incomplete information. pg is one of the least full-of-himself people I've ever met. I don't say that lightly.

When someone cares so much about figuring things out and so little about superficial nicety, they can seem full of themselves, but that can also be a red herring. The real tests of fullness-of-oneself are in how they personally interact with others.

I guess I'm odd but I rather like it when the contents match the title. Best advice to you is 'avoid clicking that link when you have no interest in the subject'. Great interview!

Right?? I was sitting here reading this and going I cant be the only one thinking this guy is some sort of a narcissist. And all the ridiculous sycophancy of poeple here trying to infer secret wisdom in his uninspiring answers only makes the whole thing even more bizarre.

Poverty is poverty only when you have no means to make your life better. Suffering form special snowflake syndrome is not poverty.

Which parts of the interview made you feel that he was narcissistic?

you mean other than the example in the parent comment?

I stopped reading this "treatise" when in the first paragraph Aaron spoke highly of the war criminal Donald Rumsfeld.

Aaron specifically says you might not want to emulate Donald Rumsfeld. I'm really starting to think that conservatives might have a point that the 21st century left has a problem with name calling and ad hominem to shut down debate. It is possible to think that Donald Rumsfeld should be on trial and still be willing to learn from him.

> I'm really starting to think that conservatives might have a point that the 21st century left has a problem with name calling and ad hominem to shut down debate.

Most of that is movement conservatives complaining that their days of hijacking American culture seem to be in jeopardy (they think - I am not so optimistic).

You might be willing to learn from him if you want to be like him. And expressing how one feels about Rumsfeld because of extensive research done on the "subject", does not in anyway invalidate the purpose of argument. By saying "21st century left, ad hominem, etc,etc" proves you are no more than a provocateur

Well, Hitler was one of the worse individual the world has ever known, but if I had to research on charisma he would be among the people I would study.

Did you make that account just to dismiss the entire interview on misinterpreting a minor point and then be inflammatory about it?

That makes the provocateur comment of yours a bit ironic doesn't it.

One of the best things I've read in a long time. Paul Graham is God!

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