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The Top Idea in Your Mind (paulgraham.com)
650 points by tarunkotia on July 21, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 191 comments

A very closely related idea is that most people have a "ground state": an activity that they naturally gravitate toward when nothing else intervenes.

For many people, their ground state is shopping, or talking with friends, or watching tv. Nothing wrong with any of these.

For some people, their ground state is aimless coding, or writing, or drifting around some community (e.g., the community of actors, or musicians, etc). Again, nothing wrong with any of these, and they may be a useful way of learning, or having ideas.

But for a very small number of people their ground state is much more focused. I've known people whose ground state is writing papers about physics or mathematics. And it's simply unbelievable what such people can get done in a year. (Note, mind you, that very few professional physicists or mathematicians fall into this category.)

I haven't founded or worked at a startup. My observation-from-the-outside is that founders often have to take on many different tasks. And I wonder how difficult that must make it for any of them to become a ground state task.

These days, the ground state of most people is aimless browsing, Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately,I am becoming most people and that has to stop now.

I challenge you to follow up on it. Block them.

Let me give you some anecdotal background story...

I realized this was happening to me a few months ago - that I was wasting more and more time just surfing Facebook or Twitter and so forth. So I started adding websites to my /etc/hosts file. (That is, my computer now blocks me from accessing these websites, unless I edit a file, and then restart).

It started with Reddit - one day I read an article on Reddit that said something along the lines of "How many of you are intelligent, but waste a ton of time on the Internet?". It struck me that I was one of those people - that my potential was dwindling away because I was wasting tons of time on Reddit rather than getting interesting things done.

I blocked Reddit a bit later, figuring I might unblock it given time, but I never have. After the first day or two, the instinct to open up a Reddit tab just died. I still feel an attachment to the community, and I feel kind of bad that I left, but I don't feel that I was addicted like people get addicted to drugs or so forth.

Later on, I blocked some other sites that I frequent, including Facebook. I even blocked HN for a while, but I realized that I wasn't wasting nearly as much time on here as the other sites, for some reason. Perhaps it's because the rate of change of articles is small. Plus, HN has noprocrast settings, which are great. Anyway, I digress. Sure, there are disadvantages, but the advantages, and the savings in time, are huge. I know a lot of people say they don't want to leave FB because they'll lose contact with people. 2 responses: One, my last FB status says to contact me on gmail - so if anyone really wants to get in touch with me, they know how. Two, it's only blocked on my computer, so if I really want to take the effort, I can hike over to a library computer or something and respond to people.

Now, the point to this comment is to convince you that you have to block these websites too.

There are two things that I would want to tell myself in order convince myself that I needed to go through with it.

1. The reason I didn't want to do it - and didn't do it, for a long time - is because I always thought that I should just have enough will power to stop doing it. If you believe this, remind yourself that even though you believe this to be true, you keep coming back to Facebook every few hours or days. Why is that? It's because even if you have enough willpower 90% or 98% of the time, that small fraction when you don't is enough to open a tab to FB, but once you open a tab, you could end up wasting an hour.

2. You become more aware of how you spend your time, and you become more productive, after you stop wasting it. I used to dump hours into just surfing the web. Now I'm quite sensitive to how much time I spend, which is advantageous. Plus, most of the sites that I visit (like HN) require constant focus, so you can't really get into that vaguely unfocused mindset that allows you to waste tons of time on things like Facebook.

In short - you said that it had to stop now. I challenge you to follow up on it :) Blocking FB, etc, was an awesome choice on my part. I think it will be for you as well.

Aaannd done.

For the past few months, whenever I got stuck on a problem, I almost instantly stopped thinking about it and switched to a reddit tab, instinctively. I do not know why I did that, but it certainly slowed me down. Perhaps I'll become super productive and finish my thesis in the next week (unlikely :D).

I spend more time browsing HN than any other site.. I guess this means byebye HN? :'(

I understand your jest, but it got me thinking...

I think I finally connect with reason why some people here defend the community so fiercely; It is so that time spent on HN is spent learning something useful. I have probably wasted lots of time here, yes, but I have also learned so darn much!

I just need to leave a few hours of the day open to actually implement what I've learned... which I do, thankfully.

If you stop finding HN useful, or you start coming here just to burn time or be entertained or to avoid work, and you really don't put any of the things you learn here to use... then, yes, its probably time to say byebye.

I understand your jest

I was only partially joking... I actually DO spend more time than I should on HN! You are right though - I do learn a lot from HN, but at the same time, I often browse just for the sake of it, or to procrastinate. So it goes both ways really.

If you stop finding HN useful, or you start coming here just to burn time or be entertained or to avoid work


and you really don't put any of the things you learn here to use

I hope that I do put the things I learn to good use! There is a lot of really useful information floating around here, I'd hate to spend all this time reading it without applying it. Most of the startup related information has yet to be applied, but I hope to soon. The programming related information does get good use though.

HN has noprocrast. The default 180 minutes is good for me.

A rather inspiring post. I'm currently editing my hosts file.

Thanks :) I'm glad I could make a difference. Maybe I should edit this into a blog post.

Don't block sites completely... Control the times you view sites! https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/4476/ (No Affiliation but I love this thing)

Summary: LeechBlock is a simple productivity tool designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day. All you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them.

Initially, I wanted to just temporarily block sites. But I found out after completely blocking them (just for a few days!) that the quality of my time had actually gone up dramatically. I guess your mileage may vary, though.

Do you know anything similar for Chrome? Firefox can't handle 50+ open tabs.

Maybe 50+ open tabs is part of the problem!

Chrome Nanny


StayFocusd rules.

"edit a file, and then restart"

Our of curiosity, what operating system do you use? On Windows, hosts entries take effect immediately. No need to restart.

I wrote an ad-hoc adblocker out of /etc/hosts files and shell scripts for Mac OS X. (The shell scripts just block and unblock--unblocking is necessary sometimes for a chess site I use which detects adblockers.) Usually restarting is overkill for a new hosts file to take effect--on Mac OS X `dscacheutil -flushcache` will reinstate a hosts file. Ubuntu must have a similar command.

I use the self control app on Mac OSX.


Ubuntu. I could be wrong though - I read it somewhere and never tested it out.

Wait, you restart your whole system anytime you edit /etc/hosts ?

Ditto everything you said

I went a half-step further and setup my hosts file to point certain domains to a page that says JFDI (unabbreviated).

It gives me a nice reminder to go work on things that matter.

Or becoming enticed in extremely interesting articles on HN when there is billing to be done, or problems to work through...

Edit: This seemed really snarky when I reread it - I do want to state emphatically that I would REALLY miss HN. But I must confess that I have to give myself a mental shove to get back to work sometimes...

And back to the point of the article, I have to keep my eyes on the path _through_ the obstacles - I think the same thing. Like my grandmother's bumper sticker "Look for the good and praise it."

Or when your reading somewhat interesting articles on subjects that are well outside your current areas. As in I find myself occasionally reading things on Haskell or Scala or some other language despite not even knowing the basics of the language.

I like your idea... it makes me wonder if it's possible to change your own "ground state". It certainly seems like it would be an awesome lifehack if you could change it over time to suit your objectives.

My ground state appears to have consisted for some time of sitting down and reading discussion boards. Somehow, over the last month, I seem to have replaced it with instead working on my music project. It wasn't really a conscious decision, but I found I started to engage the same pattern of either completing or losing initiative in whatever I was doing, pacing aimlessly for a brief period, then almost automatically starting up my recording software instead of a web browser.

Maybe it was just as simple as finding inspiration. I've become slightly obsessed with a couple of albums recently, and have been composing more in the past few weeks than I did in the last six months.

I would say yes. But not in the sort of way most people would hope to. Meaning, you can't just pick any new ground state and change to it very easily. Instead, you must educate yourself in new areas and you'll find yourself being driven to new ground states that were impossible options before your new education. Now you are 'falling' back into something that is, more or less, the same concept... but far more powerful now that you've given yourself more tools.

For example, my ground state used to be browsing the web and aimlessly brainstorming business ideas when I was in high school. Seven years later I've thoroughly taught myself how to build concrete business models and virtually test/evaluate them with thought experiments and many other similar concepts. Now my ground state falls to that: effectively the same sort of ground state but amplified with skills and knowledge.

i have found that if i want to be a designer, it takes a few weeks to get thinking about design, about noticing good design and bad design everywhere and the imitating it in my work. however, if i want to think about raising money, or engineering the same is also true.

so it may be possible for people to wear many hats, but maybe it's best if you only where one hat a month.

In my experience, yes. I shifted my ground-state from 90% video games to 33% video games + 66% coding.

It's helped a lot, but I would like to push it further.

All work and no play..

I code all day - well, so long as I'm not on HN :)

As long as you don't believe that coding is work, you can do so much of it. Just find a project or a problem that you really enjoy working on and hack on it.

I do a lot of non-work-related coding in addition to my work-related coding.

I do it because I enjoy it.

Nobody's going to pay me to (edit: because I'm not a tenured professor) make finite state machines, toy languages in LLVM, and roguelikes.

The problem with roguelikes is that while coding them is good practice, actually playing them is pretty much a pure waste of time. Which makes me wonder whether I can still justify coding them...

This can be said of any game. Whether or not something is a waste of time is determined by the user, not the creator of the game. If you like coding them, then code them and gain the experience of coding them.

I'm more researcher than startup-type, but to me they are both about getting the 'preparation meets luck' kind of ideas where you feel like you've got a leg up on the rest of the pack. When that happens, it's all you want to think about - it's fun and exciting and hard work all at the same time. Without the combination of the idea and the preparation you don't get the self-catalyzing reaction to boost you to some new 'ground state'. You're back to watching WWII reruns on the history channel (for example).

For some people, their ground state is aimless coding, or writing, or drifting around some community (e.g., the community of actors, or musicians, etc).

Mine is reading. That's why I went to grad school in English, despite the plethora of articles on why doing so is a financially bad idea.

(Well, I went to grad school because I like to read and because I have a backup plan if it fails.)

My ground state is Hacker News. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

I suspect that one of the major reasons why big companies are incapable of innovating is that the top idea on most employees minds' is "What is my boss thinking about me?" Followed closely by "What are my coworkers thinking about me?" Social approval is a powerful motivator, particularly when that social approval is essential for your continued livelihood. Only the most self-confident (or delusional ;-)) people can completely ignore their boss's opinion and focus on innovating.

I suspect that at least some of Google's success has come from the hands-off culture of its management. You don't generally fear your manager's disapproval, since the bulk of your review comes from your peers. OTOH, you're still thinking about your coworkers' approval, and while it's a bit easier to ignore many people than it is to ignore one person, it's still hard. I suspect that one reason why startups can still out-innovate Google comes from an intense focus on their product, instead of being distracted by all the other perks, projects, and people at the Googleplex.

Similarly, scrappiness in a startup isn't just a matter of saving money. It's also a matter of avoiding distraction: when you're thinking about how awesome your life is, you aren't thinking about your product. You want enough perks so that employees don't have to have other things intrude on their consciousness (like where to buy lunch or what will happen to them when their COBRA benefits run out), but not so much that the perks distract from the project.

Actually there was a paragraph about this in the essay that I cut:

    The Nile Perch quality of disputes may help explain why large
    organizations are so unproductive.  The size of large organizations
    insulates them from the forces that keep smaller ones in line.
    Questions tend to be decided instead by political battles, and such
    disputes have a terrible cost because they push other ideas out of
    all the participants' heads.  Politics is like an infectious disease,
    because political schemers suck up not just their own attention,
    but also that of all the people in their way, who might otherwise
    have been thinking about other things.

What a great time for me to read this essay and in particular this part you left out.

My small team operates as a startup inside of a large company. We have produced more software at a faster pace than any other group in the company. We had a conf call today with the powers that be who have decided they want more process.

Why would they do this? Well, while other groups are sitting around talking about resource this and ticket that we have simply been churning out software that meets the operational needs. The problem is that by doing this we are stepping on all sorts of political toes..."why did your team do this it's not your area?"

Sigh, I guess it's time to move on so I can get my mindset back to solving problems with software.

It sounds like they want to control something that works so they can claim credit, or at least reap the rewards. I went through this a couple years ago. It's painful.

I worked on a system that we had deployed and that was working. A competing group, highly process oriented, who were was still generating requirements paperwork, but not a single line of code. Their objective was to take over our project. They played mean politics. Eventually they took charge.

Yeah, taking credit is definitely a big part of it, but it's more than that. By simply doing what we do we keep making other groups in the company look horrible. I don't think we're all-stars, but in big corporations it seems that just doing your job with a results minded attitude easily sets you above the rest.

Also, don't think we anti-process :) I'm a stickler for SCM and testing, but we operate in an agile manner. Most projects start out with a 'hey, this would be cool' and then we iterate based on user feedback. Early on code changes can roll out daily, while the new process wants us to bundle our code and hand it to a 'deployment team' who might take 2 weeks to get around to deploying. How this is acceptable is beyond my comprehension, but it might explain why other groups never seem to deliver anything (or put 6 months on any timeline).

I told my boss today that if this goes through that it will likely destroy what makes us so successful and he agreed. I'll just look at it as motivation to work harder on my own ideas and maybe once and for all escape ;)

I would suggest that the same people drawn into big companies are the same people drawn to working for the governments. Because they have job safety, are not pushed to hard, have a rigid work boundaries, and can play the politics game.

In my experience at big companies the distractions also involve money and disputes. Many of my distractions are involved with planning and budgeting activities where I continually re-justify the budget for projects I work on. The most common disputes I deal with are territorial. Someone wants to redirect my work or I want to redirect theirs.

As far as Google goes, I don't think the hands-off culture can totally eliminate distractions from turf or budget. I have read that there are steps that must be taken to get a project going beyond a certain stage. And the distractions seem to be related to human nature. Perhaps they have streamlined these distractions to the minimum needed. I'd sure like to know how, and I if was king of my company I'd institute them.

There is a lesson here about lawsuits, which will drain you of both money and peace of mind all at the same time. Sometimes you can't turn the other cheek, much as you would like to do so, and have no choice but to fight. Having the guts to stand up for yourself (or for your company) is in itself a virtue and there are times when it is best not to walk away. Unless you are in such a spot, though, always consider that the engagement will cost you dearly in just the ways pointed out in this fine essay - it will consume your waking thoughts and may even pop up in your dreams (or nightmares) (and it will cost lots of money, enough to sink most startups as a matter of course). Therefore, when it comes to lawsuits, use your best judgment but always count the cost before proceeding.

Absolutely right. I was sued over trademark (see TalentZoo vs WorkZoo) in 2005 and it was just my wife and I running the startup. Thankfully 2 acquisition offers came in which became more distracting and resulted in a happy exit. From the moment the cease and desist notice was hand delivered up until we sold the business almost all work on the product stopped.

I tell myself these days that legal wranglings are simply a cost of doing business, but unless you're a large org with layers to abstract you away from the lawsuit, getting sued is paralysis for startups. So if you do get sued I'd recommend you settle it if possible, be mad for a few days and then just move on.

> There is a lesson here about lawsuits,

And consequently, there is a lesson here about the incredible loss of productivity caused by patent trolls on the economy. It's a percent of GDP, if you think about it.

For many situations, having really good radar so you know how to avoid stepping in it before it puts you on a slippery slope is the only hope of avoiding the necessity to take a stand. I'm fortunate in that I seem to have a natural knack for such things (and have intentionally honed it with both formal and informal study). Of course, one problem with being good at something like that is that it essentially cannot be proven. Avoiding trouble often doesn't look to other people like one has done anything. :-/

Good radar or no, you still have to keep an eye out for the unknowable "black swans". In any case, good radar for trouble just means you've traded away most of the peace of mind that comes with obliviousness in exchange for an unquantifiable reduction in hassles.

you've traded away most of the peace of mind that comes with obliviousness in exchange for an unquantifiable reduction in hassles.

There is some truth to that. I do, at times, fret too much. So there is some cost in terms of peace of mind. However, even though I cannot prove to other people that there is a cause and effect relationship (between my actions and specific outcomes) and even though the reduction in hassles cannot be quantified with exactitude, that doesn't mean I cannot quantify it sufficiently to conclude that the benefit is well worth the cost.

For example: My divorce was amicable and there were no lawyers. IIRC, the average cost of a divorce lawyer when and where I got divorced was $18,000. No, I can't know if I "would" have spent $5000 or $18,000 or $40,000. I can know that I saved thousands of dollars on lawyers fees by having an amicable divorce. I am also very certain that it benefited me by more than that: I got thousands more from my husband than I was legally entitled to. My husband was not a wealthy man. After paying lawyers, there wouldn't have been that much to fight over. (He had a job, we had a bunch of debts and some household possessions.) I have every reason to believe that the approach I took was all to the good. Can I prove that to skeptics beyond a shadow of a doubt? No. Can I measure it with a high degree of confidence for my own peace of mind? Yes.

What are the indicators you have identified that you think are responsible for giving you the ability to avoid trouble? In other words, what do you recognize as being the cause of your lack of trouble?

Awareness of how people operate and subtle indicators of what they are likely to do, combined with, in essence, an assumption of innocence in the way I respond. (Not that I think a single sentence can possibly really explain it.) That doesn't mean trouble never visits. That does mean that I have managed to get far better than average outcomes for some situations that promised to be very ugly if handled the way most people would have handled it. (See my remarks about my amicable divorce, above, as an example.)

If you are actually hoping to learn how to do some of the same, two good books are "Getting to Yes" and "The heart and mind of the negotiator" (or mind and heart -- I never can quite remember which). Both were required texts for a class I took on negotiation and conflict management.

There are many cases where it would be nice to be able to hand things off to an agent who takes care of them reliably. Aren't lawyers kind of supposed to do that for you.

Now that I think about it: I currently have two items I returned, now I need to wait for getting my money back. Could that kind of thing be outsourced (agent in India who keeps nagging the companies in question?). In general, a nagging service?

Nassin Taleb calls this "glander."

Glander best describes the notion of lifting all inhibitions to “tinker intellectually in an undirected stochastic process aiming at capturing some idea that will enrich your corpus”. “Researching” or “thinking” smack of a top-down activity." More on Glander by Taleb: "It is an irony that the academy does not have a word for the process by which discovery works best –but slang does. I was trying to describe in a letter what I am currently doing: French would not let me. But argot lends itself very well... I am involved in an activity called “Glander”, more precisely “glandouiller”. It means “to idle”, though not “to be in a state of idleness” (it is an active verb). Gandouiller denotes enjoyment. The formal French word is “ne rien faire” (to do nothing), which misses on the active part –so do words that have a languishing connotation. Glander is what children without soccer moms do when they are out of school. It resembles flâner which has this perambulation part; though Glander does not have any strings attached. The Italians have farniente but it is really doing nothing. Even the Arabs do not have a verb for Glander: the construction takaslana from the Semitic root ksl denotes laziness (other words imply some inertia)."

Newton was a “glandeur”; In Dijksterhuis 2004:

George Spencer Brown has famously said about Sir Isaac Newton that “to arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behavior of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is that one needs to know.”

— Excerpt from The Black Swan

What a marvelous paragraph. It almost makes me want to give Taleb a second chance (Fooled by Randomness did nothing for me). This is a sharp observation:

Glander is what children without soccer moms do when they are out of school.

I'm reminded of someone (maybe John Taylor Gatto) who wrote about the education he got as a boy from long hours spent at a pond.

Also interesting that while he addresses the lack of similar words in Arabic and Italian, he doesn't mention the lack of such a word in English, which of course is the only reason he's writing the paragraph to begin with. "Idleness" is loaded with a Protestant strain of the moralism he's objecting to. I suppose colloquialisms like "hanging out" and "chilling" convey something of the idea, but lack its generative core. "Reverie" comes to mind as having a similar quality; telling, perhaps, that it too is French.

I'm reminded of someone (maybe John Taylor Gatto) who wrote about the education he got as a boy from long hours spent at a pond.

If you discover what you were referring to, please post. I am curious to read about that. I did a bit of searching and as far as I can find, Gatto discussed ponds and education in relation to Thoreau's Walden Pond experience.

I believe the body of water was the Monongahela river, actually, but close enough :). Go to http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/toc3.htm and then click on Chapter 10.

That's from the online version of "The Underground History of American Education", which is worth reading in its entirety. The published version is even better and has been updated and corrected. Enjoy!

You're right! The text I was thinking of was Chapter 3 of Dumbing Us Down, which is titled "The Green Monongahela".

> Nassin Taleb calls this "glander."

So do all french speakers :)

This is great essay - pg's best in my opinion!

I call the thoughts my mind drifts to as the "background thread" in my CPU. And there are times when that background thread is very productive and enjoyable. Alas, there have are times when that thread is destructive - conflict, as pg mentions, is a very destructive background thread.

In general, I have found that the bad threads are much more persistent than good threads, which means that is is harder to get out of a bad thread than a good one. As an example, it is far easier to slip out of "How does this thing work" thread running in the back of my mind, but very hard to get out of "How unfair that ..." in that it takes a more conscious effort to get out of it.

I also would say that the difference between when I was 25 vs when I reached 40 is that I am now much more conscious of these threads. That awareness makes it somewhat easier to avoid bad threads (alas, not always). There is still a kind of thermodynamic efficiency involved, in that there is a maximum good-thread percentage.

As an aside, the spiritual philosopher Eckhart Tolle has many interesting things to say about these.

Also the famous zen story describes a similar idea:


Two monks were returning to the monastery in the evening. It had rained and there were puddles of water on the road sides. At one place a beautiful young woman was standing unable to walk across because of a puddle of water. The elder of the two monks went up to a her lifted her in his alms and left her on the other side of the road, and continued his way to the monastery. In the evening the younger monk came to the elder monk and said, "Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman ?" The elder monk answered "yes, brother". Then the younger monk asks again, " but then Sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the roadside ?" The elder monk smiled at him and told him " I left her on the other side of the road, but you are still carrying her "

I realized the ability of my unconscious mind to solve hard problems some time around high school. I made good use of it in college, especially in courses involving coming up with algorithms or proofs. I could rarely come up with a good solution consciously, but if I spent 30 minutes thinking about the problem right before bed, the next morning optimal answers would come easily.

I also formed a habit of driving at least an hour away to do regular shopping (groceries and such) on weekends. The long drive on the mostly empty highways let me daydream without distraction, kind of like a long shower. I made a lot of architectural decisions for my web apps while on those drives.

Mark Zuckerberg does this a lot, even without an excuse, reportedly (the driving to think).

So does Noah Everett from twitpic

So does Ray Kurzweil from Queens.

I go for a long walk: the inspirations come, plus it's healthier than sitting in a car, and better for the back.

Not that I disagree with the benefits of a long walk but driving in a car really helps in my opinion because of the white noise (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_noise#Applications), general silence with closed windows and change of scenery.

I don't know if white noise has really been proven to help concentrate but some people believe that. Alone in the car I've come with interresting thought and came up with good problem processing.

Showers are supposed to produced the same kind of environment (white noise and isolation from much of the external stimulus).

I find that by simply walking around the office, getting a coffee, or a snack, allows my mind to unconsciously work on an issue I'm stuck on. This happened to me two days ago, on the most recent occasion.

I find sitting in front of a monitor (attention is like bandwidth, this is like downloading multiple large files at once) blocks my ability to think clearly. If I ponder without really doing anything (low bandwidth consumption necessary, as subconscious needs all the bandwidth I can give it).

In conclusion:

- not appearing to do anything = optimal creative mode

- sitting in front of a monitor = execution mode only

Another reason why big companies are less productive. You can't simply appear to be daydreaming for half the day. Appearances are devastating to productivity.

ps. Daydreaming around the office is still far inferior to taking a long shower. It's funny that two activities that allow you to be highly creative (daydreaming in work and taking really long showers) raise awkward questions; or at the least, funny looks, from work colleagues/those you live with.

One of Hugh McLeod's rules of creatives is that it's impossible to do art unless you have a day job. The mechanism is probably the same. All of my ideas I have while sitting on the rowing machine, to the point where once I've run out of sufficiently good ideas I know it's time to start getting back in shape.

Hugh McLeod is wrong.

Good to know.

My father was fond of doing cryptic cross word puzzles. He told me that sometimes there'd be a particular clue that he just couldn't wrap his head around, but if he slept on it, the answer would often pop into his mind the next morning.

I've called this type of thinking "subconscious thought" for years (thought "ambient thought" has a nice ring to it). This is exactly why I always have at least two current projects to work on. When I get stuck on some problem in one project and cannot solve it in a reasonable amount of time (depends on the project, could be 5 minutes, could be a day), I will force myself to stop working on it and do a full context switch to another project.

My subconscious mind grinds on the problem in the background without me having to exert any real effort thinking about it, until it finally finds a solution and raises an interrupt in my conscious mind.

This process has become so effective, that if I can spot a problem coming, I say to myself, "I should figure out how to solve X", and don't think about it. A few days later when I come back to it, as if by magic, I have a solution already starting to form.

This is the same phenomenon that causes you to wake up in the middle of the night with an answer to a question you were thinking about earlier in the day... usually, "who sings this blasted song?"

The brain is an amazing, complicated, wonderful thing.

Same here. I like having multiple projects active at the same time, mostly because of the 'switch when stuck' possibility, but also just to give my brain some time _not_ to think about the project. I think I'll go crazy if I had just a single top idea.

On the other hand, when inspired, working for a longer stretch (couple of weeks) on one single thing also works really well for me.

Ah, well, I guess it is a matter of balance (like most things in live :)

I love reading these essays so much. There's something about the tone, perhaps because it's slightly playful and a bit pensive, that causes the curiosity at the core of the writing to become the unstated focal point. And for some reason, I find it more enjoyable to find meaning in things when they aren't explicitly written. Kind of like a special bond you have with someone, even a perfect stranger, when you're the only group of people to really "catch the drift".

I love the process of trying to figure things out that happens in these essays. Really, it's just great. Keep it up pg.

I think this is why meditation can be so beneficial. With practice, you can take control of the thoughts going through your mind, eventually becoming quite good at it. Later on, say at work (or in the shower), you can then make the top thing on your to-do list the top idea in your mind.

Usually my top idea is a lot more fun to think about than all the other nonsense (conflicts, minutiae, etc) so that helps too.

On the subject of dispute as a distraction; I've observed this almost every day for the last 4 years as a Wikipedia contributor.

You jump into article looking to improve them - add content, format, tweak, source and so on.

But within hours someone disputes the use of a word or the reliability of a source. Which usually gets sorted in a quick discussion - but often takes ages, drags in other editors and winds up with a month long discussion on various noticeboards and talk pages and edit wars on articles.

And you can see four or five of them start a week.

All over a single sentence. :)

So, yeh, I can relate a lot to what Newton was saying.

That's why I quit Wikipedia three years ago after three years as a contributor.

I see it in Hacker News contributing. I fire off a quick (careless) remark and find a day later, a chain of comments which in my mind misinterpreted my intent. I feel bad about it; I want to clear it up but its far too late (too much water under the bridge; nobody paying attention any more).

"Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I've found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn't deserve space in my head. I'm always delighted to find I've forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn't been thinking about them. My wife thinks I'm more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish."

This is brilliant, ethically (and practically - the two are never at odds in my view).

I've recognized this phenomenon in myself in the last several years, but I never articulated it this well. I would just tell people that I had a "one-track mind," and that even though I find myself analyzing things a lot, it tends to gravitate towards whatever I happen to be working on most.

I have observed this several different times in my life: When I thought I was in (actually out of) love in high school, that was all I could think about, and I put out a ridiculous amount of poetry describing my "anguish". At various times I got caught up with different games: Everquest, Chess, Minesweeper, Battle for Wesnoth, Poker, and Chess again; at each point, I found myself spending all my leisure time on a single game, and all of my idle thoughts considering different opening sequences, or mine layouts, or starting hands: whatever was applicable to current "addiction". When I have been in relationships, I find that I tend to be consumed with not only the small disputes (as pg describes), but with things like "sweet" things I can do or say to make my s.o. happy -- thoughts tend to drift toward planning, anticipation, reconciliation, and any number of other difficult bits that are part of a serious relationship. At various points I have also found myself wrapped up in technical things like math, physics, computer science, and startups in general. And lately my top idea has been the nature of life, human relations, introspection, and psychedelics.

So for me, it basically seems to be whatever is currently consuming the majority of my consciously-used brain power. Some social problems are hard and require a lot of brain power to try to solve. The same goes for philosophical or cash flow problems. Of course, topics in math or science or engineering are most likely to take up this brain power, but for me at least, those are the things that I tend to procrastinate on the most.

So even though I find myself inclined to consume my top idea space with relevant technical stuff, I tend to nudge those out of my mind when I'm thinking consciously, instead focusing on more immediate topics (entertainment, socializing, paying bills). The worst part is that I know that if I'd only restructure my free time to actually work on worthwhile things, I would see my productivity increase many-fold due to the "Top Idea Effect". I'm really not sure what's stopping me from doing that.

My background thoughts and ideas are usually based on what I really WANT to be doing, not what I SHOULD be doing (i.e. for my employer).

In fact, the basis for our startup came when I was focusing on the first, and ignoring the latter. The distraction to focus on the first became so strong that forming a startup was inevitable.

Now that I'm focused 100% on the startup, my thoughts are based on what I want to be doing AND what I should be doing - it's a great feeling!

The effectiveness of thinking in the shower is why I hate shower curtains. If you have a proper transparent glass shower screen instead, you can write and draw on it as it steams up.

When I get my own place, this will be my first renovation: the ultimate thinking shower.

After one too many great ideas fogged over, I've decided that there's a product idea in semi-waterproof "dry" erase markers for shower doors.

I'd buy a dozen.

A random Calvin and Hobbes comic strip popped into my mind:

Calvin bugs his mom about money

Calvin's mom is exasperated

Calvin asks his mom for soap. "Yes, have all the soap you want"

Calvin sitting before his parents' car, grinning, with "4 SALE, CHEEP" written across the windshield

Maybe you should buy some soap?

There's a danger here of soap becoming the top thought in one's mind.

Yep, thanks you you and hugh3, I just spent 10 minutes searching for a product such as this.

Soap crayons might be a good idea.

I've used dry erase markers on my shower wall before... I have one of those pre-fab molded fiberglass showers and the back wall rarely gets wet. The marker wipes right off with the eraser.

I stopped using them in there because the smell of dry erase markers in the enclosed shower gave me a headache.

But it can be done.

I have to wonder how long you guys shower that you have time to write down notes?

I take running out of hot water as a sign it's time to wrap things up.

In my first apartment, that meant about two minutes.

They make bathtub crayons, which are basically what you're describing. It washes off with water and a little scrubbing. Look for them online or in a toy store.

unfortunately I suspect the total market for that will be about a dozen :)

This is exactly why you want a company culture like Zappos. If you work for a company like Zappos, you probably think less about things like disputes, medicare, salary, etc which means you can focus more on doing great work. I'm sure they aren't perfect but I've heard enough about Tony Heisch's philosophy about creating a great workplace to know employees are probably on average happier working there. Any Zappos employees here care to elaborate?

Jacques Hadamard gives an account of a similar phenomenon (a sudden flash of an idea) in Mathematics in his Psychology of invention in the Mathematical field (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Hadamard#On_creativity).

Also, very coincidentally, I have been reading up classical works on "proper conduct" in an attempt to do a spring cleaning of personal attitudes for pretty much the same reason as PG's - it just frees up a lot of mental energy. I'm currently doing a parallel reading of The Dhammapada and the Analects of Confucius. Earlier I read the Thirukkural (English translation, alas! - http://www.scribd.com/doc/20912297/Tirukkural-of-Tiruvalluva...).

If you or I rationally considered affairs and made up quotes ("'Tis easy to achieve an aim, if it be firmly kept in mind"), they wouldn't have the moral authority and rhetorical power they do coming from the world's classics. It just feels nice to work from ready-made axioms of conduct.

PG talks about the problem of having a top idea that he didn't want, something practical like making money or impractical like disputes, stealing his ambient-thought time.

I have the opposite problem: practical things that need some ambient thought to really get right (day-to-day work, money stuff) fall by the wayside, while things that I care about or find more interesting (like programming projects or relationships) take all the ambient time. Anyone else find this happening? Have coping strategies?

I guess I have a long way to go towards controlling my ambient thought. Maybe this is part of why I always had trouble "forcing myself" to study effectively?

The issue of day-to-day work falling by the wayside was addressed in pg's essay on "Good and Bad Procrastination"


Wow, that's an inspirational read. Thanks. Maybe I won't try to fix my "problem" :)

Hamming's Questions ("What are the most important problems in your field? Are you working on one of them? Why not?") are great, but somewhat daunting. Maybe the blow can be softened by loading those problems into ambient thought mode instead of pounding against them systematically. That was one of Feynmann's methods: keep a few hard problems in the back of your head all the time and wait to stumble on something that helps.

I have always envisioned Hamming's third question as less of a leading question and more of an honest one. Having read that lecture, I think if I said "well, because they don't pay and I have a mortgage" Hamming would have just as easily agreed and moved on. The interesting part to me about this series of questions is more that it requires being honest with yourself. That, and the fact that most of the people he asked were apparently insulted, took it negatively, and hated him for it. Not only could they not be honest with themselves, they metaphorically shot the messenger.

Still, a great series of questions to make you re-evaluate your course in life.

Anyone else find this happening? Have coping strategies?

Yup. Nope.

Wow - this really resonated with me.

I have some investment properties and I've been realizing recently that even if they are decent investments, they have too often become the top idea in my mind when I didn't want them to be. This tax on my productivity and creativity could actually make them a net negative.

In response to the first footnote: I know it by the name intellectus, which apparently comes from Thomist Josef Pieper in his book "Leisure: The Basis of Culture". In it he says:

The middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding insofar as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man's knowledge, is both these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together. The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.

If anyone is interested in further reading on the subject of ideas and how to manipulate the "drifting" of them, I suggest reading "The DaVinci Method". A decent amount of research has been done correlating the tendency to be distracted with creativity, the rationale being that these people have less control over their thoughts.

Those with ADD/ADHD among other "disorders" tend to be more prone for an outside-the-box thought process.

Some things you can do to stimulate your Alpha brain waves, which give you adequate conditions for what Paul Graham calls "drifting" include walking barefoot on grass, and staring into the darkness while laying in bed before falling asleep.

I tend to have a lot of abstract thoughts, some brilliant and many more ridiculous, and I have benefited greatly from writing them all down in my phone. Translating them into english is extremely beneficial, and it's surprising how easy abstract thoughts are to forget. I would suggest this for anyone who is in any field requiring an ounce of creativity.

This reminds me of the famous poem "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann. Same sort of philosophy.


"Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit." is a good method of keeping overly dramatic interpersonal interactions from affecting your top idea.

Minor nitpick:

The reason this struck me so forcibly [...]

While "forcibly" isn't wrong here, if you mean "with force" (sin. poignantly) rather than "by force" (sin. inevitably) then "forcefully" is less ambiguous:



I mostly juggle between what I call work thoughts and life thoughts. Work thoughts are strictly work related and life thoughts are buying house, paying mortgage, buying car, paying loan, planning vacations and the like. I am having this trouble only after I got married.

Does anybody having similar problem? Which ones should be your shower thoughts: work thoughts or life thoughts?

I think my problem could be resolved if I start taking shower twice a day!

Ap Dijksterhuis is a famous Dutch psychology professor and has written a lot about unconscious thought. He even has a Unconscious Lab, see: http://www.unconsciouslab.com/index.php?page=People&subp.... You can find a lot of links to scientific papers on this website. He is also the author of a Dutch bestselling book on unconscious thought "Het slimme onbewuste". Unfortunately it has not been translated in English.

In an article on the BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4723216.stm) he says:

"The take-home message is that when you have to make a decision, the first step should be to get all the information necessary for the decision. Once you have the information, you have to decide, and this is best done with conscious thought for simple decisions, but left to unconscious thought - to 'sleep on it' - when the decision is complex."

I realized while in college that I did my best thinking in the shower/bath tub. But I always forgot my good ideas in the process of drying off/getting dressed, before I could write them down.

So I went out and bought an underwater slate (divers use them to communicate and record information underwater). It's probably 6"x9", made out of plastic, and has a pencil attached with a cord. I can jot down notes/sketches/doodles/whatever when I come up with an idea, and take the slate with me when I get out of the shower to record in a more permanent fashion. To erase, I just scrub it with a green scrubber sponge. I love it - it's paid for itself many times over.

I also tried bathtub crayons. They're good in that you have more surface area to write on, but they wash off more easily and it's not as convenient to permanently record whatever you wrote down (it's hard to take the shower wall with you when you get out).

"(I hear similar complaints from friends who are professors. Professors nowadays seem to have become professional fundraisers who do a little research on the side. It may be time to fix that.)"

There are too many words in that second sentence. I work in academia, and I know of very few professors who have any time to do research whatsoever. What's more, modern professors tend not be the people who were great at research - they're organisers, politicians and project managers.

I've often wondered about the similarities between a research leader and a start up founder, especially highly technical start ups. I have the greatest respect for anyone who can continue to write top quality advanced code and employ people, raise money, market and network. The individual tasks aren't so hard, but the combination is a killer.

This hit me like a ton of bricks. It makes so much sense now that this could easily be the grounding principle behind the common saying "Do what you love and the money will follow". If you're doing what you love, your thoughts are focused on that. When what you love is your top idea you have the focus to innovate, solve problems, etc.

If you're too worried about making money, you'll be too preoccupied with that to give any thought to other things. If you're too concerned with a specific outcome, you end up taking energy away from the actions that will ultimately drive any outcome at all. Focus on your top idea and the rest will follow. It's not always as simple as it sounds, but I think there's a lot of truth there.

A nice actionable insight, "You can't directly control where your thoughts drift. If you're controlling them, they're not drifting. But can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into."

While changing your top thought directly may not be feasible, I think you can at least adjust the weights on various competing thoughts. For instance, my aunt is the president of a teacher's union and she recently recruited me to work on their website. She's paying me $25 an hour. I can feel the money pulling around my ankles like quicksand. It would be dangerously easy to get sucked into making web pages for the rest of my life. I tell my friends about the job and they say, "That's great!" and their respect for me increases palpably. I can tell they don't really understand startups and hacking and have been thinking of me as just being kind of a bum all this time.

But I tell myself: "This is not what I want to do with my life. I'm doing this as a favor to my aunt. I'm doing this on the side, just to make enough money to keep working on the stuff I really want to work on. That is my real focus, designing web-pages is not." And then when people say, "That's great!", I tell them the same stuff I told myself. I think saying the words out loud to others helps me convince myself on a deeper level.

So maybe by affirming your own values you can allow what you really want to be focused on to naturally rise above the petty stuff.

I also agree with disputes being a huge distraction. One guy I used to work with is extremely contrary by nature. He would argue with anything I said, seemingly out of habit more than anything else. After arguing with him, I would invariably find myself turning over the argument in my head and having a hard time focusing on work. Eventually I decided the guy was hurting me more than helping and that I needed to stop working with him. There were several other factors involved, but that was a big one.

One way to avoid disputes like that is to be single founder. Or at least seek out a co-founder who is agreeable. I watched an interview with Larry and Sergei the other day. They were asked, "What do you guys argue about?" and they seemed kind of stumped for a moment before one of them said, "We don't really disagree about much..."

This essay also helps explain the vague sense of frusteration and despair I feel whenever a friend wants to visit, or whenever I need to visit my family. Inevitably interpersonal relationships end up forcing their way to the top of my brain. Living a monk-like life of isolation is the best way I know of to focus on real problems.

Lastly, I think it is possible to do "ambient thinking" intentionally. Just sit or lie down somewhere comfortable (but not so comfortable you fall asleep), and do nothing for several minutes. Time passes amazingly slowly when you're doing nothing, so you don't need to worry about wasting time. Your mind will naturally start defragmenting itself and playing with various ideas -- at least mine does.

Sorry, I do not see the problem of actually working and getting paid, while working on your own projects. How else are you living? (You sound like someone out of college who has not worked before, if this is not the case then ignore that sentence. If you have worked, and are taking a break to pursue your startup, then I completely understand.)

Meanwhile you are learning about doing web pages, and more importantly, dealing with clients.

I do like your point that isolating yourself from many distractions really help you focus, but probalby not a good idea to do it for too long.

Well, as the essay suggests, "working and getting paid" will become your top-thought and "working on your own projects" will start to slip away.

If I focused on getting paid, I think I would start to rationalize putting short-term gains ahead of long-term gains. I would tell myself that by working I'm learning X, Y or Z while avoiding thoughts like, "...but those things are easy."

I am recently out of college, yes. Or rather I dropped out (about five years ago). I'm living off of savings -- about $5000 a year. You can stretch a little bit of money a long way like that.

And yeah, completely isolating oneself is probably a bad idea.

Has PG matured an incredibly amount in the last few years? Honestly, I hated his writing before (which may be part of the point, incite controversy and get me to remember who he was and what he said), but lately I've thought his essays were very well done...

Am I alone in this trend? Did he just win me over because of time?

On this particular topic he's quite right that letting your mind drift, but also controlling the environment of that can lead to good things. I'm going to actively make an effort to try this from now on.

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." -- Mark Twain


I suspect it's because his early essays were more "political" (if you stretch that to include the politics of programming), whereas his new ones are less likely to hit any of your mental "NO" buttons.

It helps to mix good thoughts with good style.

Now that I think this phenomenon is very clearly articulated, I wonder if it isn't possible to have multiple 'top [ideas] in your mind' or 'ground states'.

It could be simply a matter of training your brain to have a strong stack for traversing the two or maybe three key areas or contexts that you're thinking about.

I.e., one solution is: make sure your top idea or ground state really is what you want. Another solution may be: train a better graph visitation algorithm.

However, trying to train one's unconscious may be sort of like quantum physics -- i.e., for lack of a better word: difficult. Perhaps you can just throw two or three main things you'd like to see happen into a collider, go to sleep or take a shower, and see what happens. But it may be possible to train yourself to think with very clear visitation between different contexts consciously, and actually have this process bubble down into the unconscious and take hold there too. I.e., hack your unconscious. Arguably it's the same sort of thing we do when we try to offload parallel processing onto a GPU or cloud (though in those cases the hardware is much more specific).

"... If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I've found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn't deserve space in my head. ..."

Sage advice. It doesn't always work because you can't control what you think all the time but a good, "habit of mind".

For me, water in general has a calming effect, letting my body relax and my mind wander. I can stand in the shower with water flowing over me and get lost in thought or I can float in a pool and not realize where time went. I find I have more technical thoughts in the shower and in the pool I tend to lean toward more creative ideas.

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time.

I'm not so sure this is true. It's true of me; it may be true of you; it's probably true of most HN readers. However, non-geeks who know me well enough to observe this of me think it's weird, which leads to me to think it's not true of people in general.

A book that deals directly with the strengths and limitations of the unconscious reasoning pg is talking about is "Hare Brain Tortoise Mind".


I recommend it to everyone I know.

This topic confirms one more time that personal productivity strongly depends on capability to manage thoughts. While it's not possible to manage thoughts fully, at least there are some ways to influence the way of thinking. Successful high-performers (like PG) usually have found their own ways to do it.

Great essay, and great writing.

This is why I shower twice a day. The morning shower is to boot the brain and for all the other things that showering is done for.

The second shower is simply to think, before the night's coding binge. Refreshed and with clear thoughts, I find that it provides a fresh start for the evening's challenges.

I haven't seen such subtle observations of mind laid out so cleanly and perfectly, ever before. I was going all thru such "unnecessary drifting" disputes/money, for quite some time in recent past, but realised it just now. Feels like enlightened!

I need to change the top idea in my mind for sure. But as pg rightly noted and I quote: """Money matters are particularly likely to become the top idea in your mind. The reason is that they have to be. It's hard to get money. It's not the sort of thing that happens by default. It's not going to happen unless you let it become the thing you think about in the shower. And then you'll make little progress on anything else you'd rather be working on. """ I will still need to do something about it, without letting it become the top idea in my mind.


Corollary: stop working so intently on the problem, and give yourself time to let your mind wander. Being a workaholic actually impedes creative ability.

No need to stay in the shower for hours. Go dance, swim, skate or climb a tree: anything but startup related work.

[1] No doubt there are already names for this type of thinking, but I call it "ambient thought."

The metaphor I had for this is background process, stressing my suspicion that they hog precious mind resources even when you're not consciously pondering them.

PG is a bona fide philosopher. Just as we had the epicureans and the stoics, and their houses, we now how the house of ycombinator. AFAIK PG doesn't necessarily want it to get cultish, but its not cultish if its based in reason. And based in reason it is. Articles like these are what makes yc more than just a group of people doling out money for good material ideas. Its a forum for thinking about philosophical ideas too. This makes it an idealistic culture, and thats pretty cool.

Background on sensate, ideational, and idealistic cultures. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitirim_Sorokin

I've been doing this for the last six months, and I didn't even realize it until now.

Thank you.

Thanks for this one Paul. After reading this I just had to draw this one - http://scrivle.com/2010/07/22/ideas-in-the-shower/

Incubation is described in the psychology literature. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incubation_(psychology)

I had a similar realization recently. I was in the toilet and was preoccupied by thoughts about some trouble at the bank. Well I was having a host of issues and very less time to solve all of them. After having a turmoil for a few minutes, I told myself that I can take more and suddenly my mind was calm. My mind was no more centred around the issues and the topic had changed to something else.

I believe the process of thoughts is quite usual; but the process of meta-thoughts could be more powerful.

The "ambient thinking" in the shower you are referring to has been studied extensively. Here is the New Yorker article on the studeis of insight and creativity: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/28/080728fa_fact_...

Research suggests (as you have discovered yourself as well) is that the most creative moments are 1) while showering 2) shortly before going to bed 3) shortly after waking up.

"I knew it (in the shower) was a good time to have ideas. Now I'd go further: now I'd say it's hard to do a really good job on anything you don't think about in the shower."

This is so very true. It is incredibly hard to get myself motivated about things I do not think about in the shower. On the other hand, it is impossible to stop myself from working towards things I do think about.

Sometimes this is scary -- its almost as if I don't have any control over what I will be passionately pursuing.

In the 9th paragraph:

"Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want think about."

Should be:

"Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about."


Well written PG. I sent this to a lot of friends with whom I've had issues describing my tendency to ignore details, pointless worries, and simplify my surroundings and lifestyle.

I personally find that keeping schedules in my head is a particularly distracting practice. If kept in my head there's always something I'm afraid of forgetting and continually think over it in my mind to keep the thought fresh. When I use a calendar or have very consistent days my thinking is much clearer.

page 119 - But Dijksterhuis's work also shows that our unconscious thought processes don't engage with a problem until we've clearly and consciously defined the problem. If we don't have a particular intellectual goal in mind, Dijksterhuis writes, "unconscious thought does not occur."

from Nicholas Carr's The Shallows.

My local library got a copy right after the review of it was posted on HN. It makes a really good case against too much browsing web pages or other hypertext.

Dreaming, a technique employed by Warriors to achieve a "dreaming body" or "Double". The technique requires the apprentice to see his hands in sleep dreaming. Once the hands are envisioned the dreaming process has begun. The "Double" or dreaming body is a metaphysical manifestation of the self that can be employed by the dreamer to do any number of tasks. Individuals within the realm of the Tonal (day-to-day conscience) would see the "Other" (also known as the "Double") as ordinary persons or as other metaphysical (see philosophy) beings. Seers, would see them as very bright luminous beings, brighter then their human luminous counterparts. As such the dreamer and the dreamed become one but not in the same place or time. Dreaming might be compared with experiences such as lucid dreaming. Through the art of "Dreaming" Naguals theoretically can shape shift into numerous forms including but not exclusively the following: coyotes, crows, and non animals.

Gazing is another form of "dreaming" and is a waking meditative state.

"I am going to teach you right here the first step to power. I am going to teach you how to set up dreaming. To set up dreaming means to have a concise and pragmatic control over the general situation of a dream, comparable to the control one has over any choice in the desert for instance, such as climbing up a hill or remaining in the shade of a water canyon. You must start by doing something very simple. Tonight in your dreams you must look at your hands. Don't think it's a joke. Dreaming is as serious as seeing or dying or any other thing in this awesome, mysterious world."

    DON JUAN MATUS, Journey to Ixtlan

Sounds almost like Nietzsche on solitude. If you can't control your environment then you become a product of it. It's difficult to force yourself to NOT think about something. The brain is a very reactive piece of equipment.

If I said "Don't think about the hexagon on top of Saturn" how many of you would actually be able to avoid considering it?

For me I find if I DONT "steal" back the time to pursue the top idea I will perform poorly on what ever else I am trying to get done (contract work). So it is actually necessary to "procrastinate" and flesh the idea out - more often than not it ends up being something that has far greater worth than the "paying" contract work.

For me, there's a very important lesson here about stress management. If you can manage stress effectively, you're allowing those creative thoughts to bubble to the surface, eventhough you may be going through the fund-raising process. Of course, managing the stress is the challenge, talking about it is no problem.

I refer to this as my "back brain processing".

I've had conversations where I tell people that I'll do the work that they want me to, but it will only be a fore-brain effort because I've got a much more interesting problem percolating.

And I try -- hard -- to avoid working for/with/on anything that doesn't engage the back brain.

Artists, writers, and other creative people have the same frustration of having to think about money when they'd rather be thinking about their work that Graham describes in the essay.

I know we live in interesting economic times, but maybe it's about time for patronage to make a comeback.

I believe a corollary of this is that a good leader should be working to maintain this state in those being led - both by removing things that might displace the good ideas (pay, rations, IT, politics ...) and by keeping the important subjects intriguing.

That's funny; I'm almost sure I've read the same basic idea somewhere else within the past year or two, but I can't for the life of me remember where. I thought it was Joel on Software, but a little Googling didn't turn it up. Anyone else?


If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

Could be, but I'm remembering the specific example of a programmer's mind in the shower.

You might be thinking of an article that was on HN several months ago -- "The Benefit Of Being Naked":


No, I wasn't even on HN then. Turns out it was a Paul Graham article after all: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1536852

Bingo, "Ramen Profitable" it is.

At any given time there tends to be one problem that's the most urgent for a startup. This is what you think about as you fall asleep at night and when you take a shower in the morning. And when you start raising money, that becomes the problem you think about. You only take one shower in the morning, and if you're thinking about investors during it, then you're not thinking about the product.

Playing Devil's Advocate: I would say that sometimes you have to bring unpleasant thoughts (like fund raising) into the top of your mind. Because if you don't do it now, then it becomes an even bigger problem later on.

I wonder why new essay didn't show up in the feed.

Its very true for me that i found creative solutions in shower to my hard thought problems. May be i need a water resistant pen to write on the shower cabinet (possibly there is one).

(I hear similar complaints from friends who are professors. Professors nowadays seem to have become professional fundraisers who do a little research on the side. It may be time to fix that.)

Now there's a startup idea!

How exactly?

In an ideal world, you could sell the service of helping professors to prepare their research proposals. You could also keep an eye out for grants which the professors might be interested in, and generally handle the money side of things for professors who would rather be worrying about something else.

However, I don't think this would work, because the professors have no way to pay you. As far as I know, no funding agency will fund you for the cost of contracting someone to prepare your grants for you. And they probably won't want to do it out of their own pocket, because; heck, this kind of service will be really expensive (and professors hate funding their research out of their salaries anyway).

But if you've got another business model, I'm all ears.

I know a company (and its founder) who did exactly that, with success. Apparently research institutions have some buffer funds, and if they have a decent chance of getting more funding, will use them to commission such services. What they did was writing the proposal, proofreading and editing input supplied by partners, then taking a share in the project and dealing with management and documentation. Pretty much exactly what you describe here.

Surely the universities that the professors work for could fund the grant preparation.

I am excite!

This is exactly why dating women is dangerous to your startup success ;).

Wow, this is such a simple, yet powerful, idea. It's one of those "why didn't I think of that" ones. Another good time to discover your real top idea is at 3 am when you wake up thinking about it.

So true it'll be hard not to think about in the shower.

That is why they say, ask for something (your good idea for instance) then let it go. It happens when you least think about it.

This is an awesome piece from PG. I have known/felt all of the stuff but was never able to articulate it as well.

I always wanted to sell markers you could use in order to write ideas on shower tiles.

This is a really good essay. Absolutely spot on.

Good essay, but paragraph six is redundant.

I'd been thinking about a sort of related topic a week or so ago -- but I couldn't remember what it was until, ironically, sleeping last night, so I thought I'd relate my thoughts real quick.

It's my theory (and this essay does a good job articulating part of it) that the brain operates at different levels of 'connectedness'. By connectedness I mean the thresholds at the synapses that determine how many neurotransmitters 'make it' in communication with the nearby neurons. I was reading an AMA from a neuropsychologist on reddit, and she mentioned that on average each neuron is connected to 70 other neurons.

So that got me thinking: when you're sleeping, it seems like one makes connections so much more easily. And wouldn't that be because the thresholds are lowered and neurotransmission between neurons is increased? So if previously 40% of your neurotransmitters were making it across the synapse for the majority of the neurons at each node connection, perhaps that level were increased to 60% throughput when you're asleep.

This would come about via dopamine or other naturally occurring hormones and proteins (in addition to drugs, which have the real risk, of course, of causingyour brain to re-normalize levels) which bind to the chemical receptors and prevent reception (threreby lowering the throughput). Other hormones regulate these hormones and increase throughput.

So to make a long story short, if sleep is a natural adaption to vary 'throughput' in the brain's graph of neurons at night -- to ease visitation and solve things at a much faster, much more 'connected' rate. Then perhaps this is an evolved tool for problem solving.

Perhaps certain problems are better solved by traversing quickly through the graph, and perhaps even during the day, as dopamine and other things are constantly adjusting in the brain, perhaps we vary out global thresholds in the brain.

So when you take a shower, or take a walk, or do some other activity, you may be changing your thresholds by 2% -- and that may allow you to see certain connections that you wouldn't otherwise. Too much 'connectedness' and it's hard to make logical sense of anything. So for the most part these thresholds are really quite high (low connectedness).

But I wonder if it isn't a sort of a model for problem solving, with various different global parameters that affect the edges' connectedness. It's sort of like having different graph visitation algorithms and then changing the edges' weights globally to try and rattle through different visitations or insights.

At any rate, this sort of dovetails with what PG was talking about (I remembered the connection initially because we'd both thought of different mental states in the shower) -- because anything that becomes the 'top idea in your mind' probably becomes a much bigger deal than we realize, because we are used to thinking that we only think with one level or global threshold parameter. But in reality when there are many levels, a big idea in mind is being visited much faster at night and in lower threshold / higher throughput times -- than we probably take for granted -- because, again, we presume that the only level of connectedness that matters is the one when we are fully 'conscious' during the day.

This is very big idea - life is shaped by our mind, but what is shaped our mind? (behavior, which influences mind through body because they're two sides of a coin)

But how to control the mind? There are tens of techniques, from caring a beeper to write a diary every night. You need some kind of exceptions, interruptions, to catch yourself sweeping away into day-dreams and to return to the concentraction on the proper subject.

Many people will disagree, but meditation technique offers very efficient solution, like returning to posture and breathing when mind starts to wander. It is not like you must convert to Buddhism, it is about understanding how the mind works.

So, it is just a mater of a regular practicing, which will develop a new habit of observing where your mind is wandering about, so you could make any corrections.

This technique works perfectly for most of stresses, anxiety and obsessive neuroses, so it could help to concentrate on a proper subjects also.

Yes, I've found that it is possible to change the 'top idea' in my mind, just by noticing that I am thinking of it, and choosing to not think, or think of something else in that moment. This seems to cause thinking about it to occur less frequently.

Brilliant observations weakened by a cultural biased conclusion.

> Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages.

It is only true if someones self is defined by the culture of turning the other cheek. There are other ways to define self and solve a dispute. For example:

And Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!"

That's also a valid selfish conclusion.

> It is only true if someones self is defined by the culture of turning the other cheek.

Not true. You evidently didn't understand the essay, which makes it clear that the advantage of turning the other cheek is it frees your mind to think about productive things rather than unproductive ones.

> the advantage of turning the other cheek is it frees your mind to think about productive things rather than unproductive ones.

Your definition of "productive" has the same bias.

Turning the other cheek is by origin an alternative to an eye-for-an-eye. For a mind that can only be freed with an eye-for-an-eye settlement, turning the other cheek won't do it. But an eye-for-an-eye approach can be productive:

And Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.

Killing yourself and a bunch of other people and destroying a large house? That is productive... how, exactly?

It delivers justice.

(if you've been taught to turn the other cheek you will not see why, but if you've been taught another way, you will. This is cultural and fundamental)

It delivers revenge. Whether it delivers justice or not depends on the specific situation, but if you have to resort to vigilantism, probably not.

revenge is justice is productive.

I didn't invent it.

The concept of "turning the other cheek" is about 2,000 years old. The concept of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is over twice that old. They represent two different schools of thought that have been debated enough.

PG introduced "turning the other cheek" as a means to resolve "the pain of having ... controversy constantly reintroduced as the top idea ..." and this is biased. There is another way to resolve the issue, it just comes from another culture.

(Or in other words, it is true that "someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it.". You can "at least avoid the second half" - or - you can try and hurt them twice, no matter the cost. Culture choice.)

Yes, yes - but it's not productive, is it? Particularly the biblical example that you gave.

Suppose that I'm an evil supergenius - someone cuts me off in traffic or tells me that unitards are going out of fashion, so I use my orbiting death ray to blast the entire world into ashes. Perhaps it's assuaged my sense of injury, but at what cost?

This is what happens when you use 2,000 year old fiction to support your moral choices.

Now imagine you are me and this is the sugar-coated version of your story: http://www.totlol.com/t/story

Good answer.

It's a sad story, and I feel for you, but it's a fairly predictable outcome, particularly given the way that you were trying to make money from YouTube. There's all sorts of copyrighted content from 3rd parties, eg. Disney and others, and they'd likely sue both you and YouTube if you were to put ads up. The only part I would've changed if I were them would be to let you know upfront that you were likely to be infringing the terms of use - if not directly, then at least in spirit. But perhaps there were legal reasons not to.

Back on topic, I think your situation is precisely the one that PG was talking about and where you should turn the other cheek. You basically have two options:

1) Hate Youtube, Stephanie Kuan and Google. Get bitter and twisted, stew over it for years and years, to the point where it's consuming the bulk of your waking hours. Gollum, gollum. I've seen friends who've gone down this path after being mistreated by companies, and it's not pretty.

2) Forget it - as in, completely forget it, and go on to something else. Hard to do, but you'll free up huge amounts of time for more productive things. Take a break and do consulting/day job stuff. Maybe build something cool on the side, or just rebuild your savings, ready for next time.

I don't have a choice. But they, still, do.

(P.S - maybe I was wrong, maybe it is not a cultural bias. Maybe it is just the difference between -- cliché warning -- knowing the path and walking the path).

You absolutely have a choice. And I've walked that path, so it's not just a meaningless platitude. There are assholes in the world (along with people who just don't care), they do fucked up things and they're not going to change. In the end, the best that you can do is distance yourself from them, both physically and mentally, and get on with your life.

ps. I doubt that YouTube have much of a choice either. It's either shut you down or get sued by the content owners. I suspect that after all the work you've put in, you've lost a bit of perspective on that.

I read that story a while back, and it sucked. I empathise with your anger and sympathise with your loss. But I am trying quite hard to write a comment to say there is another way, and it is better.

> you can try and hurt them twice, no matter the cost. Culture choice.

In trying to hurt them twice, can you hurt them for what it costs you to do so? Or do you just have to pay that cost out of pocket? And if you hurt them twice, but they only directly did one bad thing to you, can they hurt you back? And can you hurt them back for that? Most wars are founded on logic such as this.

If you are talking Jewish philosophy, what about Job (the book is newer than an eye for an eye, but Job himself probably lived before the Torah was given)? I believe Job says (amongst other things), "Life isn't fair. Good things happen to the bad guys. Bad things happen to the good guys. Accept that in the knowledge that God will make it right in the end."

If a strategy doesn't work, stop it. Don't hide behind the words "cultural choice" because they won't protect you from the consequences.

A culture that lives by eye-for-an-eye is a culture that's going to find itself constantly oscillating between victim and executioner.

I remember once watching three kids. Kids A and B would build a tower of blocks and Kid C would knock it down. Kids A and B would be devastated, wailing terribly. While Kid A was crying Kids B and C would build another one. Kid A would lift up his head, see it, and knock it down. Kids B and C are then crying, and then Kids A and C start building a new one, and Kid B would knock it down. This would go on and on, with each child knocking down the tower in turn, and the other two crying inconsolably about it.

You are not your culture. Your choice is up to you.

> I believe Job says (amongst other things), "Life isn't fair. Good things happen to the bad guys. Bad things happen to the good guys. Accept that in the knowledge that God will make it right in the end."

Sister Anna: Do you ever see the Hand of God in what you do?

Creasy: No, not for a long time.

Sister Anna: The Bible says, "Do not be over come with evil, but overcome...?

Creasy: But overcome evil with good."

Creasy: [in spanish] That's Romans Chapter 12 Verse 21.

Creasy: I am the sheep that got lost, Madre.

-- Man on Fire (2004) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0328107/

revenge / eye-for-an-eye is a famous logical fallacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_wrongs_make_a_right

It's not productive. It's not justice. It's just stupid.

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