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A Project of One’s Own (paulgraham.com)
723 points by prtkgpt 15 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 365 comments



Good essay overall, but this footnote in particular stood out to me:

> [2] Tiger parents, as parents so often do, are fighting the last war. Grades mattered more in the old days when the route to success was to acquire credentials while ascending some predefined ladder. But it's just as well that their tactics are focused on grades. How awful it would be if they invaded the territory of projects, and thereby gave their kids a distaste for this kind of work by forcing them to do it. Grades are already a grim, fake world, and aren't harmed much by parental interference, but working on one's own projects is a more delicate, private thing that could be damaged very easily.

It's so true. I got obsessed with programming around 11, started off with my shitty vb6 programs and moved on to reverse engineering video games and writing hacks. I never told any adults what I was doing until I was nearly an adult myself, out of fear they'd ruin my hobby like they did everything else. I remember thinking to myself how much school sucked and being determined not to let that poison the one thing I liked worked on. My parents thought I was a degenerate who did nothing but play computer games all day. Blew them away when I got my first programming job and eventually skipped college to start working right out of high school.

I have a bunch of friends who say the same thing. They'd find some new cool thing, show even the slightest interest in it and their mom would immediately start making them drill it three hours a day until they hated it and weren't interested in it anymore. It's a sad story.


Grades still matter for the vast majority of people who aren’t born into mega rich families. Most people don’t become Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and even those that do benefit greatly from the pedigrees that academic achievement opens up (going to top colleges, working at desirable employers, although grades matter little there unless you’re right out of college). For everyone else grades are still used for tracking into the traditionally high paid professions like law and medicine, and for tracking into the target colleges for high powered banking and consulting.


Expanding on your comment, to get into a good school and make the connections that would help you in the future, good grades are table stakes. And for certain minorities, good grades are assumed and you have to have achievements on top of that to stand out. Sure, there are many paths to success, but just like investing, where the ROI probabilities would be better if you put your money into an index fund as opposed to the state lottery, the ROI probabilities from developing a good work ethic and getting into a good school are better than alternatives. As a parent, you are using your knowledge and experience to make optimization decisions that the child might not be able to envision or foresee. Different children need different kinds of parenting techniques. I don't see how anyone can claim that either project-based parenting or tiger parenting is the be-all and end-all to raising a child.


You've hit on it, grades matter right up until you're out of school. For most people, they matter for getting a first job (because there usually isn't much else to serve as a filter). After that, nobody will ever ask for or look at them again.


Most of the high paying professions outside of software require the degree and that first job to break into them. Sure for banking and consulting it’s not a hard requirement, but it’s much harder to get into them with bad grades or a degree from a non-target school.

It’s really only in the software bubble where people are able to prove themselves to break into it, due to various factors including engineers being in very short supply relative to demand for over a decade now. Sure nobody asks for my grades now that I’ve been out of college for a while, but they still look at where I went to college (based on high school achievement) and my first job (based on college achievement) and subsequent jobs (much easier to get because of where I worked at my first job), etc.

I just see this argument as very tone deaf because there are hundreds of millions of us regular people out there, and academic achievement is the most surefire way to get noticed and be given opportunities if you aren’t lucky enough to come from an important/influential family.

It’s not only about the grades themselves but how they pipeline the rest of your career and credentials. Rich people can shmooze and scheme to get some of those credentials and opportunities for their kids without the grades, but not us regular folk.


I really wish I hadn’t bothered studying electrical engineering at a mid-tier school. There’s zero EE jobs available for that kind of graduate. You just can’t get recruiters to look at your application. Half of my graduating class is stuck doing self-taught DBA work for the local bank, telephone pole, or health insurance company. It’s so frustrating.


You are right: you can't get recruiters to look at such an application. This applies to CS as well, not just EE. They only look at the top 10 or so schools.

The trick is to get a job without a recruiter looking at your application. The only way they'll help you is to speed up the trip your resume takes to the bin. Your task is to bypass them.

However, once you get your first job in the Valley everything changes. Suddenly the very same recruiters will spam you with offers. They operate like web scrapers: ingest resumes from top 10 CS school grads OR employees of SV companies :)

So how does one get such a job? You'll probably have to take a chance on a small company that doesn't have a wall of recruiters yet and talk to the people who actually need to hire someone. Show them a project that will impress them.

PS: there are probably good recruiters out there, but the chances of meeting them are slim. Personally I'd go with the "bypass" heuristic for the first job.


I agree with you 100%. Almost all of my EE group of friends weren’t able to find jobs right away! Even internships were limited. Almost everyone learned coding languages in demand around Silicon Valley and were able to find employment! 4 years of EE went to waste. Sad.


The reason software is different is simply that it is a recently developed industry.

If you look back, all industries start this way. The most heavily-credentialed and tightly-regulated field you can think of today started off as a bunch of hustlers making it up as they went along.

It didn’t last for those other industries and it likely won’t last for software.


I am not sure, software is a bit like a trade, you actually build something only it is virtual and if you build it they will come, nobody can stop you from building things.

Medicine, Law or consulting are services, not actualy creating any actual new value. They build their moat by making the license very hard to obtain and making one's status and prestige the most important thing. You do need licenses to do certain trades but they are usually not that hard to obtain and the prestige of the institute giving them is less important.


"Sure nobody asks for my grades now that I’ve been out of college for a while, but they still look at where I went to college.."

How do you know that? Do they mention it? I'm really curious on this one.

Other than the rare alum, I haven't had anyone comment on my undergrad more than a year or two out of it. Recent jobs and projects make up the vast majority of any conversation.


Biases work quietly. A recruiter that favors Ivy League grads does not comment on that to the candidates they contact, and obviously doesn't to the ones they don't.


To echo the sibling comment, it’s more for getting past screening than for anything involving interviews. Although it likely does add some implicit bias even for later interviewers/hiring managers who see my resume even if they don’t mention it.


> but they still look at where I went to college (based on high school achievement) and my first job (based on college achievement) and subsequent jobs (much easier to get because of where I worked at my first job), etc.

No one has ever asked me about my schooling and I haven't had a school on my resume in over 10 years. Do they look at it because you put it on your resume?


I am still early in my career. And many jobs I have applied for/am interested in unfortunately index on having gone to a good school. I’ll probably never work for one but I’m pretty interested in HFT and quant hedge funds, and have interviewed with them before, and am of the understanding that having a name brand college on your resume is a soft requirement.


It's curious that you are defending a system that evidently provides poor social mobility, because the person who is trying to de-emphasize it's significance is rich.

I agree, but there can be some exceptions. I got auto-rejected when applying for a law conversion course because of my A Level grades. I have a first class degree, a master’s degree with distinction and a phd.


You dodged a bullet there then at least :)


Yeah where you got your degree from still matters. And you get in to the best schools by getting good grades.


Yup I came here to say the same thing; I'd go further and say it's not just mega rich families but most of the middle class. You got options even with just a little disposable income (ie paying for clubs can unlock a career, for example).

For those from traditionally working class background, differentiating from your peers through grades is essential to unlocking funds that can take you where you want to be.

That's why through the pandemic school grades (in the UK at least) have been so sensitive; they deployed an algorithm last year which probably mostly got it right but also (because it was averages) didn't pluck out those from the poorest backgrounds who would have managed to differentiate themselves.


Grades don't matter. They matter if you really want to follow the beaten path. Sure, go ahead... join McKinsey or something like that.

Being good a learning matters. Being good at executing matters. Being good at communicating matters. Being good at leading matters.

Grades and credentials are just gatekeeping invented by people that are worse than talented people. Grades are for status not for wealth and even much less for creative and fulfilment. It's a losers game. I played it and it was stupid I will never allow my children to play that game.


Grades are an easy way to communicate your value. They stop mattering when you have alternative way to show your value (e.g. work experience).

Finding non traditional ways to demonstrate your value can be hard and is a skill that isn't really tought. If you're going to not care about grades you better be sure you know some alternative way to show your potential value.


> will never allow my children to play that game

I can see not forcing them to play the game, but "will never allow my children to" always struck me as a weird tone.


I will also never allow my children to gang up on and beat homeless people in the streets.

Sounds like a weird tone?


Yes, still sounds like a weird tone. Do you think that other people "beat homeless people in the streets", because their parents allowed them to do that?


Beating up people is immoral and illegal. Grinding for grades is neither. I don't really see the connection.


For most people the beaten path is how they get on the ladder towards building wealth. You can always hop off the well worn part of that ladder but you can’t easily get back on it once you’ve fallen off.

You can feel that way regarding status vs talent if you want. Reality to me indicates that learning and execution are only important if you can get yourself into a position where you can use them. If you are a peon it’s quite hard to make a difference in the world even if you have those in spades. The way you find yourself in such a position might vary but going through the well worn path is tried and true.


Grades correlate with learning ability, executive function, and communication skills.

Good grades aren't the goal. Good grades are an indicator other people can use to gauge your preparedness for a job or opportunity.


Good grades are also an indicator of being able to optimize for grades. Being able to optimize a metric is a good thing, but the problems is that typical students spend 20 years learning to optimize that one and only metric. Therefore it's no surprise out-of-school students are often only good at optimizing similar metrics, and suck at the general creative + critical rational thinking that's required in life.

(I think I'm basically paraphrasing another PG article here, but this opinion mostly comes from my own experience working with both people from higher education and early drop-outs)


They are an imperfect indicator for sure but i fear we don't have anything better.


Is this not just an argument over terminology? I think most people realize that grades are just an approximate measure of learning ability. I doubt many parents would prefer that their kid cheated on every test to get straight A's rather B's from honest studying. When most parents tell their kids to get good grades, they mean "study hard and show me you learned", not "go get good grades by any means necessary".

If there was a better measure of learning, executing, communicating, and leading than "grades" at the pre-collegiate level, then I'm sure we would've found it by now and used that instead. For me to be convinced that grades don't matter, I'd have to see proof that there is no correlation between successful people and good grades at a population scale.


It is downright wonderful that you think “when most parents tell their kids to get good grades, they mean "study hard and show me you learned", not "go get good grades by any means necessary".”

That’s simply not true in many cases. There are tons of parents out there to whom the grade matters more than the learning. Those aren’t good parents, and mine weren’t like that (I would’ve been destroyed, frankly), but many of my friends’ were. I suspect the proportion is much higher than you’d suspect.


> Grades still matter for the vast majority of people who aren’t born into mega rich families.

Not really, while its generally better to have a qualification than no qualification 48% of people with a degree are in a job that don't require it.

Qualifications don't matter if everyone has them, this is because employers care about the skills some one has not the lectures they sat through. Skills are difficult to develop lectures are easy to sit through. If every one has those qualifications supply/demand kills the need for those jobs.

If you sacrifice building up skills to chase grades you have a near 50/50 chance of ending up working behind a till with €50k in debt, not a good position to be in if you are not mega rich.


I had mostly the opposite experience.

I learned to program in zero period at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon.

It was a self-taught course but I didn’t have to hide the work—-no one really cared. Not that my parents didn’t care, they were glad I was doing something I enjoyed.

But that no one had any idea how deep I was going into writing code.

The assignments were given once a quarter or so by Veryl Smith. We had far ranging latitude to figure it out on our own and gold plate projects as much as we wanted.

By the time the game of life assignment was due I had added a mouse interface and vga, color display of the cells and grid, all in Pascal.

I often lost points due to things like shadowed naming or other bad patterns.

But that didn’t really matter too much. I made up for it getting “A” grades working as a teacher’s assistant for the attendance office, writing hall passes and absence slips for myself and others as necessary. That was a great hack.

Anyhow, this essay resonates deeply with me. It has good ideas in it.


My son and one of his friends spent a huge portion of their stuck-at-home time during the pandemic playing minecraft.

It turns out a lot of what they were doing while "playing video games" was learning how to make really complex and unique game scenarios using minecraft command blocks and redstone -- essentially creating both a RPG PvP arena and a multilevel party dungeon crawl w boss fights.

I run a small minecraft server for them to play and experiment on and I've resisted the urge to try to teach them anything about setting up and running servers, backing up data, or using text editors with syntax highlighting or source control to edit and preserve their command block commands.

I just show up for demos and let them know how cool what they're doing is and backup and reboot the server as needed.

I've messed up plenty as a parent but i think not trying to turn their interest in programming within minecraft into a learning experience has been one of my better decisions.


I'm curious, why do you think it'll be bad for them to learn programming?

I mean sure, don't force them into them, but I don't think hiding what's underneath is fair either.

I actually learned to program for the first time while playing Minecraft around 2011, and I started programming without my parents even knowing.

There was a mod for Minecraft called ComputerCraft that allowed you to program inside the game (using virtual computers) with Lua. This led to me on a path to Java to mod Minecraft, then Python to script things and many tools and projects later I ended up becoming a programmer.

For me, Minecraft opened me to a world full of wonders; something I never knew was possible, and I definitely don't regret it.


i think it would be great for them to learn programming.

i think if i try to push them to learn programming, they will lose interest because i will be turning their 'fun' into 'work'. it is better for them to go at their own pace where their interests take them. if they ask for my help (they both know i could teach them programming), i'd be delighted to help them.

and minecraft is really fantastic. from the base game, to advance features like command blocks, to the ecosystem of plug ins and online multiplayer adaptations. really an impressive creation.


Without going into too much detail, my mother¹ had a way of interfering in my attempts at projects both by trying to tie it into "getting a credentialed person on board"² for Proper Supervision and piling on… other abuse, often after I was a significant ways in.

Fifteen years after escaping, I still haven't published anything real, and I can see the pattern. I saw the pattern ten years ago, even, but deep conditioning is really hard to break. Only being able to finish things for other people is kind of a disaster, especially when you wind up in the “need experience to gain experience” trap.

¹ Who, again without too much detail, was Asian. ² Which never happened. She never put any actual energy into it, I had no framework for approaching it as a child, and I'm not sure the surrounding environment contained people who were willing to do that sort of thing anyway.


Tiger parents are already evolving on this, every elite high school student is now starting non profits or micro startups to put on their resumes .


Or "volunteering" at an animal sanctuary at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which they happen to have climbed while there over the summer.


Sometimes I really wish I could read some of those college essays that went in with mine.

I wrote about my dad playing games with me, making a GB emulator and my mom dying. At the time I figured that's what most of them were. Grandma/Uncle/My pet fish died and that was sad. I broke my leg / struggled with grades / couldn't make friends blah blah blah. I built something or wrote something or did this charity thing. The occasional military / older adult.

Would really be curious how those have changed. Plus the difference in Ivy League vs Public schools.


Very similar to my story. I grew up in a shitty industrial town of oil refineries. Schools and teachers were not that great, so I went to the local community college bookstore and stole programming books by stuffing them in my jacket and walking out. I got AOL, then internet and eventually IRC. I learned disassemblers, debuggers and x86 instruction set. Joined world-famous cracking groups and wrote key generators and cd checks. At the time I thought this was all normal, but looking back it was pretty wild. Eventually moved to silicon valley, worked for big tech, etc. But it was all no thanks to grades, exams, etc.


This old school cracking scene is one of the things I think I really missed -- I was way too young back in the days, and maybe also lacked of self confidence, as assembler and hexadecimal looked like another dimension.

I hate the obsession with grades as much as anyone, but most parents are often mirroring the importance we place on them as a society. Disagree with a number of the sub-comments here, grades matter. Not eventually and not on their own, but they provide optionality the same way race and wealth and other factors do: you can succeed without them, but it definitely helps your chances.


It’s funny that he wrote this now living in the UK. As an American living in England for the better part of a decade now, it still shocks me how much grades matter in the hiring process for professionals with many years of experience. If you don’t get a first or at least a 2:1 in uni, and/or do poorly on your A-levels, it will hold you back for the rest of your life here


As a developer?

Nobody ever asked me anything about my education.

Maybe you need to find the right workplace. And this is still if you're doing the employee way. You can find other ways to create value in society and make money out of it.


This is highly region, industry, and company specific. I have "unrelated" degrees from a reasonably high tier university in that field. Asking why I'm in software is the first question I get in every interview. I've even had bay area managers tell me to my face that if I had gone through normal channels, they would have thrown my application out.

Outside the west coast, it's much, much harder. I ended up back in SF when an east coast company retracted their offer after a high level exec found out about my degrees and freaked out.

Yes, you can find places that don't work like this, but the vast majority of the market absolutely evaluates education. You need to fit into every interviewer's idea of what constitutes a reasonable path to qualification.


Agree.

Anecdata: am doing interviews with prospective new people right now.

Things I care about in my software engineer hires (for whom this is not their first job):

* that you're able to talk about stuff you've done in the past, involving diving into technical detail at will, and showing some understanding of what was happening one level of abstraction below/above whatever bit you were working on. (I don't actually care what you did. Don't tell me proprietary stuff. I want to know that you understood what you were doing, why you were doing it, what it depended on and what depended on it, and that you are able to communicate this to me.)

* that you're familiar with the languages/tools/environments you said in your CV you are, and are able to communicate this to me

* that you have some general data structures+algorithms awareness, and ability to apply this knowledge to at least trivial problems rather than merely recite the textbook contents on demand


Interesting. Mileage may vary by company / area of work. I didn't go to Uni and went straight to work. Got a few A-levels but nothing special.

Wasn't even asked about them for my first job.


It's certainly true for a lot of corporate graduate schemes require a 2.1 in a relevant subject and reputable university in the UK. It's typically used as an initial filter.


Wait so how do I 'not-force' my kid into programming these days? Our generation didn't have roblox, youtube and minecraft to distract us much.


Boredom is the mother of curiosity. Take away the dopamine factories and let your kid be bored enough to be interested in learning things.


Ironically, to many kids YouTube is the primary source and inspiration for learning.

I have a kid, and it's an ongoing challenge to limit the screentime. But I'm also impressed by the creative projects and the rapid skill development that sometimes is the result of being glued to the iPad.


That's pretty hard to do imo, specially when other kids in school have all kinds of devices and are hooked to youtube 24/7.


Kids in school don't have time to affect others 24/7, maybe an hour tops if they aren't in sports.


And that's the key, pry the device out of their hand and send them outside.

Good luck actually doing it, though.


Indeed. Youtube is in short supply at our house, and not only as a result of the advertising, surveillance, and addiction factors.


Our generation had distractions, too. TV, for example. I don't know the direct answer to your question but at least part of it is that 'not-forcing' your kid in to programming means they might just never be in to programming. My oldest is at least kind of in to programming (and also plays a lot of Minecraft and watches a lot of YouTube) my youngest two have shown zero interest in programing, but have interests of their own.


Growing up, what my late father probably wanted most from me is for me to find a project of my own. When I was in high school, he once threatened me with "get a life, or I will get you one". Engines, and especially motorcycles, were always a passion of his. He grew up on a farm, and "was rebuilding tractor engines when the other kids were learning to ride bicycles." He still holds a few land speed records he set with motorcycles he designed and built.

But I had no real hobbies or passions of my own, other than playing card games.

It wasn't until my twenties, after I already graduated college with degrees I wasn't interested in and my dad's health failed, that I first tried programming. A decade earlier, my dad was attending the local Linux meetings when away from his machine shop.

Programming, and especially performance optimization/loop vectorization are now my passion and consume most of my free time (https://github.com/JuliaSIMD/LoopVectorization.jl).

Hearing all the stories about people starting and getting hooked when they were 11 makes me feel like I lost a dozen years of my life. I had every opportunity, but just didn't take them. If I had children, I would worry for them.


> Hearing all the stories about people starting and getting hooked when they were 11 makes me feel like I lost a dozen years of my life.

To be totally honest, most of us who start programming when we are <some small age> don't really get that large of a head start.

I'd probably count all of my programming experience from ages 10-20 before I switched from math to CS as "no more valuable than 1-2 years of dedicated undergraduate experience".

The biggest value of early programming experience is learning if you enjoy it well enough to not hate a career at it.


I got my start around 11 but kinda squandered it. Spent most of my time reading about random obscure languages/technologies/frameworks I wouldn’t understand until years later (though it’s great because I can hold a conversation on a topic for a little bit while being completely incompetent) and swearing I was going to make games until I realized I couldn’t do asset design worth shit. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever made (graphical) game.

I was around 14 when I first heard about Haskell, I didn’t know anything about it, functional programming, type theory, lambda calculus or anything related. I just knew it was a programming language. Nowadays I see people around that age programming relatively fluently with it.

All the actual programming I ever did as a kid was make terrible websites, console apps that did nothing useful in particular and a few desktop app shells that did the same. I was probably around 17 before I did anything “serious” and even at that point it wasn’t great.

Now I’m not very old, so I’m not sure if it was simply the environment I was in, but I didn’t know that many other people that were into programming when I was a teenager, even with the internet and all I was normally the youngest guy in every chat/forum/site/group I was on. Nowadays though, I know several teenagers that could code circles around me.


You left out… whether you had fun? Because it sounds like you feel your teenage hobby should have been a productive and focused use of your time leading to some kind of useful product. Which seems like a pretty high bar to set, and, like, besides the point?

You'd worry like your dad, and in the end your kid would still find its way like you did :)

Also, there's no use in regrets. Only lessons learned.


Imo TV is so much worse than the kind of entertainment the person you're replying to listed.

The cable TV I watched as a kid was just garbage. I know it's still all ad driven, but the stuff kids watch now seems much more useful. Roblox is programming.


Half the junior programmers I worked with during the last 10 years got into programming because of Minecraft with no other motivation at all until much later.


That's great! Minecraft was never "my" game but I was always happy that this kinda lego game was the most successful game last decade, because it's so creative. Just shows that gamers (or young people or whatever) aren't just looking for dopamine rushes.


I wonder how many of them also use GitHub and VSCode :)


You can program Roblox... and Minecraft pretty much _is_ a programming UI.


I've never played either but have seen some videos of it. How much of it is just gaming and how much of it is programming? Is programming required to play the games? How often do the players engage in programming part of it as opposed to the gaming part of it?


You mostly play the vanilla game of Minecraft without programming. The survival loop is to mine resources in order to craft better tools that allow you to explore, build, and defeat enemies.

You can get a lot of mileage out of it this way and never touch the programming side. It is an all time bestseller for good reason.

There is an in game material called redstone that is used for simple electrical engineering and circuitry. The devices can play music, push blocks around, open doors, fire arrows, run train cars, and other applications.

The programming starts with command blocks, which can use redstone triggers to execute keyword commands.

There are a bunch of mods that can add automation through programming. For instance, programming a mining robot to drill out a tunnel, using Lua.

Mod programming itself would often be in Java, and add new game entities or systems. This can get fairly advanced and there are some total conversion mods (eg some Pokemon clones).

There are other fun games that are more like programming, like those from Zachtronics. So why Minecraft? It's fun and familiar, and provides a massive canvas for creativity that fires the imagination.


Zachtronics "actually programming"[0] games: TIS-100 Shenzhen I/O

Zachtronics programming[1] games: Spacechem Molek-Syntez Opus Magnum Infinifactory

And probably the rest of them (but for the rest of them, I cannot speak from direct experience)

[0] As in "part of the game is writing assembler code" [1] As in "you are configuring state machines"


you can make games for roblox, uses lua as an embedded scripting language, I think it is also available for minecraft.


Very true, I opened up all electronics or electrical or mechanical things at home, from wrist watches to air conditioners just to see how they work - some I could not put back together like my watch, my parents never bought me a wrist watch ever again - haha


My grandpa donated a whole bunch of mechanical watches for me to dissasemble. :)

Sifting through garbage for discarded electronics was another favorite hobby of mine.


I am the kind of person who never gets a job unless I am so far apart from the other candidates that taking someone else would make it too obvious that they were basing their decision on "gut feeling" (or like they like to call it now, cultural fit).

The way I found to overcome that was to excel academically and technically, giving me that clear advantage I need... Unfortunately, many companies will only check your basic technical skills and then focus massively on "cultural fit", and to succeed here there's nothing much I can do other than try to show that, yes, I am a social person and I do like to work with other people and so on (things they will never be able to objectively measure). But to really have a good chance here, let's not kid ourselves: being white, male, good looking and from a wealthy background will get you way ahead before you even say a word.

My strategy served me well while I was relatively junior... but now that I am reaching a second decade in the industry, I again don't seem to have a clear advantage that I can objectively prove, and back to square one: getting a good job is a real challenge again.


Similarly, my first programming class was a middle school lunch table where me and a few friends sat around abusing TI-81s. We found ways to do fun things with these devices and showing off your work to friends became a natural driver that kept us focused. This continued through all of high school and then people wondered how we all became software engineers when our school had no such classes.


That's because parents are afraid that their child won't be competitive enough to have a decent life. If only parents were relaxed, if only they knew that their child can live full life without grinding through exercises. Then child just would pursue what they love, interested (unless it's unaffordable to their social strata). I wonder what we can do today to make this happen sooner.

On the side note. There is a great book which makes easier for parents to make piece with themselves: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35457692-the-self-driven...


> If only parents were relaxed, if only they knew that their child can live full life without grinding through exercises.

Isn't that how young people end up with liberal arts degrees saddled with debt they have little chance of ever repaying? I guess it might be a full life still but I haven't met many people in this position who enjoyed it.


I feel like there’s a middle ground? Encourage the child to do well and be honest about the importance of credentials/marketability of jobs without crushing their spirit?

I think the main issue is parents are largely ignorant of what’s important for a new generation - especially when things are undergoing radical technical change.

My fiancée is reading Walden - and there are comical similarities to a modern day van life Silicon Valley programmer. The industrial revolution left parents at the time clueless - something similar is happening again.


There's always the sweet spot, but like almost everything involved with predicting the future you rarely know what that is. So you take an educated guess and do what feels right, and the people you know and the media you consume paint that normal for you. Hopefully you don't have a warped perception, because you won't know under after the damage is done.


While we’re comparing anecdotal evidence, here’s mine:

Have a liberal arts degree from a small liberal arts college (<2000 students), had no problem at all breaking into tech or FAANG tech internships, anecdotally I think it helped me get my foot in the door.

Most of my peers also have degrees in liberal arts, and most of them are living successful and fulfilling lives, both professionally, socially, and even monetarily; some went into tech and finance, many are not.

I think something important to realize is there’s many paths to success — even the same idea of success that many in tech seem to have (financial security) — and someone who is passionate and talented will find one; following a pre-set college curriculum churning out STEM majors is just one way to get there.


> Isn't that how young people end up with liberal arts degrees saddled with debt they have little chance of ever repaying?

Sometimes, but sometimes it’s the direct opposite. People let their lives get consumed with the game of “go to school, get good grades, receive certification of having gone to school and gotten good grades” until they find out there’s nothing left for them at the end of the road.

It’s a shame because there are people who are obsessive nerds about academic subjects. And maybe there are more of them than there is a need for professional, full-time academics, which is sad. But I think there are a lot of people for whom formal education is a cargo cult, and these people crowd out the obsessive nerds.


I feel like most of those young people did liberal arts degrees because their parents pushed them to do university, for the same worries GP cited.

If children just loved reading classics and writing their thoughts on great works and thinkers of the past, I don't think their first thought would be to pay for a degree.


My parents were pretty hands-off, and luckily I had a strong interest in academics and was sufficiently self-driven. But I did sink untold number of hours into RPGs when I was young, and I wish my parents had insisted on some music lessons or sports activities. Not for any competitiveness reasons, but just to have various enjoyable skills. Certainly I can take them up at anytime, but compared to the amount of free time and ability to learn new things that I had when I was a kid, and my current hobbies and obligations, picking up something from scratch as opposed to improving something I'm already working on is a challenge.


This is the normal pattern of music or sports: you wish to have done them, but they're (for many people) not fun enough that you actually want to put the hours in. It's the same when you're a kid, IME, it's just easier for parents to force them to do something unfun.


The regret comes in two stages for me. What I previously mentioned, and the second stage, which is when my kid started developing an interest, and I am unable to join in as my rudimentary skills are surpassed within a few months.


Some people are never content and need to increase their wealth and social status constantly. Others will be content and happy regardless of their social status. Those who need to keep amassing ever more wealth “to keep up with the Jones’” are the future we’re choosing. Hope it’s the right choice.


> I never told any adults what I was doing until I was nearly an adult myself, out of fear they'd ruin my hobby like they did everything else.

I dropped out of college and was ~4 years into a successful career before it clicked with parents and other "adults" of what I had done and what I had "thrown away".

Having been through 3 serious tech jobs and dozens of interviews only one company rejected me due to my lack of a degree - Capitol One.

All said however I do think about going back to complete my degree at some point as I expect as my career progresses to upper upper management it might get in the way.


I only went back and did my degree as pure resume stuffing. Did it by distance learning alongside work. Overall it was a security thing - it felt like plugging a minor hole - and I'm still not sure if it was worth the time I invested in it.


Immigrant parents, being more likely to be overachiever on average, are very different than normal parents in this regard. I didn’t know anybody growing up who had to drill on school work. Some dads were into sports and would pressure their kids to be the next babe Ruth or oj Simpson, but school work not so much. The education arms race is very much a function of globalization and international competition, which has added a lot of stress to childhood for today’s middle class American adolescent.


My kid is in University right now and is doing an internship - recently he's been getting deep into contributing to an open source mod for a game, and I'm worried it's distracting him from his internship work and ultimately his final year of school. I see him on steam during the work day playing the game he's modding and he's taken time to show off his modding work and how it's put together - he's really proud of it, and honestly I am too.

I've been tempted to say something to him to make sure he balances his time appropriately and fulfills his other commitments.. but maybe I'll let it go a little while longer. I think he's getting a lot out of his project and I don't want to discourage him.

I suppose ultimately he's an adult and should make his own decisions and suffer his own consequences. But I worry.


Step away. You've hit the right conclusion, "...ultimately he's an adult and should make his own decision...", don't let your fears cloud your perspective, "...suffer his own consequences." You're already assuming at this point that his time involved in this game is potentially a negative. What if it lands him a job?

> You're already assuming at this point that his time involved in this game is potentially a negative. What if it lands him a job?

Fair enough, you're right that I'm showing my biases. I appreciate the feedback.


Called “Tiger parents” because this is common in China?

Coined by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua who have Chinese parents.


The term "Tiger Mom" became popular when Amy Chua (Chinese American) wrote a book about how she pushed her kids hard. I am sure the term existed before but I am not sure!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amy_Chua


As an aside, it’s really strange how this book picked up so much steam at its time of publication.

The book mostly centers around the mom pushing her two kids to be world-class violinists and her pushing causes one of her daughters to abandon the instrument. [1]

If, anything, it’s a cautionary tale.

[1] the violin is an incredibly difficult instrument to begin with and becoming a world-class violinist requires a metric fuckton of effort...Amy Chua’s experiences w/r/t raising her children are hardly unique in the classical music world.


She has since written some extremely questionable things about race and identity, and been credibly accused of grooming her law students to be sexually harassed both by her own husband and by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Oh...that...is an interesting turn of events 0_o

This matches my experience almost identically (starting at 11, vb6 hacks, lying about it). Had I opened up about my interest/what I was doing, my mom would've made me hyper focus on it but also used it as a weapon to demand obedience.


My parents physically beat me if I got less than A's; that just made me relish spending time on my own projects and interests away from their priorities.

are you me?


Tiger parents

A largely Chinese-American concept, the term draws parallels to strict parenting styles ostensibly common to households in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. (wikipedia)

The idea behind tiger parents is that Asians earn more money. And it's true, but not the whole store.

But the problem is that average Asian incomes are pulled up by Indian-Americans. Chinese-Americans earn less than many European-Americans. So the whole concept is based on flawed logic.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_the_U...


But this still isn't the whole story. The Chinese-American population is bigger and more diverse than the Indian-American or Pakistani-American one. There are lots of families in all these groups where the generation that immigrated to the US was well-educated and professional. Even if that generation had to work extremely hard to get a foothold in the new country, the children benefited both from the high education level of the parents, and from the hard-working/aspirational mentality of the recent immigrant, and (she argues) from the traditionalist approaches to discipline and education which the parents brought with them.

These are the people whom Amy Chua is talking to and about.

The average Chinese-American income reflects relatively fewer of these highly successful immigrants, because there are many more Chinese-Americans who arrived in the US poor and with few options. That doesn't disprove what she said.


>Chinese-Americans earn less than many European-Americans.

On the page you link, Chinese-Americans have a lower per-capita income than Americans of Macedonian, Russian, Latvian, British (not otherwise specified), Lithuanian, Slovene, Australian, and Austrian ancestry.

They have a higher per-capita income than Americans of Scottish, Czechoslovakian, Croatian, Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak, Belgian, Swiss, Welsh, Danish, Israeli, Ukrainian, Canadian, Scotch-Irish, English, European (not otherwise specified), Bulgarian, Polish, Norwegian, Italian, German, Finnish, Irish, Dutch, French (excluding Basques), Yugoslav, Portuguese, American (not otherwise specified) and Pennsylvania German ancestry.

I am curious to hear how you define "many".


The Americans of Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian origin must really be doing crappy if Yugoslav is in the lower bucket while Slovene and Macedonian are in the higher. Or maybe it is filtering out immigrants who weren't born while that country existed (soooo... before 1918? And after 1992?)


They tend to cluster in certain metropolitan areas in the Rust Belt (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, the latter two of which used to have regular JAT flights in 1980s) that have been hit hard by deindustrialization.

Source: I'm from Cleveland, aunt married one of the (many) Slovenian-Americans there


Those cities sound familiar from high school geography. We were told that Pittsburgh was the city with the world second largest Croatian population. Not sure when that would have been true but cool nonetheless.


Certainly when Cathedral of Learning was built at University of Pittsburgh because it features a Yugoslav room


>I am curious to hear how you define "many".

I define 'many' as a number, such that it is sufficient to disprove the thesis that "Chinese parenting" (if that is even a thing, China is very diverse) results in higher incomes.


One idea is that tiger parenting results in kids that make more money as adults. The more general observation is that strict parenting results in different behaviors and expectations and patterns of engagement. While wealth is a dominant social metric other measures such as criminal convictions also come up and do indicate some differences in outcomes.

Saying this is about flawed logic is a mistake as the idea is not based in logic but rather on the wild variation exhibited during the process of raising children.


I think the idea behind it is the parenting approach. A hypothesis about it is that it results in children earning more money, but that's not inherent to the concept.


Jared Diamond, in his book "The Day Before Yesterday", talks about how children in Papua New Guinea when he was an anthropologist there would play at making a garden or raising pigs. The kid would have a toy, wooden pig, and then eventually be given a piglet, and then gradually their "play" would become more realistic until it shaded into adult work.

My daughter, as a youngun', wanted to play "coffeeshop" where she would set up a coffeeshop at home and charge her mother and I for drinks. I think this says something about how much she saw the inside of coffeeshops while I was programming there.

The main obstacle to still using the play-better-until-it's-real path, is that we don't have a good way for kids to see what adults are doing, in most jobs. Otherwise, their natural instincts are still to "play" at doing what they see the adults doing.


Yeah I'm pretty sure that Christopher Alexander makes this point in one of his books, maybe A Pattern Language

He says that suburbs are configured "wrong", in a way that's antithetical to life.

Because the children go to school somewhere nearby, where they are babysat, and the fathers (at that time) commute to work in the city.

And the children have no idea what their parents do, and that is alienating. The configuration of space diminishes people and relationships. They don't see their parents enough and they don't learn from them.

Children want to learn from "real" work, not the fake work of school, which is why so many of them can't sit still in class, and get poor grades despite being smart, etc.

That work/suburb split definitely describes how I grew up, so I remember that point very distinctly. You are supposed to jump through hoops for 12 years, and then apply to a place where you jump through 4 more years of hoops, etc. But you are confused about how the world actually works. It's not a good way of teaching people to be adaptable to the world.


> Children want to learn from "real" work, not the fake work of school, which is why so many of them can't sit still in class, and get poor grades despite being smart, etc.

Furthermore, you could argue that not paying attention to more abstract lessons is actually way more rational of a decision than sitting straight and taking notes. The human brain is expensive to run, and our ancestors didn't survive by squandering calories to process worthless information.

In contrast, as any parent can attest, when kids see something that has clear real-world benefits for them (e.g. Minecraft), they'll jump in with unequaled gusto and learn everything they possibly can.


So much right. Children do pay attention and many times get glued to the thing they see we adults really value. Since for most of the families formal education is not the thing their world revolves around (except people in university jobs/professors), children don't gel as well with the books, as they do with other things we value (for example, our phones or TV).


That's an intriguing point. I always thought children of professors/teachers would be better in school because their parents would push them (gently!) in that direction (and because they are probably genetically inclined to be good learners...), but this type of indirect watching of their parents and what they value must have quite a big impact as well (also in that the parents are natural role models). My parents had quite a hands-off approach (they're not teachers, as you might have guessed ;)) and I subsequently didn't care much about my grades or certain school subjects that I found uninteresting.


I feel fortunate in that regard, in that I work from home and we homeschool our children[0]. Not only do they have a chance to see how adults work, but I they also get more opportunities to see how adults interact with each other in general. I also get a chance to be more a part of their childhood, which is a nice plus.

[0] Don't worry, they socialize with plenty of other people


I think in coming decades, homeschool might be the more sought after education for families that are able to afford it (which will be sad for public schools). It makes sense to allow kids more leeway in what they study and apply, especially with how available knowledge is on the internet (eg. Khan Academy and Wikipedia). Literally just playing Wikipedia races to get from one topic to another is probably more productive than some history or science classes.

I do wonder though how you managed to get enough socialization time with other people. Scheduling that seems like a massive pain unless there are also a lot of other families homeschooling nearby and in the same age group.


My daughter has also homeschooled, but by now there are lots of part-time options. She goes to school once a week, gets assigned a lot of homework, and works on that the rest of the week. It gives her some socialization, and also practice at time management (not leaving everything until the last day).

I think homeschooling is a lot easier than it was 20 years ago, in regards getting enough opportunities for socialization. Pandemics, now, they still are an obstacle...


Even as someone who had a reasonably good public school experience, I see no reason to be sad for them. Even accounting for inflation, funding for public schools continues to go up while quality stays flat or declines.

As for socialization, we have a large homeschool community near us. The community has regularly scheduled gatherings, and provides a way for families to work together on teaching various subjects. Other organizations like community sports, 4H, etc. are also good options.

However, it should be noted that socialization won't be (and shouldn't be) exactly like the socialization one receives in public school. The social reality of public school is very strange and not at all like the social reality of the adult world. Homeschooling provides an opportunity to shape the child's social reality to prepare them better for the adult world.


Guys, education design IS social design. It's the number one biggest feature of social design. Homeschooling is expensive. The cheapest is no school, kids stay home and hang out in the neighborhood unsupervised while parents are busy. Integrating them into workplaces is expensive, I'd argue the most expensive of all. It's a neat concept, but let's acknowledge that it is a luxury not everyone can afford.


As a teacher, this resonates. For many, the knowledge and skills development in school is too abstract.

An aside: Is ‘take your child to work day’ even a thing anymore?


I work at Google which (before COVID, of course) had a take your kid to work day every year. But it always seemed strangely structured. They would set up a bunch of separate activities for kids to do and the parents would go hang out there and do those with them.

It ended up looking at lot more like "take your kid to the office" to me, which sort of defeated the point. But I don't know if there's a good solution when the work adults do is just staring at a screen.

I think about this a lot with my screen-based hobbies too. I'd love to share them with the kids more, but they are just totally opaque. The kids seeing me really can't tell the difference between "filing taxes", "programming", "watching YouTube", "making music", etc.

Knowledge work really doesn't align well with how kids naturally learn.


Pair programming?


I used to work at ASOS in London where they had a 'bring your parents to work' day. At the time (2015ish) more than half the staff were under 30yo.

Mum got a tour of the office, did workshops with the CEO and other leaders. It was pretty cool.


I have been in a couple of companies where they have had the "bring your child to work day" concept. Though it happens very rarely (maybe 1-2 times per year) I doubt that it has any impact.


It is for the parents and for the company, not for the kids. And, as it happened to a colleague of mine, it can be a sad day for those who cannot bring their kids to work on that day (e.g., disabilities, death). I would get rid of those days, stat.


You just sparked the thought in my head about how much has the pandemic changed this?

With myself working from home and my kids being virtual that they have been to see what my day to day is like.

I think they realize that I have too many meetings and how much it stops me from getting real/deep work done..


I believe Jane Jacobs also discusses the same point in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


I fail to see how living in a city changes this substantially. The white collar knowledge work that's driving the economy of modern cities is not something kids there see much of either.


I really like this post, especially the point about visibility of job details for children. We don't talk about it enough. We don't draw connections between play skills and career paths. By the time I was making study decisions that would start to dictate my job opportunities, I had no idea what options were out there. A couple of work experience placements isn't enough.

One of my jobs is in tourism photography. For some projects, I just go on holiday with my kids, speculatively take photos/videos and then sell them to tourism authorities. It works well. My 6 and 8 year olds came to me at some point and asked, "Is your job to make people want to go on holiday?" Pretty much, yep. And so they have an incentive to help (more effective I am, more holidays we go on) and they see what goes into it - getting up for sunrises, capturing moments, editing, sharing the shots, etc. It's a serious contrast to my other job(s) where they'd guess computers are involved but wouldn't know what goes on - my fault, because I've never stopped to explain it.


There's a working theory that you could do this with anything. A cool story to read is the Polgar family. His daughters became some of the best chess players of their time.

>Polgár and his wife considered various possible subjects in which to drill their children, "including mathematics and foreign languages," but they settled on chess. "We could do the same thing with any subject, if you start early, spend lots of time and give great love to that one subject," Klara later explained. "But we chose chess. Chess is very objective and easy to measure."[3] His eldest daughter Susan described chess as having been her own choice: "Yes, he could have put us in any field, but it was I who chose chess as a four-year-old... I liked the chessmen; they were toys for me." [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_Polg%C3%A1r


Judit Polgár is to this day the greatest woman chess player of all time. She retired but is still the coach of Hungary's national team.


I had no idea that she still holds such a distinction, thanks for pointing that out! I'm always in awe of their accomplishments.

wow, I always thought he had adopted his children. But he didn't, they were his own. It's written that he thought about adopting boys later in life but didn't. Still, I'm shocked that I remember this so wrong. Thanks for posting.


Very interesting. However, there is also the other camp that says let children stay children as long as possible. I wonder if that's conflicting with your line of thought.

PS: This is one of the best discussion I have ever read on HN. This article is inspiring in many ways.


book is called "the world until yesterday"


Yeah, I found this weird: "We treat "playing" and "hobbies" as qualitatively different from "work". It's not clear to a kid building a treehouse that there's a direct (though long) route from that to architecture or engineering. "

There is not really a route from such playing to engineering except for the general kinds of reasoning involved. It's a cute idea, but does not seem very useful.


I disagree. I'd say there is a pretty direct route. The kid is trying to construct a building. They face great many object-level challenges: what materials to use, where to get them, how to connect them, how to make the structure stable, how to reduce work, etc. Behind each challenge is a field of study for the kid to dabble in, in order to overcome the problem.

"Real" architecture and civil engineering, as done by adult professionals, deals with exact same challenges (and then some more). The work is more complex, you need to explore relevant fields of study much deeper (and professional education gives you just that, in a structured way), but it's fundamentally the same thing, just in hard mode.


I disagree with your disagreement!

Anyone who has built a personal project and a real-world professionally engineered project knows that the actual tasks involved are wildly different. What you think the correct solution is becomes a tertiary consideration. You need to consider the desires of stakeholders, money people, regulators, and quite a few others. Designing a treehouse for fun and designing a professional solution to a list of sometimes contradictory constraints and optimizations scratch some very different itches.

One is very clearly play and one is very clearly work.


I mean, that's also true of hacking game mods as a kid vs. actual programming for money as an adult. But many professional programmers got their start by just playing around with computers as a kid.


Right, the business and politics parts are orthogonal to the engineering or programming parts. They are general facts of life you can't escape regardless of your vocation.


> You need to consider the desires of stakeholders, money people, regulators, and quite a few others.

You mean, like, parents? :).

I don't see the difference. The considerations you listed can sometimes dominate the object-level work, but they're also mostly generic skills for all creative white collar jobs. The core that distinguishes an architect from an aviation engineer or a graphic designer - this is the treehouse stuff.


Have you ever built a treehouse? It is both architecture and engineering.


Another aspect of personal projects is that if they’re truly enjoyable they can be a kind of salve for burnout.* If you feel like you can’t even open your IDE, a personal project can generate the excitement that reinvigorates your passion.

There’s also less of a speed limit with personal projects — the things like: “before you go down that road let’s talk with X; hold off on that idea for now; let’s wait until...”

This freedom is conducive to learning new things. My career success rests heavily on skills I gained pursuing personal projects, where I was able to try ridiculously complicated or “out there” ideas. I’ve worked for people in the past who were strongly against me spending free time on personal projects, but benefited from all the skills I had gained doing so. Beware of this mindset — it’s fear based and leads to unsuccessful outcomes in other ways.

* Side note is: careful not to burn out on what’s supposed to be a fun personal project.


Paul Graham's essay really resonated with me - I was saying 'yes, yes!' as I read every sentence. But I think the most important bit for me is in your comment: "This freedom is conducive to learning new things."

I have many projects; I've always been this way. School work was interesting (sometimes) but things only got really interesting when I took something from school and turned it into something of my own. Like the time I decided that while atlases were really interesting, building my own atlas with different continents and countries would be much more fun[1]. Or the thing that happened when, after a couple of weeks of starting to learn French I decided: I can do better than that![2].

I taught myself how to build websites not because I wanted a job building websites - it turns out that building other people's websites is quite boring, though the money comes in useful. I learned to code because I wanted to show off my work on my projects to other people - even if the displays looked nonsensical (or, as family members have suggested: a waste of time). For instance I've learned a lot about designing and building fonts, and had much enjoyment doing the work, even though the end products will never be used by anyone else[3][4]. The face that, as a consequence, I can now have heated arguments with designers about font kerning issues is a useful byproduct of my hobby, nothing more.

[1] - Example map: http://rikweb.org.uk/map/images/bigmap.jpg

[2] - I called the result Gevey: http://gevey.rikweb.org.uk/

[3] - Example font: http://www.rikweb.co.uk/kalieda/oyis/index.php?page=script

[4] - Another example font because this one is a bit mad: http://www.rikweb.co.uk/kalieda/wakat/index.php?page=script-...


I disagree about the sidenote. go for it. get as far as you can.


I'm curious, why push through on a fun personal project into causing burnout? Asking for...a friend.


I guess I have a different theory of burnout. to me it happens when I can't connect the dots anymore. its not because I worked too hard. company found a vertical and how I spend all my time trying to fix 'bugs' that are really because the product is being mis-applied. most of the senior team left and its clear that we aren't going to be taking on any other work than cleaning up. sales are flagging and its clear that the whole narrative was corrupt to begin with.

the only projects I can remember, paid or not, are the ones that took up a huge fraction of my output and really did something cool. do that. shoot big. make something really different.

don't turn programming into sitting at the end of an queue, picking up random things and gamifying retiring them as fast you can. you have a chisel. make a sculpture.


Amen.


Do you remember in Uni pulling all nighters for projects / classes? It was stressful, often painful, often resulting in you being a mess for a few days afterwards. If you did this, you'd know it had all the signs of burnout attached to it.

And yet... sometimes your projects ended up super cool and you were really really proud of them and when you showed them off you felt really accomplished. And sometimes that feeling is worth a little foray into burnout world.


I once wrote that "My dream is to, one day, work for free."

I am now living that dream. When I left my last company, in 2017, I looked at working for someone else, but was almost immediately told that no one wants old men. It was pretty crushing.

But I went and set up a corporation that allows me to get equipment and testing kit, and started to write my own stuff. I explored surveillance cameras and ONVIF, as well as Bluetooth (I'm pretty good with devices -I've been working on them all my life. I started as an EE, and actually played with Heathkits when I was a kid).

I'm now working on a very ambitious social media app. It's probably months down the road, but it will happen. I always ship. I've been doing it all my adult life. This project is the kind and scope that is usually done by a team of 10-20 engineers (I also wrote the backend from scratch, three years ago), but I've been doing it alone. I just started working with another guy that will be adding a dashboard to the server.

If you look at the projects in my portfolio, you will see heavy-duty, industrial-strength code; not sloppy "hobby" code. The code Quality is out of this world, they all have a lot more testing code than implementation code, and the documentation is over-the-top complete.

I learned, long ago, to make my "hobbies" "ship" projects. That way, everything I do is useful.

And that is what makes me happy. I like to finish stuff; and having people use my stuff is the best way to validate its completeness.

That said; despite the completeness of my work, it isn't particularly popular, which is just fine by me. I tend to "eat my own dog food," and use a lot of my libraries in my own work. The less that people other than myself depend on my work, the more freedom I have to form it to my own needs. I take Stewardship of my work seriously.


I wish I could have more of that "ship" mentality. I have dozens of quite interesting personal projects that are stuck in the 80% complete state, because ultimately the final stages of releasing a project just aren't fun to me (bug fixing, tests, docs, build systems, code polish)


Shipping is boring as hell. Lots of not-fun stuff. I generally have to force myself to polish the fenders. For example, one of the things I always do, is create a project social media card for my repos. Silly, but it helps me to feel like it's "for real."

But it's really nice to know that I can include one of my projects as a dependency, and not have to worry a bit about whether or not it will bork my project.


Funny, for me not shipping is a source of anxiety and I get paralyzed at the getting started point.


So do you make a living from your current company, or are you living off past income/superannuation etc.?


Basically, the latter, but I'd like to get back to making money. It just hasn't been an option.

I'm not kidding. The door was slammed on me, quite hard (I think part of it was because I live in New York. New York's ageism problem is much worse than Silicon Valley's). I'm very fortunate, in being able to work on my own. I can't imagine what it must be like for the folks that don't have that option.


In the immortal words of 'nostromo, which I still have printed on a t-shirt:

No job is the goal. No money is the problem.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8987008


That's a keeper!

Thanks!


I love it. I think I'll print it out on a big banner above my home office.

I wake up every day dreaming of retirement: when I will be free to do (or not do) my best work.


That does suck. I guess there are different approaches you could take to work around it, e.g. spamming more companies or filtering out certain types of company, what kind of numbers did you put in? Do you think an early, unpleasant rejection could have discouraged you prematurely?


I did write a big whiny rant, but deleted it. I don't think it adds to the conversation.

Let's just say that I can't work in today's industry, and maintain my personal sense of Integrity.

It's not them; it's me. My choice.


Actually I read it before you deleted it haha.

Curious if you think some sort of independent contractor style would work in your situation? I'm not experienced in that type of workstyle, but it seems like companies with less long term investment in training, benefits etc would care less about age, as long as you deliver.


That was the company that dissed me. They want young, fresh-faced contractors.

I can hang my own shingle, but I don't have a network.


I’m in a similar boat. Previously built vaporware costing millions of dollars of seed money. Now I have my own project and although it makes no money it is awesome to see people use it and exciting to see people share it on social media.


Social media apps are very hard to monetize, since consumer only want free, and hence you would need traffic, which is very hard to get.

Why not do B2B. The market is much more fragmented and thus you can always find a niche.


Not for monetization.

It is a free app, done by a 501(c)(3), and targets a specific demographic (recovering drug addicts). That said, it has an architecture that could, quite easily, be adapted for monetization, but that's not why we're doing it.

When I said "I'm working for free," I meant it. The people I'm working with are getting something way beyond what they expected. It would be silly to attach a dollar figure to the work. The government doesn't let you write off sweat equity.


> It's a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

The current educational system seems to turn off high school kids (anecdotal evidence being my own) from pursuing anything remotely school like. If there is mention of a "project" it is perceived as interfering with their time away from school which is usually involving sports, friends, video games, and media consumption (netflix, youtube, etc.)

I want my kids to explore opportunities to find something that sparks their interest enough where they are excited about spending time on it, pursuing it on their own. I think this will help them identify areas of interest for college and their future.

Any ideas on how to do this without it seeming like its "school" work?


> it's a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

Charles Darwin ...University of Edinburgh Medical School (at the time the best medical school in the UK) ...father sent him to Christ's College, Cambridge, to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree ...In his final examination in January 1831 Darwin did well, coming tenth out of 178 candidates for the ordinary degree.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.


I think PG is right, at least about Darwin. Darwin's father pushed him to study medicine, which he wasn't especially interested in. Darwin did okay grade-wise but goofed off a lot with his hobby in naturalism. His father didn't even want him to go on the trip on the Beagle!


Didn't the wealthy also have amazing tutors..? Today tutors are more for people who are behind but I think back then tutors would fulfill the role that the web plays today. Except way more effectively.


People need incentives, and being competitive in school-like activities provides them.

Universities have been moving away from evaluating candidates from raw academic or scholastic perspectives. For instance, removing standardized testing from the process. [1,2,3] This has raised concerns and considerable pushback from parents. It raises the uncertainty of admission, even if they raise a child to do everything right and mold them into the standard high achieving student.

Of course, not unwarranted concerns: how do we fairly evaluate a student's external achievements without picking favorites. There is no objective measure to solve that problem.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/15/us/SAT-scores-uc-universi...

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/harvard-university-wont-require...

[3] https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/a-special-announcement...


I was asking how to get kids to explore things where they might find something that sparks them to desire to spend time on "A Project of One's Own".

Competition in school or school-like activities is a fabricated incentive that doesn't have anything to do with kids doing what Paul is talking about with "A Project of One's Own". Chasing a GPA leads to a feedback loop akin to "keeping up with the Joneses" and basically the "plodding along" path in life.


Where do you find the balance between spending time maximizing your child's entry into a safe and secure future versus entertaining their passions? Not that being passionate about something and school-like activities are mutually exclusive anyway. Anyway, kids are far too young to decide what they want to do, so college is a good time and place for that already. Most students coming in to top universities come in undeclared.

Maybe Paul's kids have that privilege to go down that riskier alternative. For many others, its non existent and frankly, it is tone deaf.


As a (relatively new) father, I think about this a lot. The way I see it, when I was my kid's age, we used to have middle-class opportunities for A students, B students, C students and D students. Maybe A students went on to good universities and did really well, B students went to college or something but still lived a solid middle class life, C students maybe could do a little community college and still eek out a living, and D students got by with hard work and some assistance. There was a reasonable shot at a middle path for everyone. But now the middle class is disappearing, and society is very quickly bifurcating into two classes: "Well off" and "Crippling poverty/prison". The bar is higher and the stakes are higher now than when I was a kid. The world is now a brutal and competitive slug-fest for those shrinking number of top slots, and if my kid doesn't get one of them, she's doomed to a really tough life. Only the top-tier of the A students gets a crack at "well off" and the rest--will be left behind. There's no middle path anymore. There is a huge tidal wave of inequality coming, and I am willing to sacrifice to ensure my kid gets on one of the few boats left. She can figure out what she's passionate about once she's safely on the boat.


I actually learned this lesson playing World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online game. You see in WoW there is a huge timesink of effort required to beat the game. We're talking thousands of hours of gameplay. It's a social game, and the more skilled the people that you are with, the quicker that comes. It's also an RPG, meaning that you need to do x to do x+1.

The playerbase therefore learns the most optimal way to do everything the fastest possible way, and they call that the meta. The meta is almost always monotonous and boring. It's a terrible way to play the game, but if it gets you to be playing with a cool group of people, people will bore themselves to death.

Another aspect of the meta is that being an RPG, you are just about forced to stick to one character. When a patch is added to the game and your character goes from the storngest to the weakest, your social status drops considerably. But no problem, because in a few months another patch might launch that switches the balance. The group of people that you deal with therefore need to treat you well when you are weak so that you will stay with them when you are strong.

The neat thing with WoW is it's 15 years old, there have been many many cycles, and all of the people driven to play this way have long since burned themselves out. We see numbers for what they are. We see the social status games.

The balance is to ignore the numbers and find the people. The people going to Stanford might just be on average better people than going to your local State University, but if you can find people to fill out your social circle within your State university that meet your criteria, do that. If you can sacrifice a little bit of effort to move yourself somewhere slightly better to get around better people, maybe that's worth it. But don't sacrifice everything for Moloch.

And the lesson you learn once you give up the numbers, that we all intuitively know anyway, is that you very quickly get BIGGER numbers than those chasing it. Capability comes from the feedback of learning and doing. When you do stuff for fun and feel pain when you mess up, you become motivated to learn, which gives you more opportunity to play. So there was actually no balance after-all, the dominant choice was always to play.

So here's to play. Here's to WoW. A gigantic waste of time that has taught me many of lives most important lessons.


> being competitive in school-like activities provides them

To an extent. I keep wondering, wouldn't it be better if schools/universities were structured as PvE challenges, not PvP ones? Trying to elicit a culture of collaboration, instead of pitting students against each other?

I may be strongly biased, because I hate competition outside of games[0], and competitive incentives generally make me stop caring.

--

[0] - Particularly, games in which points are fake and only matter for brief status rewards and after-play joking.


If I was a Professor teaching the same class to two different sections, it would be really neat to give the entire winning section extra credit based on the difference between the average values of the two sections. This would encourage group study and would ultimately lead to students helping their other classmates out. And since teaching is the best way to learn, everyone would do better.

Maybe you don't even need two sections. Just split the class into two teams? Has this been tried anywhere?


That's still a "student vs. student" mindset, just one that incorporates a form of collective punishment, which is against the Geneva convention. It's an absolutely atrocious idea.


The problem is that, if both teams are randomly selected, then they should be expected to have equal underlying performance, and the only thing your grades are measuring is noise. It is unfair when one winds up with a team that happens to contain outlier students through sheer luck of the draw.

The law of large numbers would smooth these kinds of things out, but a single semester is not a very long time, and we don't want classes to have large numbers of students.


Collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive. Competition does not always result in self-determination. For instance, people mentor others because they might learn something new themselves or grow their network. Thus, you can enjoy collaborating with others while doing so because of your competitive ambitions.


It's the question of who are you competing with, and how hard. That's why I mentioned PvE and PvP games. I find a fair competition against a (widely understood) environment fine. I dislike competing against my fellow players.

As an example: our class at the university was somewhat unique in that, unlike most other departments/subjects, our scholarships were thresholded only by grade average. So, where students in other classes were competing against each other to reach the few top spots that paid money, in our class, we all helped each other out. Helping another student didn't jeopardize your chances at the scholarship, and it felt nice when the person you helped got the scholarship too. We were playing a PvE game - competing against the grading system. Even though ultimate rewards were given based on individual performance, there was no downside to cooperation.


I have a 9-year-old, and he's pretty much into his "iPad time" where he gets 30 minutes per day. He's got a soccer team which demands a certain amount of time per week, but like most kids he has a lot of free time...

We did two main things:

1) From the age of about 7, we started him on something called "Beast Academy", which is basically a maths course for kids, using examples in a cartoon-like style. He did simultaneous linear equations a month or so back, and I'm pretty sure we didn't do that until I was 11 or so...

He's pretty competitive, so harnessing that and treating it like a competition or puzzle that he could solve was the best way to get him to accept a daily dose of maths, say 2-3 pages of questions in the books. That's not to say there haven't been times when we say "Beast Academy first, iPad after". He is a kid after all...

What we don't do is treat it like schoolwork. We draw the distinction between the two - this stuff is more advanced than his school is teaching, and he understands that doing it now makes it easier in school, which is a win - but treating it as a "joint exploration" thing where we talk about the concepts ahead of time, and then he tries out the questions, then we go over them without worrying about which ones he got right or wrong lets him see the difference between this and school too. It became more like puzzles and fun because we worked at making it more like puzzles and fun.

2) Every two weeks or so we get one of {Makeblock kit[1], AdaBox[2] or Kiwikit[3]}; he got 3 of the large technical lego sets (the 3-4000 block ones) for Xmas; he's seen me programming stuff before (Saltwater fishtank controller, most recently radio telescope software) and he likes building stuff and coding stuff - the kits above (apart from Adabox) often have a guide of what to do to get started then leave it to the imagination, and it's actually interesting to see where he takes them. I'm fairly certain he gets a kick out of the weekly show-what-I-built to grandparents over FaceTime as well.

I also include him in my "building stuff" projects. When I wanted a better solution for hanging the lights off the ceiling over the fishtanks [4], we both sat down, I sketched, I asked him questions and whenever he came up with an idea that I thought would work well, or even if he came up with the same idea I'd already had, I'd say "ok, let's go with that", sparking interest and involvement. Even at age 9, you want some ownership of what's happening :)

When he was 6, actually for his birthday party, I made a lego-boats raceway [5], and since it was for him he gave a lot of input (and wanted to help make it so it was "perfect"). I don't give 6-year-olds power tools but letting him decide where the obstacles ought to go, then doing a test-run, and talking about why the placement matters and letting him change his mind to have something "better" to show his friends was a lot of fun for him, and he got a kick out of talking about why it was better in the current configuration when people came to the party.

We do other things, but the common thread is involvement and ownership, and that also comes with consequence. I'm (generally) fine with him making mistakes and not fixing them myself (unless it's really crucial, I'm not going to let him hurt himself). He gets to understand consequences that way, and (slowly :) learnt that it's better not to always insist on his own way.

At the end of the day, I'm just trying to make him use that brain of his for more than watching videos, and the best way I know of is to make it fun to do. Coincidentally, that makes it fun for me too :) The results manifest in often-unlooked for ways: when we were watching a Saturday night movie he'd chosen (we rotate choice) and after a giant 60' tall baboon-like creature had jumped up an improbably large distance, he turned to me and said "that wasn't right - he's strong because he's big but he's really heavy too". There's looking, and there's seeing. I'm trying to teach him to see by learning to do.

[1] https://www.makeblock.com

[2] https://www.adafruit.com/adabox

[3] https://www.kiwico.com

[4] https://i.imgur.com/46jq2XM.jpg

[5] http://lego-boats.oobergeek.net


This is all good stuff. My kids are older and in high school so there is a change in attitude from their 9-12 year old versions to now that comes with being nearly an adult, legally speaking. There is only so much "spend X time on Y" you can do because the goal, at least ours, is to prepare them for life on their own. They need to do their schoolwork on their own without nagging. If we micro-manage their work, how will they succeed later on in college? They need to think about career options to at least narrow down schools that have potential majors. I'm not talking about deciding on a career, just give it some thought.

As an example of how their thinking changes (at least my kids and others), when they know the grading rubric the teacher uses and they have a B, they can do the math to figure out if an A is even possible. If its not, why bother with extra effort there? (that is their thinking)

In software terms this is like solving 80% of a performance problem by fixing a minor thing that was causing it. You are wasting effort to try and bring performance back much further.

Anyways I think what might work is just to get them to do something creative over the summer as a "project" but they choose it and work on it.


You mention in the epilogue that you would use plastic sheeting instead of directly waterproofing the 8'x4' plywood sheets -- that would also make the plywood somewhat more re-purposeable.

How loud were all the pumps combined? You mention there was a bounce house, were the pumps quieter than that?


Pumps were inaudible - I mean a birthday party full of 5-8 year-olds isn't a quiet environment, but:

- the pumps were submerged

- I put a rubber mat on the bottom of the big black rubbermaid container, though the thinking here was to stop them bumping around rather than noise per se

- and the connection to the raceway was via flexible tubing, so there was no vibration transfer.

Overall I'd expect the pumps to be one of the least-loud parts of the system , the flowing water was way louder, and that's not very loud.

I've since bought myself a 4'x3' laser-cutter [1] (and many projects have been jointly undertaken as a result :), and the plywood has been satisfactorily repurposed (one side is fine, so I just made sure the side I had painted previously wasn't visible. There's lots of projects where re-using is pretty simple :)

[1] https://i.imgur.com/IiIvFFv.jpg


Great write up Paul.

An interesting add in my opinion is that one can also do great work when working on a project not of your own origination but of an area where one's interests lie or where visions intersect.

>"You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don't last long, because then you're on to the next problem. So why do it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way, nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you're an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive."

While the above does ring true to some extent, one can also approach all tasks with a sense of being awake and alive; This is something some eastern religions preach about. I do admit that this will be hard to implement in practice though. i

One person who was able to test out their own ideas while working for others is Nikola Tesla. He might be used a case study by others with grand visions who want to do great work. Although, it can be argued that Tesla had to at some point seek independence.

"In 1883, Nikola Tesla was sent by his employer - The Continental Edison Company- to fix the problem that had occurred in the powerhouse and electric lights installation at the railroad station in Strassburg. This presented him with the opportunity to test out his theory of a two phase alternating current motor encompassing his rotary magnetic field discovery [at that time, everyone who had tried to make an alternating current motor used a single circuit]. He set to work and tested his theory in the power plant. He was successful in starting up the power generator with this new system. This meant that Tesla now had a novel electrical system that utilised alternating current."

The above was taken from https://leveragethoughts.substack.com/p/cracking-the-who-you...


You could look at Tesla different ways. Tesla claimed Edison withheld a promised bonus and then Tesla left to directly work on his own projects for the rest of his life.


"This is why it is a mistake to insist dogmatically on the 'work/life balance'. In fact, the phrase 'work/life' alone embodies an error: it assumes that work and life are distinct."

A beaten horse if there is one. It's not a matter of being dogmatic or seeing the 6 sides of a die. It's that, as PG says between the lines, for most people there is no particular excitement about work. For some it depends on the working conditions, for many it's their personality. I don't look for any particular excitement at work: I'm happy to work a few hours a day for a great paycheck on something I more or less enjoy.

PG, who writes as someone who has had overall a terrific time at work, by focusing only on work misses the larger behavioral point. Let me offer an example: I don't know these days, but looking at PG's photos from a few years ago, I can say with certainty that he was, and I hope for his sake that he is no longer, in not very good physical shape. I've worked out all my life, playing individual and team sports, in the gym alone and with others, and for me exercising and playing sports has overall been tremendous fun and has contributed greatly to who I am, what I've done, and what I'm doing. But I suspect for PG, to go to the gym or sweat or do anything physical has to be unpleasant, if not a nightmare. And I'm fine with that, he'd rather be doing other things, he's probably (I'm speculating here) not particularly athletically gifted, and since he's a very smart person, he can probably come up with 15 different rationalizations as to why he avoids doing enough physical activity to look better, feel better, and greatly reduce his risk of getting sick now and in the future. But, and I don't think I'm exaggerating here, it's likely that he simply doesn't like to exercise and there's no narrative about Olympic medals, great feats of physical endurance, or any dream of looking like a Greek god that would convince him to become a gym rat. Similarly, there is no Apple story that could push me toward a 12-hour workday (or whatever time is being talked about) working for others (assuming I can avoid doing so)..


I had a mentor at GE who loved this line, and her big point was less about the excitement and more about engaging and living in the moment. When we make a strong split between work and life, we tend to just check out and coast, to not engage and be present during work because you feel like it doesn't matter. Her big push was that it's all life. Work is a big portion of your time, so if you ignore it you're missing a huge portion of what finite time you have. Hearing it that way made a huge impact on me. With a workout analogy, it's the difference between exercise and a planned workout. With exercise, there's not much plan or engagement; you might run or lift a few weights absent-mindedly. By engaging with it, you can get much more out of your effort, planning to workout different muscle groups or help increase endurance.

I am one of those who insist on a strict separation between "me at work" and "me not at work". Mostly because over the last few decades, I have identified that spending almost all of my time in "work" mode is basically not good for me. Doesn't really matter if whatever "non-work" activity I am doing is superficially similar to what the work activity may be.

Doesn't mean I don't care 9or coast, or whatever= about work. Doesn't mean I religiously drop work at HH:MM (but, unless there's something that is urgent at HH:MM, then I probably will push that to first thing tomorrow).

I would instead make the workout analogy that proper work/life balance is akin to taking rest/recovery time between working a specific muscle group. If you are always working out, with no time for recovery, you end up with injuries that eventually will make workout impossible.


"Her big push was that it's all life. Work is a big portion of your time, so if you ignore it you're missing a huge portion of what finite time you have. Hearing it that way made a huge impact on me."

I disagree. It is not black and white. The options are not between working 14 hours a day or not working. There is a huge space where someone can find the best position for them. I am one of those lunatics who between making x for 3 hours a day and x for 14 hours a day, prefers to make x (it is not a typo, it is the same money) working 3 hours a day. Call me crazy. Then, if I want to work more or I get "wired in" for 3 days, fine. But another day I may want to go fishing.

Most of us, myself included, are cogs in a machine in the workplace and thinking otherwise is delusional. Getting fired is the best lesson one can take from work. Which does not mean one has to be unprofessional or a slacker. I am very professional, I take care of people working with me, and I take pride in a good presentation, piece of code or model. After all, if you want a job badly done, it is counterintuitively not the worst idea to give the job to someone with a strong passion for the job or a volunteer. At least, that has been my experience. If we continue my analogy with sports, I have found that "getting the job done" is not strongly correlated with having the most passion for the activity. Not not having none, to be clear, just not the strongest.

Now, if someone finds a job with agency, building an infra that have they have been thinking about forever, with a fantastic upside and little downside, that's another ballgame. That's the alignment of personality and work that make work feel like play. And someone may say, if you don't have that blend of work and life is because you did not find the right job for you. Which is equivalent to say that people who are crashing on the couch with a bag of Doritos every night just have to find the right sports for them.


I agree that's not black and white; rather, that the separation into work and life pushes you into the mentality to see it as black and white. I agree that there are options between working all the time and not working. As I discussed, it's all life. You're interpretation is that I said that everything is work. You conflate "there's no such thing as work/life balance; it's all life" with "work is what brings me satisfaction," mostly because a lot of people that push the mantra are people like PG who are that way. But it's really deeper than that. It's closer to not discounting yourself or your time and being present in the moment at all times. It's realizing that despite the fact we are cogs in a machine, we still have the opportunity to be mindful and engage with life around us. Even if you only work that 3 hours a day, that's still 10% of your week that you'd just discount from your life. You don't have to like it. You don't have to yearn for it or enjoy it. But it's part of your life, so be present for it.

It's an interesting point that you make, there are definitely differences in personality in how we approach work.

I think you could learn to like putting in 12 hour days if you were working on something that you enjoyed sufficiently that it didn't feel like work. I feel that way sometimes with side projects ( read attempts to bootstrap a software business.) Sometimes I have to drag myself away from it, and I think about it when I'm showering, eating, on vacation, or even sometimes during sex (that last one doesn't end well.)

I was like PG in that I never played sports or did exercise, and was terrible at both, but now I'm a gym rat. So people can change.


People can change, but in the end it's all probabilities and statistical distributions: it's much easier to be constantly exercising all our lives or working hard all our lives than to have a Damascus moment and radically change our ways (and it's much easier to move in the direction of less, rather than more, effort or commitment).

I don't want my comment to be seen as dunking on PG, who I only know through his work, which we all respect if not admire. But I remember seeing a picture of PG taken at one of the YC events a few years ago and immediately thinking " this physical condition is approaching heart-attack risk". From reading his tweets, from which it's clear how much he loves his kids, it's easy to come to the conclusion that we all have some sort of ongoing cognitive dissonance and convenient rationalizations for whatever behavior we support or defend. I could make up all kinds of rationalizations for why work-life balance is important and spending time with our families is fulfilling and cite that shaky study about people on their deathbeds who say they regret spending too much time at work and not enough time with their loved ones.

Yes, a more exciting work environment, with more agency, surrounded by brilliant people is more inviting (for some!) than working in a top-down, no-agency workplace. But most of all, I confess that I don't like to spend too much time working, which doesn't mean I love not doing anything, but that I don’t like working the way we normally think of it, which can include: managers, deadlines, commuting, finding someone to cover for us when we have to go to the hospital when a parent isn't feeling well, performance reviews, or the usual start-up issues we all know.


> People can change, but in the end it's all probabilities and statistical distributions: it's much easier to be constantly exercising all our lives or working hard all our lives than to have a Damascus moment and radically change our ways (and it's much easier to move in the direction of less, rather than more, effort or commitment).

Yes, that's right. People CAN change, but they usually don't.

> But I remember seeing a picture of PG taken at one of the YC events a few years ago and immediately thinking " this physical condition is approaching heart-attack risk". From reading his tweets, from which it's clear how much he loves his kids, it's easy to come to the conclusion that we all have some sort of ongoing cognitive dissonance and convenient rationalizations for whatever behavior we support or defend.

You could just as easily be describing my dad. I'm going to call him on the cognitive dissonance next time we Skype. I don't expect he will change, see the first point, but I have to try.

> I could make up all kinds of rationalizations for why work-life balance is important and spending time with our families is fulfilling and cite that shaky study about people on their deathbeds who say they regret spending too much time at work and not enough time with their loved ones.

I would say that's very true. Balance is important, but one might temporarily balance things at an unsustainable level to achieve an important goal. Or one might find other ways of compensating. I'm a workaholic, but I balance that with my marriage by spending almost no time on outside relationships. My wife gets almost all my free time, so it's functional.

> Yes, a more exciting work environment, with more agency, surrounded by brilliant people is more inviting (for some!) than working in a top-down, no-agency workplace. But most of all, I confess that I don't like to spend too much time working, which doesn't mean I love not doing anything, but that I don’t like working the way we normally think of it, which can include: managers, deadlines, commuting, finding someone to cover for us when we have to go to the hospital when a parent isn't feeling well, performance reviews, or the usual start-up issues we all know.

Well you're talking about the same plodding kind of work PG is talking about. Who enjoys that or wants to overwork on that (unless there's some concrete benefit that makes it worthwhile for temporarily doing so.) I don't overwork on my day job. I will put in more hours if it's an emergency, but then I take that time off afterwards when things settle down. I don't ask permission, I just say I worked overtime yesterday to fix the problem we had, so Friday will be a half-day for me. If an employer objected you can bet next time there's an emergency I will leave it until the next day.

I overwork on my own projects, and that's fine by me. That's also when I feel most alive and happy (at least when things are going well) - even more sore than playing games or drinking with friends or whatever other activity I enjoy.


> It's that, as PG says between the lines, for most people there is no particular excitement about work.

It's because "most people" earn money by selling their labor out of a finite 24-hour day, but PG is a Venture Capitalist whose capital works 24/7.


But it's not just PG, who at this point I doubt cares much about ROI, the work/balance debate has been going on since the dawn of time.

Every time after one of the surgeries I had, my main concern was not how long it would take to get back to work, but how long it would take to get back to training. And I don't get paid to work out, but I absolutely love it. I like looking good, feeling good, feeling capable. When I miss a workout, I feel guilty. The other guys at the gym show up once every 3 weeks and probably think I'm crazy. And I instinctively think they are slackers with no self-respect. But upon further reflection, I say that we are just different people.

And on the work side, some people like to work or be a part of something bigger than themselves (Apple, Steve Jobs, Coinbase!), or interestingly enough, just be busy with paperwork.


Good point, and it makes me wonder if it's just a personality thing. Some of the best people I know are never obsessed with anything, and try to maintain things in moderation, while I (and many others) find it easier to be obsessed and driven in a few things, often to the exclusion of other things.


Wow, that's spectacularly missing the point of the essay. Did you even read it?

> What proportion of great work has been done by people who were skating in this sense? If not all of it, certainly a lot.

I used to think like that. However, the years I spent on my masters and on my startup were a watershed.

I was finally working on projects of my very own. But, after some months of extreme excitement, I was resorting to medicine and self help articles to heep me motivated and focused, especially when the boring intricacies started to pop up.

The passion, due to its very nature, fades away.

In my case, I alleviated those issues with method and discipline. They help you overcome the boring parts. The passion even became cyclic, as the growing body of work and solved problems made me feel engaged again.

Nowadays I even feel much better about the plethora of not-my-own-projects I've worked on along my life.


If it helps, I used to be motivated out of sheer wanting to get that thing that was in my head out, and see it working. That might be enough for a youtube video or a product demo with some executives at the company. Heck you can turn that 80% into a real career booster (I've done this), but it's not a production ready product. The last 20% of the work will take 80% of the time. It's really hard to be motivated for that last part. It's all the hard stuff that seems insignificant... and you've already got the cheese.

If you can accomplish it, the trick to staying motivating is to figure out the mental gymnatics to move where you put the cheese in the trap. If you can do that... you have a real chance at being motivated past the proof of concept.


I have come to realize something profoundly fundamental for myself in the last weeks - after seeing this famous marketing video by Steve Jobs and reading a biography of Nike's founder:

My passion for my own project/business is highest whenever my passion is aligned with the passion of my target audience.

In that case, I also believe your chances of success have improved.

Take Nike, for example. Phil Knight was a passionate athlete. He loved sports. However, he was never so good that he could do it for a living. Part of the reason he founded a shoe company back then was to stay in the athlete's business without being an athlete himself. Watch any Nike advertisement and you will not see many words on products, but it's always about how great athletes are.


> My passion for my own project/business is highest whenever my passion is aligned with the passion of my target audience.

This is a critical insight. Taking this out of the business domain and into psychology/philosophy, I think the key question is "What does working on the project mean for me?"

Here's an interesting thought experiment: Take the hobby project you are working on now and imagine that when it was all done, you planned to just delete all the code without another soul ever seeing it. Would you still work on it?

Sometimes the answer is "yes". In those cases, I think the meaning of project is usually either:

1. A way to relax and unwind. Essentially a videogame. It just feels good to use one's skills in a low stakes way.

2. Where the output is to develop your own skills with the expectation that you will use those skills later in ways that touch other people. Essentially piano practice.

If the answer is "no", then you have hit the realization that for many projects, the meaning is intrinsically tied to making something that benefits other humans. This is probably obvious for most but is easily overlooked by us awkward introvert types.

Knowing why you are doing something is key to being able to do it well.


Yes, absolutely. Thanks for sharing your insights. I like the test/thought experiment.

You know, there is also the other camp, and I have been part of it myself. Those who say that you shouldn’t find a passion to follow, and why that’s a foolish and romantic thing to do. But I have switched sides (again).

Why solve problems for people you don’t care about even if that makes you rich? It’s nothing I’d like to do with the limited amount of time I have on this planet.


Thinking about my own projects, a lot of them fall into your #2 (I chose "yes" for your question for some of my projects). There is a #3 that is missing, at least for me, though. That's the category where I work on something just to see if it will work at all. Sure, I'm unwinding and I'm improving my skills, but I really do want to see if I can accomplish the task at hand. I'll often think something like "if I had never heard of image compression (bitmaps were all we had to work with), how would I go about writing an image compression program?" and then try something new without searching the internet for how compression algorithms work for images. These programs will most likely not do as well as something like jpeg, but they are where derive most of my fun from. Maybe some day I'll come up with something truly novel, and then I'll probably panic because I won't know what to do with it.

For me the thing that distinguishes hobby from work is the second 90% of the project.

Working on the ideas, the architecture, the interface and piecing it all together is fun and I don't mind staying up long if I do say a game jam. However, once everything is up and running, you get into the tedium of making the project actually work. This might be fixing all books or making sure that the door on your tree house can, in fact, be closed.

In a hobby project you can say 'good enough' and be done with it. In work setting, not so much.


Sadly, in my experience at least, most commercial software projects also suffer from the "treehouse door doesn't close" problem. I think far too many "professional" developers give up after good enough.


This essay works well if you imagine the audience to be a batch of YC founders, or other entrepreneurial types. I read this essay three times.

First, I read it as pg probably intended - I'm in the midst of founding my own company, and the nature and quality of effort I bring to my own endeavors is orders of magnitude apart from what I bring to an employer. Much of my life growing up has been suffering abuse for choosing to pursue my passion followed by vindication, so the essay rings true for me in that sense.

The second time, I read this essay as an average kid from my underprivileged background might've read it. School was never a path to 'work' (there was plenty of 'work' for the unschooled), it was a route to escape poverty - one of a scant few that were close to reliable. That's the reason having a passion outside of school was frowned upon, you were risking starving any future family you might've had at a point where risk wasn't all that tolerable.

In my last reading, I just saw this essay as pg getting excited about something his kid was doing, and going about highlighting the importance of letting kids be kids - but in a very strange way such that it could fit among his other essays.


This is really nice and particularly resonant with me.

I've spent maybe a good five years obsessed with coding and development in all the ways, but I never went to school for it (I have an MA in philosophy), and have never had a real tech/dev job (I have been a random temp for almost two years now, cook and grubhub before that, and many different jobs before that in kitchens and teaching guitar and such).

I dream in javascript and have many different projects that skew more into art than repertoire/repo ready projects. Out of pure curiosity I have read many many books on programming languages and development strategies. Countless hours troubleshooting and understanding other people's work, learning git, docker, emacs, gradle, bash; learning OOP and SOLID; learning lower level languages. I just eat it up, I love it so much. There is nothing more satisfying to me than grokking it and then showing that understanding by example.

Most friends I talk to say I _should_ get a job doing this stuff I love so much, and I know the kinds of things I _should_ do if I wanted to try that, but that's not really my issue. Its more... I just don't want to jinx it, I don't want to get a job involving something I love so much because it just feels like it would ruin it.

But... life is long and sometimes I wish I had real health insurance, general financial stability, and everything else that goes along with the other side of this compromise. Hard to know.


In my particular position as a professional self-taught dev (working as far from SV as possible), I would say it's a bit of a mix for me. I still obsess about code (more my own than work code), but I just don't have the mental bandwidth to code at work and then go full-bore into my own projects as well. I need to do other things with my time off.

I've occasionally toyed with the idea of taking a less mentally draining career to focus my mental energies on my own things, but I also know I don't want to run a startup or think about money in relation to my own projects, so for now I feel like I'm happy with being on this side of the fence (it helps immensely that I happen to like my company and work).


I can say as someone who fell in love with coding that doing it professionally did not extinguish that fire. Still spent 12 or so hours doing game dev this weekend, and a few hours every night this week.

e: To clarify I started learning in 2013ish, became a full-time dev in late 2015. So 6 years later, still finding joy in the day-to-day, but definitely have a special fire for the pipe-dream projects.


That makes me curious what project you're working on, and you might be interested in my own pipe-dream project!

There's a playfulness in doing something seemingly impossible, because succeeding at it simply means having fun playing with it.


TL;DR multiplayer roguelike (or general tile-based) framework in Typescript

https://github.com/and0p/chaos-core


Oh very cool. You wrote your own ECS. I toyed with ECSY but realized it's not performant for games. Opinionated event messaging hmm.

Mine's a low-res MMO client/server in JS. I loved Ultima Online and experimented with 'military' isometric projection, but landed back on 3D.


Yeah! More accurately just EC, no real systems here.

Roguelikes are highly deterministic and are not real-time, so a system updating all its respective components for every "tick" wouldn't really fit.

The biggest obstacle with roguelike development is the way the components that make up an entity have to communicate in an agnostic way. Think if a wizard tries to freeze a warrior, where in the code/flow do you specify if that is or is not allowed? And what happens when you have extreme edge cases like if a specific area, a status applied to a teammate, or some random event nearby maybe says that the warrior is actually immune to being frozen? And what if the wizard's freeze spell is so powerful that it can ignore all of those obstacles?

The approach I went with is that the EC side is relatively basic but all the components can optionally tap into a flux/redux-style event system, and those messages are very powerful in how they allow themselves to be modified or permitted/allowed while being deterministic.

(And of course the message system allows for easy client/server logic, and super easy unit or integration testing of gameplay systems which hasn't felt like anything I've used before.)

I'm quite liking it so far, hoping to have something more concrete in 5-6 months.


> (I have an MA in philosophy),

Judging by my experience you actually did go to school for it - or at least half of it.

I worked with a few PhDs in this field and it appears that it uniquely prepares one for this line of work.


It's definitely something I would make known/have made known in my resumes/applications, especially my training with modern symbolic logic/metalogic! But yes, even philosophy in general I think has some more organic agreement to coding beyond that.

The hardest language anyone could grok is probably the First Critique and works like that, and really understanding it is quite akin to the abstract kinds of thinking you need for coding.


This touches on one of the most demotivating facets of modern work: the obsession with collaboration.

If you never have any autonomy or space to develop a sense of ownership, outside of being yoked like an ox in a team or mired in the tyranous mediocrity of committees, it's extremely difficult to care about what you are doing.


My word, so much this. It is astounding how companies manage to kill initiative at every level as they grow. Individual team members can't change anything because they are at the bottom of the ladder and have to conform to the wishes of "the team" and low/middle managers somehow have even less autonomy because they can't go against their own managers but also have to navigate the peculiarities of their reports and various committees. You'd think that high level managers get more autonomy, but the demands of office politics (one serious mistake and you lose the shot at the C-suite you worked your whole career for) combined with their distance to people who can actually implement any changes they'd wish to make ensures that high level managers also have very little actual autonomy.

It does not help that the word "ownership" has become a euphemism for "you must now care about this thing and fix it when it breaks at 2am, but economic benefits of any improvements to it will still flow to the shareholders". You get the drawbacks of ownership but not the benefits.


I don't think the problem is an obsession with collaboration. I've observed that it's mostly a defensive measure.

The amount of damage that (sorry for putting it this way)... stupid people... can do is unbounded. The potential blast radius of bad decisions grows with the size of the company. Recovering from bad decisions is also very costly.

The flip side of autonomy and empowerment is just that. When it's in the hands of a person that has a sense of pride in their work, a high bar for quality, determination to get the job done, loves the customer/user, etc then it's a recipe for productivity and happiness. When it's in the hands of a person who constantly ships broken code, has no work ethic, blames or doesn't care about the user, is jumping on every newest fad, etc then it can kill a whole company or a department.

The only solution I've seen is hiring VERY defensively ("one bad apple..."), keep the team small, and keep the scope/focus very narrow. That's just not possible in the enterprise space though.


It's not important, but I wondered if the title was an allusion to one of the patterns in Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language" titled "A room of one's own", about the necessity in designing houses to give everyone some bit of space that's distinctly theirs. The theme seems kind of similar, and PG makes a lot of architectural references in the essay.

In googling for "A room of one's own", though, I discovered that it's also the title of an essay by Virginia Wolfe written in 1929. It's possible that might possibly have inspired the name of the pattern in Christopher Alexander's book.


I kept waiting for the virgina woolf reference, but it never came…


Why has this been downvoted? Does no one else think it's strange that the title of the post is a direct reference to Woolf but she's not mentioned at all?


One (of the many) things that irks me about most of the writing from SV-bigwig-types: they almost never cite anything.


Citing things is an academic tic, not one generally followed in other forms of writing. Terminator didn’t point out that the idea of machine intelligences taking over was first thought of by the Czech guy who coined the word “robot”. Nor does Terry Pratchett cite Conan the Barbarian as inspiration for Cohen the Barbarian.


Your analogies are ridiculous to the point of being non-seqiturs. Citing things is not a "tic", it's a discipline that serious non-fiction writers employ when they want to lend support to their claims, show the provenance of their ideas, and generally situate their work in the wider world of ideas. Many SV articles, including PG's, are often full of claims that would benefit from citation for all of the above reasons.

This resonated with me. I have been developing software professionally for 32 years. And I am counting the days until retirement. I don't really want to retire, I want to own the work that I do. I don't care if it is boring or if somebody else tell me what they want. But having autonomy on HOW I do the work is what is important. And when I have that, may productivity goes through the roof and that is when I am truly happy.


> If I had to choose between my kids getting good grades and working on ambitious projects of their own, I'd pick the projects.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. Unfortunately kids in Sweden have to attend school by law, homeschooling is not allowed. By extension, you're not allowed to go on trips, or take any other time off without permission from the school. As my kid is only 3, I'm not sure how strict they are with this, but it feels very suffocating to me. I want him to have breathing room to spend time on projects and whatever he's passionate about, even if that means missing out on regular school for a while or getting worse grades. The last resort is to move abroad, but that has obvious downsides. The intention for this law was probably good: ensure that all kids get an education, and are not brainwashed by religious nuts, but it really really bothers me.


Can't speak for Sweden, but here in Australia, we went to our son's school and explained that we intended to take him out for three months for an extended holiday. His teacher had no issue with it and based on that, the principal signed off easily enough. For a struggling kid, there might've been push back, but you have to ask to find out.

When I was in high school, my parents took us out of school for 3-4 months to travel Asia including months in China. I've always appreciated them having done this for us. I was studying Chinese at the time, so it was an incredible opportunity on that front alone.


If that is at all an option for you, cross the belt over to Denmark, not only is homeschooling allowed, but you can get 85 (I think) percent of what is paid towards a normal school to be paid towards a school of your choosing in case you want your kid to attend a private school, making private schools very affordable.


Denmark has been growing on me. Less crime, less woke, further south (slightly better weather), still fairly close to home, Copenhagen seems super nice. But Stockholm is still where friends and family are so at the end of the day it's not really an option. Also I don't want to add to the confusion of learning 3 languages for my son (Swedish, Chinese, English) by adding a fourth!


I'll just say that it is way, way more fun to work with people who also look at software engineering as a hobby.

End of the day we're just playing with lego bricks that happen to be computer bits. Do you want to be the person who only knows how to follow the step by step book, or can build anything out of any legos?


“ the mere expression "work/life" embodies a mistake: it assumes work and life are distinct”

Going to have to meditate on that one for awhile. It seems “privileged.” For many work amounts to a set of indignities required for survival. A 2 hour daily commute to pay Bay Area rent prices doesn’t feel like “life” at all. Sort of Marie Antoinette vibes to the featured essay. I’m actually ok with that. Not everyone needs to be a slave, and the more people who can forego work and just tinker the better. But acknowledge it. Paul’s not talking to the proles here, but to other gentlemen of leisure who had mathematician dads, or those who had Paul graham type rich celebrity dads. Most people are in essence slaves to debt. Retirement is when work stops and life starts, for most of us in the second class.


> If I had to choose between my kids getting good grades and working on ambitious projects of their own, I'd pick the projects. And not because I'm an indulgent parent, but because I've been on the other end and I know which has more predictive value. When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn't care about applicants' grades. But if they'd worked on projects of their own, I wanted to hear all about those.

If all you have is a hammer, you’re going to go around looking for nails.


Russian translation: https://habr.com/ru/post/561716/


The essay starts out okay, but then kind of goes off the rails:

> Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school.

There are two things wrong with that sentence. First, there's no tradeoff because kids have enough time for both. Second, a treehouse is rarely the path to riches. Let's not kid ourselves (pun intended). Most kids do not have projects that are valuable from a career perspective.

> And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from working on projects of one's own.

Well sure, because the average kid needs to learn to write and do basic arithmetic. The author may be unaware of what most kids are like.

> So as school gets more serious, working on projects of one's own is something that survives, if at all, as a thin thread off to the side.

That's true, but that's because teenagers would rather spend their time hanging out with other teenagers than working on a startup idea. Most high school kids in the US have time for projects but they choose to spend time on other things. And that's good, though maybe not for the VCs of the world.


> First, there's no tradeoff because kids have enough time for both [projects and school].

Do they, though? Between schools offloading teaching as "homework", making kids do after school what should've been done in-class, and the cultural pressure making parents sign up kids to every possible extracurricular they can afford - there's not that much time in a kid's day left.

> a treehouse is rarely the path to riches

pg did not talk about riches in this essay, and especially in this paragraph. He talked about doing interesting work.


pg did not talk about riches in this essay, and especially in this paragraph. He talked about doing interesting work.

Yeah it make sense to focus on interesting projects when you are already rich.


Correct. I mean, it's the Maslov's pyramid - you aren't going to do interesting projects if you're constantly worrying about food and shelter.

I understand that most people don't have the luxury of starting interesting projects (I frequently talk about it on HN, too), but I think we can't read this essay (or most of the other pg writes) as targeted at everyone. His audience is clearly the people who can afford to entertain his ideas. Which is not just rich people - it's all the people who have some disposable free time, or can restructure their life to have it.


> parents sign up kids to every possible extracurricular they can afford

Yeah, that's what causes the tradeoff. Kids can't do school, work on projects, and have parents that fill their schedule with loads of other stuff. It would have been perfectly reasonable for PG to launch his attacks on overscheduling rather than school.

> pg did not talk about riches in this essay

He talked about "work they do as adults" and "more predictive value" and "When I was picking startups for Y Combinator".


> It would have been perfectly reasonable for PG to launch his attacks on overscheduling rather than school.

I agree, it would have been. But I wouldn't let schools off the hook, because they are the other edge of the feedback loop: in big part, extracurriculars exist as a way to game admission system. Together, they form a system that tries to consume all the free time a kid has.

> He talked about "work they do as adults" and "more predictive value" and "When I was picking startups for Y Combinator".

At least in his writing, pg does play with the idea that work is valuable beyond the money it earns you, so I interpreted this essay in that light.


Going from plan to finish is extremely valuable no matter what the project is. I myself was always a dreamer, just planned stuff, and that tendency carried all the way into adulthood. Perhaps I should have finished more projects when I was a kid, maybe I‘d be a bit more productive and less of a dreamer today.


Wow, the footnote mentions that we get the term "hobby" from "hobby-horse", rather than the other way around. I didn't realize that at all.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobby_horse_(toy)#Etymology


I think one thing this essay misses is that schools enable and encourage having one's own projects. Some examples from my experience:

- In third year of high school I joined the FIRST robotics club, and it was a pretty transformative experience. Doing such a big project for the first time, which I could not have possibly tried on my own, was amazing. And of course it improved my social skills, my communication skills, all that.

- In fourth year of high school, I took our follow up to AP CS which was on making video games (yeah, I was at a nice high school). And we just got to make whatever games we wanted, within some limits. Tons of fun.

- In college I spent a ton of time in the Solar Racing club (http://solarracing.gatech.edu/). Like, all four years - and this was some serious engineering work.

- In college I went to lots of hackathons. My favorite project was one that visualized music libraries, I spent a few months on it after the hackathon (https://www.andreykurenkov.com/projects/major_projects/meta-...).

- In college I got into 3D printing and laser cutting, since that was available there (for free). I tried going to maker spaces after, but those are NOT cheap.

- In my Masters program at Stanford, most CS classes have a project component where you do whatever you want. To take just one example, I built a neat little website in which you could visualize neural net models (https://www.andreykurenkov.com/projects/major_projects/Keras...).

And, society encourages this stuff too, in terms of interviews asking about your projects and colleges wanting to see extracurriculars. Of course it's not perfect, most classes could provide a lot of leeway in terms of self direction. But it's worth acknowleding, especially in terms of schools enabling larger group efforts and providing the environment and equipment and knowledge for doing fun stuff.

If anything , school did not beat out the drive for projects, it enabled it. I miss doing such things quite a bit, as it gets a lot harder to find people to do them with and it's seen as kind of weird.


“ The natural alignment between skating and solving new problems is one of the reasons the payoffs from startups are so high ”

In my experience, startups aren’t always run by skaters nor do they recruit skaters, but can be, by most measures, successful.

Anecdotally, these characteristics appears to be a subset of successful startups.


>> There turn out to be two senses in which work can be one's own: 1) that you're doing it voluntarily, rather than merely because someone told you to, and 2) that you're doing it by yourself.

Maybe that's why I sometimes get more involved in helping other people at work than doing my own. Helping someone else is voluntary, while doing my own work is a bit more of an obligation. Helping out is also more transient and not a constant daily thing, so it serves as a break from work even though its still work. So now that I've said all that, it's obvious that people are more motivated to do something they choose vs something they're told to do. Sounds like a discipline problem when phrased that way.


Gluing together personal projects is the foundation of the UNIX operating system. It's the point of any operating system really, but UNIX does it best. Docker and the microservice paradigm have also had a meteoric rise, probably because they promise to plug together clean slate personal projects.

One management technique I've seen companies use to grant employees the freedom to pursue personal projects, without it being seen as treachery, is to have a contract that says the company owns everything your mind produces, and then define quarterly expectations. That way you can sprint for a month doing what management wants, and spend the rest of the time inventing things like voicemail for fun.


I worked at a place that had explicit “20% time” to work on “whatever” and it (incredibly) turned into more micromanaged bullshit. Now I had to set separate goals and milestones for that project too, and report it in one-on-ones with my manager. I just dropped the whole thing because it was literally more work than doing my regular job!


Try saying, "I work on this project every fifth business day, so how about we discuss it at every fifth meeting?" Micromanagement is when a manager tells you how to do your work. Goals and milestones is a management task, so it's not an unreasonable ask. If they're asking you to write those yourself, then maybe they're wondering if you'd make a good manager. Imagine yourself as the 10x developer who needs to report to the director on what the other 9 developers are (1) doing and (2) intend to do.

Also, who cares if it's more work? Programming for me is not just a job but also a hobby. So if I'm working a job where the employment contracts states the company owns everything I do during the 168 hour work week, then my 20% time usually becomes 160% time (80% + 80%). You have to be willing to go to great lengths to keep people happy. Particularly the people who end up working on your project as part of their 80% time.


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