It's not merely the degrees and accolades that are impressive, it's also the fact that the decided he wanted to revive his family's printing business.
His results speak for themselves, and almost as importantly, his decisions show an independence streak and willingness to break with the herd and win in his own way. This is something every founder needs to get through the trough of sorrow.
I don't think it's quite that simple. Here's some other things Paul Graham has said about that question:
"There's one question that acts like a wildcard, at least for me: [the question] ...
We're looking for people who like to beat the system. So if the answer to this question is good enough, it will make me go back and take a second look at an application that otherwise seemed unpromising. In fact, I think there are people we've invited to interviews mainly on the strength of their answer to this question."
"Sam Altman of Loopt is one of the most successful alumni, so we asked him what question we could put on the Y Combinator application that would help us discover more people like him. He said to ask about a time when they'd hacked something to their advantage—hacked in the sense of beating the system, not breaking into computers. It has become one of the questions we pay most attention to when judging applications."
Great article! While I have some technical background, I'm not a coder and I'm also a single founder applicant.
From his comments, it seems that YC wants what everyone who is passionate about their career wants in a teammate. Drive.
I work in a neuroscience lab and I've trained a lot of undergrads, lab techs and grad students. From a state school to IVY league schools I continue to see the same thing. Drive, ambition, and motivation are way more important than technical knowledge. This is a winning combination of traits that always works as the people who have those traits can typically pick up anything you throw at them.
My best students have been those with OK GPAs but and a serious competitive nature to them.
So hackernews doesn't have PM's. If you don't mind letting me pick your brain a bit about startups/research/neuroscience, shoot me an email at email@example.com (or put your email in your profile).
If Hamilton is reading this. Do you (or did you) actually work 130 hour weeks as said in the article? I'm trying to imagine this, and my mind boggles. I just read this article out to a friend and he's seriously depressed now :P
What do you think is the major contributory factor to your achievements? extreme IQ? work ethic? some unique insight about the world that you leverage?