Derek Sivers

Entrepreneur, programmer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Hackers & Painters - by Paul Graham

Hackers & Painters - by Paul Graham

Amazon page for details and reviews.

A collection of essays from one of the best. Loosely about intelligence, entrepreneurship, programming, and questioning norms. Many brilliant ideas and insights.

my notes

Why does everyone talk about making money? It is a kind of shorthand: money is a way of moving wealth, and in practice they are usually interchangeable. But they are not the same thing, and unless you plan to get rich by counterfeiting, talking about making money can make it harder to understand how to make money.

Programming languages are what programmers think in.

Innovation and heresy are practically the same thing. Good hackers develop a habit of questioning everything.

No art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it.

Nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please.

When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below. I've read that this is why poor whites in the United States are the group most hostile to blacks.

Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! No wonder they seem boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children. Nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This is no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world.

Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as painters need to understand paint chemistry.

You should figure out programs as you're writing them, just as writers and painters and architects do. Realizing this has real implications for software design. It means that a programming language should, above all, be malleable. A programming language is for thinking of programs, not for expressing programs you've already thought of. It should be a pencil, not a pen.

The place to fight design wars is in new markets, where no one has yet managed to establish any fortifications. That's where you can win big by taking the bold approach to design, and having the same people both design and implement the product.

When we interviewed programmers, the main thing we cared about was what kind of software they wrote in their spare time. You can't do anything really well unless you love it, and if you love to hack you'll inevitably be working on projects of your own.

Benjamin Franklin learned to write by summarizing the points in the essays of Addison and Steele and then trying to reproduce them.

When a piece of code is being hacked by three or four different people, no one of whom really owns it, it will end up being like a common-room. It will tend to feel bleak and abandoned, and accumulate cruft. The right way to collaborate, I think, is to divide projects into sharply defined modules, each with a definite owner, and with interfaces between them that are as carefully designed.

Looking at things from other people's point of view is practically the secret of success.

One way to tell how good people are at empathy is to watch them explain a technical matter to someone without a technical background.

It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right. It's tantalizing to think we believe things that people in the future will find ridiculous. What would someone coming back to visit us in a time machine have to be careful not to say?

Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.

It's likely that visitors from the future would agree with at least some of the statements that get people in trouble today. To find them, keep track of opinions that get people in trouble, and start asking, could this be true?

In one culture X is ok, and in another it's considered shocking. My hypothesis is that the side that's shocked is most likely to be the mistaken one. I suspect the only taboos that are more than taboos are the ones that are universal, or nearly so. Murder for example. But any idea that's considered harmless in a significant percentage of times and places, and yet is taboo in ours, is a good candidate for something we're mistaken about.

A lot of my friends are starting to have children now, and they're all trying not to use words like "fuck" and "shit" within baby's hearing, lest baby start using these words too. But these words are part of the language, and adults use them all the time. So parents are giving their kids an inaccurate idea of the language by not using them. Why do they do this? Because they don't think it's fitting that kids should use the whole language. We like children to seem innocent.

Moral fashions more often seem to be created deliberately. When there's something we can't say, it's often because some group doesn't want us to. The prohibition will be strongest when the group is nervous.

What groups are powerful but nervous, and what ideas would they like to suppress? What ideas were tarnished by association when they ended up on the losing side of a recent struggle? If a self-consciously cool person wanted to differentiate himself from preceding fashions (e.g. from his parents), which of their ideas would he tend to reject? What are conventional-minded people afraid of saying?

I'm especially curious about anything that's forbidden. Let me see and decide for myself.

I do it because it's good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that's in the habit of going where it's not supposed to. Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that's unthinkable.

There seems a clear correlation between intelligence and willingness to consider shocking ideas. This isn't just because smart people actively work to find holes in conventional thinking. Conventions also have less hold over them to start with.

Training yourself to think unthinkable thoughts has advantages beyond the thoughts themselves. It's like stretching. When you stretch before running, you put your body into positions much more extreme than any it will assume during the run. If you can think things so outside the box that they'd make people's hair stand on end, you'll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.

When you find something you can't say, what do you do with it? My advice is, don't say it. Being labelled as a yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot. The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. I think it's better to follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. Within my head I make a point of encouraging the most outrageous thoughts I can imagine.

The trouble with keeping your thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it's also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know.

Ask anyone, and they'll say the same thing: they're pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong.

To see fashion in your own time, though, requires a conscious effort. Without time to give you distance, you have to create distance yourself. Instead of being part of the mob, stand as far away from it as you can and watch what it's doing. And pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed.

What exactly is "hate speech?" This sounds like a phrase out of 1984. Labels like that are probably the biggest external clue. If a statement is false, that's the worst thing you can say about it. You don't need to say that it's heretical. And if it isn't false, it shouldn't be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that's a sure sign that something is wrong.

Everyone encourages you to grow up to the point where you can discount your own bad moods. Few encourage you to continue to the point where you can discount society's bad moods.

To programmers, "hacker" connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants.

The noun "hack" also has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It's called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that's also called a hack.

Disobedience is a byproduct of the qualities that make good programmers. They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate new speech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them a certain problem can't be solved. Suppress one, and you suppress the other.

Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of American-ness. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan. In those countries, people color inside the lines.

A society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people.

A startup is a small company that takes on a hard technical problem.

There is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history. Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is - and you specifically are - one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell your car, you'll get more for it. In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven't made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie.

With the rise of industrialization there are fewer and fewer craftsmen. One of the biggest remaining groups is computer programmers.

Wealth can be created without being sold. Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created.

Someone who really devoted himself to work could generate ten or even a hundred times as much wealth as an average employee. A programmer, for example, instead of chugging along maintaining and updating an existing piece of software, could write a whole new piece of software, and with it create a new source of revenue. Companies are not set up to reward people who want to do this.

A company that could pay all its employees so straightforwardly would be enormously successful. Many employees would work harder if they could get paid for it. More importantly, such a company would attract people who wanted to work especially hard. It would crush its competitors. Unfortunately, companies can't pay everyone like salesmen. Salesmen work alone. Most employees' work is tangled together.

A big company is like a giant galley driven by a thousand rowers. Two things keep the speed of the galley down. One is that individual rowers don't see any result from working harder. The other is that, in a group of a thousand people, the average rower is likely to be pretty average. If you took ten people at random out of the big galley and put them in a boat by themselves, they could probably go faster. When you take the ten best rowers out of the big galley and put them in a boat together. They will have all the extra motivation that comes from being in a small group. But more importantly, by selecting that small a group you can get the best rowers. Each one will be in the top 1%. It's a much better deal for them to average their work together with a small group of their peers than to average it with everyone. That's the real point of startups. Ideally, you are getting together with a group of other people who also want to work a lot harder, and get paid a lot more, than they would in a big company.

McDonald's, for example, grew big by designing a system, the McDonald's franchise, that could then be reproduced at will all over the face of the earth. A McDonald's franchise is controlled by rules so precise that it is practically a piece of software. Write once, run everywhere. Ditto for Wal-Mart. Sam Walton got rich not by being a retailer, but by designing a new kind of store.

If you can develop technology that's simply too hard for competitors to duplicate, you don't need to rely on other defenses. Start by picking a hard problem, and then at every decision point, take the harder choice.

I think it's a good idea to get bought, if you can. Running a business is different from growing one. It is just as well to let a big company take over once you reach cruising altitude. It's also financially wiser, because selling allows you to diversify.

Treat a startup as an optimization problem in which performance is measured by number of users.

Don't let a ruling class of warriors and politicians squash the entrepreneurs. The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful. Let the nerds keep their lunch money, and you rule the world.

It was not till the Industrial Revolution that wealth creation definitively replaced corruption as the best way to get rich. In England, at least, corruption only became unfashionable (and in fact only started to be called "corruption") when there started to be other, faster ways to get rich.

Will technology increase the gap between rich and poor? It will certainly increase the gap between the productive and the unproductive. That's the whole point of technology.

Variation in income is a sign of health. Technology seems to increase the variation in productivity at faster than linear rates. If we don't see corresponding variation in income, there are three possible explanations:
(a) that technical innovation has stopped
(b) that the people who would create the most wealth aren't doing it
or (c) that they aren't getting paid for it.

If you can imagine someone surpassing you, you should do it yourself.

A building or object should let you use it as you want: a good building, for example, will serve as a backdrop for whatever life people want to lead in it, instead of making them live as if they were executing a program written by the architect.

If function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error. Wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives.

A novice imitates without knowing it; next he tries consciously to be original; finally, he decides it's more important to be right than original.

Today's experimental error is tomorrow's new theory. If you want to discover great new things, then instead of turning a blind eye to the places where conventional wisdom and truth don't quite meet, you should pay particular attention to them.

It's easier to see ugliness than to imagine beauty. Most of the people who've made beautiful things seem to have done it by fixing something they thought ugly.

A startup should give its competitors as little information as possible.

One of the reasons Jane Austen's novels are so good is that she read them out loud to her family. That's why she never sinks into self-indulgently arty descriptions of landscapes, or pretentious philosophizing.