Best of Paul Graham

Paul Graham” by Dave Thomas is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is a continuously-updated collection of notes, snippets, and extracts from my favorite Paul Graham essays.

From How to think for yourself:

How can one become more independent-minded? Paul argues there are three components that influence the degree of independent-mindedness-

  1. Fastidiousness about truth
  2. Resistance to being told what to do, and
  3. Curiosity

He talks about the interplay among the three components-

“Interestingly, the three components can substitute for one another in much the same way muscles can. If you’re sufficiently fastidious about truth, you don’t need to be as resistant to being told what to think, because fastidiousness alone will create sufficient gaps in your knowledge. And either one can compensate for curiosity, because if you create enough space in your brain, your discomfort at the resulting vacuum will add force to your curiosity. Or curiosity can compensate for them: if you’re sufficiently curious, you don’t need to clear space in your brain, because the new ideas you discover will push out the conventional ones you acquired by default.”

He also highlights the role of work in cultivating curiosity-

“Is there a way to cultivate curiosity? To start with, you want to avoid situations that suppress it. How much does the work you’re currently doing engage your curiosity? If the answer is “not much,” maybe you should change something.”

We spend so much time of our lives at work. It is important to do something worthwhile, something that gives us intellectual as well as that eerie inner satisfaction. Writing does that for me.

From The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius:

“Everyone knows that to do great work you need both natural ability and determination. But there’s a third ingredient that’s not as well understood: an obsessive interest in a particular topic.”

“There are people who collect old bus tickets. Like many collectors, they have an obsessive interest in the minutiae of what they collect.”

“There is a difference between Ramanujan and a bus ticket collector. Series matter, and bus tickets don’t.”

“An obsessive interest in a topic is both a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination. Unless you have sufficient mathematical aptitude, you won’t find series interesting. And when you’re obsessively interested in something, you don’t need as much determination: you don’t need to push yourself as hard when curiosity is pulling you.”

“There are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It’s more promising if something you’re interested in is difficult, especially if it’s more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random.”

“Hamming’s famous double-barrelled question: what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on one of them? It’s a great way to shake yourself up. But it may be overfitting a bit. It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn’t be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?”

“If the recipe for genius is simply natural ability plus hard work, all we can do is hope we have a lot of ability, and work as hard as we can. But if interest is a critical ingredient in genius, we may be able, by cultivating interest, to cultivate genius.”

“The bus ticket theory also suggests a way to avoid slowing down as you get older. Perhaps the reason people have fewer new ideas as they get older is not simply that they’re losing their edge. It may also be because once you become established, you can no longer mess about with irresponsible side projects the way you could when you were young and no one cared what you did. The solution to that is obvious: remain irresponsible.”

“There is so much more to learn about how to do great work. As old as human civilization feels, it’s really still very young if we haven’t nailed something so basic. It’s exciting to think there are still discoveries to make about discovery.