Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Paul Graham

English-born American Programmer, Venture Capitalist and Essayist known for his work on Lisp and for co-founding Viaweb (which became Yahoo! Store)

"It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise. Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. 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?"

"I've found that people who are great at something are not so much convinced of their own greatness as mystified at why everyone else seems so incompetent."

"Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do."

"The organization of American society is an interlocking system of semi-monopolies notoriously venal, an electorate notoriously unenlightened, misled by a mass media notoriously phony."

"A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito."

"A programming language is for thinking about programs, not for expressing programs you've already thought of. It should be a pencil, not a pen."

"A formidable person is one who seems like they'll get what they want, regardless of whatever obstacles are in the way."

"Another reason people don't work on big projects is, ironically, fear of wasting time. What if they fail? Then all the time they spent on it will be wasted. (In fact it probably won't be, because work on hard projects almost always leads somewhere.)"

"At any given time, there are only about ten or twenty places where hackers most want to work, and if you aren't one of them, you won't just have fewer great hackers, you'll have zero."

"Architects know that some kinds of design problems are more personal than others. One of the cleanest, most abstract design problems is designing bridges. There your job is largely a matter of spanning a given distance with the least material. The other end of the spectrum is designing chairs. Chair designers have to spend their time thinking about human butts."

"As long as you?re over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination."

"At every period of history, people have believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you risked ostracism or even violence by saying otherwise. If our own time were any different, that would be remarkable. As far as I can tell it isn't."

"Because hackers are makers rather than scientists, the right place to look for metaphors is not in the sciences, but among other kinds of makers."

"As a rule of thumb, the more qualifiers there are before the name of a country, the more corrupt the rulers. A country called The Socialist People's Democratic Republic of X is probably the last place in the world you'd want to live."

"Being strong-willed is not enough, however. You also have to be hard on yourself. Someone who was strong-willed but self-indulgent would not be called determined. Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline."

"But what kills them will not be dramatic, external threats, but a mundane, internal one: not getting enough done."

"Competitors punch you in the jaw, but investors have you by the balls."

"Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy."

"Dressing up is inevitably a substitute for good ideas. It is no coincidence that technically inept business types are known as 'suits'."

"European public opinion will apparently tolerate people being fired in industries where they really care about performance. Unfortunately the only industry they care enough about so far is soccer."

"Even if your startup does tank, you won't harm your prospects with employers. To make sure I asked some friends who work for big companies. I asked managers at Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft how they'd feel about two candidates, both 24, with equal ability, one who'd tried to start a startup that tanked, and another who'd spent the two years since college working as a developer at a big company. Every one responded that they'd prefer the guy who'd tried to start his own company"

"Consulting is where product companies go to die."

"Empirically the way you get a product visionary as CEO is for him to found the company and not get fired."

"For [a product] to surprise me, it must be satisfying expectations I didn't know I had. No focus group is going to discover those. Only a great designer can."

"For nearly everyone, the opinion of one?s peers is the most powerful motivator of all ? more powerful even than the nominal goal of most startup founders, getting rich."

"Everyone by now presumably knows about the danger of premature optimization. I think we should be just as worried about premature design - designing too early what a program should do."

"Google never did any advertising. They're like dealers; they sell the stuff, but they know better than to use it themselves."

"For the most ambitious young people, the corporate ladder is obsolete."

"I get a lot of criticism for telling founders to focus first on making something great, instead of worrying about how to make money. And yet that is exactly what Google did. And Apple, for that matter. You?d think examples like that would be enough to convince people."

"I actually worry a lot that as I get "popular" I'll be able to get away with saying stupider stuff than I would have dared say before. This sort of thing happens to a lot of people, and I would really like to avoid it."

"Hackers themselves can't tell how good they are. This is true to a degree in most fields. I've found that people who are great at something are not so much convinced of their own greatness as mystified at why everyone else seems so incompetent."

"Great software, likewise, requires a fanatical devotion to beauty. If you look inside good software, you find that parts no one is ever supposed to see are beautiful too. I'm not claiming I write great software, but I know that when it comes to code I behave in a way that would make me eligible for prescription drugs if I approached everyday life the same way. It drives me crazy to see code that's badly indented, or that uses ugly variable names."

"I suppose I should learn Lisp, but it seems so foreign."

"I think people underestimate how small big ideas were when they first got started. Microsoft's first product was an implementation of the BASIC programming language for a machine called Altair. There were probably a few thousand users, total. If those guys had presented that idea on Demo Day, investors would have laughed at them. But it turns out, everything has some adjacent territory, if you're energetic enough. It's OK to start out with a small idea. People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them."

"I think the way to "solve" the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you."

"I think he still loves the game. That's what coach does. He's a coach, 100 percent. He could conceivably come back. I don't think coach has lost any of his competitive fire."

"If a writer rewrites an essay, people who read the new version are unlikely to complain that their thoughts have been broken by some newly introduced incompatibility."

"If Apple were to grow the iPod into a cell phone with a web browser, Microsoft would be in big trouble."

"If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I'd say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You [high school students] don't need to be in a rush to choose your life's work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do."

"If you have to choose between two theories, prefer the one that doesn't center on you."

"If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward."

"If you imagine someone with 100 percent determination and 100 percent intelligence, you can discard a lot of intelligence before they stop succeeding. But if you start discarding determination, you very quickly get an ineffectual and perpetual grad student."

"If you could replace high-school yearbooks, that could be a lot of money. It's so clearly waiting for someone to come along."

"If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies."

"If you try to solve a hard problem, the question is not whether you will use a powerful enough language, but whether you will (a) use a powerful language, (b) write a de facto interpreter for one, or (c) yourself become a human compiler for one."

"If you really understand something, you can say it in the fewest words, instead of thrashing about."

"If you want to make money at some point, remember this, because this is one of the reasons startups win. Big companies want to decrease the standard deviation of design outcomes because they want to avoid disasters. But when you damp oscillations, you lose the high points as well as the low. This is not a problem for big companies, because they don't win by making great products. Big companies win by sucking less than other big companies."

"If you work on something you can finish in a day or two, you can expect to have a nice feeling of accomplishment fairly soon. If the reward is indefinitely far in the future, it seems less real."

"I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right."

"If you'd asked me as a kid how rich people became poor, I'd have said by spending all their money. That's how it happens in books and movies, because that's the colorful way to do it. But in fact the way most fortunes are lost is not through excessive expenditure, but through bad investments."