Book Review: Hackers & Painters

Paul Graham is the founder of the first web-based application called Viaweb and the founder of Y Combinator, which is an incubator for startups.  If you are unfamiliar with him, Graham embodies both the entrepreneurial and hacker ethos.  As an essayist, programmer, painter, and investor he certainly has an interesting view of the world.  His book Hackers and Painters is a collection of some of his more popular essays.

In an essay titled “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, Graham offers up a cultural critique of both society at large and the educational system. In any social hierarchy, he argues, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by mistreating those they think rank below them. Kids learn this lesson at a young age and can be incredibly cruel to each other.  Nerds are the losers in the popularity contest that exists in formal schooling. The real-world, however, is not a popularity contest, at least not entirely. It takes a lot of work to be popular in high school and, unfortunately, it’s usually a poor investment. Popular kids are crippled if they stand out from their peers and so they usually follow the herd. Graham argues that while nerds were being trained to get the right answers and to think for themselves, the popular kids were being trained to simply please others.

Graham then goes to point out that suburbia is deliberately designed to exclude the outside world which hinders a child’s real-world education and development. Schools, particularly ones in suburbia, are merely holding pens of kids so adults can get some work done.  “What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons,” writes Graham, “but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by inmates.”

In another essay titled “Hackers and Painters” Graham describes the problem that all creators face, i.e., prices are determined by supply and demand.  Writers are all too familiar with the following truth espoused by Graham: “Writing novels doesn’t pay as well as writing ad copy for garbage disposals.”  Graham asserts that you can’t do anything really well unless you love it though.  Since you only get one life, you might as well spend it working on something you love.

And which essay was my personal favorite?  It’s called “What You Can’t Say”.  In it, Graham writes: “Whatever the reason, there seems a clear correlation between intelligence and the willingness to consider shocking ideas.”  Historically people and societies have tended to believe ridiculous things (if in doubt, read some history).  As the title of the essay alludes to, Graham is interested in figuring out the intellectual and moral mistakes we are making due to our current intellectual fashions.  Accordingly, he starts with the conformist test: “Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?  If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told.”

If you believe everything you’re supposed to believe now, then Graham encourages us to imagine the logical implications of that. What would you have believed if you had been born in the pre-Civil War South or in Germany during the 1930’s? Sure, you probably assume you’re morally superior to those people in some way, but odds are you would have conformed to that culture if you conform now.  Ultimately, Graham reminds us that “People in past times were much like us. Not heroes, not barbarians. Whatever their ideas were, they were ideas reasonable people could have believed.”

Graham’s advice when you find something you can’t say is to pick your battles. Argue with idiots, and you lose. It’s important to be able to think what you want, not necessarily convince others to believe you. Collaboration, however, is the catalyst of more ideas, so the ideal strategy, according to Graham, is to have a tight knit group of close friends that you can express outrageous thoughts to.  No one wants to believe they’re ignorant or close-minded.  Graham reminds us that “When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite.”

In another essay titled “How to Make Wealth” Graham waxes poetic about basic economics.  It sounds silly, but he argues that many people fail to understand the important distinction between “wealth” and “money.”  One can have wealth without having money. Money is simply a medium of exchange; wealth is what what you want. One key thing to understand is that there is not a limited amount of wealth in the world; wealth can be created and destroyed. In other words, wealth is not a zero-sum game. Graham brilliantly explores these ideas in depth in this essay. He argues that craftsmen and people who make things are the ones most likely to understand the idea of wealth.

There are a few different ways to get rich, but starting a startup is one way to create wealth. A startup is a small company that takes on a hard technical problem, usually technology related nowadays. There is one caveat to consider about startups: if it were easy, everyone would do it. It’s also worth noting that there is a large “luck” factor in the success of any company.  As Graham puts it: “There is a conservation law at work here: if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars’ worth of pain.”

Graham argues that startups are the place to be if you want to become rich because your rewards are correlated to your efforts. The more value you can add, the more money you make. It doesn’t work this way in large companies because it’s incredibly difficult to assign a value to people’s contributions. To really get rich you need to find a career with two things: measurement and leverage.  The end of the essay foreshadows a political message that comes in the next essay.  “Don’t let a ruling class of warriors and politicians squash the entrepreneurs. The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful.”

In “Mind the Gap”, Graham reminds readers that some people tend to condemn wealth inequality on moral grounds. Graham’s thesis in this essay is that this is silly and he argues that a strong gap between rich and poor is a sign of societies health. No one complains that some people are better at chess or better at ping pong, but when that skill turns to making money people become outraged at inequality.  “How much someone’s work is worth is not a policy question. It’s something the market already determines.”

Professional baseball players make more than poets for one simple reason, people like baseball more than poetry. In a free market, prices are determined by what the buyers want. In Graham’s opinion, to say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things.

Our society needs rich people. And we don’t just need them because of the trickle down effects of the money they spend. We need them because of what they have to do to get rich, i.e., add value to society. If we take these incentives away we are discouraging this kind of innovation. Avoidance of absolute poverty should be the goal, not relative poverty.  One other truism I think Graham touched on relates to segregation and modern society. He argues that people tend to segregate themselves based more on education and intelligence than wealth.

Ultimately this is a nice collection of essays.  However, as I mentioned, the essays can be found online for free.  Also, a few of the essays selected for this collection are perhaps too technical for those not well versed in hacker jargon, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the other essays in this book.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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