Tag Archives: paul-graham

The Good and Bad of Enumerated Lists

Writ­ing by enumeration–writing a ‘list of n things’–restricts you to a struc­ture that is easi­er to pro­duce and is easi­er for read­ers to fol­low and com­pre­hend, but lim­its free thought. That’s one of many points that Paul Gra­ham makes in an essay dis­cuss­ing the mer­its and dis­ad­vant­ages of writ­ing enu­mer­ated lists.

One obvi­ous neg­at­ive that Gra­ham points out is that, in most situ­ations, lists of n things are used by lazy writers not even attempt­ing to stretch them­selves, or read by read­ers who don’t fully trust the author to pro­duce an appeal­ing-enough short-form essay. And of course, there’s the sound advice to almost always avoid lists with ‘the’ before the num­ber, as a list is rarely exhaust­ive and instead you’re likely being fooled into believ­ing it is (read: link­bait).

Because the list of n things is the easi­est essay form, it should be a good one for begin­ning writers. And in fact it is what most begin­ning writers are taught. The clas­sic 5 para­graph essay is really a list of n things for n = 3. But the stu­dents writ­ing them don’t real­ize they’re using the same struc­ture as the art­icles they read in Cos­mo­pol­it­an. They’re not allowed to include the num­bers, and they’re expec­ted to spackle over the gaps with gra­tu­it­ous trans­itions (“Fur­ther­more…”) and cap the thing at either end with intro­duct­ory and con­clud­ing para­graphs so it will look super­fi­cially like a real essay. […]

Anoth­er advant­age of admit­ting to begin­ning writers that the 5 para­graph essay is really a list of n things is that we can warn them about this. It only lets you exper­i­ence the defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic of essay writ­ing on a small scale: in thoughts of a sen­tence or two. And it’s par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous that the 5 para­graph essay bur­ies the list of n things with­in some­thing that looks like a more soph­ist­ic­ated type of essay. If you don’t know you’re using this form, you don’t know you need to escape it.

As a pur­vey­or of fine hyper­links since 2008, I also feel that post­ing (to) a list of n things is also, in most situ­ations, lazy link-blog­ging. How­ever there are always some that will make the cut and get pos­ted, and Gra­ham’s essay helps one see why they might have been espe­cially appeal­ing.

How to Disagree

To aid the under­stand­ing and con­struc­tion of qual­ity argu­ments, Paul Gra­ham has cre­ated a “dis­agree­ment hier­archy”: a study on how (and how not) to dis­agree.

We can use this clas­si­fic­a­tion sys­tem to ensure that when we respond to a per­son’s reas­on­ing, we respond to it in a way that is con­struct­ive for the con­ver­sa­tion (by avoid­ing responses low in the hierarchy—DH0, DH1, etc.).

  • DH0 Name-call­ing.
  • DH1 Ad Hom­inem.
  • DH2 Respond­ing to Tone.
  • DH3 Con­tra­dic­tion.
  • DH4 Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment.
  • DH5 Refut­a­tion.
  • DH6 Refut­ing the Cent­ral Point.

It’s a sim­pli­fic­a­tion of a com­plex area, use­ful as a ref­er­ence. Gra­ham sug­gests the fol­low­ing bene­fit, among oth­ers:

The most obvi­ous advant­age of clas­si­fy­ing the forms of dis­agree­ment is that it will help people to eval­u­ate what they read. In par­tic­u­lar, it will help them to see through intel­lec­tu­ally dis­hon­est argu­ments.

via @zambonini

Scheduling and Non-Hierarchical Management

These two essays have been doing the rounds of late, and for good reas­on:

Paul Gra­ham’s com­par­is­on between the sched­ules of Man­agers and the sched­ules of Makers (cre­at­ives). The gist? A man­ager­’s day is divided into hour-long blocks of time, makers work in much longer, rel­at­ively uncon­strained and non-dis­crete units of time. The prob­lem is in mak­ing these two work togeth­er.

When you use [the man­ager­’s sched­ule], it’s merely a prac­tic­al prob­lem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your sched­ule, book them, and you’re done. […]

When you’re oper­at­ing on the maker­’s sched­ule, meet­ings are a dis­aster. A single meet­ing can blow a whole after­noon, by break­ing it into two pieces each too small to do any­thing hard in. Plus you have to remem­ber to go to the meet­ing. That’s no prob­lem for someone on the man­ager­’s sched­ule. There’s always some­thing com­ing on the next hour; the only ques­tion is what. But when someone on the maker­’s sched­ule has a meet­ing, they have to think about it.

With the philo­sophy that a man­ager is more ser­vant than dic­tat­or, Aaron Swartz offers tips for non-hier­arch­ic­al man­age­ment (via Kot­tke). This is spe­cific­ally for star­tups, he sug­gests, where the tra­di­tion ‘org chart’ is flipped upside down, but these tips seem sound no mat­ter what the organ­isa­tion:

  • Man­age­ment is a (ser­i­ous) job
    • Stay organ­ised
  • Know your team
    • Hire people smarter than you
    • Be care­ful when hir­ing friends
    • Set bound­ar­ies
  • Go over the goals togeth­er
    • Build a com­munity
  • Assign respons­ib­il­ity
    • Vary respons­ib­il­it­ies
    • Del­eg­ate respons­ibly
  • Clear obstacles
    • Pri­or­it­ize
    • Fight pro­cras­tin­a­tion
  • Give feed­back
    • Don’t micro­man­age
  • Don’t make decisions (unless you really have to)
  • Fire inef­fect­ive people
  • Give away the cred­it
  • Few people are cut out for this

Don’t Implement Ideas, Solve Problems

Tak­ing inspir­a­tion from Paul Gra­ham’s Ideas for Star­tups essay, Mar­tin Zwill­ing offers some fur­ther thoughts—to wit, don’t start with an idea, start with a prob­lem.

Poten­tial star­tup founders are always look­ing for ideas to imple­ment, when they should be look­ing for prob­lems to solve. Cus­tom­ers pay for solu­tions, and there is no mar­ket for ideas. I’m often approached by people with a “mil­lion dol­lar idea,” but I haven’t seen any­one pay for one of these yet.

Frugality and Entrepreneurship

Inc. Magazine has a (pos­sibly too lengthy) pro­file, com­plete with the expec­ted insights, of Paul Gra­ham—author of Hack­ers and Paint­ers, co-founder of Y Com­bin­at­or, and all-round entre­pren­eur­ship guru.

Cheap meals are, in a strange way, part of Y Com­bin­at­or­’s for­mula for start-up suc­cess. Gra­ham wants founders to spend as little money as pos­sible. Live cheaply enough, he believes, and you can become cash-flow pos­it­ive without going on a lot of sales calls or spend­ing too much time talk­ing to investors. Gra­ham calls this “ramen prof­it­ab­il­ity” and says it allows com­pan­ies to say no to bad invest­ment terms and forces them to think about long-term viab­il­ity. […] “That cul­ture of frugal­ity and dis­cip­line is really import­ant for the Y Com­bin­at­or mind­set,” says Sam Alt­man, founder of Loopt, a gradu­ate of Y Com­bin­at­or­’s first class. “The start-ups that do well are the ones that are work­ing all the time.”

[…] Des­pite hav­ing spent five years paint­ing, Gra­ham long ago put away his brushes. None of his work is on dis­play in his home in Palo Alto, and he’s none too eager to talk about mat­ters of tech­nique or style. But one thing paint­ing taught him was the value of liv­ing frugally. “It taught me how to do cheap in a cool way,” Gra­ham says. Artists, Gra­ham dis­covered, don’t pre­tend to be rich; they live in sparsely dec­or­ated lofts and wear cool vin­tage clothes. “A start-up is that philo­sophy applied to busi­ness.”