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.”