Paul Graham on being marginal

by Mathew on July 29, 2006

My thanks go out to Jason Kottke, whose remaindered links provide an almost endless source of great material for reading and thinking, for a recent link to an essay by Paul Graham, the programmer turned venture capitalist/incubator guy. Paul writes blog posts too, but he also writes thoughtful essays about all kinds of things — and the latest one stemmed from speeches he made at Usenix and another conferenceon Rails, about the benefits of being marginal when it comes to designing software or starting companies.

As Jason says, the essay is “filled with odd conclusions and unfair assumptions, but the general ideas are interesting to consider; lots of food for thought in this one for me.” Among the things that caught my eye as I read it were these great bon mots:

“I think that’s one reason big companies are so often blindsided by startups. People at big companies don’t realize the extent to which they live in an environment that is one large, ongoing test for the wrong qualities.”

“Outsiders have nothing to lose. They can do risky things, and if they fail, so what? Few will even notice. The eminent, on the other hand, are weighed down by their eminence. Eminence is like a suit: it impresses the wrong people, and it constrains the wearer.”

“The very skill of insiders can be a weakness. Once someone is good at something, they tend to spend all their time doing that. This kind of focus is very valuable… but focus has drawbacks: you don’t learn from other fields, and when a new approach arrives, you may be the last to notice.”

Great stuff. Thanks Jason — and thanks, Paul.

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