Hackers and painters

By | Personal Development

I watched a documentary on Heath Ledger the other day and realised that if he wasn’t an an actor or an artist, he would have been a great scientist —  or even a computer scientist,  the hacker kind. Heath was a very curious person, an intense learner. He would record himself and watch how he performed every single time.

Later, I was reminded of Paul Graham’s book, ‘Hackers and Painters’, which has been on my to read list for quite some time. I am impressed by the clarity of PG’s thoughts and delighted that we share the same philosophies on product, work ethics and design. Paul explains his rationale and theories much more eloquently than I ever could. I highly recommend it if you’re the kind of person who wants to push boundaries and do better work. I’ve provided some excerpts below so you can get a sense of the style of the book.

“I think that misfits and iconoclasts are also more likely to become hackers. The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, where you can think anything you want, if you’re willing to risk the consequences.”

On making great products:

“The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper. So why do universities and research labs continue to judge hackers by publications? For the same reason that “scholastic aptitude” gets measured by simple-minded standardized tests, or the productivity of programmers by lines of code”

“Measure what hackers are actually trying to do, designing beautiful software, would be much more difficult. You need a good sense of design to judge good design. And there is no correlation, except possibly a negative one, between people’s ability to recognise good design and their confidence that they can.”

“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. When it comes to code I behave in a way that would make me eligible for presciption drugs if I approached every day life the same way. It drives me crazy to see code that’s badly indented, or that uses ugly variable names.”

On empathy:

“Like painting, most software is intended for a human audience. And so hackers, like painters, must have empathy to do really great work. You have to be able to see things from the user’s point of view.”

“One way to tell how good people are at empathy is to watch them explain a technical matter to someone without a technical background. We probably all know people who, though oterwise smart, are just comically bad at this.”

On saying things that society can’t handle:

“The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.”

On thinking out of the box:

“To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.”

“Whatever the reason, there seems a clear correlation between intelligence and willingness to consider shocking ideas. This isn’t just because smart people actively work to find holes in conventional thinking. Conventions also have less hold over them to start with. You can see that in the way they dress.”

On design:

“Good design is hard. If you look at the people who’ve done great work, one thing they all seem to have in common is that they worked very hard. If you’re not working hard, you’re probably wasting your time. Hard problems call for great efforts. In math, difficult proofs require ingenious solutions, and these tend to be interesting…Like great athletes, great designers make it look easy. Mostly this is an illusion. The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eight rewrite.”

“The ethos that makes artists and scientists successful is quite similar. Find an idea that no one else is working on or wants to do — mainly because it’s challenging — and tackle it to the best of your ability whilst doing great work in the process. Unfortunately, great skills take time, if not decades to master such craftmanship. Nevertheless, we should hold to such standards because a world that is not elegant is a world nobody wants to live in.”

At the end of the day, we have about 40 years in our lifetime to make some great products or experiences for people. If the first 10 years is about learning, that leaves us with 30 years. I don’t know about you but 20 years seems to go by in a flash for me so spending our time wisely on the things that count matters a lot to me.


Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham

Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham


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