I wonder if I could get through writing this Monday post. My mood has been freaking unstable past this week. There are many reasons for it. Well, let's not talk about it. :\

1. Today didn't feel like Monday. At all.

2. I must tell you, if you ever go to a hospital, you must learn to be patient. They really do test your patience.

3. And it's amazing how crowded hospitals are. :/

4. Life's going for a toss. A 360 degree spin. Quite literally.

5. In this materialized world, you don't know whom to trust. Not even the doctors. Which makes the whole point of consulting a doctor null and void.

6. Life, I love you.

7. I am at my irritated best at the moment.

8. Why are there so many why's that have no answers?

9. Even this one?

10. I'm going to start reading this book 'Shantaram' quite soon, hopefully. It's so goddamn huge.

11. This post has been resumed after an hour. I hope I complete it.

12. I know I'm being miserable. But I'm too mind fucked to care.

13. I think that I should stop thinking all together.

14. LOL @ the above point.

15. *Please forgive me, I can't stop loving youuuuuu!* - Bryan Adams

16. When nothing else helps, music can do wonders.

17. *tries to whistle*

18. I'm planning to get back to watching TV series. Soon.

19. I miss Dexter. And the chills it gives you.

20. I might be watching Dabangg soon. Don't ask me why. Even I don't know. :\

21. Salman Khan + over-action = Ewww?

22. *That's why, I'm coming back to you!* :D - Bryan Adams

23. I'm even watching stupid TV to keep myself sane. I wonder if that's a good thing.You know, those crappy serials. It might have a negative effect rather than a positive one. :/

24. Btw, that Sunsilk's new shampoo. The Thomas Taw one, is actually gooood! Better than Dove even.

25. I'm trying to study. I hope I continue. :)

Thanks for reading crap! I appreciate your patience. :D

P.S. I might/might not be here next Monday. I hope I won't be. :)

Half the blabber

I was told not to try and write but write. So errm I'm here, kind of.

1. I have fever, 100 degree F :D

2. I should be in bed resting, right?

3. I can't do it. It's too boring. Been doing that since 6.30.

4. That makes it almost 3 hours.

5. I also have annoying cold and dry cough. :D

6. And I'm still sitting in front of the pc. Some people never learn :P tsk tsk

7. My network is acting a bitch. Messages to a particular no. aren't getting delivered. :@

8. In black and white photographs, nothing is really black or white. There are all grays. :/

9. Oh btw, I watched Dabangg. I think I would've been better off without watching all those stupid dialogues and moves. o_O

10. The movie was SO typical.

11. I think I can't type more. The inside of my head's spinning round and round and round.

12. 25/2 = 12.5, right? I'm not too good with numbers. :\

12.5. I don't know how to write half a point ..

may be like that? this?


Why nerds are so unpopular - Part 2

If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I'd tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn't really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.

Life in this twisted world is stressful for the kids. And not just for the nerds. Like any war, it's damaging even to the winners.

Adults can't avoid seeing that teenage kids are tormented. So why don't they do something about it? Because they blame it on puberty. The reason kids are so unhappy, adults tell themselves, is that monstrous new chemicals, hormones, are now coursing through their bloodstream and messing up everything. There's nothing wrong with the system; it's just inevitable that kids will be miserable at that age.

This idea is so pervasive that even the kids believe it, which probably doesn't help. Someone who thinks his feet naturally hurt is not going to stop to consider the possibility that he is wearing the wrong size shoes.

I'm suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it's physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I've read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren't crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

When I was in school, suicide was a constant topic among the smarter kids. No one I knew did it, but several planned to, and some may have tried. Mostly this was just a pose. Like other teenagers, we loved the dramatic, and suicide seemed very dramatic. But partly it was because our lives were at times genuinely miserable.

Bullying was only part of the problem. Another problem, and possibly an even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time.

At best it was practice for real work we might do far in the future, so far that we didn't even know at the time what we were practicing for. More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability. (The three main causes of the Civil War were.... Test: List the three main causes of the Civil War.)

And there was no way to opt out. The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college. The only way to escape this empty life was to submit to it.

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

In my high school French class we were supposed to read Hugo's Les Miserables. I don't think any of us knew French well enough to make our way through this enormous book. Like the rest of the class, I just skimmed the Cliff's Notes. When we were given a test on the book, I noticed that the questions sounded odd. They were full of long words that our teacher wouldn't have used. Where had these questions come from? From the Cliff's Notes, it turned out. The teacher was using them too. We were all just pretending.

There are certainly great public school teachers. The energy and imagination of my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Mihalko, made that year something his students still talk about, thirty years later. But teachers like him were individuals swimming upstream. They couldn't fix the system.

In almost any group of people you'll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it's generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.

We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that's exactly what happens in most American schools. Instead of depending on some real test, one's rank depends mostly on one's ability to increase one's rank. It's like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another's opponents.

When there is some real external test of skill, it isn't painful to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. A rookie on a football team doesn't resent the skill of the veteran; he hopes to be like him one day and is happy to have the chance to learn from him. The veteran may in turn feel a sense of noblesse oblige. And most importantly, their status depends on how well they do against opponents, not on whether they can push the other down.

Court hierarchies are another thing entirely. This type of society debases anyone who enters it. There is neither admiration at the bottom, nor noblesse oblige at the top. It's kill or be killed.

This is the sort of society that gets created in American secondary schools. And it happens because these schools have no real purpose beyond keeping the kids all in one place for a certain number of hours each day. What I didn't realize at the time, and in fact didn't realize till very recently, is that the twin horrors of school life, the cruelty and the boredom, both have the same   cause.

The mediocrity of American public schools has worse consequences than just making kids unhappy for six years. It breeds a rebelliousness that actively drives kids away from the things they're supposed to be learning.

Like many nerds, probably, it was years after high school before I could bring myself to read anything we'd been assigned then. And I lost more than books. I mistrusted words like "character" and "integrity" because they had been so debased by adults. As they were used then, these words all seemed to mean the same thing: obedience. The kids who got praised for these qualities tended to be at best dull-witted prize bulls, and at worst facile schmoozers. If that was what character and integrity were, I wanted no part of them.

The word I most misunderstood was "tact." As used by adults, it seemed to mean keeping your mouth shut. I assumed it was derived from the same root as "tacit" and "taciturn," and that it literally meant being quiet. I vowed that I would never be tactful; they were never going to shut me up. In fact, it's derived from the same root as "tactile," and what it means is to have a deft touch. Tactful is the opposite of clumsy. I don't think I learned this until college.

Nerds aren't the only losers in the popularity rat race. Nerds are unpopular because they're distracted. There are other kids who deliberately opt out because they're so disgusted with the whole process.

Teenage kids, even rebels, don't like to be alone, so when kids opt out of the system, they tend to do it as a group. At the schools I went to, the focus of rebellion was drug use, specifically marijuana. The kids in this tribe wore black concert t-shirts and were called "freaks."

Freaks and nerds were allies, and there was a good deal of overlap between them. Freaks were on the whole smarter than other kids, though never studying (or at least never appearing to) was an    important tribal value. I was more in the nerd camp, but I was friends with a lot of freaks.

They used drugs, at least at first, for the social bonds they created. It was something to do together, and because the drugs were illegal, it was a shared badge of rebellion.

I'm not claiming that bad schools are the whole reason kids get into trouble with drugs. After a while, drugs have their own momentum. No doubt some of the freaks ultimately used drugs to escape from other problems-- trouble at home, for example. But, in my school at least, the reason most kids started using drugs was rebellion. Fourteen-year-olds didn't start smoking pot because they'd heard it would help them forget their problems. They started because they wanted to join a different tribe.

Misrule breeds rebellion; this is not a new idea. And yet the authorities still for the most part act as if drugs were themselves the cause of the problem.

The real problem is the emptiness of school life. We won't see solutions till adults realize that. The adults who may realize it first are the ones who were themselves nerds in school. Do you want your kids to be as unhappy in eighth grade as you were? I wouldn't. Well, then, is there anything we can do to fix things? Almost certainly. There is nothing inevitable about the current system. It has come about mostly by default.

Adults, though, are busy. Showing up for school plays is one thing. Taking on the educational bureaucracy is another. Perhaps a few will have the energy to try to change things. I suspect the hardest part is realizing that you can.

Nerds still in school should not hold their breath. Maybe one day a heavily armed force of adults will show up in helicopters to rescue you, but they probably won't be coming this month. Any immediate improvement in nerds' lives is probably going to have to come from the nerds themselves.

Merely understanding the situation they're in should make it less painful. Nerds aren't losers. They're just playing a different game, and a game much closer to the one played in the real world. Adults know this. It's hard to find successful adults now who don't claim to have been nerds in high school.

It's important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life. School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral. It's all-encompassing, like life, but it isn't the real thing. It's only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you're still in it.

If life seems awful to kids, it's neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It's because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do. Any society of that type is awful to live in. You don't have to look any further to explain why teenage kids are unhappy.

I've said some harsh things in this essay, but really the thesis is an optimistic one-- that several problems we take for granted are in fact not insoluble after all. Teenage kids are not inherently unhappy monsters. That should be encouraging news to kids and adults both.
When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.

My stock gradually rose during high school. Puberty finally arrived; I became a decent soccer player; I started a scandalous underground newspaper. So I've seen a good part of the popularity landscape.

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

Why? To someone in school now, that may seem an odd question to ask. The mere fact is so overwhelming that it may seem strange to imagine that it could be any other way. But it could. Being smart doesn't make you an outcast in elementary school. Nor does it harm you in the real world. Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries. But in a typical American secondary school, being smart is likely to make your life difficult. Why?

The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don't smart kids make themselves popular? If they're so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?

One argument says that this would be impossible, that the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart, and nothing they could do could make them popular. I wish. If the other kids in junior high school envied me, they did a great job of concealing it. And in any case, if being smart were really an enviable quality, the girls would have broken ranks. The guys that guys envy, girls like.

In the schools I went to, being smart just didn't matter much. Kids didn't admire it or despise it. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.

So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don't really want to be popular.

If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.

At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important. If someone had offered me the chance to be the most popular kid in school, but only at the price of being of average intelligence (humor me here), I wouldn't have taken it.

Much as they suffer from their unpopularity, I don't think many nerds would. To them the thought of average intelligence is unbearable. But most kids would take that deal. For half of them, it would be a step up. Even for someone in the eightieth percentile (assuming, as everyone seemed to then, that intelligence is a scalar), who wouldn't drop thirty points in exchange for being loved and admired by everyone?

And that, I think, is the root of the problem. Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.

Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance Man, writes that "no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it." I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.

I don't mean to suggest they do this consciously. Some of them truly are little Machiavellis, but what I really mean here is that teenagers are always on duty as conformists.

For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don't consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids' opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things "right" is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.

Nerds don't realize this. They don't realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don't realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who "can draw" like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that's why they're good at it. Likewise, popular isn't just something you are or you aren't, but something you make yourself.

The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They're like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable.

Even if nerds cared as much as other kids about popularity, being popular would be more work for them. The popular kids learned to be popular, and to want to be popular, the same way the nerds learned to be smart, and to want to be smart: from their parents. While the nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please.

So far I've been finessing the relationship between smart and nerd, using them as if they were interchangeable. In fact it's only the context that makes them so. A nerd is someone who isn't socially adept enough. But "enough" depends on where you are. In a typical American school, standards for coolness are so high (or at least, so specific) that you don't have to be especially awkward to look awkward by comparison.

Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires. Unless they also happen to be good-looking, natural athletes, or siblings of popular kids, they'll tend to become nerds. And that's why smart people's lives are worst between, say, the ages of eleven and seventeen. Life at that age revolves far more around popularity than before or after.

Before that, kids' lives are dominated by their parents, not by other kids. Kids do care what their peers think in elementary school, but this isn't their whole life, as it later becomes.

Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters, not standing in their family. Indeed, being in trouble in their family can win them points in the world they care about.

The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn't get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.

Nerds would find their unpopularity more bearable if it merely caused them to be ignored. Unfortunately, to be unpopular in school is to be actively persecuted.

Why? Once again, anyone currently in school might think this a strange question to ask. How could things be any other way? But they could be. Adults don't normally persecute nerds. Why do teenage kids do it?

Partly because teenagers are still half children, and many children are just intrinsically cruel. Some torture nerds for the same reason they pull the legs off spiders. Before you develop a conscience, torture is amusing.

Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better. When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below. I've read that this is why poor whites in the United States are the group most hostile to blacks.

But I think the main reason other kids persecute nerds is that it's part of the mechanism of popularity. Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness. It's much more about alliances. To become more popular, you need to be constantly doing things that bring you close to other popular people, and nothing brings people closer than a common enemy.

Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn't a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups. Ask any nerd: you get much worse treatment from a group of kids than from any individual bully, however sadistic.

If it's any consolation to the nerds, it's nothing personal. The group of kids who band together to pick on you are doing the same thing, and for the same reason, as a bunch of guys who get together to go hunting. They don't actually hate you. They just need something to chase.

Because they're at the bottom of the scale, nerds are a safe target for the entire school. If I remember correctly, the most popular kids don't persecute nerds; they don't need to stoop to such things. Most of the persecution comes from kids lower down, the nervous middle classes.

The trouble is, there are a lot of them. The distribution of popularity is not a pyramid, but tapers at the bottom like a pear. The least popular group is quite small. (I believe we were the only D table in our cafeteria map.) So there are more people who want to pick on nerds than there are nerds.

As well as gaining points by distancing oneself from unpopular kids, one loses points by being close to them. A woman I know says that in high school she liked nerds, but was afraid to be seen talking to them because the other girls would make fun of her. Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.

It's no wonder, then, that smart kids tend to be unhappy in middle school and high school. Their other interests leave them little attention to spare for popularity, and since popularity resembles a zero-sum game, this in turn makes them targets for the whole school. And the strange thing is, this nightmare scenario happens without any conscious malice, merely because of the shape of the situation.

For me the worst stretch was junior high, when kid culture was new and harsh, and the specialization that would later gradually separate the smarter kids had barely begun. Nearly everyone I've talked to agrees: the nadir is somewhere between eleven and fourteen.

In our school it was eighth grade, which was ages twelve and thirteen for me. There was a brief sensation that year when one of our teachers overheard a group of girls waiting for the school bus, and was so shocked that the next day she devoted the whole class to an eloquent plea not to be so cruel to one another.

It didn't have any noticeable effect. What struck me at the time was that she was surprised. You mean she doesn't know the kind of things they say to one another? You mean this isn't normal?

It's important to realize that, no, the adults don't know what the kids are doing to one another. They know, in the abstract, that kids are monstrously cruel to one another, just as we know in the abstract that people get tortured in poorer countries. But, like us, they don't like to dwell on this depressing fact, and they don't see evidence of specific abuses unless they go looking for it.

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.

Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it's populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don't think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

When the things you do have real effects, it's no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that's where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue.

The other thing that's different about the real world is that it's much larger. In a large enough pool, even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass if they clump together. Out in the real world, nerds collect in certain places and form their own societies where intelligence is the most important thing. Sometimes the current even starts to flow in the other direction: sometimes, particularly in university math and science departments, nerds deliberately exaggerate their awkwardness in order to seem smarter. John Nash so admired Norbert Wiener that he adopted his habit of touching the wall as he walked down a corridor.

As a thirteen-year-old kid, I didn't have much more experience of the world than what I saw immediately around me. The warped little world we lived in was, I thought, the world. The world seemed cruel and boring, and I'm not sure which was worse.

Because I didn't fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn't realize that the reason we nerds didn't fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.

We were a bit like an adult would be if he were thrust back into middle school. He wouldn't know the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, the right slang to use. He'd seem to the kids a complete alien. The thing is, he'd know enough not to care what they thought. We had no such confidence.

A lot of people seem to think it's good for smart kids to be thrown together with "normal" kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don't fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a "pep rally" at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual.

Paul Graham's speech

A few months ago I finished a new book, and in reviews I keep noticing words like "provocative'' and "controversial.'' To say nothing of "idiotic.''

I didn't mean to make the book controversial. I was trying to make it efficient. I didn't want to waste people's time telling them things they already knew. It's more efficient just to give them the diffs. But I suppose that's bound to yield an alarming book.


There's no controversy about which idea is most controversial: the suggestion that variation in wealth might not be as big a problem as we think.

I didn't say in the book that variation in wealth was in itself a good thing. I said in some situations it might be a sign of good things. A throbbing headache is not a good thing, but it can be a sign of a good thing-- for example, that you're recovering consciousness after being hit on the head.

Variation in wealth can be a sign of variation in productivity. (In a society of one, they're identical.) And that is almost certainly a good thing: if your society has no variation in productivity, it's probably not because everyone is Thomas Edison. It's probably because you have no Thomas Edisons.

In a low-tech society you don't see much variation in productivity. If you have a tribe of nomads collecting sticks for a fire, how much more productive is the best stick gatherer going to be than the worst? A factor of two? Whereas when you hand people a complex tool like a computer, the variation in what they can do with it is enormous.

That's not a new idea. Fred Brooks wrote about it in 1974, and the study he quoted was published in 1968. But I think he underestimated the variation between programmers. He wrote about productivity in lines of code: the best programmers can solve a given problem in a tenth the time. But what if the problem isn't given? In programming, as in many fields, the hard part isn't solving problems, but deciding what problems to solve. Imagination is hard to measure, but in practice it dominates the kind of productivity that's measured in lines of code.

Productivity varies in any field, but there are few in which it varies so much. The variation between programmers is so great that it becomes a difference in kind. I don't think this is something intrinsic to programming, though. In every field, technology magnifies differences in productivity. I think what's happening in programming is just that we have a lot of technological leverage. But in every field the lever is getting longer, so the variation we see is something that more and more fields will see as time goes on. And the success of companies, and countries, will depend increasingly on how they deal with it.

If variation in productivity increases with technology, then the contribution of the most productive individuals will not only be disproportionately large, but will actually grow with time. When you reach the point where 90% of a group's output is created by 1% of its members, you lose big if something (whether Viking raids, or central planning) drags their productivity down to the average.

If we want to get the most out of them, we need to understand these especially productive people. What motivates them? What do they need to do their jobs? How do you recognize them? How do you get them to come and work for you? And then of course there's the question, how do you become one?

More than Money

I know a handful of super-hackers, so I sat down and thought about what they have in common. Their defining quality is probably that they really love to program. Ordinary programmers write code to pay the bills. Great hackers think of it as something they do for fun, and which they're delighted to find people will pay them for.

Great programmers are sometimes said to be indifferent to money. This isn't quite true. It is true that all they really care about is doing interesting work. But if you make enough money, you get to work on whatever you want, and for that reason hackers are attracted by the idea of making really large amounts of money. But as long as they still have to show up for work every day, they care more about what they do there than how much they get paid for it.

Economically, this is a fact of the greatest importance, because it means you don't have to pay great hackers anything like what they're worth. A great programmer might be ten or a hundred times as productive as an ordinary one, but he'll consider himself lucky to get paid three times as much. As I'll explain later, this is partly because great hackers don't know how good they are. But it's also because money is not the main thing they want.

What do hackers want? Like all craftsmen, hackers like good tools. In fact, that's an understatement. Good hackers find it unbearable to use bad tools. They'll simply refuse to work on projects with the wrong infrastructure.

At a startup I once worked for, one of the things pinned up on our bulletin board was an ad from IBM. It was a picture of an AS400, and the headline read, I think, "hackers despise it.'' [1]

When you decide what infrastructure to use for a project, you're not just making a technical decision. You're also making a social decision, and this may be the more important of the two. For example, if your company wants to write some software, it might seem a prudent choice to write it in Java. But when you choose a language, you're also choosing a community. The programmers you'll be able to hire to work on a Java project won't be as smart as the ones you could get to work on a project written in Python. And the quality of your hackers probably matters more than the language you choose. Though, frankly, the fact that good hackers prefer Python to Java should tell you something about the relative merits of those languages.

Business types prefer the most popular languages because they view languages as standards. They don't want to bet the company on Betamax. The thing about languages, though, is that they're not just standards. If you have to move bits over a network, by all means use TCP/IP. But a programming language isn't just a format. A programming language is a medium of expression.

I've read that Java has just overtaken Cobol as the most popular language. As a standard, you couldn't wish for more. But as a medium of expression, you could do a lot better. Of all the great programmers I can think of, I know of only one who would voluntarily program in Java. And of all the great programmers I can think of who don't work for Sun, on Java, I know of zero.

Great hackers also generally insist on using open source software. Not just because it's better, but because it gives them more control. Good hackers insist on control. This is part of what makes them good hackers: when something's broken, they need to fix it. You want them to feel this way about the software they're writing for you. You shouldn't be surprised when they feel the same way about the operating system.

A couple years ago a venture capitalist friend told me about a new startup he was involved with. It sounded promising. But the next time I talked to him, he said they'd decided to build their software on Windows NT, and had just hired a very experienced NT developer to be their chief technical officer. When I heard this, I thought, these guys are doomed. One, the CTO couldn't be a first rate hacker, because to become an eminent NT developer he would have had to use NT voluntarily, multiple times, and I couldn't imagine a great hacker doing that; and two, even if he was good, he'd have a hard time hiring anyone good to work for him if the project had to be built on NT. [2]

The Final Frontier

After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you're a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.

The cartoon strip Dilbert has a lot to say about cubicles, and with good reason. All the hackers I know despise them. The mere prospect of being interrupted is enough to prevent hackers from working on hard problems. If you want to get real work done in an office with cubicles, you have two options: work at home, or come in early or late or on a weekend, when no one else is there. Don't companies realize this is a sign that something is broken? An office environment is supposed to be something that helps you work, not something you work despite.

Companies like Cisco are proud that everyone there has a cubicle, even the CEO. But they're not so advanced as they think; obviously they still view office space as a badge of rank. Note too that Cisco is famous for doing very little product development in house. They get new technology by buying the startups that created it-- where presumably the hackers did have somewhere quiet to work.

One big company that understands what hackers need is Microsoft. I once saw a recruiting ad for Microsoft with a big picture of a door. Work for us, the premise was, and we'll give you a place to work where you can actually get work done. And you know, Microsoft is remarkable among big companies in that they are able to develop software in house. Not well, perhaps, but well enough.

If companies want hackers to be productive, they should look at what they do at home. At home, hackers can arrange things themselves so they can get the most done. And when they work at home, hackers don't work in noisy, open spaces; they work in rooms with doors. They work in cosy, neighborhoody places with people around and somewhere to walk when they need to mull something over, instead of in glass boxes set in acres of parking lots. They have a sofa they can take a nap on when they feel tired, instead of sitting in a coma at their desk, pretending to work. There's no crew of people with vacuum cleaners that roars through every evening during the prime hacking hours. There are no meetings or, God forbid, corporate retreats or team-building exercises. And when you look at what they're doing on that computer, you'll find it reinforces what I said earlier about tools. They may have to use Java and Windows at work, but at home, where they can choose for themselves, you're more likely to find them using Perl and Linux.

Indeed, these statistics about Cobol or Java being the most popular language can be misleading. What we ought to look at, if we want to know what tools are best, is what hackers choose when they can choose freely-- that is, in projects of their own. When you ask that question, you find that open source operating systems already have a dominant market share, and the number one language is probably Perl.


Along with good tools, hackers want interesting projects. What makes a project interesting? Well, obviously overtly sexy applications like stealth planes or special effects software would be interesting to work on. But any application can be interesting if it poses novel technical challenges. So it's hard to predict which problems hackers will like, because some become interesting only when the people working on them discover a new kind of solution. Before ITA (who wrote the software inside Orbitz), the people working on airline fare searches probably thought it was one of the most boring applications imaginable. But ITA made it interesting by redefining the problem in a more ambitious way.

I think the same thing happened at Google. When Google was founded, the conventional wisdom among the so-called portals was that search was boring and unimportant. But the guys at Google didn't think search was boring, and that's why they do it so well.

This is an area where managers can make a difference. Like a parent saying to a child, I bet you can't clean up your whole room in ten minutes, a good manager can sometimes redefine a problem as a more interesting one. Steve Jobs seems to be particularly good at this, in part simply by having high standards. There were a lot of small, inexpensive computers before the Mac. He redefined the problem as: make one that's beautiful. And that probably drove the developers harder than any carrot or stick could.

They certainly delivered. When the Mac first appeared, you didn't even have to turn it on to know it would be good; you could tell from the case. A few weeks ago I was walking along the street in Cambridge, and in someone's trash I saw what appeared to be a Mac carrying case. I looked inside, and there was a Mac SE. I carried it home and plugged it in, and it booted. The happy Macintosh face, and then the finder. My God, it was so simple. It was just like ... Google.

Hackers like to work for people with high standards. But it's not enough just to be exacting. You have to insist on the right things. Which usually means that you have to be a hacker yourself. I've seen occasional articles about how to manage programmers. Really there should be two articles: one about what to do if you are yourself a programmer, and one about what to do if you're not. And the second could probably be condensed into two words: give up.

The problem is not so much the day to day management. Really good hackers are practically self-managing. The problem is, if you're not a hacker, you can't tell who the good hackers are. A similar problem explains why American cars are so ugly. I call it the design paradox. You might think that you could make your products beautiful just by hiring a great designer to design them. But if you yourself don't have good taste, how are you going to recognize a good designer? By definition you can't tell from his portfolio. And you can't go by the awards he's won or the jobs he's had, because in design, as in most fields, those tend to be driven by fashion and schmoozing, with actual ability a distant third. There's no way around it: you can't manage a process intended to produce beautiful things without knowing what beautiful is. American cars are ugly because American car companies are run by people with bad taste.

Many people in this country think of taste as something elusive, or even frivolous. It is neither. To drive design, a manager must be the most demanding user of a company's products. And if you have really good taste, you can, as Steve Jobs does, make satisfying you the kind of problem that good people like to work on.

Nasty Little Problems

It's pretty easy to say what kinds of problems are not interesting: those where instead of solving a few big, clear, problems, you have to solve a lot of nasty little ones. One of the worst kinds of projects is writing an interface to a piece of software that's full of bugs. Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client's complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts.

The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don't learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn't teach you anything, because the bugs are random. [3] So it's not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It's more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.

Of course some problems inherently have this character. And because of supply and demand, they pay especially well. So a company that found a way to get great hackers to work on tedious problems would be very successful. How would you do it?

One place this happens is in startups. At our startup we had Robert Morris working as a system administrator. That's like having the Rolling Stones play at a bar mitzvah. You can't hire that kind of talent. But people will do any amount of drudgery for companies of which they're the founders. [4]

Bigger companies solve the problem by partitioning the company. They get smart people to work for them by establishing a separate R&D department where employees don't have to work directly on customers' nasty little problems. [5] In this model, the research department functions like a mine. They produce new ideas; maybe the rest of the company will be able to use them.

You may not have to go to this extreme. Bottom-up programming suggests another way to partition the company: have the smart people work as toolmakers. If your company makes software to do x, have one group that builds tools for writing software of that type, and another that uses these tools to write the applications. This way you might be able to get smart people to write 99% of your code, but still keep them almost as insulated from users as they would be in a traditional research department. The toolmakers would have users, but they'd only be the company's own developers. [6]

If Microsoft used this approach, their software wouldn't be so full of security holes, because the less smart people writing the actual applications wouldn't be doing low-level stuff like allocating memory. Instead of writing Word directly in C, they'd be plugging together big Lego blocks of Word-language. (Duplo, I believe, is the technical term.)


Along with interesting problems, what good hackers like is other good hackers. Great hackers tend to clump together-- sometimes spectacularly so, as at Xerox Parc. So you won't attract good hackers in linear proportion to how good an environment you create for them. The tendency to clump means it's more like the square of the environment. So it's winner take all. At any given time, there are only about ten or twenty places where hackers most want to work, and if you aren't one of them, you won't just have fewer great hackers, you'll have zero.

Having great hackers is not, by itself, enough to make a company successful. It works well for Google and ITA, which are two of the hot spots right now, but it didn't help Thinking Machines or Xerox. Sun had a good run for a while, but their business model is a down elevator. In that situation, even the best hackers can't save you.

I think, though, that all other things being equal, a company that can attract great hackers will have a huge advantage. There are people who would disagree with this. When we were making the rounds of venture capital firms in the 1990s, several told us that software companies didn't win by writing great software, but through brand, and dominating channels, and doing the right deals.

They really seemed to believe this, and I think I know why. I think what a lot of VCs are looking for, at least unconsciously, is the next Microsoft. And of course if Microsoft is your model, you shouldn't be looking for companies that hope to win by writing great software. But VCs are mistaken to look for the next Microsoft, because no startup can be the next Microsoft unless some other company is prepared to bend over at just the right moment and be the next IBM.

It's a mistake to use Microsoft as a model, because their whole culture derives from that one lucky break. Microsoft is a bad data point. If you throw them out, you find that good products do tend to win in the market. What VCs should be looking for is the next Apple, or the next Google.

I think Bill Gates knows this. What worries him about Google is not the power of their brand, but the fact that they have better hackers. [7]


So who are the great hackers? How do you know when you meet one? That turns out to be very hard. Even hackers can't tell. I'm pretty sure now that my friend Trevor Blackwell is a great hacker. You may have read on Slashdot how he made his own Segway. The remarkable thing about this project was that he wrote all the software in one day (in Python, incidentally).

For Trevor, that's par for the course. But when I first met him, I thought he was a complete idiot. He was standing in Robert Morris's office babbling at him about something or other, and I remember standing behind him making frantic gestures at Robert to shoo this nut out of his office so we could go to lunch. Robert says he misjudged Trevor at first too. Apparently when Robert first met him, Trevor had just begun a new scheme that involved writing down everything about every aspect of his life on a stack of index cards, which he carried with him everywhere. He'd also just arrived from Canada, and had a strong Canadian accent and a mullet.

The problem is compounded by the fact that hackers, despite their reputation for social obliviousness, sometimes put a good deal of effort into seeming smart. When I was in grad school I used to hang around the MIT AI Lab occasionally. It was kind of intimidating at first. Everyone there spoke so fast. But after a while I learned the trick of speaking fast. You don't have to think any faster; just use twice as many words to say everything.

With this amount of noise in the signal, it's hard to tell good hackers when you meet them. I can't tell, even now. You also can't tell from their resumes. It seems like the only way to judge a hacker is to work with him on something.

And this is the reason that high-tech areas only happen around universities. The active ingredient here is not so much the professors as the students. Startups grow up around universities because universities bring together promising young people and make them work on the same projects. The smart ones learn who the other smart ones are, and together they cook up new projects of their own.

Because you can't tell a great hacker except by working with him, hackers themselves can't tell how good they are. This is true to a degree in most fields. I've found that people who are great at something are not so much convinced of their own greatness as mystified at why everyone else seems so incompetent.

But it's particularly hard for hackers to know how good they are, because it's hard to compare their work. This is easier in most other fields. In the hundred meters, you know in 10 seconds who's fastest. Even in math there seems to be a general consensus about which problems are hard to solve, and what constitutes a good solution. But hacking is like writing. Who can say which of two novels is better? Certainly not the authors.

With hackers, at least, other hackers can tell. That's because, unlike novelists, hackers collaborate on projects. When you get to hit a few difficult problems over the net at someone, you learn pretty quickly how hard they hit them back. But hackers can't watch themselves at work. So if you ask a great hacker how good he is, he's almost certain to reply, I don't know. He's not just being modest. He really doesn't know.

And none of us know, except about people we've actually worked with. Which puts us in a weird situation: we don't know who our heroes should be. The hackers who become famous tend to become famous by random accidents of PR. Occasionally I need to give an example of a great hacker, and I never know who to use. The first names that come to mind always tend to be people I know personally, but it seems lame to use them. So, I think, maybe I should say Richard Stallman, or Linus Torvalds, or Alan Kay, or someone famous like that. But I have no idea if these guys are great hackers. I've never worked with them on anything.

If there is a Michael Jordan of hacking, no one knows, including him.


Finally, the question the hackers have all been wondering about: how do you become a great hacker? I don't know if it's possible to make yourself into one. But it's certainly possible to do things that make you stupid, and if you can make yourself stupid, you can probably make yourself smart too.

The key to being a good hacker may be to work on what you like. When I think about the great hackers I know, one thing they have in common is the extreme difficulty of making them work on anything they don't want to. I don't know if this is cause or effect; it may be both.

To do something well you have to love it. So to the extent you can preserve hacking as something you love, you're likely to do it well. Try to keep the sense of wonder you had about programming at age 14. If you're worried that your current job is rotting your brain, it probably is.

The best hackers tend to be smart, of course, but that's true in a lot of fields. Is there some quality that's unique to hackers? I asked some friends, and the number one thing they mentioned was curiosity. I'd always supposed that all smart people were curious-- that curiosity was simply the first derivative of knowledge. But apparently hackers are particularly curious, especially about how things work. That makes sense, because programs are in effect giant descriptions of how things work.

Several friends mentioned hackers' ability to concentrate-- their ability, as one put it, to "tune out everything outside their own heads.'' I've certainly noticed this. And I've heard several hackers say that after drinking even half a beer they can't program at all. So maybe hacking does require some special ability to focus. Perhaps great hackers can load a large amount of context into their head, so that when they look at a line of code, they see not just that line but the whole program around it. John McPhee wrote that Bill Bradley's success as a basketball player was due partly to his extraordinary peripheral vision. "Perfect'' eyesight means about 47 degrees of vertical peripheral vision. Bill Bradley had 70; he could see the basket when he was looking at the floor. Maybe great hackers have some similar inborn ability. (I cheat by using a very dense language, which shrinks the court.)

This could explain the disconnect over cubicles. Maybe the people in charge of facilities, not having any concentration to shatter, have no idea that working in a cubicle feels to a hacker like having one's brain in a blender. (Whereas Bill, if the rumors of autism are true, knows all too well.)

One difference I've noticed between great hackers and smart people in general is that hackers are more politically incorrect. To the extent there is a secret handshake among good hackers, it's when they know one another well enough to express opinions that would get them stoned to death by the general public. And I can see why political incorrectness would be a useful quality in programming. Programs are very complex and, at least in the hands of good programmers, very fluid. In such situations it's helpful to have a habit of questioning assumptions.

Can you cultivate these qualities? I don't know. But you can at least not repress them. So here is my best shot at a recipe. If it is possible to make yourself into a great hacker, the way to do it may be to make the following deal with yourself: you never have to work on boring projects (unless your family will starve otherwise), and in return, you'll never allow yourself to do a half-assed job. All the great hackers I know seem to have made that deal, though perhaps none of them had any choice in the matter.


[1] In fairness, I have to say that IBM makes decent hardware. I wrote this on an IBM laptop.

[2] They did turn out to be doomed. They shut down a few months later.

[3] I think this is what people mean when they talk about the "meaning of life." On the face of it, this seems an odd idea. Life isn't an expression; how could it have meaning? But it can have a quality that feels a lot like meaning. In a project like a compiler, you have to solve a lot of problems, but the problems all fall into a pattern, as in a signal. Whereas when the problems you have to solve are random, they seem like noise.

[4] Einstein at one point worked designing refrigerators. (He had equity.)

[5] It's hard to say exactly what constitutes research in the computer world, but as a first approximation, it's software that doesn't have users.

I don't think it's publication that makes the best hackers want to work in research departments. I think it's mainly not having to have a three hour meeting with a product manager about problems integrating the Korean version of Word 13.27 with the talking paperclip.

[6] Something similar has been happening for a long time in the construction industry. When you had a house built a couple hundred years ago, the local builders built everything in it. But increasingly what builders do is assemble components designed and manufactured by someone else. This has, like the arrival of desktop publishing, given people the freedom to experiment in disastrous ways, but it is certainly more efficient.

[7] Google is much more dangerous to Microsoft than Netscape was. Probably more dangerous than any other company has ever been. Not least because they're determined to fight. On their job listing page, they say that one of their "core values'' is "Don't be evil.'' From a company selling soybean oil or mining equipment, such a statement would merely be eccentric. But I think all of us in the computer world recognize who that is a declaration of war on.

Why smart people have bad ideas

This summer, as an experiment, some friends and I are giving seed funding to a bunch of new startups. It's an experiment because we're prepared to fund younger founders than most investors would. That's why we're doing it during the summer-- so even college students can participate.

We know from Google and Yahoo that grad students can start successful startups. And we know from experience that some undergrads are as capable as most grad students. The accepted age for startup founders has been creeping downward. We're trying to find the lower bound.

The deadline has now passed, and we're sifting through 227 applications. We expected to divide them into two categories, promising and unpromising. But we soon saw we needed a third: promising people with unpromising ideas. [1]

The Artix Phase

We should have expected this. It's very common for a group of founders to go through one lame idea before realizing that a startup has to make something people will pay for. In fact, we ourselves did.

Viaweb wasn't the first startup Robert Morris and I started. In January 1995, we and a couple friends started a company called Artix. The plan was to put art galleries on the Web. In retrospect, I wonder how we could have wasted our time on anything so stupid. Galleries are not especially excited about being on the Web even now, ten years later. They don't want to have their stock visible to any random visitor, like an antique store. [2]

Besides which, art dealers are the most technophobic people on earth. They didn't become art dealers after a difficult choice between that and a career in the hard sciences. Most of them had never seen the Web before we came to tell them why they should be on it. Some didn't even have computers. It doesn't do justice to the situation to describe it as a hard sell; we soon sank to building sites for free, and it was hard to convince galleries even to do that.

Gradually it dawned on us that instead of trying to make Web sites for people who didn't want them, we could make sites for people who did. In fact, software that would let people who wanted sites make their own. So we ditched Artix and started a new company, Viaweb, to make software for building online stores. That one succeeded.

We're in good company here. Microsoft was not the first company Paul Allen and Bill Gates started either. The first was called Traf-o-data. It does not seem to have done as well as Micro-soft.

In Robert's defense, he was skeptical about Artix. I dragged him into it. [3] But there were moments when he was optimistic. And if we, who were 29 and 30 at the time, could get excited about such a thoroughly boneheaded idea, we should not be surprised that hackers aged 21 or 22 are pitching us ideas with little hope of making money.

The Still Life Effect

Why does this happen? Why do good hackers have bad business ideas?

Let's look at our case. One reason we had such a lame idea was that it was the first thing we thought of. I was in New York trying to be a starving artist at the time (the starving part is actually quite easy), so I was haunting galleries anyway. When I learned about the Web, it seemed natural to mix the two. Make Web sites for galleries-- that's the ticket!

If you're going to spend years working on something, you'd think it might be wise to spend at least a couple days considering different ideas, instead of going with the first that comes into your head. You'd think. But people don't. In fact, this is a constant problem when you're painting still lifes. You plonk down a bunch of stuff on a table, and maybe spend five or ten minutes rearranging it to look interesting. But you're so impatient to get started painting that ten minutes of rearranging feels very long. So you start painting. Three days later, having spent twenty hours staring at it, you're kicking yourself for having set up such an awkward and boring composition, but by then it's too late.

Part of the problem is that big projects tend to grow out of small ones. You set up a still life to make a quick sketch when you have a spare hour, and days later you're still working on it. I once spent a month painting three versions of a still life I set up in about four minutes. At each point (a day, a week, a month) I thought I'd already put in so much time that it was too late to change.

So the biggest cause of bad ideas is the still life effect: you come up with a random idea, plunge into it, and then at each point (a day, a week, a month) feel you've put so much time into it that this must be the idea.

How do we fix that? I don't think we should discard plunging. Plunging into an idea is a good thing. The solution is at the other end: to realize that having invested time in something doesn't make it good.

This is clearest in the case of names. Viaweb was originally called Webgen, but we discovered someone else had a product called that. We were so attached to our name that we offered him 5% of the company if he'd let us have it. But he wouldn't, so we had to think of another. [4] The best we could do was Viaweb, which we disliked at first. It was like having a new mother. But within three days we loved it, and Webgen sounded lame and old-fashioned.

If it's hard to change something so simple as a name, imagine how hard it is to garbage-collect an idea. A name only has one point of attachment into your head. An idea for a company gets woven into your thoughts. So you must consciously discount for that. Plunge in, by all means, but remember later to look at your idea in the harsh light of morning and ask: is this something people will pay for? Is this, of all the things we could make, the thing people will pay most for?


The second mistake we made with Artix is also very common. Putting galleries on the Web seemed cool.

One of the most valuable things my father taught me is an old Yorkshire saying: where there's muck, there's brass. Meaning that unpleasant work pays. And more to the point here, vice versa. Work people like doesn't pay well, for reasons of supply and demand. The most extreme case is developing programming languages, which doesn't pay at all, because people like it so much they do it for free.

When we started Artix, I was still ambivalent about business. I wanted to keep one foot in the art world. Big, big, mistake. Going into business is like a hang-glider launch-- you'd better do it wholeheartedly, or not at all. The purpose of a company, and a startup especially, is to make money. You can't have divided loyalties.

Which is not to say that you have to do the most disgusting sort of work, like spamming, or starting a company whose only purpose is patent litigation. What I mean is, if you're starting a company that will do something cool, the aim had better be to make money and maybe be cool, not to be cool and maybe make money.

It's hard enough to make money that you can't do it by accident. Unless it's your first priority, it's unlikely to happen at all.


When I probe our motives with Artix, I see a third mistake: timidity. If you'd proposed at the time that we go into the e-commerce business, we'd have found the idea terrifying. Surely a field like that would be dominated by fearsome startups with five million dollars of VC money each. Whereas we felt pretty sure that we could hold our own in the slightly less competitive business of generating Web sites for art galleries.

We erred ridiculously far on the side of safety. As it turns out, VC-backed startups are not that fearsome. They're too busy trying to spend all that money to get software written. In 1995, the e-commerce business was very competitive as measured in press releases, but not as measured in software. And really it never was. The big fish like Open Market (rest their souls) were just consulting companies pretending to be product companies [5], and the offerings at our end of the market were a couple hundred lines of Perl scripts. Or could have been implemented as a couple hundred lines of Perl; in fact they were probably tens of thousands of lines of C++ or Java. Once we actually took the plunge into e-commerce, it turned out to be surprisingly easy to compete.

So why were we afraid? We felt we were good at programming, but we lacked confidence in our ability to do a mysterious, undifferentiated thing we called "business." In fact there is no such thing as "business." There's selling, promotion, figuring out what people want, deciding how much to charge, customer support, paying your bills, getting customers to pay you, getting incorporated, raising money, and so on. And the combination is not as hard as it seems, because some tasks (like raising money and getting incorporated) are an O(1) pain in the ass, whether you're big or small, and others (like selling and promotion) depend more on energy and imagination than any kind of special training.

Artix was like a hyena, content to survive on carrion because we were afraid of the lions. Except the lions turned out not to have any teeth, and the business of putting galleries online barely qualified as carrion.

A Familiar Problem

Sum up all these sources of error, and it's no wonder we had such a bad idea for a company. We did the first thing we thought of; we were ambivalent about being in business at all; and we deliberately chose an impoverished market to avoid competition.

Looking at the applications for the Summer Founders Program, I see signs of all three. But the first is by far the biggest problem. Most of the groups applying have not stopped to ask: of all the things we could do, is this the one with the best chance of making money?

If they'd already been through their Artix phase, they'd have learned to ask that. After the reception we got from art dealers, we were ready to. This time, we thought, let's make something people want.

Reading the Wall Street Journal for a week should give anyone ideas for two or three new startups. The articles are full of descriptions of problems that need to be solved. But most of the applicants don't seem to have looked far for ideas.

We expected the most common proposal to be for multiplayer games. We were not far off: this was the second most common. The most common was some combination of a blog, a calendar, a dating site, and Friendster. Maybe there is some new killer app to be discovered here, but it seems perverse to go poking around in this fog when there are valuable, unsolved problems lying about in the open for anyone to see. Why did no one propose a new scheme for micropayments? An ambitious project, perhaps, but I can't believe we've considered every alternative. And newspapers and magazines are (literally) dying for a solution.

Why did so few applicants really think about what customers want? I think the problem with many, as with people in their early twenties generally, is that they've been trained their whole lives to jump through predefined hoops. They've spent 15-20 years solving problems other people have set for them. And how much time deciding what problems would be good to solve? Two or three course projects? They're good at solving problems, but bad at choosing them.

But that, I'm convinced, is just the effect of training. Or more precisely, the effect of grading. To make grading efficient, everyone has to solve the same problem, and that means it has to be decided in advance. It would be great if schools taught students how to choose problems as well as how to solve them, but I don't know how you'd run such a class in practice.

Copper and Tin

The good news is, choosing problems is something that can be learned. I know that from experience. Hackers can learn to make things customers want. [6]

This is a controversial view. One expert on "entrepreneurship" told me that any startup had to include business people, because only they could focus on what customers wanted. I'll probably alienate this guy forever by quoting him, but I have to risk it, because his email was such a perfect example of this view:

80% of MIT spinoffs succeed provided they have at least one management person in the team at the start. The business person represents the "voice of the customer" and that's what keeps the engineers and product development on track.
This is, in my opinion, a crock. Hackers are perfectly capable of hearing the voice of the customer without a business person to amplify the signal for them. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were grad students in computer science, which presumably makes them "engineers." Do you suppose Google is only good because they had some business guy whispering in their ears what customers wanted? It seems to me the business guys who did the most for Google were the ones who obligingly flew Altavista into a hillside just as Google was getting started.

The hard part about figuring out what customers want is figuring out that you need to figure it out. But that's something you can learn quickly. It's like seeing the other interpretation of an ambiguous picture. As soon as someone tells you there's a rabbit as well as a duck, it's hard not to see it.

And compared to the sort of problems hackers are used to solving, giving customers what they want is easy. Anyone who can write an optimizing compiler can design a UI that doesn't confuse users, once they choose to focus on that problem. And once you apply that kind of brain power to petty but profitable questions, you can create wealth very rapidly.

That's the essence of a startup: having brilliant people do work that's beneath them. Big companies try to hire the right person for the job. Startups win because they don't-- because they take people so smart that they would in a big company be doing "research," and set them to work instead on problems of the most immediate and mundane sort. Think Einstein designing refrigerators. [7]

If you want to learn what people want, read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. [8] When a friend recommended this book, I couldn't believe he was serious. But he insisted it was good, so I read it, and he was right. It deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people's point of view, instead of thinking only of yourself.

Most smart people don't do that very well. But adding this ability to raw brainpower is like adding tin to copper. The result is bronze, which is so much harder that it seems a different metal.

A hacker who has learned what to make, and not just how to make, is extraordinarily powerful. And not just at making money: look what a small group of volunteers has achieved with Firefox.

Doing an Artix teaches you to make something people want in the same way that not drinking anything would teach you how much you depend on water. But it would be more convenient for all involved if the Summer Founders didn't learn this on our dime-- if they could skip the Artix phase and go right on to make something customers wanted. That, I think, is going to be the real experiment this summer. How long will it take them to grasp this?

We decided we ought to have T-Shirts for the SFP, and we'd been thinking about what to print on the back. Till now we'd been planning to use
If you can read this, I should be working.
but now we've decided it's going to be
Make something people want.


[1] SFP applicants: please don't assume that not being accepted means we think your idea is bad. Because we want to keep the number of startups small this first summer, we're going to have to turn down some good proposals too.

[2] Dealers try to give each customer the impression that the stuff they're showing him is something special that only a few people have seen, when in fact it may have been sitting in their racks for years while they tried to unload it on buyer after buyer.

[3] On the other hand, he was skeptical about Viaweb too. I have a precise measure of that, because at one point in the first couple months we made a bet: if he ever made a million dollars out of Viaweb, he'd get his ear pierced. We didn't let him off, either.

[4] I wrote a program to generate all the combinations of "Web" plus a three letter word. I learned from this that most three letter words are bad: Webpig, Webdog, Webfat, Webzit, Webfug. But one of them was Webvia; I swapped them to make Viaweb.

[5] It's much easier to sell services than a product, just as it's easier to make a living playing at weddings than by selling recordings. But the margins are greater on products. So during the Bubble a lot of companies used consulting to generate revenues they could attribute to the sale of products, because it made a better story for an IPO.

[6] Trevor Blackwell presents the following recipe for a startup: "Watch people who have money to spend, see what they're wasting their time on, cook up a solution, and try selling it to them. It's surprising how small a problem can be and still provide a profitable market for a solution."

[7] You need to offer especially large rewards to get great people to do tedious work. That's why startups always pay equity rather than just salary.

[8] Buy an old copy from the 1940s or 50s instead of the current edition, which has been rewritten to suit present fashions. The original edition contained a few unPC ideas, but it's always better to read an original book, bearing in mind that it's a book from a past era, than to read a new version sanitized for your protection.
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