Paul Graham: On Arguing With Idiots, Where Ideas Come From, and What Makes Good Programmers

Paul Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor. His 2004 anthology Hackers and Painters explores the world and the people who inhabit it. He calls the book an “intellectual wild west,” and I agree.


When looking for where to find great ideas, we tend to end up in the combination space. Combining ideas from different disciplines creates new ideas. It’s repurposing something.

Graham, however, expands on this view and offers another source of new ideas as repurposing overlooked ideas.

Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable.

Arguing with Idiots

What happens when you argue with an idiot? You become one.

Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.
The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts.

What Makes Good Programmers?

Few people would have better insight into the hacker culture than Graham. He believes, and I agree, that an undercurrent of disobedience can lead to healthy outcomes. Organizations spend a great deal of money hiring these people only to annoy them with pointless bureaucracy.

Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers’ general attitude of disobedience. But that disobedience is a byproduct of the qualities that make them good programmers. They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate newspeech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them a certain problem can’t be solved. Suppress one, and you suppress the other.

Still Curious?

All of the essays in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age are worth reading and thinking about.