Saturday, March 31, 2007

Youth Obsession


I read Paul Graham's essays out of habit these days; I loved the earlier gems concerning matters of being a Great Hacker and even though less and less of what he says is designed for people like me, I still read them hoping for something special. Something inspirational.

The current essay, Why To Not Not Start A Startup, is geared towards people considering as much. Among Graham's many ideals for the person starting a company, a recurring theme revolves around youth and freedom.

I caught a bit of it earlier in the week and one comment that stuck was in reference to people like myself, who also have a family life. I have no children yet, but even then I'm within the target zone albeit to a lesser degree.

"What you can do, if you have a family and want to start a startup, is start a
consulting business you can then gradually turn into a product business.
Empirically the chances of pulling that off seem very small. You're never going
to produce Google this way.
But at least you'll never be without an income."

The emphasis in the quote is mine because I think it struck at the heart of what bothered me - it seemed to go further than the notion of not starting a startup to what Google symbolizes in the social imagination: the Next Big Thing, the Brilliant Idea, the Company After Which To Model. It was the feeling a few weeks ago I got at the airport when I saw a young woman - a UCLA college student - with a Google backpack and I got a strange envy thinking "How'd she get that!?"

The quote remained in my head and last night while I was finishing the essay, my wife was watching the TLC show What Not To Wear and I began to connect the youth obsession from the show to the kind of youth obsession I recognize creeping into my own value system with the help of quotes like the above. It's the obsession that the good ideas - the potence as it were - is gone once a threshold of age or lifestyle is crossed. It's not unique to programmers or "techy" people; it seems that mathematicians can be plagued with the thought that Einstein and others resemble a universal truth: the best ideas are to be had in youth and from there you live in the afterglow of them.

I wonder about this. I grapple with the difficulty of truth generalized - I think Graham is in many ways right - and the desire to be an edge case of his statement. Two books I read recently come to mind: Masters of Doom, the chronicle of the founders of Id software, and Weaving the Web, Tim Berners-Lee's recollection of how the web came to be. In Masters of Doom, John Romero and John Carmack seemed to model the notion of Graham's thinking: youthful obsession, low budget living conditions, energy and the freedom to have fun. Tim Berners-Lee is a massive contrast - less a picture of overnight "hacking" and pizza, and more of thoughtfulness, patience, and the desire for his idea to be bigger - an idea that would prove its usefullness and universality. I don't remember the exact day, but on one important occasion Berners-Lee was absent, his son was born on whatever "special day" it may have been. Even though he could have monetized his work, his values seem shifted. And I find ironic the fact that the afterglow of the web is bigger than the afterglow of Doom.

I'd be interested in discovering some older founders - people whose paths were a little more thoughtful and wise. I'm sure there are some out there who break the age and family barriers to become successful as they've defined success. Although I'm pressed to think of them in technology, elsewhere they come to mind quite easily - the company I spend most of my time at, Daktronics, is just one such case.

I still love reading Paul Graham though - one thing he's written that I think I'll always remember comes from his essay Hackers and Painters where he described the attribute of relentless:

"This sounds like a paradox, but a great painting has to be better than it has to be. For example, when Leonardo painted the portrait of Ginevra de Benci in the National Gallery, he put a juniper bush behind her head. In it he carefully painted each individual leaf. Many painters might have thought, this is just something to put in the background to frame her head. No one will look that closely at it."

"Not Leonardo. How hard he worked on part of a painting didn't depend at all on how closely he expected anyone to look at it. He was like Michael Jordan. Relentless."

"Relentlessness wins because, in the aggregate, unseen details become visible.
When people walk by the portrait of Ginevra de Benci,
their attention is often immediately arrested by it, even before they look at
the label and notice that it says Leonardo da Vinci. All those unseen details
combine to produce something that's just stunning, like a thousand barely
audible voices all singing in tune."

I can walk away, a thirty-one year old married guy or no, as relentless as I can be. I'm off to paint some leaves. (But first I have to go home and do some yardwork.)


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