Reading the Lines, Not Between Them (PG & Coding Horror)


There’s quite a flap over Paul Graham’s recent essay.

The attacking author quotes a comment on Reddit (always a good sign) as a good summary of the essay of why we should all be terribly offended.

“I work with young startup founders in their twenties. They’re geniuses, and play by their own rules. Oh… you haven’t founded a company? You suck.”

I kinda feel like there is a reading comprehension problem here. Paul added a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the article to clarify, but I’m going to boil down what I got.

The point I got from the essay is:

“I work with young startup founders in their twenties [note: he works with me and a mess of other founders who are also in their thirties… at least 1 or 2 are in their forties]. They seem stressed, but they seem happier and more alive. I think it might be a socio-biological thing– human beings are meant to be working in smaller groups, with clearer goals, and more ‘on the line’. Small businesses and startups seem like the best place to find this environment.”


Saying stuff like “happier and more alive” (which PG did not– I’m paraphrasing) does not mean that everyone else is miserable and dead inside.

Anyways, this isn’t a wild idea. There are piles of studies out there that have found a correlation between self-employment and satisfaction/happiness. Incidentally, there’s also a strong correlation between self-employment and making less money (but that’s good news, because there are ALSO studies that show that money doesn’t do much for happiness once you manage to have enough coming in to cover the necessities)

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  • I understand why you feel the need to defend PG, but you should also ask yourself why (if he’s so smart) did he not realize that his words would invoke this reaction.

    My _guess_ is that he knew that the post was inflammatory. He just wanted the links, clicks and buzz that went with the reaction.

  • @brian: It is not Paul Graham’s responsibility to take into account people who deliberately take his posts out of context to attack him. The words do not warrant the vitriolic reaction around the web; however, the completely non-textual inferences made by some who read it have. That doesn’t mean it’s Paul’s fault, let alone that it’s his responsibility to foresee this type of thing.

  • @brian I’m not sure if he was surprised– but I’m gonna ask him if he was. 🙂 ANY time you say, “People who do X versus Y seem more happy and satisfied”, there is going to be a small subset of the “Y” people who get angry and go well out of there way to twist it into an attack.

    Great example: There’s a study out there that seems to indicate that NOT having children results in happier marriages and slightly more “life satisfaction” than the alternative (assuming it’s a choice– people who want to have kids but can’t tend to be miserable and regretful about it). Bring this up in a roomful of parents. Try to be as delicate and balanced as you can. Point out that the study could be flawed. Mention that it’s a generalization and there are certainly exceptions on both sides. Hedge your statement any way you can, and I’d wager you STILL get some of those parents frothing at the mouth and attacking the argument any and every way they can.

    I can’t quite understand why this is, but I suspect it has to do with their being insecure about their choices.

  • Brian, apparently you’re one of the masses with a reading comprehension problem. I’m not sure we really have to write for you.

  • Tony,

    I think it is simply a reaction against being categorized. I posit that most people see themselves as complex animals; each with their own characteristics that make them feel unique.

    This kind of reaction happens whenever someone passes judgment on a group of people, rather than individuals. Especially when the person doing the judging is not seen to be part of the group being judged.

    Therefore, if any part of the article could be reasonably interpreted as stereotyping any other group of people, whether the stereotype is true, or even intended, then you should not be surprised at the emotional responses.

  • Just discovered your blog the other day and I love it, and your summary of PG’s article is spot-on… it’s exactly what I took away from it. I really don’t even understand Jeff Atwood’s reaction, it seems a bit over-the-top to me.

  • “…but you should also ask yourself why (if he’s so smart) did he not realize that his words would invoke this reaction.”
    OMG! That is so unfair.

    How on earth can anyone ever be so smart as to account for the poor reading comprehension of everyone who might read his article? Should that even be an issue for an author?

    I read the article, and it read to me like someone saying “you can do it to”, not “you are lame because you haven’t”. IMHO, the people that ead it as the latter have a chip on their shoulder, and feel like losers compared to founders, hence the misreading. That says more about them than it does about teh author.

  • I am shocked, SHOCKED to learn that you can find absolutely no fault with this essay… from someone who funded your company.

    As a writer, I find that if a significant percentage of the audience hears something different than I said, then I have failed as a writer.

    I’ve met Paul Graham, and he doesn’t agree. Like Bobby Brown, that’s his perogative, I suppose.

    As you said in a recent blog post — it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.

  • @Jeff – I am stunned, BLOWN AWAY to read a comment that begins with so much DRIPPING SARCASM. It certainly adds to the conversation. 🙂

    FWIW, I disagree with a bit of what PG espouses (and have publicly done so a few times on Hacker News). People obviously attack every single one of Paul’s essays– this is the first (and only) time that I can remember actually being so surprised/confused by a response that I felt compelled to write about it.

    And I’m in your camp that the writer’s intent doesn’t matter much if no one hears what he’s saying… What I found peculiar is that most people DID hear what he was trying to say. I talked to lots of people about that essay– and even ran it by a bunch of friends (coders) that I know who aren’t particularly familiar with PG. I showed it to my wife, who is in non-profit fundraising. Few seemed to get as grumpy as you did. So yaw– “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear”. But everyone “hears” something different. If the hyperbolic way you restated Paul’s points is really what you heard, I think it was miles away from the middle of the bell curve, so to speak. It seemed like you had some ideas you wanted to attack and you squished Paul’s statements into a certain box so you could be justified in attacking them.

    “As a writer, I find that if a significant percentage of the audience hears something different than I said, then I have failed as a writer.”

    The question here is how significant is the percentage? I think it’s small and I think you’re in the minority, but I’m not sure (which is why I talked to a bunch of people who didn’t have an agenda before I wrote this post). You’re CERTAINLY not in a clear majority.

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