Paul Graham's Participatory Narcissism

I have tremendous respect for Paul Graham. His essays-- repackaged in the book Hackers and Painters-- are among the best writing I've found on software engineering. Not all of them are so great, of course, but the majority are well worth your time. That's more than I can say for 99.9-infinitely-repeating-percent of the content on the web. He's certainly a better and more authoritative writer than I.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Good Article as always.


Being a programmer is certainly more fun on a smaller team, or with a small company. I had a dream job (small team in a big company) that had the life sucked out of it by increased management and SOX. We wouldn’t roll out changes because the hours of bureaucracy weren’t worth the 15 minutes it would take to make the change. I hadn’t realized how unhappy I was until I watched Office Space and my wife said, “That seems like your job”. I soon switched jobs, but I am still looking for that right balance of creative freedom and responsibility.

Wow…I felt the same way after I read his article yesterday, and you explain it well.

I do find Paul’s analogy interesting and insightful, despite how offensive and incomplete it is.

Some of Paul’s earlier writings - fun and interesting ones - were also about him (for instance, his ViaWeb startup days).

He’s probably insulated himself over the last couple of years and he seems to be very successful at what he does. These two things are probably correlated, and the two things also tend to draw criticism.

I thought you and Joel are buddies!?

Its very, very simple.

Paul Graham has a lot of vested interest in the whole startup business. Apart from the fact that he is an original developer and a funder and a great writer, he also profits from the whole business in the sense it made him a millionaire and makes him richer every day(arguably he would have achieved that anyway).

If you’re in a startup you will be subject to some kind of insane velocity, either in the sense of a) taking off, i.e. becoming insanely rich or b) “moving on” (aka pink slip parties). It has nothing to do with stability. It’s a do-or-die business. You have to take risks.

Arguably, not every business runs that way. Organic growth vs exponential “change” with 200% adrenaline.

It’s just like the gold rush. The main point wasn’t the movement or the spirit or the inner motivation, it simply was the fact that gold really existed.

Oh, well. Everybody decides what level of risk they can handle, or on the other hand, how much soul-sucking. His opinion is a little off, but nobody knows if you’re happy but you.

If you’re reading anyone to give validation to the career track you’ve chosen, you’re on the wrong track.

But lately I’ve begun to wonder whether Mr. Atwood has become utterly self-absorbed and irrelevant. Consider his latest essay, Paul Graham’s Participatory Narcissism:

He has spouted his mouth off (a.k.a. expressed his viewpoint) at someone else for expressing their viewpoint.

Actually he agrees with the essay on many points, except for some implication that he has created that one programmer is inherently better then another.

I’m sure there are some animals whom would rather live in a zoo, but that doesn’t make them just as wild.

On the other hand, I’m sick of your drivel. My RSS aggregator cried tears of joy after I unsubscribed.

His tail should be right between his legs right now. Thanks Jeff. You’re a hero.

As a young developer (22) I can relate to what Paul is saying. I currently work in a medium size organization (about 500 staff), and I dislike the weight of every decision. I long for the ability to make quick decisions and see where they lead, rather than do a cost analysis of every action. I want to make my own mistakes and try new technologies at work and integrate them wherever I would like. I simply can’t do that with 3 levels of reporting to make each decision.

I agree that Paul’s view is quite cut and dry. Either you are suffering under the weight of whatever organization you are at or you are starting your own company. This isn’t quite always the case as Jeff pointed out, you can like where you work and not have it be a startup or a company of 10. It all depends on what you like and what company you happen to be working for. I personally would like my own company or startup that I can have more freedom to develop on my schedule and with what tools I choose.

For large hierarchial companies, I think he is incredibly on target, but I agree that his caged animal analogy is wrong. It’s worse than that: the cages are nested. Your boss is simply in a bigger cage than you.

I really don’t see what you find so offensive about the article. Perhaps you’ve never worked in a large company? Employees in such companies are regularly treated like children, and regularly behave like them. Zoo animals bear no responsibility for their own survival, and are protected from predators, much as children are. The analogy is apt.

Is that really pg in the post above me? … can’t tell either way.

Anyways, Jeff, great article.

All the debate around this issue has been focussed purely on work, on your job, on your career. A massive part of PG’s life is his work, which is great for those of us lucky enough to be YC funded.

However, I’ve not heard anyone stand up for the fantastic employment Big Company’s offer for those people who have a passion outside of work - hobbies, sport, I’m even including family and kids. With Matt Maroon’s post on why not to do a startup ([]) and the ongoing Calcanis work/life balance debate, it’s pretty clear that startups don’t suit those people that choose to apply themselves more fully outside of work.

I think a world in which everyone was as passionate about constructive work as PG is would be pretty bland. As much amazing stuff has been created in the spare time of office drones as in the work time of the silicon valley crowd.

“Working for yourself doesn’t have to mean starting a startup, of course. But a programmer deciding between a regular job at a big company and their own startup is probably going to learn more doing the startup.”

Quoted directly from the article. There’s a reason why you bug the crap out of me, and this article is indicative of why.

Some years back, Hugh MacLeod did a post in a very similar vein, basically comparing his life to that of the people who worked in corporate jobs and coming up with a similar set of sweeping assumptions about how inferior the people who made different life choices were.

Looking down on other people’s life choices is arrogant and rude. It would be nice if more successful people showed a little more empathy for people not on their chosen path.

Hey Jeff, I really enjoy reading Paul Graham, Joel Spolsky, and Coding Horror. Not all of you are going to be right all the time or have the same view on things. However, there is a large overlap.

I find the disagreements to be the most interesting part. Often, that’s where the best ideas get hashed out. I enjoyed this post, and now I’m looking forward to Paul’s next essay. Critism is a good thing, like iron sharpening iron.

Incidently, I really enjoyed Joel’s last post: It’s his best in a long time. I credit Joel with getting me excited to read about programming, and blogging before blogging was cool.

it’s pretty clear that startups don’t suit those people
that choose to apply themselves more fully outside of work

Exactly. If you’re not monomaniacally passionate about some particular job, then starting a small business based around that job is likely to be a very dumb idea. The job, and the abovementioned boring minutiae of running the business, will consume your entire life until the business gets big enough that you can delegate away the stuff you don’t like, or (much more likely…) until the business fails (not necessarily through any fault of yours).

Plenty of people just as smart as Paul Graham have started small businesses and ended up destitute, miserable, and only allowed to see their kids every second weekend. Starting your own business is a crapshoot, many of the factors are not within your control, and the odds are not in your favour.

Oh, and even if you ARE a passionate and brilliant programmer, apparently you’re still a loser by Graham’s standards if you happen to be fascinated by some area of programming for which there isn’t much of a market. Or perhaps you’re meant to strike out boldly on your own in a business venture which you know for a fact is utterly doomed. I’m not entirely clear on this part.

You should really have the “Dabblers and Blowhards” essay credited better or featured more prominently or something, since its responsible for the nice “Participatory Narcissism” phrase.

If programmers had a union…
they wouldn’t need to worry about if they had managers or not.

As it stands, it’s very easy for programmers and engineers in general to just be used up and tossed aside by their benevolent corporate masters.

Different people have different skills. Some people love to code and solve technical problems and the idea of becoming a founder / businessman responsible for running a new company isn’t that appealing to them. Great discussion and comments here, at Reddit, Hacker News…

I agree. What an arse.