Coding Horror

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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.

But lately I've begun to wonder whether Mr. Graham, like Joel Spolsky before him, has devolved into self-absorption and irrelevance. Consider his latest essay, You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss, which opens with this distasteful anecdote:

A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto and a group of programmers came in on some kind of scavenger hunt. It was obviously one of those corporate "team-building" exercises.

They looked familiar. I spend nearly all my time working with programmers in their twenties and early thirties. But something seemed wrong about these. There was something missing.

And yet the company they worked for is considered a good one, and from what I overheard of their conversation, they seemed smart enough. In fact, they seemed to be from one of the more prestigious groups within the company. So why did it seem there was something odd about them?

The guys on the scavenger hunt looked like the programmers I was used to, but they were employees instead of founders. And it was startling how different they seemed.

So what, you may say. So I happen to know a subset of programmers who are especially ambitious. Of course less ambitious people will seem different. But the difference between the programmers I saw in the cafe and the ones I was used to wasn't just a difference of degree. Something seemed wrong.

I think it's not so much that there's something special about founders as that there's something missing in the lives of employees. I think startup founders, though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that's more natural for humans.

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.

I'm not sure why Mr. Graham felt the need to draw this incredibly condescending parallel with company employees and caged animals in the zoo.

I've actually taken Mr. Graham's advice. I recently quit my job to blog and participate in a micro startup. Even though I'm now one of the anointed founders in Mr. Graham's book, I still found this comparison retroactively offensive to all those years I worked as an employee for various companies and had perfectly enriching, rewarding – dare I say even enjoyable – experiences. Or at least as happy as a caged animal in a zoo can ever be, I suppose.

caged orangutan

Mr. Graham's essay does contain some fair points, if you can suppress your gag reflex long enough to get to them. If you don't have time to read it, lex99 posted this succinct summary that captured its flavor perfectly:

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.

Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. And Mr. Graham is absolutely right to encourage young people to take risks early in life, to join small business startups with potentially limitless upside while they have nothing to lose – no children, no mortgage, no significant other. I believe in this so strongly I included it as a slide in my presentation to graduating Canadian computer science students.

cusec-presentation: 'Your early twenties are exactly the time to take insane career risks.', Paul Graham

Indeed, you should take insane career risks while you're young.

And there are lots of large corporate soul-sucking programming jobs that are, quite literally, Dilbert cartoons brought to life.

The problem with this particular essay is the way Mr. Graham implies the only path to true happiness as a young programmer lies in founding a startup. If you aren't a founder, or one of the first 10 employees, then, well.. enjoy your life at the zoo. We'll be sure to visit when we aren't busy loping free on the plains, working the way people were meant to. I'm not paraphrasing here; he actually wrote that: working the way people were meant to. The sense of disdain, the dismissiveness, is nearly palpable.

He acknowledges that his perspective is warped because "nearly all the programmers [he knows] are startup founders." Therein lies the problem. These essays are no longer about software engineering; they're about Paul Graham. They've become participatory narcissism:

After a while, you begin to notice that all the essays are an elaborate set of mirrors set up to reflect different facets of the author, in a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.

Naturally, every young software programmer worth a damn forms a startup. Because that's what Mr. Graham's company, Y Combinator, does. They fund startups with young software programmers. He projects his reality outward, reflecting it against the rest of us so brightly and so strongly that we're temporarily blinded. We stop seeing our own reality and trade it for his, in a form of participatory narcissism – we believe in the one true path to success, exactly the way Mr. Graham has laid it before us. Traditional employment? That's for suckers. Real go-getters start their own companies.

On the whole, I think I preferred Paul Graham's essays when they were more about software engineering and less about Paul Graham.

Update: Paul Graham posted two essays that partially respond to this post: You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss: The Cliffs Notes and How to Disagree. The latter is, as far as I can tell, a sort of EULA for disagreeing with Paul Graham. Based on the conversation this post initiated, I attended a Y Combinator dinner and got to meet Mr. Graham in person. That is, to me, the point of posts like this – some initial disagreement ultimately leading to deeper, more satisfying communication. A net positive all around.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: