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Beyond Smart (paulgraham.com)
695 points by razin 89 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 432 comments

To me, this is fundamentally the difference between science and engineering: Science involves discovering things which are new, while engineering takes those discoveries and makes them practically useful.

In terms of my own work, tarsnap is absolutely a work of engineering -- I very deliberately avoided doing anything new, instead using established and well-tested concepts. The exception to this is scrypt, which I designed -- and proved the security of -- because there was no existing password based key derivation function which met my standards for security. On that one occasion I crossed the line from engineering into science.

Science is great, but there's nothing to be ashamed about in doing engineering work. The world needs good engineers who can take basic scientific discoveries and make useful products out of them!

If I think of PG's accomplishments they could be characterized as "discovering things which are new" to him, but also characterized as taking ideas that were cutting edge, uncommon, or out of favor and bringing them to fruition (sounds more like engineering).

I don't think of the YC structure as discovering anything inherently new but taking an approach that was not being done in the VC industry and trying to scientifically iterate on it.

Bayesian spam filtering seemed a discovery to him, but it wasn't for science: someone else had already published a paper even. However, the results of previous attempts weren't good enough until PG focused on the problem and used a large enough corpus of data.

I would enjoy reading more (with links!) about the spam filtering story.

This is probably where you want to start: http://www.paulgraham.com/spam.html


This is a page of links.

To me, this is still very creative, just at a different layer of abstraction.

Even commodity manufacturing is its own art because you have to make millions of something per day instead of tens of thousands. You have to take material in one side of the factory and spit it out the other as fast as you can. You've crossed the limits of being able to warehouse half completed bits because machine #17 has gone on the fritz again and nobody can finish product.

So I need more reliable equipment and then I still need to make them at a lower price than the luxury model I'm copying.

I don't think anyone who has entirely avoided skilled manual labor in their lives quite comprehends how big a difference there is being able to do something well, and being able to do it at scale. It's almost not the same problem domain.

That descrption of mass manufacturing reminds me of building reliable computing systems from unreliable parts (server farm(s)), something I have never done, only read about. It is apparently very different from regular software development in similar ways.

There is a lot of science which is "stamp collecting" or "puzzle solving", i.e. all the fiddly bits of fleshing out the new theory and its ramifications. There is also, in engineering, the occasional need to develop something really innovative and new.

The thing is, no one outside of science notices all the non-discovery stuff, because it doesn't make it into the textbooks or histories of science. But, it's most of what goes on in science. Also, in engineering, much of the most innovative stuff requires too much prior knowledge to even understand what it is, so not many people find out about it.

Are you still pursuing new discoveries ?

It gets deeper in science.

There is the debate about pursuing everettian quantum mechanics vs traditional quantum mechanics


> You have cause and effect exactly backwards.

Not really. You just, correctly, described the relationship between science and engineering as a feedback loop. But that also means there is no first and last.

A step in engineering reveals a problem that scientists can focus on. A scientific discovery makes new engineering possible. Progress of engineering enables building tools that make new kinds of observations possible, enabling scientific research that was previously not possible. Rinse, repeat. There's no separating one from another - they run in lockstep.

If an engineer designs a bridge and says "well, it seems to stay up, but I don't know why... go ask a scientist?" they'll lose their license pretty damn fast.

I think the point is that bridge building originated as a craft that was informed by a lot of examples that happened to survive (ie. survivorship bias) leading to rules of thumb and patterns that gradually yielded to scientific explanations (often driven by trying to understand failed bridges designed according to rules applied / patterns extended outside of the context where they were valid).

I guess the first bridge builders never asked a scientist. Science of bridge building came much later then bridges.

Didn't Maxwell come before Tesla and Edison? The insights of Relativity and QM came before lasers, electron microscopes, quantum computing, etc.

What about general relativity.

The consensus among top physicists during the 'heroic era' was that Von Neumann was the smartest among them, higher IQ than Einstein's, but Einstein had something else.

Eugene P. Wigner:

> I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me. [...] But Einstein's understanding was deeper even than von Neumann's. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann's. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of Jansci's brilliance, he never produced anything as original.

Small remark: I think you have a typo there. Jancsi = Johnny in Hungarian.

Years and years ago I read Einstein's biography (the one by Isaacson). One anecdote that remains bright in my memory after all these years is about Einstein and sailing. Einstein liked sailing, and because of where he was living he mostly did lake sailing. One thing about lake sailing is that you can often end up becalmed. What Einstein did was to take a notebook with him when he went sailing; a notebook with notes about what he was working on at the time. Whenever the wind died down he would take out his notebook and start working on his current research. When the wind picked up he would put his notebook away and resume sailing.

There is no doubt that Einstein was brilliant. I believe he was as successful as he was because he was also exceptionally self disciplined.

I read that too, and I got the impression being forced to work alone at the patent office was crucial for his 1905 Annus mirabilis papers. Lots of other great ideas (e.g. Mendel, Darwin) have come about from intellectual isolation.

I wonder how Graham would respond to that given he's so intertwined in Silicon Valley.

And Bill James did a lot of his Sabermetric writing while working night shifts as a security guard.[0]

He's not Einstein, but he was way ahead of his time in a particular area and it's fair to say he's been hugely influential in the baseball community for nearly 40 years.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_James

Lots of great ideas have come out of university settings as well. I don't know if you can say anything in general about intellectual isolation.

> I believe he was as successful as he was because he was also exceptionally self disciplined.

Well, that's one way to put it. These were the rules he wrote out for his wife. [0]

  You will make sure:

  - that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
  - that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
  - that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.

  You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, You will forego:

 - my sitting at home with you;
 - my going out or travelling with you.

  You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
  - you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
 - you will stop talking to me if I request it;
 - you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.

  You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behaviour.
[0] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2133922/Was-Einst...

Charitably, the context of the time, this sounds like a man with a broken marriage who wants to continue providing for his wife who likely didn't work and their children.

I think asking to be left alone in his private spaces, to not have drama, to do really basic chores like cooking and cleaning (in the context of the era) if you're not working or bringing in income seems really reasonable.

He's a bigger man than me - I'd never live with an essentially ex wife.

I couldn't imagine writing something like that to someone who I shared a life with for over a decade, and the mother of my children. But maybe thing were different back then...

Plenty of divorces are much much nastier than that.

I wouldn't call that disciplined. I would call that pragmatic.

He didn't like being bored. Working on his research while becalmed likely kept him from tearing his hair out while being productive.


What if a smart person thought of a crypto currency and then foresaw its devastating impact on the planet, what do you think that person would do?

I belive smart people want to work on ideas that are net positive and as you know many ideas (even successfull ones) are net negative.

* Airbnb - locals are outbidded by tourists

* uber/lyft - better solution is public transportation

* Amazon - big marketplace but no idea whats fake and have to pray to god that no one dies while trying to deliver our orer

* Roundup - kills grass and also friendly insects on top of that gives you cancer

* Teflon - no need to burn calarioes on washing dishes but pollutes ground water with forever chemicals

* meat industry - you get tasty meal but animals and earth suffer

* Zillion sataliets in orbit - remote locations (no one lives or not need) gets access to internet but astronomy suffers

the list goes on

> "I belive smart people want to work on ideas that are net positive"

Do you have any basis for that belief or is that just wishful thinking? Or is that the way how you choose to define "smart", so it becomes true by definition?

I would say that a persons goals, purposes and values is an important aspect that's pretty much orthogonal to their intellectual ability to figure out how to best achieve their long-term goals and further their values, whatever they happen to be. Perhaps there's some correlation there, but IMHO it's not necessary nor very strong, all kinds of counterexamples come to mind; there certainly are people who are very intelligent and effective while literally being sociopaths.

Smart people also realize the world isn't perfect, and it wasn't before we were here either. In a world where long term outcomes have infinite factors taking actions with short term benefits is rational because there is no control or impact over the long term effects.

That is obviously not totally true, but I think probabilistically speaking, it's _somewhat_ true.

So the defining feature of intelligence is that the truly smart take actions with short term benefits at the cost of long term detriments?

Close. Smart people are _willing_ to take actions with short term benefits at the cost of long term detriments.

Smart people understand that there are multiple correct answers to the same problem depending on what timeframe you are operating under, and that the long timeframe is less controllable.

Just having the good new ideas isn't really enough, though. You have to be really persistent about figuring out all the details and making them work. This is related to, but definitely not the same as, being fascinated/obsessed by the topic.

Of course Einstein had great ideas. But he also spent many years working out the consequences of, eg, his first ideas about the fixed speed of light in vacuum and its consequences in physics, initially during downtime at his patent office job. Nearly all of the impact of the theory is in that working-out.

Plus one on this.

Work ethic is super important. The ability to grind on your ideas. And I think having some extrovert nature really helps in getting your ideas out there.

I was Paul's definition of smart, w/o good ideas. I loved to learn things. But I didn't really have the work ethic to build new things. I feel like I've done fine in life, but had you asked my middle school and high school teachers -- and even university... I've probably underperformed.

In contrast my son is bright, but not the academic star I was. But he has crazy work ethic in ideas he cares about. I've really nurtured his work ethic and played down the "smart" academic angle. If wants to finish a personal project and not study for that French quiz -- I'm fine with that. He gets an A-/B+ for the year, rather than an A. So what. The passion he pours into his ideas though is great and I think will serve him better over the course of his life.

How do you encourage that work ethic though? Just compliment it, or is there another trick to it.

I do compliment it. But probably more than that I emphasize that things worth doing are often hard and hard things often take time. So I taught him that setting short term goals along the way to long-term goals will help him stay on track. So he's becoming really good at showing me various intermediate states to his work, and I'm really excited when I see it. Whether its a game that he's writing or a business that he's creating.

As a younger kid he loved Legos. I think that contributed. He'd just do progressively larger and larger sets. As a kid I never could do a large Lego set. I had them, but they all remained unfinished.

>Some would attribute the difference between intelligence and having new ideas to "creativity," but this doesn't seem a very useful term. As well as being pretty vague, it's shifted half a frame sideways from what we care about: it's neither separable from intelligence, nor responsible for all the difference between intelligence and having new ideas.

I find this dismissiveness of creativity to be somewhat strange. It's by definition, what he should be looking for. I can't help but think he's got a paradigm in mind for finding 'new ideas' and feels like creativity is too outside the box for it.

This might be a bit of a hot take, but I feel creativity is more about being “untethered” and about synthesis of different ideas, techniques, etc. in novel ways. Unfortunately, one can be as creative as can be and still never come up with something “good”. (Who is to decide what’s good? It’s almost surely in large part a social or cultural thing, much like “genius” is.) I mentioned musicians elsewhere so I will again: A lot of creative musicians are great at noodling around, making neat new melodies, but aren’t coming up with any coherent or consistent ideas that “lead” to anywhere. Creativity just seems like a “raw ingredient” for ideas in this view.

This was fairly obvious to me as early as elementary school. Some kids would just get new concepts and then easily apply their new knowledge, and some worked really really hard and also got good grades. The hard workers were not as "smart" but made up for it with hard work, because in my mind, smart was always "the ability to learn something new and apply it quickly".

The difference got more obvious with each level of school, and when I got to college, the difference was stark. There were definitely the "just smart" people and the "work really hard people".

In my work life, it's nice to work with a mix of both. People who can take in new knowledge and generate new ideas, as well as people who just get it and work really hard. It's especially great when idea generators can communicate well and the hard workers can make it happen.

There are other aspects as well. Much of them have to do with managing the load up times of the mental model of the topic at hand, with focus, but also setting up/starting correctly.


Some people pick up things very quickly, others take a while to pick them up. Neither is necessarily "smarter" because they might have different thresholds to what they consider "getting it". The depth that they pick some new thing and feel they "get it" might be different. Additionally, how well they grasp it might be different levels in terms of when they feel they fully grok it. Smart or skilled on something is holistic understanding, the speed isn't always as important but is definitely helpful. Like learning something with prototypes rather than a big sprawling project, the former will be faster.

Longevity or Ability to Stick With It

Another aspect is people that pick up skills and how much they want to use them. If you quickly get skills, that may also mean you get bored with the skills/knowledge quicker. The people that work harder at it or have a deeper threshold or attainment level of how they "get it", may work with that more because it took more effort to grasp or the more they iterate on it the more depth/detail/interest is found.

Some people will be able to stick with something they get longer, others may want to move to the next thing. There are all sorts of variables with this: time, goal alignment, need, survival, effort, results, groups you are in like if it was for something personal or at work etc.

Self Starter

A key aspect to smartness is being a "self starter", one that looks into things driven by interest or potential need. The ability to just start playing and prototyping is a great skill to have.

Ability to Finish

On top of that, setting things up to easily ship is another way people can be professional. When you start a prototype but get the line to production setup early, the work you do will take less adjustments and make it easier to ship when needed. Right after a prototype I like to setup tools/games/apps all the way to the end on device, different platforms, different styles, basically two of everything so that issues you run into are already smoothed. This makes it easy to ship.

Simple to Approach

I like concepts that are simple to start, and potentially advanced long term to keep interest.

Since I make games and tools I like the "easy to approach, difficult to master" aspect of things and try to create that in my productions. I like the game/tool to be a "friend" so you like using it and it isn't tasking. That is another aspect, how much effort is required.

"If you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it." -- Feynman

Iteration, Practice and Deeper Dives

Most highly skilled people are smart, of varying levels of speed, but the ultimate way to build skills is the repetition and iteration of consist creation/production and shipping. A deeper dive. The more detail and depth the better you can do it "simple". I usually judge people, at least in games, as what they have shipped. Sometimes I am amazed at how those people that produce come to the result, some get there fast and others are constantly re-learning, both have their benefits.

A Beginners Mind

A "beginners mind" or Shoshin [1] helps to refine that and keep things simple/approachable, which I think is the main goal of creation/production. I also believe the job of engineering is taking complex systems and making them simple, but still allowing the advanced users access to highly customize or use deeper features. This technique also makes it easy to come back to work on something years later that doesn't take a long time to load up the mental model.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin

Like other PG posts, I feel like he misses the elephant in the room, opportunity. You can be intelligent or highly creative, but unless you have the opportunity to use your abilities in some fashion, neither will do you much good.

Like so many others like him, they probably miss opportunity being such a big deal because it was so abundant for them. This is not to say they didn't also have to be intelligent and work hard to get where they are, but they also had to have things align for them in their life, that were outside their control, to get where they are.

I think emphasizing opportunity is putting the cart before the horse. I believe opportunity follows from initiative, imagination, and boldly asking and exploring great questions.

Game-changers like Einstein differ from other geniuses like Oppenheimer by asking imaginative questions and then independently exploring even when they lead to weird disruptive implications like warped space and time. Einstein never waited to be invited to the party. He created his own.

Without opportunity there is no cart, nor horse, nor road to travel on.

Einstein was fortunate to be born into a family that was educated and well off enough to afford him to study. (Same with Oppenheimer and I'd reason most celebrated intellects) Had Einstein been born in the son of former slaves in the US South, he never would have been allowed to study math or physics, he likely wouldn't have been able to escape his situation as a farmer, and some other scientist would have had to figure out relativity. All of that is opportunity.

There are two types of people who have received 4.0 GPAs and very high SAT scores.

1. Geniuses. They can look at a calculus text book for 30 minutes and understand calculus and get an A on a calculus test.

2. Reasonably smart people who think that getting a 4.0 is very important, for whatever reason. So important that it becomes their identity. They spend every minute trying to get that 4.0.

I was probably in middle school or high school when I realized that I'm not nearly as smart as #1, but just as smart as #2. It just isn't that hard to realize that the effort to outcome ratio isn't good on being a #2 type person. And more importantly, long term if you go down that path you will be working some shitty job making less 400k a year at 80/hours a week. Because your identity is being someone who is #1, even if #1 means billing the most hours doing tax accounting in the basement of some old building on a Friday night.

There's those two types... And everyone in between

Recently I’ve been a bit disillusioned as all the cleverness of my youth had gone wasted. Albeit the ideas were low hanging fruits but had I had the skills to implement them I think I would have been better off. Now that I do have the skills, they’d long been executed by others.

Now the world has gotten a lot more sophisticated and I don’t know what to sophisticate myself on. They all seem a bit boring or stupid on one hand, or another monumental climb where I’ll have to start over from the beginning.

All monumental climbs start with a single step. It's easy to get lost thinking about what could have been or what will be and forget about what can be, right now at this very moment.

It's not enjoyable to think about wasted opportunities in your past, so don't let your future self suffer the same fate.

Do at least part of one of the ideas you find boring or stupid to get back into the mindset of being someone who is able to create. Armed with that, you'll spend less time thinking about whether you can do it and more time about what you want to do.

Obviously for people who are depressed or suffer from ADHD you often can't "just do it" but in general I think it's worth trying to shift the way we think about the things we can accomplish.

A lot of the biggest Web-related tech money-makers and success stories are things it wouldn't have occurred to me to try, because I'd have assumed they were illegal or otherwise so awful that people'd tar and feather me if I proposed them. Sometimes, they were/are illegal, in fact, but it somehow worked out OK for the founders anyway (business might eventually fall apart, but who cares, they made millions, if not billions)

Spying on what people do on web pages, down to their mouse movements, sometimes. Tracking all that across sites. Then using that to target ads at them.

AirBnB and Uber... just, all of what they do.

Crypto exchanges. It's crazy to me that these managed to go long enough to gain a toehold before facing any sort of banking or securities regulations.

Addictive mechanics on social media and in pay-to-play games.

Mint and other go-betweens with banks that just store and re-use credentials, including answers to "security questions". Seems like a really dangerous idea, probably involves encouraging a bunch of people to violate terms of service on a massive scale, and if you're presenting connections to banks that you know have those terms, seems like you'd be hella liable for that. And my god, if there's a breach that involves your systems and you've been hoovering up people's banking credentials? I'd fully expect to be facing extremely scary and probably-going-to-go-poorly-for-my-company lawsuits from a dozen enormous banks. How do these companies get insured in any way whatsoever? I don't get it. Inexplicably (to me), instead of crashing and burning and being laughed out of the room at any and all fundraising meetings, these made a few people very, very rich instead.

And so on.

Plenty of things not in those categories, of course. Stripe was a great idea, just a hard problem—I'd have had no clue how to seek terms from CC companies to get such a thing off the ground, to pick what's just step #1 of even starting to try at that.

Some are great ideas that I might have come up with, but I haven't a clue about how to even begin to fundraise (I'm not past barely-an-acquaintance territory with any rich people, for even small values of "rich", so that doesn't help), and they're the kind of thing that pretty much requires a pile of cash to even make an attempt—actually, Stripe again seems like a good example. I couldn't feasibly have done even an MVP of that solo, or even with a very small team "in a garage"; the fundraising is another necessary hurdle to even credibly trying.

Some stuff's smart people doing smart things that are eventually very lucrative. Those I (theoretically) could have done, I guess. Redis, for instance. Still, the really big money seems to be in convincing people to finance things that feel like they ought to be illegal (and might actually be), and how that all works continues to elude me. How do you spot a law you can break long enough to get traction against the "dinosaurs" who are bound to follow the law, versus one that will land you on the losing end of a ruinous lawsuit and make your name mud, or in prison? Do people actually know how to spot those, or are the successful ones just lucky? Is that in fact almost all laws once you have some rich people backing you? I haven't a clue.

(Nb this is not intended as sour-grapes complaining, but rather an exploration of the ways in which "having an idea" is a really, really long way from even making a meaningful attempt at implementation for a variety of prominent tech products, including such hurdles as not understanding when doing illegal or horribly unethical stuff is actually a very good idea, if you're just trying to launch a product and get rich—these are deficiencies in my understanding of the world, clearly)

This short essay is roughly a synospsis of the theme behind Asimov's short story The Profession.

Which everybody should (must?) read. Seriously, should be a mandatory read in school curriculum, instead of "catcher in the rye" or some Scottish ballade [+].

[+] not that there's something wrong with any of them

As Alan Kay likes to say, "a change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points".

But this is wrong. The point of this essay is saying the opposite is true: A decent IQ gives you the chance to have a change of perspective.

IQ is the artistic equivalent of "how well can you draw a line?" You need a good foundation for artistic expression but many, many people have that and still don't create art worth remembering.

Intelligence (the capacity to process) combined with knowledge can give you that strong intellectual foundation -- but that's all it is. The rest is finding that change of perspective.

I do not think there is any disagreement here. Your reply, the essay, as well as the quote I posted are all about this distance between being naturally intelligent and making something out of it.

There is a disagreement, though, because it's about which aspect takes precedence -- which has the most value.

Imagine a test called Artistic Quotient which gives you a numeric value for how correctly you draw lines, circles, etc. An average artist might have an AQ of 100 and a very good artist an AQ of 120.

Now, imagine looking at a Van Gogh and saying, that the artistic expression he achieved is worth 80 AQ points, putting him on the level of someone who can free hand a perfect circle! It would sound ridiculous, right? Who cares if you can free hand a perfect circle? What does that give you? What's the value of that?

Instead you would tell an aspiring artist, get to an AQ 120 or so as your foundation and then it's all about making something out of it.

Does he say in which direction?

My guess: repeatedly zooming out and in again -- to look at the many parts of the whole to see how they all interconnect and interact to then wonder why and why not.

Could be up, could be down :)

A lot of new ideas come from unexpected combinations of ideas from multiple seemingly unrelated areas. James Burke writes a history of the world based on this in his book "Connections". I wrote in my paper "Origins of the D Programming Language" how D is influenced by my experiences in airplane gearboxes.

Who would have thought that a gearbox had anything to do with programming language design?

Interesting. Do you have a concrete example that would illuminate the connection?

Origins of the D Programming Language https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/3386323

There are, I believe, two kinds of thinking/intelligence. One is analysis and that is the case of many smart people who achieve nothing - other than taking things apart and being critical.

There is a second kind which we don't even seem to have a word for - lets call it gestalysis as opposed to analyis. Putting things together to form new things. The essence of this is to try understand something by building it. You can prove something by logic, but trying to build something and have it work also "proves" something.

For example can you build an ant colony? We may understand ant colonies by taking them apart and examining the parts, but an important part of an ant colony is the interactions and behaviors. Can we understand an ant colony by taking it apart (and certainly that helps) or can we understand it better if we can create a simulation?

And finally, there is a kind of gestalysis that goes further - creating behaviors and interactions that go beyond simulation of things we know. This is, I believe the provenance of startups and entrepreneurs.

It seems to me that Einstein's brilliance not due to analysis but gestalysis. My 2 cents.

My 2 cents.

Synthesis may be the name you were looking for?

> There are general techniques for having new ideas — for example, for working on your own projects ...

The project link is broken: http://paulgraham.com/projects.html

anyone knows the actual link? Is it this one? - http://paulgraham.com/own.html

I find this to be an odd essay.

It's trivially easy to come up with new ideas. Just take any existing idea and perturb in a random direction. With high probability it will be new.

Drugs and some mental disorders make it very easy to do this. The problem is, new ideas aren't very valuable. What is valuable is intelligently generating new ideas that take into account what came before. And for that you need intelligence and education.

There is a kind of folk psychology in tech that emphasizes tinkering and working on projects. But almost all projects are bad. The reason tinkering produces results at a population level is because you have N agents randomly searching the terrain.

That is fine if you're interested only in population effects, like VCs typically are. Then you can just watch for the random ideas that catch on and bet on them.

But if you're going to decide whether you'd rather be smart or be a random-walking tinkerer, the choice is obvious. It's vastly better to be smart because most tinkerers fail and never have anything to show for it.

Smart people with ideas know that that uploading fledgling, unrealised ideas into the world can mean feeding their baby into a meat grinder of criticism, scepticism, plagiarism and probably some other -isms.

E.g., Andrew Wile had some pretty good insights as to how to go about tackling the solution of Fermat's theorem (read Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh - good book), but did he go 'Hey, listen everybody - what if we did X?' Like hell he did.

Instead he secluded himself and worked on it till he could present a robust proof fait accompli.

This is by no means an unusual story - think of all the bright folks who are tinkering with projects all over the world, even devoting themselves to it full time - trying to realise something that they can call their own.

So, the 'gap between intelligence and ideas' may be partly due to the desire of intelligent people to contain their ideas until they can own the downstream benefits arising from them.

At Pumping Station One in Chicago, I learned a golden rule:

Ideas aren't worth shit.

I'm a veritable fountain of ideas, but that doesn't mean squat. Only instantiated ideas, whose value is successfully communicated to others stand a chance of impact in the world.

Ideas spring from mapping the world (packers need not apply), and noticing things on the newly connected edges of the map. Those ideas then need to be brought into the real world with luck, preparedness, persistence in some mix.

Then you need communication skills and people skills to communicated the ideas and tools you've created to others, to get them to invest their time and effort and start adoption.

Being smart helps, but it's noticing the connections, and having a large set of tools to build on any ideas that are the key piece here. You need some smarts, curiosity, persistence, luck, people skills and a network once you've done the work.

Some ways new ideas form:

1. Noticing hundreds, thousands, of details and how they fit together into a larger whole.

- Example: When someone is so deep into an industry they understand every role, action, problem, and solution, and the shortcomings, and use that information to spot out the most important problems and tie them together into a new business idea.

2. Having an intuition of how something should be, and digging out that intuition through the act of creation.

- Example: Artwork that is trying fully express the most ideal form of beauty, nature, violence, grandness, etc.

3. Noticing "bugs" / paradoxes in real life - things that don't make sense - and having the curiosity to debug it.

- Example: Einstein realizing a paradox - "If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating."

"The worlds smartest man means no more to me than the worlds smartest ant". Dr Manhattan

I am not the smartest person in the room nor the least. But I know my smartness / IQ lies on a spectrum - just like my tolerance for cold or for oxygen etc.

It's pretty easy to find places where my tolerance for cold is utterly exhausted, and there are situations where the same is for my IQ. And it's fairly easy to find animals or other organisms who can easily handle temperatures I cannot.

I suspect in the big universe there are plenty of creatures whose intelligence and smartness extends out past the spectrum on which I, pg or Einstein sit.

I would like to know the answers they have to these questions - and I wonder if I would ever understand them.

One day we might meet such a species. Will we be happy as the pet?

Would add to the qualities of mind for new ideas: you need physical domain competence in something, because it will be the source of heuristics and isomorphisms that provide an intuitive fast map of a territory.

I identify as a hyper-stupid intelligent person, where I can go breadth first into a lot of domains and get out of my depth really quickly, while impressing the ignorant and irritating the competent. The opportunities are amazing, you get to appreciate the most incredible things, but this kind of virtuotic ignorance (curiosity, charitably) needs to be tempered by practice and education in at least one thing, as you are really only ever as good as the thing you are best at. Important thoughts.

Being smart and having new ideas isn't that great either. You still need people to believe in the idea and/or resources to pursue it.

I have various ideas and I'm not even that smart. They wont go anywhere because I dont have the time or money to pursue them. Plus, it's hard to come up with something truly new. Even if the item doesn't exist, it's probably patented (ran into that recently).

"So what are the other ingredients in having new ideas?"

The willingness to think about how and why things work or are broken, coupled with sufficient cross-domain knowledge to synthesize new ideas.

> Why do so many smart people fail to discover anything new?

We live in a world were so much has been discovered already by the smart people before us. There isn't anymore low hanging fruit today, discovering novel things likely involves spending your early adulthood learning all the things our smart ancestors discovered as a primer to being able to understand what's left to discover.

Most of us will need to be happy with merely understanding what has already been discovered. And realize that, for every Newton or Euler of the word, there were billions of people that history forgot.

>There isn't anymore low hanging fruit today, discovering novel things likely involves spending your early adulthood learning all the things our smart ancestors discovered as a primer to being able to understand what's left to discover.

Just the opposite. Discovery happens when your confined and forced to discover (be creative) to survive and evolve. If your learning from everyone before your not discovering anything, your just repeating history.

What I'm getting at is, if you want to expand humanities understanding of physics, you first need to spend six or so years learning everything that humanity already knows about physics. After that, you can spend a few years doing research or designing experiments -- usually alongside someone whose dedicated their life to the field -- which will then, hopefully, culminate in your tiny little contribution to the knowledge of humanity.

But, even just 150 years ago, you could have made multiple ground-breaking contributions to the world of science, or even developed entire fields of study.

Good luck learning everything that humanity knows about physics in six years! :-) Luckily, you don't really need to do that before starting research

The most interesting point to me in this was the observation that it could be things associated with youth, which made me think immediately of John Cleese's brilliant talks on creativity. He (Cleese) makes the point that good ideas need time, in two ways: time without pressure to produce, and time set aside to focus. Both of these are so, so much harder for late or mid stage career adults to make. I truly believe this is the most important ingredient in getting interesting things done in the second half of life.

I only skimmed the discussion and original post, but "training" didn't jump out at me from either. One can distinguish "ideas": neat new apps for iOS that will make money, or, say, string theory or quantum chromodynamics.

The first requires people to pay attention to how people are using their phones and, probably, how business operates. But then, Angry Birds was probably a hack-inspired project so maybe luck's a component as well. The others require a whole lot of background in math, physics, a sense of what is beautiful in these disciplines and some idea of how the current models work. Way more effort, and not really subject to a hack attack.

Both are facilitated by intelligence, opportunity, etc. But I wonder whether people are interested in or appreciate the amount of spade work involved for some areas. If you want to work hard AND make some bucks, work on material science (catalyst design, high-temp superconductors) or try to understand the human immune system and how it could be modulated.

Lots of coding in there, and the winners are heroes who will be feted worldwide. Oh, I'll throw in another one... A critical skill in Pharma is, to be blunt, patent breaking. If one can determine that two molecules are sufficiently different to be outside a patent but sufficiently similar (biochemically and physicochemically) to be active at the same target in the same strength or better... I should point out that modern drugs can make several Billion a quarter once on the market.

I think there are hard problems and easy problems, and smarts reflects ones ability to solve hard problems. So, the question should be how does one solve hard problems?

The solutions to any problem can trivially be found by searching through the possible solutions and checking which solution works. The problem with this approach is that it is intractable space. Thus, the main ways that we traverse the search space of solutions is limiting the search space and by pattern matching. [Think in terms of chess where the search space is large to find the best possible move...The way they get around it is by simply reducing the search space and pattern matching.]

Consequently, a smart person would be one who has developed intuition about a problem enough to limit the search space of the available solutions and has a vast collection of patterns to draw from that will aid in the problem solving process.

He did touch on one point with all extraordinary genius, they were all obsess. I think this fosters having enough intuition about a problem and having a toolbox of patterns necessary to solve hard problems. Is there any genius without a vast toolbox of techniques to solve problems? Is there any genius without a supreme understanding of his problem area?

Having intuition and huge toolbox for solving problems we know are necessary conditions for solving hard problems, but are they sufficient conditions?

Good comment. I think that maybe what you're getting at is the intuition on particular problems is not necessarily correlated to high IQ beyond a minimum threshold.

From everything I've read, almost every contemporary of Von Neumann says he was the 'smartest' person they ever met. It seems his brain just worked at a completely different clock speed than normal people, even normal geniuses.

However, while is contributions are immense and widespread, I don't think they come close to the utterly astounding work of Godel.

While Godel was insanely smart, he also just looked at the world in a very unusual way that let him see certain meta axioms that have profound implications for pretty much every scientist and philosopher. I don't know if it was circumstance that led him to a special tool box, or obsession, or a certain spark of creativity everyone else lacked, but there's something worth exploring there.

I always thought of IQ tests as the artistic equivalent of "how well can you draw a line?" You need a good foundation for artistic expression but many, many people have that and still don't create art worth remembering.

Intelligence (the capacity to process) combined with knowledge can give you that strong intellectual foundation -- but that's all it is.

Alan Kay was wrong; a change of perspective is not worth 80 IQ points. The opposite is true. A decent IQ gives you the chance to have a change of perspective.

Are there any standard measures of creativity?

No. It's qualitative not quantitative. You measure quantities; you can only measure aspects of qualities (and that's not advised as it's incredibly dangerous).

But as Paul says here, creativity is probably not the best word. I would describe it as "understanding".

I know quite a few conventional entrepreneurs that I wouldn't consider smart in a general context, but are extremely well versed in what they do.

Experience will help you to develop an instinct, and once you understand why everything is the way it is, you need to focus on finding an edge/making a difference/having an impact.

This takes time, experimentation, and most of all the willingness and ability to fail, while you gain deeper and new insights.

Willingness comes from personal grit and belief, but ability usually comes from your network, venture capital, a rich family, or having a successful business in the first place...

Following Taleb's ideas, I'd say that, to find your edge, it would make more sense to try something new 52 weeks in a row, instead of spending 52 weeks on a single idea.

Assume you have the grit and ability to experiment, then you still need a heuristic to determine which ideas are worth pursuing, and that's where luck comes in. Markets do not behave rationally, so reasoning can only bring you so far.

"How to be successful" formulas could be compared to the "how to draw an owl" meme [0]: you need grit, the ability to experiment, and hope that this combination will eventually put you in the perfect context at a time where everything aligns, and where you take the decision to pursue the correct opportunity...

[0] https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/eccj2/how_to_draw_an...

one of the things that helps generate new ideas that can be cultivated is the ability to be playful. once a given problem or subject is sufficiently loaded onto a brain, if that person can relax and have child-like naivete about poking and prodding, novel insight is usually not far.

cultivating this ability is fairly well understood in a lot of domains, i think. two examples that are top-of-mind are improv and jazz.

Maybe it’s to do with luck. As in, smart people will encounter problems and work on them and solve them, and the smartest ones will solve them faster and solve more problems, but the search space of problems is vast and only in retrospect do we know which ones were of crucial importance. Therefore the Einstein is more likely to be not-the-smartest, and the smartest is unlikely to be the Einstein (though more likely than any other individual).

A way to test this would be to check how many of the most important breakthroughs were things that were considered vital in advance and had everyone trying to solve them. Like will the next Einstein be the person who solves fusion, or something else entirely?

Another dimension is practical experimentation. Were the Wright brothers geniuses? I think it’s more that the hands-on approach yields much faster innovation than the dry theorising.

If you asked people what was special about Einstein, most would say that he had important new ideas. Even the ones who tried to give you a more sophisticated-sounding answer would probably think this first. Till a few years ago I would have given the same answer myself. But that wasn't what was special about Einstein. What was special about him was that he was really smart. Having important new ideas was a necessary precondition for properly utilizing that intelligence, but the two are not identical.

It may seem a hair-splitting distinction to point out that inspiration and its consequences are not identical, but it isn't. There's a big gap between them. Anyone who's spent time around crackpot scientific theorists knows how big. There are a lot of genuinely original people who don't achieve very much.

And so on...

Do people really think that having unorthodox ideas and being smart are the same thing?

Modern Smart are so focused on their niche most people failed to see the big ( or even medium ) picture. Because they are more specialised than ever their world view are extremely distorted by their lens. Peter Thiel touched on this as most of the successful founders and entrepreneur tends to be something similar to polymath.

Another thing is Wisdom. Which the older I get the more I think have little to no relationship to being "Smart". I also think there are certain relationship with Wisdom and polymath.

This topic also echo an article earlier [1], where it is more important to be curious than being smart. ( I am glad this narrative has finally caught on. )

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28753560

Einstein was one of history's most successful, perhaps the most successful, abstract thinkers.

Some of his reasoning was based on simple observation of light and making logical deductions about how it must work. It's pretty amazing when you can make simple observations and reason about the workings of the universe.

Abstraction is in and of itself an art which is both a learned skill and highly dependent upon intellect.

Now, this is the stinker. Imagine that Einstein had been born in a non-English-speaking part of the world. Would this separation from the scientific community have prevented him from telling us all about relativity? I imagine it would have, and it's likely that a good number of abstract thinkers of his caliber have lived and died without us learning from them.

Einstein was born in the German speaking part of Germany.

And quickly emigrated to Switzerland and then the US.

What if he was born in, say, Indonesia, or sub-saharan Africa?

We can't know, of course, but I expect he would have applied his talents in some more practical field and had considerable success there.

I also think there were 100 just as talented people born in Germany at the time, who mostly ended up doing well working in other fields.

There are a few things he didn’t mention that I suspect are important: a variety of life experiences, exposure to more than one modality of thinking, and an opportunity to engage in autonomous unstructured play as a child. It’s good at any age but is likely pivotal in childhood.

One thing that bothers me in this essay is that it relies a lot on intelligence being somewhat clear/measurable and agreed upon metric. But there isn't really a comprehensive definition of intelligence, let alone a comprehensive way to measure it (IQ for example to a large extent measures how good someone is at taking tests).

Coming up with new ideas can itself be a measure of intelligence!

That is not to say the spirit of the article is wrong - I've met plenty of people who came across as very smart and didn't really achieve as much in life (so far) as other people who didn't appear to be as smart or smarter. I think other large factors must include ambition, risk-aversion (or lack thereof), confidence and opportunity.

I think the dismissal of "creativity" in the footnote is misguided. I think creativity is easier to define than "intelligence" and better explains the intuitive difference between e.g. humans and animals and between humans and current AI systems. "Intelligence" often gets mixed up with arguably irrelevant things like computational speed, memory (recall), or the ability to solve problems in some narrow niche. But creativity gets to the generalness of what humans can do that other animals and current AI systems apparently can not, which is to create new knowledge by conjecturing (and criticizing) new ideas with no apparent bounds on the subject matter or reach of those ideas.

Humans care about innate qualities such as intelligence because they are looking for mates, and want the best genes for their children.

In this case, consider whether you would prefer to have children with a partner with a 150 IQ but who never develops a system to generate new ideas, or a partner with a 120 IQ who stumbles into a system / environment that allows them to generate new ideas.

Who would you prefer? Hard mode: justify your choice without invalidating the premises by saying something like, "Well, if the first person was really smarter, they would have developed such a system."

I speculate that most would prefer to have children with the first person, and then endeavor to teach their kids the second person's system.

Huh? For reproductive concerns, I'd rather marry someone who is an excellent parent, than someone who will make genius babies but ruin their development.

And I'm not interested in find a mate who will adopt someone else's genius 23-chromosomes

People are often prevented from going down a path to success because of the assumption that something is impossible, when if they would actually check they might find a solution that makes it possible.

This is true in science, as in Einstein going down the path of considering time dilation, while others might have not even considered it worth another thought. But it’s also true in general life. People who have a can-do attitude often end up achieving more simply because they’ve tried.

Perhaps a way of learning how to do this is to sometimes stop and think which paths to success have been discarded as impossible, and then consider investigating if that assumption is true.

One thing I feel like is an elephant in the room is that these great new ideas sure aren't being cultivated or drawn out by the VC machine. It seems like in a lot of ways that thing is poison to genuine inspiration. It's about the last thing some people probably want to hear, but a lot of great ideas just seem to be a genuine product of love and curiosity that seems unable to grow in the shadow of something that wants to wring money out of it. It's only if and after it survives to show some promise, far away from eyes sporting money symbols, that it can be shaken down for money.

I think being smart needs solid foundations in order to flourish. Paul mentions getting adequate sleep and avoiding certain stresses, which is a whole science to me.

There is the old archetype of the 'unstable genius' or 'mad scientist' that although they are clever; fail to one day make it and become the person known for $company or $product or $patent.

There are many ingredients needed for the smart person to thrive. Personally I find essays about topics that concern me to be useful, as-well as cross-synaptic thinking otherwise known as 'creativity' or 'joining the dots'.

I have been revisiting an idea I've had many times in my life that is tangential to Paul's "Smart" vs. "New idea" differentiation. That is the difference between "Knowledge/Intelligence" on one axis and "Experience/Understanding" on another. I feel our modern society, as obsessed as it is with science and logic, highly prioritizes the former and unduly devalues the latter. I've started to wonder what "Artificial Understanding" looks like and if there is some systematic way to describe it. I also loosely define "Wisdom" as a kind of dialectic synthesis that bridges intelligence and understanding (and thereby knowledge and experience). I believe Wisdom is the place where new ideas are bred.

However, his essay struck a chord in me because it suggests a double edged sword. I'm ever-so-slightly above average intelligence. In almost every group I have ever been part of I sort near the top but rarely at the top. But I definitely have always demonstrated different thinking and often times new ideas. And I can report that not all new ideas are good ideas. This leads to quite a bit of insecurity/self-doubt. Sometimes I am literally a prophet that sees the future that no one else expected. Often I am completely off base. I have no repeatable means of discriminating between those cases.

What I have learned, in those times I have acted as a leader/manager, is that I don't always go with the most logical/intellectual idea presented to me. I try to always take into account experience/understanding. That is doubly true when I evaluate my own new ideas. I should ask myself: Am I leaning too heavily on knowledge/intelligence in an area where I lack understanding/experience?

Therefore I think Paul's stated trade-off of intelligence for new ideas is not strictly correct. I wonder if he would accept my knowledge/intelligence vs. experience/understanding description. If so, perhaps what he means to say is that for the generation of new ideas he might be willing to accept trading some innate capacity for intelligence for some innate capacity for understanding. In that way, perhaps one could increase the likelihood of synthesis between the two. Stated another way, it would be a sacrifice of intelligence to gain understanding with a goal to promote wisdom.

I believe smartness is rather contextual. For instance a person might be smart at a specific job like troubleshooting hardware but he'd not be so-smart in some other areas of life. Was Einstein smart in most areas of life? I highly doubt that. This (contextual) smartness is build-up with time. People who have screen-facing jobs tend to get smarter about gadgets/software. People whose jobs are dealing with other human beings gets smarter at soft skills like persuasion. It all boils down to giving enough time.

PG making a case for the "idea guy"! It's interesting to see how often that trope is shot down in SV culture.

I appreciate that he is qualifying or preconditioning the value of the idea guy as having intelligence along with other "mundane ingredients" like grit, sleep, stress, network, and passion. I very much agree with the approach and only wish for a framework to score these ingredients in the context of an entrepreneur's problem domain. I guess that's what VC's are supposed to do.

I'm not sure, but I think it was Nabokov where I first saw the distinction between genius and intelligence most clearly articulated. The defining characteristic of genius is right there in the Latin root[1], it's fundamentally original. One could have Von Neumann tier intellectual horsepower and waste it all solving sudoku puzzles or something. Or one could have a much more modest intellect, and yet make utterly original and lasting contributions to human knowledge.

[1] "generative power"

Einstein's fame kinda ruined the word "genius" — people tend to think the word is just a synonym for smart. But to me (and I think the gen- root at the beginning supports this), the key thing about a genius is that they revolutionize a field and inspire others to think in wildly new ways.

Problem was, Einstein was both of these things, and is so associated with the word that a lot of people's brains just go from "genius" -> Einstein -> "super smart".

I think the key thing that superior intelligence gives you in science is the ability to survey a large field of knowledge, quickly identify the essence of each idea, zero in on what's worth pursuing and what's worth throwing out.

Research is like a crowd of people painstakingly searching through a cow pasture to find little gems buried in the dirt. If your vision is clearer and you can move 10x faster, you can run circles around other people. You can look over hundreds of leads, intuitively sense what works and what doesn't, and narrow in on promising ones.

While I've been underwhelmed by many PG's essays this one is remarkable. It takes on a subject that's beaten to death in debates and finds some fresh perspective.

I don't know if practicing writing has made me better at producing new ideas. And I'm not sure if the quality of my writing has improved, though it's certainly easier for me to write now.

But for sure, I don't think I ever really understood and internalized ideas from complex non-fiction books until I started writing about them. Even writing privately helped, but I think the most effective way is to write publicly - there's an obligation to write and argue clearly.

New idea's are a dime a dozen. In fact a bigger problem for those that have new ideas is that someone else had that new idea first and did something about it.

Reminds me of reading 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain'. The way that book tries to get you to un-hook the judging and structuring parts of your mind so your hand can form shapes with NO WORDS to describe them.

As soon as you say 'I'm drawing an arm' your brain tries to define 'arm' and what it would mean to appropriately outline the parts of one on your paper… and the image you'd ideally produce might bear no resemblance to the 'arm' definition your brain gives you. It's an elaborate process of shutting down certain kinds of 'smart' that are overly naive and reductive, to get to images that are available but undescribable by analytical words. The perfect lines of an elbow are not 'triangle' or 'circle' or even anatomical parts: they're the image one's eye understands immediately, but getting it on paper is a whole other story.

I find when I'm live-coding audio DSP and getting close to dialing in a tonal detail that I'm trying hard to capture, or even rapidly debugging and evolving the code of the program to do it, when I'm most effective I lose the words to explain what I'm doing. It becomes 'and now I this, to do this, and then we ah… you'll see, it should… there. That.'

I'll play the sound, and my model will exactly resemble the thing I'm trying to make it sound like, but I'm miles away from being able to articulate what I did. Or, more likely, I could tell you 'I subtracted the thing and it needed to be 1.52 rather than 1.5, and that and the other idea got it to where it sounds like that. Because the filter's lower, and it's interacting with the input sample in thus and so a way'. The tangible STUFF I'm doing is rarely that complicated.

But being on the point of knowing to DO that stuff and exactly that stuff to get there… is what Graham is talking about. I don't know if it can be learned but it can damn well be trained. People as disparate as ad guy David Ogilvy, and writer John Gardner, have understood that.

And you can be a literal writer and still have important parts of your process locked away in that no-words zone. At those times, you are the writer. Your literal writing ability and vocabulary, are the stenographer. It's waiting on you having something to say. That 'something to say' may not be coming from a 'words place'.

Why is Firefox's Reader View not available for posts on PG's seemingly minimal site?

Also, with my minimal knowledge of programming, I have no idea what's going on with that website's HTML markup. There's also a document type not mentioned error so that might be what's causing this.

I wonder why @pg doesn't change this? I presume it'll only stand to benefit him with a higher SEO ranking.

> Also, with my minimal knowledge of programming, I have no idea what's going on with that website's HTML markup.

It's what we in the business call "old"

That's just how we made websites before CSS was a thing. It still works, it's just horribly user unfriendly. Presumably Paul either doesn't care or likes the retro look.

I can't imagine pg being too concerned with SEO. I don't think he's necessarily marketing his essays for discoverability nor do his essays bring in direct income aside from enhancing YC's already established credibility.

Lots of fun points in here. I would add that willing to be wrong 100% of the time and being open to constantly fucking things up will get you very far all on its own. As long as your intentions are good and you can limit the blast radius, these efforts are usually rewarded in time. Ablity to disregard shame and the scorn of others is the superpower in this context.

In a similar vein, being good at fixing things after you've broken them. Gives you a little more confidence in trying new things without all of the work involved in first making sure they'll work.

You need to have a vision, and the vision needs to be the right vision. How do you know it’s the right vision? I think most just get lucky on this. Maybe the successful serial entrepreneurs have figured it out (Musk, Jobs)

Getting the vision right isn’t enough, you have to know how to get to the vision. This usually requires a combination of smarts, grit, passion, and luck.

Like all of PG's essays, this one is an exploration of his own thought processes more than a generalization about other people in general.

What it tells us is why PG created Y Combinator. He did it to gain access to other people's ideas.

PG is a smart guy.

He's also a rich guy, getting richer every day, because he uses his smarts to multiply his reach by mixing with other people's ideas.

Some of the most successful people in the world are almost always wrong, know little. They just find what works and then do that.

Einstein had already explained what was special about him: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

> Imagine you had a choice between being really smart but discovering nothing new, and being less smart but discovering lots of new ideas.

I don't consider myself smart. I certainly don't claim to discover new ideas. But through my work of explaining and polishing existing ideas, it seems I found a niche and an audience.

This piece seems to conflate being smart with being intelligent.

Basically being smart means being well educated, whereas being intelligent means you have fast processing speed. Or maybe you have slightly different definitions, whatever, but either way it's confusing to see them being used as synonyms.

Just like in order to become a composer of music you need to start by performing other people's music, I think it helps in writing to start by responding to other people's ideas, dissecting and evaluating, which helps you build the competence to generate ideas of your own.

Taken to the extreme though, this could lead to neomania. New for the sake of new.

What should we term the quality of knowing not to fix something if it ain't broke?

I think that line of thinking would be the intellectual opposite of PG's (albeit still coherent in it's conjectures or lack thereof)

>why do so many smart people fail to discover anything new?

Given his background as a venture capitalist not a surprising question but much of the implicit premise of the piece is that novelty is somehow superior to maintaining things that exist, which isn't that obvious.

doing 'new' things is fine but the world to a large degree runs on maintaining and very marginally improving what we have or just fixing things in very small ways that would probably not pass his excitement test.

Before someone like Einstein can come along and dig up some paradigm changing idea it often takes decades of work to refine something to the point where some individual can come along and discover what's wrong with it. Even within an individual life like Einstein's that is the kind of work he did most of the time. novelty is the exception, a world of novelty after novelty without long periods of ordinary work during which people refine is hard to imagine.

So just like 80% of Einstein's life was probably doing normal maths, 80% of people are probably going to do normal things, there's nothing wrong with it. It's like the popular analogy of a handful of astronauts standing on the backs of hundreds of people. Every single one of them does a necessary job, and a lot of smart people will do work that in the world of Paul Graham is somehow considered unglamorous.

The Silicon Valley gave birth to "business philosophy". It is as ridiculous as it sounds.

For anyone who's familiar with the roll of British entrepreneurs who did terribly at school and yet built massive companies, this post isn't some sort of massive reveal.

Is this something more common in the UK than the US? If so, why?

I think there are two buckets that form a venn. Smart on one side, Intelligent on the other. One can loosely be thought of as horsepower, the other abstract/creative/alternative thinking. The Venn of them is genius.

Was a pretty big deal to stumble across the idea that the machinery that generates insights could be trained back on itself to improve at gaining insights. You may have heard of it under the moniker of insight practice. :p

> * obsessive interest > * independent-mindedness > * work on your own projects > * work hard

So an anti-list might be:

* allowing your interest to wander * believing everything you’re told * work on other’s people’s stuff * work half-heartedly

The argument, at least to me, appears to lean heavily on a false dichotomy: You can either be smart, have good ideas, or some blend of the two. Yet he begins with a counter-example in the case of Einstein.

> The argument, at least to me, appears to lean heavily on a false dichotomy: You can either be smart, have good ideas, or some blend of the two.

That’s not a dichotomy but a continuum, because of the third option.

You get new ideas from that place in Schenectady.

Seriously though, the best and simplest way to get new ideas is with hypnosis. Go into trance and give yourself a post-hypnotic suggestion to come up with new ideas.

There's another step in this thinking of smart vs new ideas. You need smart + new ideas + execution/productivity.

Einstein didn't just have new ideas. He also excelled at communicating those ideas.

My own personal example (let's assume I'm smart and have new ideas!)

Because I was a part of an online community from the onset of the Internet age (1997) and also a consultant in Fortune 500 businesses, I was always coming up with ideas.

One particular idea I came up with in 2009 was essentially what Slack became five years later.

I drew up the UI, pitched it to a bunch of people, INCLUDING MICROSOFT, and yet I was unable to convince anyone that it was a good idea. (Microsoft was so focused on SharePoint, that they never saw the potential).

I did not know how to build my idea or execute the concept to prove it to others.

So that third piece, execution, is just as critical.

I like to use a car analogy.

I think those with high IQs who don't accomplish much are like 2000-HP drag racers. Those things rip, but they don't necessarily get you anywhere useful.

It's much better to be a Jeep.

Using footnotes to add random tangents, rather than clarifications or directly related context, seems noisy. Why do writers in tech do this? I've never seen footnotes used like this.

Buried toward the end of the essay is a suggestion to become a better writer. Wondering if anyone has learned to become a better writer, and if so, what was your approach?


There is no shortcut.

Just like working out improves your range of movement and manipulating your own body and weights in space, writing does the same with ideas and expression.

Simply writing more will get you 99% of the way there.

And the final 1% comes from re-reading yourself.


The ability to see things in a novel or different light is often an element of humor. Taking something a bit out of context, or switching things around.

what is Intelligence?

from wikipedia... "Intelligence has been defined in many ways: the capacity for abstraction, logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. "

I'm sure Einstein had most of these abilities in abundance

I know a lot of people who would consider themselves as smart and they lack a lot the above skills

There is reasonable evidence that Einstein was not particularly gifted in the areas of self-awareness or emotional knowledge.

I didn't know that

I think he had abstraction, logic, understanding, learning, reasoning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving pinned down,

I doubt the ability of planning would have mattered too much

the key areas that I would personally say are important are logic, abstraction, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity the rest are important and can seriously help but are nice to haves

The title for PG's post should've been Creativity is more important than being smart.

This pg essay reminds me of the Chinese saying Cast a Brick to Attract Jade. :-)

Skills, opportunity, motivation. He had all 3. Together we just call them luck.

Lot's of people have ideas, great ideas even. Ideas are not particularly rare nor hard. Luck, expertise, privilege (for those not born into it) and timing are more difficult. More importantly, to help ensure maximum impact, one needs to want to push an idea into the world, and push hard. Generally there are better and more fun things to do in life (most would agree with me as pg noted himself).

Academics have great ideas and it takes thousands of them building on each other to drive a technological revolution. There would have been another Einstein (or collection of Einsteinlettes), it may have taken a decade but the soil was fertile. Einstein helped develop the ideas behind Quantum Physics but had no further world changing ideas left to contribute once it materialized.

So what type of ideas are we talking about? Capitalist entrepreneurial ideas for building startups with? That seems like a depressingly narrow understanding of ideas and what they mean for humanity.

This is not about what being smart is.

It's about a very twisted perception of what is important.

PG seems to equate success with innovation. As if living life raising a family and having meaningful relationships is just a frivolous pass time of the lazy.

I can't with these randian heros....

Was Einstein really that smart? What if Einstein is just a meme, and there were dozens of other people who made similar findings but we're not published? What is with this obsession on trying to explain in hindsight why someone was successful?

Einstein was known to be a complete idiot. That's why whenever anyone screws up at work, they say, "Great job, Einstein!" It's because Einstein was so stupid.

Have you read his work? There are many things which are memes without real background, such as people believing in the past that earth was flat. No. They didn't. Medieval people didn't believe earth was flat. This is something invented by 1800s historians. Einstein is the same kind if meme. Everyone keeps repeating how smart he was, but not many people have first hand information and know other researchers of his time. I don't know if he was smart or not. I've read some of his texts on politics which were not very good, but I guess he was better at physics. Or maybe those texts I've read even weren't Einsteins, but written by someone who just wanted to use his name to push an agenda. Who knows? Why does it matter? I'm wondering why people are so obsessed with this kind of things, because I've never been and it is hard for me to understand. Maybe you can provide some insight?

> I've read some of his texts on politics which were not very good, but I guess he was better at physics.

You know, Einstein was famous for his works in physics and was hailed as a world genius by his contemporaries? His insights into other topics might not have been ground breaking, but it is hard to argue about it with for physics.

Edit: The thing is, judging his intelligence based on his writings about politics is like judging the intelligence of famous politicians by how well they write about physics. People who aren't experts at a field will always look like idiots when they write about it and are still learning about it.

I didn't judge Einstein, and my question was not about Einstein. I'm not in the position to judge his works in physics. I really know nothing about him, all I know is what they teach in school and what you occasionally read online. Like most of us.

It is interesting that one might get defensive when they think that someone questions Einsteins intelligence. Why is this meme so important? It's almost as if he was some sort of a God.

People are obsessed with Einstein because he made three fundamental breakthroughs in physics in a year, then beat everyone else to general relativity. They were real contributions, and they were pretty creative. He wasn't a computing machine like Von Neumann, but Einstein was a clever guy. Don't know why you're judging based on political contributions.

To me your response reads like the perfect high school text book answer. But I'll take your response as if it came from someone who really knows his work, and assume that what you said is true. Let's not question this meme any further.

I didn't really mean to judge Einstein. When a story sounds "too good to be true" it most often tends to lean towards fiction. My 'judgement' was towards people who blindly believe everything about memes.

In reality, there really was no point and it does not really matter if this particular story is true or not. I just like to question things that people assume obvious.

Hey man, sorry about that. It was a high school answer to a question from someone who sounds like a high schooler.

How does pg still not have SSL on his website?

So waiting for people to try intentionally infecting themselves with toxoplasmosis to boost their creativity. It seems like a rule 34 near inevitability to me. YMMV.

In my opinion, what made Einstein great was his grand perspective and ability to think deeply. He was brilliant and his brain could obviously connect dots that most people cannot. But what is that if not intelligence?

As an aside, if you believe Einstein to be brilliant or interesting, definitely check out his essay “Why Socialism?” [1]

1. https://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism

Imagination and diversity of experience are some other factors. I.e., the ability to imagine new combinations of disparate ideas, gained through a variety of unique experiences.

You could argue Einstein's imagination, coupled with his scientific intelligence, is what made him brilliant.

But like others have said, the essay reads like there is a linear and narrow definition of "smart." But having followed pg on twitter, he seems to tend towards an Ayn Rand style worldview, so I guess I'm not surprised.

> Imagine you had a choice between being really smart but discovering nothing new, and being less smart but discovering lots of new ideas. Surely you'd take the latter.

Not sure if that Semmelweis guy would agree (had the idea that washing your hands between handling corpses and delivering babies is a good idea, everyone else at the time disagreed and he died in an asylum). Didn't Tesla also die penniless and alone?

Maybe you'll be well remembered by history, but what a life! I wonder how many people had lots of new genius ideas but took the "safe" option...

Intelligence is not a total order.

Are new ideas inherently good?

There are people who are challenged , in their writing ability, but come up with new ideas. I can't name one off the top of my head, but I think the capitalistic world of startup companies could yield many examples of inventions.

To me tying the writing skill to that ability seems questionable.

I'm not going to read this, yet - PGs ideas always seem to be so interesting they drown out my own - rather Ill pose a question :

What if being 'smart' is a measure of the useful 'technology' we have running as the OS in our minds ?

What if all of our smarts are merely the result of opportunity / time / resources / environment / education .. exposure to good ideas and patterns of thinking - asking questions, following trains of thought, going back to first principles, exposure to diverse language and culture, opportunity to read good books, wealth and time to devote to puzzles when young, habit of critical thinking, fluency in math, exposure to ideas such as Evolution, access to computers/internet/information, time devoted to hobbies / making things etc.

I think one of the things that works in Silicon Valley is the recycling of 'talented' developers from one startup to another - so you have a hive-mind pool of continually honed elite creative technical skill-sets competing and cooperating to build new things from modern building blocks .. and when the 'thing' doesn't work, people can move on to the next thing until they hit a local gravity well of a startup going nova. When that happens, they get wealthy from equity .. then recycle that wealth via investment in other startups, and their time into mentoring.

Its been painful to watch this not happen in Australia over the past couple decades - a few wins, but no real ecosystem develop, despite there being a fair bit of nascent talent in game development, crypto, ML, math, biotech etc. The mining/resource boom has dominated our trade and little of that wealth has been plowed back into technology / science investment. We should be 'mining' our solar energy wealth and exporting that up into Asia via cable. We should have a hive of ML and green-tech and when one doesn't make it, the people move on to other ones.

Another way of saying this is "smart doesn't come from nowhere" .. you need a pyramid ecosystem of soil, worms, molds, bacteria where smart shoots can arise naturally. Its hard to be book-smart, startup-smart or math-smart if you're homeless and all your bandwidth is spent on shelter... or if the best job a smart person can have in your locale is selling houses and you need to do that to pay off your student debt.

Conversely, if things are too comfortable there is no need to get smart - but the wealth inequality curve is such that we needn't worry about the vanishingly small talent pool of ultra wealthy teen proto-engineer entrepreneurs who will work on hard things to hone their smarts : a more plausible benefit is they dabble with cash bets in tech startups, science research or philanthropy.

I guess Im arguing that we concentrate on the ecosystem, rather than the individual - the smart long bet is to fund math education, science outreach, K2 reading programs : looking around, is there any doubt we need to aggressively promote ideas such as Evolution or the Carbon Cycle ? I love zombie movies way too much, but am appalled that no one ever asks how they keep walking around forever without eating - its as if conservation of energy is not part of the general public's meme-set.

We all lose when young people are prevented from becoming smart by their environment - poverty, religion, anti-science, anti-education culture, political or economic instability.

What are the best ways to urgently improve this ? Maybe immigration of skilled/educated/motivated/talented people from poor countries to rich countries is one of the most effective measures that works on a short timescale [ where immigrants work in startups, tech companies or university research labs ]

In Australia, our politicians love to be seen with spade in hand at the opening of a newly built school - well designed new buildings are nice, but they don't seem to have a plan to actually educate people to a higher level in science and math, despite the buzzwords and virtue signalling. One of our best mini-exports is the AMC ( Australian Maths Competition ), its well regarded in Malaysia and Singapore, but many schools here don't even participate as its seen as too hard, or perhaps too elite or not relevant. Schools have tech sessions where they might fly a drone or use a 3D printer .. but they dont seem to dig into the internals of how these things work. We seem to have a kind of cargo-cult mindset, where we are losing the ability to fix or improve anything. We outsource our refuse processing to Asia, but now they are refusing this, so our "green solution" is to burn rubbish, rather than invest in better recycling technology. Even after the worlds largest fires and smoke over our cities, we have not really woken up to the challenge of climate change. Covid has shown up how badly we fumble at organizing ourselves into action based on science. The Empire is crumbling here on Anacreon - we need a Hari Seldon plan.

I dont think voting matters, I dont think democracy is really functioning and the Universities themselves seem to be large beurocracies guarding their massive wealth, churning out marketing and management degrees for profit. Rather, we the technologists must exert whatever power we have - either by education, marketing/dialog, building truly useful things, or using our new-wealth to buy off idiot politicians and fund the technology projects that will improve things.

Not to be alarmist .. but it really is 11:59 and our planet is dying. We need to get smart as a group and as a species.

Success in the way PG seems to be talking about is indeed about more than intelligence, it is also about experience, perspective, perception, ignorance, interest, imagination, and a bit of luck.

I've thought a lot about this, and I would break them down as follows:

1. Intelligence is more of a raw ability to process and synthesize information, and everyone genetically predisposed to have a starting measure. As one experiences life, one's intelligence can be developed, expanded, and refined.

2. Experiences shape us whether we like it or not, but those who tend to me more successful than others, experiences tend to be opportunities to grow, recalibrate, review, shed, and otherwise change who they are in a way that would ensure a more effective outcome in a similar future experience.

3. Perspective and perception are tightly knit in that as we mature through life experiences, the size, detail, and depth of the world and reality continues to grow. Perspective in this sense is having an intentional awareness of how much there really is to know, and also, how much there is still left to discover. Perception is more of being able to intentionally focus on and recognize the breadth, depth, and detail of our perspective.

4. Ignorance is simply the missing pieces to what you know or understand, the limits to your knowledge of the world and how it works. Awareness of one's own ignorance affords the opportunity to actively manage it, to either take steps to fill in gaps, or just be content in not knowing.

5. Interest is more about what items or aspects within our perspective and perception do we have a persistent affinity for? These affinities can be cultivated, and effort sown into some will reap greater rewards than others.

6. Imagination is likely the most powerful, since this is the ability to create a perspective that is not necessarily reflected or even inspired by something you have perceived. Imagination is surely informed by all of the preceding, but this is where the true magic happens, where success can increase exponentially. The preceding provide the bounds, drive, attraction, references, and understanding that can spark and fuel new ideas and connections. It is within imagination that all the ideas that advance humanity are born and nurtured since anything new is necessarily first imagined in a mind.

7. And last is luck, which in a sense, especially in the context of success, is really just a culmination of all of the preceding. The luckiest successful people are those:

- who have a baseline intelligence that they have actively developed,

- who have taken advantage of and sought out experiences that yielded opportunity to grow,

- who have intentionally broadened and deepened their perspectives while improving their ability to focus and perceive effectively to notice and seize opportunities,

- who manage their ignorance such that it doesn't become an impediment or lasting liability,

- who latch onto worthwhile or beneficial interests,

- and lastly, who actively charge and exercise their imagination, always wondering how they could add to or improve their realities.

So PG is right, it is a lot more than just being smart, intelligence is just one ingredient in the recipe for success.

World-changing new ideas are a result of being actively aware of and engaged with reality while having and following through on the drive to push the boundaries of what is known, understood, or possible.

“Intelligence wins in conversation, and thus becomes the basis of the dominance hierarchy.”

Okay Jordan Peterson. This is myopic.

It's a double whammy on "smart" people, actually. They are usually conditioned by their "academic success" that they are only allowed to have "smart" ideas. So "smart" people tend to play it real, real safe - they don't want to destroy the illusion they are "smart" either in themselves or (worst of all) their peers. A necessary prerequisite to wander off the beaten path is to have lots of "dumb" ideas as well, some of which will turn out not so dumb after all.

Personally I was quickly disabused of the notion that I'm "smart" after I spent 3 years working in a research lab alongside some _real_ genius quality folks. I was also able to discern their weakness that I allude to above. People who are genuinely smart yet not afraid to try dumb things are unstoppable, and I'd say that the latter is more important than the former, as long as you're willing to put in the extra work and are learning something from your mistakes. Yet it's also not "socially acceptable", so we get what we get - best minds of our generation playing it safe instead of going where no one has gone before, and worse - shitting on the people who do from the height of their ivory tower.

Oh wow, yet another pseudo-intellectual, navel-gazing snooze fest in 8pt and 90% white space. I have been biting my nails waiting since the last one.

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