This Paul Graham Essay Will Change How You See Business

Recently one of my favorite authors, Paul Graham published an essay that I’ve now read three times and I’m about to read it again. It really is that important. Plus, it ties together several themes I keep encountering these days in my work and my life.

See: What Business Can Learn from Open Source

I promise, this article is not at all techno-geeky. It’s philosophical and plain-spoken. Here are some key excerpts, and why they resonate with me…


Paul Graham wrote:

“Companies ensure quality through rules to prevent employees from screwing up. But you don’t need that when the audience can communicate with one another. People just produce whatever they want; the good stuff spreads, and the bad gets ignored. And in both cases, feedback from the audience improves the best work.”

Exactly. Furthermore, it seems like companies, organizations, sects, governments, and dominant social factions often attempt to manage, control, or squelch parts of the public conversation. They fear that open discussion inherently puts them at risk.

In fact, as long as these entities behave with integrity and goodwill, and as long as they understand that other opinions count, open public conversation will only help them. They simply have to be open to listening to it, learning from it, and participating in it.

…Of course, if they are NOT behaving with integrity and goodwill, or if they don’t think other people’s opinions matter, then frankly they have bigger problems than what people are saying about them, or to them.

Graham also wrote:

“I suspect professionalism was always overrated – not just in the literal sense of working for money, but also connotations like formality and detachment. Inconceivable as it would have seemed in, say, 1970, I think professionalism was largely a fashion, driven by conditions that happened to exist in the twentieth century.”

Wow, talk about synchronicity. Just before I read Graham’s essay for the first time today, I’d posted my own article about transcending artificial distinctions between the personal and the professional. I was inspired to write that by something Phil Gomes posted yesterday.

It never occurred to me before to think of the professional/personal/amateur distinction as a fashion. Personally, I think the world has gained much from the concept of professionalization. That said, there can be too much of a good thing – especially when it becomes rigid and limiting.


Graham wrote:

“One of the most powerful of those [20th century conditions] was the existence of ‘channels.’ …It was the narrowness of such channels that made professionals seem so superior to amateurs. There were only a few jobs as professional journalists, for example, so competition ensured the average journalist was fairly good. Whereas anyone can express opinions about current events in a bar. And so the average person expressing his opinions in a bar sounds like an idiot compared to a journalist writing about the subject.”

Aha… This is one of the core assumptions behind disagreements about citizen journalism – even whether the term “citizen journalism” is useful or appropriate. (I wrote about this label morass recently in I, Reporter). Nice to see it stated so clearly and plainly.

“Those in the print media who dismiss [online writing, including blogging] because of its low average quality are missing an important point: no one reads the average blog. In the old world of channels, it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what you were getting whether you liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. So the average quality of writing online isn’t what the print media are competing against. They’re competing against the best writing online. And, like Microsoft, they’re losing.

“…As in software, when professionals produce …crap, it’s not surprising if amateurs can do better. Live by the channel, die by the channel: if you depend on an oligopoly, you sink into bad habits that are hard to overcome when you suddenly get competition.”

Yes, this is exactly the case. Personally, I’m constantly discovering valuable information and perspectives from all sorts of unexpected people and places thanks to the net. This benefit far outweighs anything that mass media (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, book publishing, etc.) ever offered me.

Now, I’m not trying to deny or dismiss the ample and admirable accomplishments of mainstream media, especially mainstream news organizations. For instance, I grew up reading the Philadelphia Inquirer, so I’ve known all my life what quality journalism looks like. And I chose to be educated as a journalist, and to work as a journalist, with journalists.

I’m just saying that, as much as I value the good things that mainstream media have accomplished. I value the diversity, searchability, flexibility, and immediacy of the internet even more. If someone held a gun to my head and forced me to choose between them, I’d have to go with the internet.

Fortunately, I don’t have to make that choice. Mainstream media and the internet are totally complementary – and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. There’s room, and need, for both.

So while some of the old ways of doing mainstream media are starting to fade as the internet becomes more prominence, I don’t think that means mainstream media is “losing” or “dying.” It’s just continuing to evolve, as its always done.

I suggest that perhaps the only thing about mainstream media that’s “dying” is the perspective widely held by media professionals that their traditions and conventions represent the “true path” or “best option.”


Graham also wrote:

“The average office is a miserable place to get work done. And a lot of what makes offices bad are the very qualities we associate with professionalism. The sterility of offices is supposed to suggest efficiency. But suggesting efficiency is a different thing from actually being efficient.

“The atmosphere of the average workplace is to productivity what flames painted on the side of a car are to speed. And it’s not just the way offices look that’s bleak. The way people act is just as bad. …Maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe some aspects of professionalism are actually a net lose.”

I couldn’t agree more. And I’ll note that the same level of sterility often exists in professional communities and organizations – not merely inside a given office building.

Regarding the practice of business (coming up with ideas for what to do next, and enforcing quality), Graham wrote:

“Open source and blogging show us things don’t have to work that way. Ideas and even the enforcement of quality can flow bottom-up. And in both cases the results are not merely acceptable, but better.

“…The same happens with writing. As we got close to publication, I found I was very worried about the essays in Hackers & Painters that hadn’t been online. Once an essay has had a couple thousand page views I feel reasonably confident about it. But these had had literally orders of magnitude less scrutiny. It felt like releasing software without testing it.”

Oh, I know exactly what he means! As I learn and explore new topics, or as I communicate about my existing areas of expertise, I value the discourse that online media allows. It really makes me think harder, and to discard what just doesn’t work well.

Fortunately, in this medium it’s also fairly well accepted that people alter course, change their minds, and backtrack all the time. I must say, I wish that strictly “professional” environments were all so accepting of inevitable evolution.

Graham also wrote:

“When I say business can learn from open source, I don’t mean any specific business can. I mean business can learn about new conditions the same way a gene pool does. I’m not claiming companies can get smarter, just that dumb ones will die.”

Yep – we’re talking about an evolutionary perspective here.

However, I do think this perspective can – and should – strongly influence which kinds of fields and organizations smart, motivated people choose to get involved with. Options that may appear to offer security and stability today may not last long, and may not position you well for the changing environment of human endeavor.

” I think the big obstacle preventing us from seeing the future of business is the assumption that people working for you have to be employees.”

Yet another reason why I’m self-employed… Despite the abysmal and Byzantine employment-focused health insurance situation in the US. (Talk about inappropriate overlap between the personal and the professional!)

…Students, take note:

“So am I claiming that no one is going to be an employee anymore– that everyone should go and start a startup? Of course not. But more people could do it than do it now. At the moment, even the smartest students leave school thinking they have to get a job. Actually what they need to do is make something valuable. A job is one way to do that, but the more ambitious ones will ordinarily be better off taking money from an investor than an employer.”

Exactly. When you demonstrate that you can create value, that creating value is essential to who you are and what you want in life, then you end up creating your own opportunities.

That approach is really rather magical. And fun. It’s certainly saved my butt on more than one occasion!

Bravo, Paul Graham. Bravo!

4 thoughts on This Paul Graham Essay Will Change How You See Business

Comments are closed.

  1. Hi Amy,

    I was almost in tears reading Paul’s essay. Wow – standing ovation. I’ve read it three times already but keep looking at it to suck in every last word.


  2. Very well done although I can’t say that I completely agree. While the concept of exchanges having to be between equals is critical to capitalism isn’t new – read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for extensive coverage on that topic, I don’t see how that necessarily requires an Open Source model for intellectual property. Without the ability to wildly profit from one’s own thinking, should the thinking provide value for others, that thinking will cease. Money is the form in which people have agreed to trade the results of their thinking so that they can then purchase their own marketbasket of goods that they value. All the printing presses in the world cannot print enough money to make up for the value that people must create in order for an economy to function. When others can free load on your thinking, the Open Source model becomes the inhibitor to value creation.

  3. >I don’t see how that necessarily requires an
    > Open Source model for intellectual property.

    This is a very common fallacy, and would be dispelled if you had actually *read* Paul Graham’s article, rather than attributing concepts to Open Source that are not there.

    Mr. Graham is not talking about intellectual property at all. He’s talking about the creative process, and how the Darwinian Open Source process allows the best material to rise to the top and the less valuable to fall to the bottom. We don’t have to rely on a “professional gate-keeper” to tell us what is good and what is not.

    It is common, though, for the ignorant to assume the words “Open Source” mean “Free for all! Go ahead! Rip me off!” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Insofar as Open Source software is concerned, there is a very real trade involved. It just doesn’t (usually) mean an exchange of money. It is an exchange of wealth. Instead of cash, source code and the contributions to it are considered the valuable material of trade. Engineer A produces code, and engineer B adds to it. Engineer A reaps the rewards of: 1) the new code and 2) the new eyes finding bugs in the code that engineer A had not seen. Engineer B benefits because there is an existing code base that he can leverage new work from.

    The net result, when amplified by a world-wide internet-connected community, is better software written faster.

    But I digress. Mr. Graham is not talking about Open Source software per se, but how the *model* is something business can learn from in terms of how businesses function, how they create, and how they regard the public conversation (and/or engage in it).

    Open Source isn’t just about programming.