how you know

Paul Graham is the founder of Y-combinator and someone I enjoy checking in on over the years. there are some writers who have a consistent enough subject matter and personality that reading them over a long period of time yields a useful mental model. I’d enjoy hearing from anyone who can suggest other people that they’ve followed for a long time.

Graham’s essays are how you should get to know him. I have found them an amazing source of inspiration over the years. ever since I first encountered his 2004 oscon talk “great hackers” via podcast, I have enjoyed his ideas. my favorite example being:

I’d always supposed that all smart people were curious– that curiosity was simply the first derivative of knowledge.

this clear application of calculus to human personality traits works so well that I’ll never forget it. it clicks into place in a most satisfying way, like you had two old friends who never met each other and they finally met and got along perfectly.

how you know

when I sat down to write today I wanted to write about the essay how you know. I started writing, and found myself looking at a thousand words about something far from the point of this article. I banked that and will release it at a later time. but I thought it was interesting enough to include as a report from the experiential world of the mind and creativity, which is where this article properly takes place.

Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.

you are the sum of your genetic influences, environmental influences, and the interactions between those. while culture itself replicates and evolves, it is part of our environment.

For example, reading and experience are usually “compiled” at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase “already read” seems almost ill-formed.

this rhymes with concept that it is better to read 100 books 10 times than to read 1,000 books, which I can’t specifically attribute to anyone, but seems like it comes from Naval Ravikant, or has at least been repeated by him. I really like the idea of picking a subset of books to go deep on. this is a good topic for a future post: which books would be on your 100 books list? what would you be willing to read 10 times over the course of a lifetime?


Graham writes in such a clear voice that I don’t have anything to add. read the linked essay and start adding his model to your collection.