Paul Graham’s Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas

Paul Graham discovers his best ideas of what the world needs by asking himself, “What are the ways we will seem backward as a society to future generations? What do we do now that people in the future would find barbaric, exhausting, cumbersome?”

His answers for now include a new way to: search online(google is no longer as straightforward and simplistic a process as it once was), check email (email itself needs a new format because the existing one wastes time. A new format for email essentially as a to-do list, to better represent tasks with priority levels), diagnose and treat diseases (i.e. not based on symptoms, because by the time symptoms start, you’re already been unhealthy for a long time)

“The way to achieving really big things is to start with deceptively small things.”

Most people probably view the path to success incorrectly: you come up with an idea for “the next email,” and you create it. Paul Graham believes that big achievements don’t happen from people seeing a big idea as an endpoint and figuring out how to create it from the ground up, like a building. People imagine a visionary as someone who knows the true potential for their idea at the beginning, and can figure out how to make it happen. But in real life, he says, the discovery involves first having a small, intriguing idea that points you in a direction…and so you continue in that direction, without knowing exactly what you’re headed to, until suddenly your idea for to-do lists really does become the “next email.”

How else does someone come up with great ideas? Ask questions.

Can we do this? becomes Let’s try to do this and see what happens! becomes

If you phrase your ideas as questions, they are allowed to be wrong…and even wrong idea-questions are good, if they lead to more ideas. A partially wrong idea solves part of the problem, AND leads to more idea-questions that can gradually expand until the problem is solved in a way you’d have never thought of on its own.

To think of great ideas, you also need OTHER PEOPLE. Ideas get developed in the process of explaining them to the right kind of person.

You need aloneness for mind wandering, and togetherness for ironing out kinks.

Letting your mind wander is like doodling with ideas….generated randomly, but includes lots of patterns. And you have to work at it before you end up having any on your own easily. You need practice asking the questions before you develop the mind-habit thought patterns naturally in a creative way.

Your ideas don’t have to be oriented toward your field of expertise, and it might even be better if they’re not — because you’re looking for new ideas, and in order to find those, you need to introduce thought patterns from other areas on knowledge.

Paul Graham says, it’s often harder to see the problems than the solutions, because people don’t like acknowledging problems and difficulties…they take for granted that whatever exists is the best there is. Example: he created a better spam filter for email. The algorithm was incredibly easy, but the reason why no one had come up with it before was that no one saw the spam as truly intolerable the way he did, so no one had noticed an issue enough to attempt to solve it.

Idea: Look at stuff that people use now that is broken. Don’t figure out how to fix that specific thing, but come up with a better answer to the original problem it answered.

Example: Windows. “But [Windows] is a special case: you can’t defeat a monopoly by a frontal attack. Windows can and will be overthrown, but not by giving people a better desktop OS. The way to kill it is to redefine the problem as a superset of the current one. The problem is not, what operating system should people use on desktop computers? but how should people use applications? There are answers to that question that don’t even involve desktop computers.”

Idea: make a luxury into a commodity. “ When you make something cheaper you can sell more of them. But if you make something dramatically cheaper you often get qualitative changes, because people start to use it in different ways. For example, once computers get so cheap that most people can have one of their own, you can use them as communication devices.”

The best way to solve a problem is often to redefine it.

Idea: make something that already exists easier. If it’s already easy, make it easier to USE. “What you want to be able to say about technology is: it just works. How often do you say that now?”

Cultivating the Art of Serendipity

Serendipity: making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of. Serendipity is a skill, not a stroke of good fortune.

Some people are non-encounterers: View the world through a tight focus, “sticking to their to-do lists when searching for information rather than wandering off into the margins.”

Others encounter serendipity occasionally.

But some people are super-encounterers of serendipity. They find happy surprises everywhere they look. They relish finding treasure in unusual places. They are addicted to prospecting for ideas, addicted to discovering new perspectives and surprising information.

When we think of serendipity, “ we tend to become dazzled by the happy accident itself, to think of it as something that exists independent of an observer.”

“ As people dredge the unknown, they are engaging in a highly creative act. What an inventor “finds” is always an expression of him- or herself.”