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My series of notes on Y Combinator’s Startup Library:

Original: http://www.paulgraham.com/boss.html

My notes

Takeaway: Individual initiative matters. Don’t be scared to live in the wild, it’s better for me in the long run.

A normal job may be as bad for us intellectually as white flour or sugar is for us physically.

[Founders] are happier in the sense that your body is happier during a long run than sitting on a sofa eating doughnuts

Though they’re statistically abnormal, startup founders seem to be working in a way that’s more natural for humans.

I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn’t the life they were designed for.

Trees

What’s so unnatural about working for a big company? The root of the problem is that humans weren’t meant to work in such large groups.

Whatever the upper limit is, we are clearly not meant to work in groups of several hundred. Companies know groups that large wouldn’t work, so they divide themselves into units small enough to work together. But to coordinate these they have to introduce something new: bosses.

Something strange happens [in the hierarchical structure of a large company]. In the group one level up from yours, your boss represents your entire group. The workers and managers share only one person’s worth of freedom between them.

Corn Syrup

A group of 10 people within a large organization is a kind of fake tribe. The number of people you interact with is about right. But something is missing: individual initiative.

A job at a big company is like high fructose corn syrup: it has some of the qualities of things you’re meant to like, but is disastrously lacking in others.

Indeed, food is an excellent metaphor to explain what’s wrong with the usual sort of job.

“Normal” food is terribly bad for you. If “normal” food is so bad for us, why is it so common? There’s two main reasons. One is that it has more immediate appeal. The other is economies of scale. Producing junk food scales; producing fresh vegetables doesn’t.

If people have to choose between something that’s cheap, heavily marketed, and appealing in the short term, and something that’s expensive, obscure, and appealing in the long term, which do you think most will choose?

It’s the same with work. The average MIT graduate wants to work at Google or Microsoft, because it’s a recognized brand, it’s safe, and they’ll get paid a good salary right away. It’s the job equivalent of the pizza they had for lunch. The drawbacks will only because apparent later, and then only in a vague sense of malaise.

[Founders and early employees of startups] are the ones living as humans are meant to. In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.

Programmers

The restrictiveness of big company jobs is particularly hard on programmers, because the essence of programming is to build new things.

Between the drag of legacy code, the overhead of doing development in such a large organization, and the restrictions imposed by interfaces owned by other groups, [this founder] could only try a fraction of the things he would have liked to.

If you’re not allowed to implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: when you can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do. So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the same way a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful.

Consequences

For individuals, the upshot is the same: stay small. It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.

Work for another company if you want to, but only for a small one, and if you want to start your own startup, go ahead.

Ambitious programmers are better off doing their own thing and failing than going to work at a big company. Certainly they’ll learn more.

Working for oneself, or at least for a small group, is the natural way for programmers to live.