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    Every time I read Paul Graham I think back to Dabblers and Blowhards from 2005 (which unfortunately has some sexist overtones, but a lot of the essay still holds). This quote in particular sticks out:

    [A]fter a while, you begin to notice that all the essays are an elaborate set of mirrors set up to reflect different facets of the author, in a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.

    The whole genre reminds me of the the wooly business books one comes across at airports (“Management secrets of Gengis Khan”, the “Lexus and the Olive Tree”) that milk a bad analogy for two hundred pages to arrive at the conclusion that people just like the author are pretty great.

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      I wouldn’t presume to call myself a genius, but I am as successful as I am in my industry in large part because I’d tinker with computers even if I weren’t getting paid. It’s my primary hobby by a wide margin and when I’m done working on the computery stuff I’m paid to do, I go work on the computery stuff I want to do. I’m lucky that both kinds of stuff often overlap.

      (My other hobby is the history of Judaism and Christianity which, much like bus ticket collecting, isn’t ever going to make money nor, since I am neither Jewish nor Christian, even improve my faith.)

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        What is an “disinterested obsession”? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

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          ‘disinterested’ does not mean ‘uninterested’. It means ‘without expectation of personal reward’.

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            Yet another word probably borrowed from French: désintéressé has exactly the same meaning.

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            I read it as “disinterested in earning money from an obsession”. But that’s just because I believe the author is writing from his position as venture capitalist, where “obsession for customer satisfaction” is something people can say with a straight face.

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              To me it is pretty clear

              A bus ticket collector’s love is disinterested. They’re not doing it to impress us or to make themselves rich, but for its own sake.

              It is an intrinsic motivation, rather than one driven by anything at all from the outside.

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                I see. They come from a world where “interest” is only defined in financial terms.

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                  I personally think Paul Graham is such a person. I’ve never met him though.

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                “Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not synonyms.

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                  Synonyms & Antonyms for disinterested


                  apathetic, casual, complacent, incurious, indifferent, insensible, insouciant, nonchalant, perfunctory, pococurante, unconcerned, uncurious, uninterested


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                    I think this is more a recognition of how people use the word (incorrectly or otherwise). For many people, they’re synonymous even though they’re actually not. But this is the prescriptivist vs descriptivist divide, really.

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                A cynical view is that as a VC he wants to attract the kind of people who he’s describing: experts in some unusual niche, who would gladly spend lots of time working on it without immediate financial reward. The upside he can give is calling them geniuses, and if they’re lucky, some success that brings ROI for the VC fund.

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                  If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.

                  But there’s no definition of genius anywhere.

                  A little bit down the road, series matter. Did series really matter when Ramanujan was working his stuff? Compared to what? Treating infectious disease? For what definition of matter?

                  PaulG again writes from the pedestal of achievement, somewhat blind-sighted. Or my English and the typesetting do not help me to follow through.

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                    He left out luck. You need to collect bus tickets AND get lucky that those bus tickets ended up mattering. There are tons of people who fiddled around with obscure mathematics and we’ve never heard of them simply because they never got lucky. They where brilliant, intelligent and obsessive. They just happened to pick a dead end topic.

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                      I mean, Paul is a very smart guy, but he has his blind spots, and one of them, perhaps the greatest of them, is his complete unwillingness, even incapacity, to engage with the contingent nature of human endeavour. It’s not surprising, as he has lead a blessed life, and has therefore been wildly successful. But his writing never admits the truly random nature of success.

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                        He mentioned that if Darwin was born a hundred years earlier then he wouldn’t have been around for the period of high interest in natural history. He also mentioned that load of brilliant, hard working people just end up researching dead ends. I think it was implied.

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                        How did he left that out? Most of the write up is dedicated to that.

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                        So basically these guys, except for the important bits…