Good to Great, Paul Graham and Ayn Rand (repost)

June 1, 2007. Filed under writing 33

This is a transplant from the original Irrational Exuberance, and was written in mid 2007: nearly two years ago. I recently started reading Good to Great by Jim Collins, and so far I think its a fantastic read. It is written rather well, flows nicely, and has interesting points to make. Reading its chapter about Level 5 Leadership, and also the following chapter “Who Not What,” it made me start to draw some parallels. This blog entry is a brief discussion of those parallels I drew, and I think could the content of the entry could be best described as a vain attempt at pseudo philosophy.To cut straight to the point, the first connection I made was to Paul Graham’s comments on his being able to (relatively) easily come up with a money making concept, as long as the founders were the “right” kind of people. The second connection I made was that this concept of the “right” kind of people are flexible and can move mountains--and that quality of individuals is less about training and skills and more about some kind of amorphous goodness (strong sense of morality and standards)--is strongly prevalent within the works of Ayn Rand, especially Atlas Shrugged (but certainly present within the Fountainhead too).

Who are the “right” kind of people?

The right kind of people are those who are focused on helping your organization thrive, and are more interested in doing (or being a part of) something great than in their personal well-being. In Good to Great they are extremely motivated individuals who set for themselves extraordinarily high standards. When placed into positions of power they infuse their organization with those high standards, and (as Good to Great is fond of saying) get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus (oh, and they make sure that everyone is in the right seat on the bus!).These individuals are strongly motivated by being surrounded by others who are similarly “great.” In my personal experience, these are the students I have met who are inspired to do better work when working alongside others who are also striving to complete hard tasks with elegant solutions. The single reason I occasionally wished I had attended a more prestigious institution is the hope that there is a higher quota of these highly motivated and excellent people at excellent schools (perhaps this is a misguided expectation). I do remember though, a wise teacher once stating that there would be great teachers at any school I attended, but that it is the quality of the student body that would vary.Anyway, these people are Paul Graham’s “hackers”, or Rand’s “Free Electrons”; they are autotelic (self-directed, or deriving meaning from the activity they are engaged in, not working to live, but working for work’s sake), they are driven, they are good, they are “right.” Oh, and they are modest too. Not an easy standard to live up to, if I do say so myself.

So draw this connection to Paul Graham for us

Okay, its kind of tenuous, I acknowledge, but my basic idea is that the hackers Paul Graham talks about are these “right” people. One of the points of Good to Great is that you need to have the right people, and then you decide where to lead your company after getting those people. To have an incredible strategy along with an innovative idea won’t be enough to get your company off the ground, unless you have great people to implement it.Thus the connection is that Paul Graham seems to be intuitively (or perhaps very intentionally) following this rule: get great people, worry about steering the boat later. When I first read Graham’s statement about being certain about being able to find a money making idea if he had the right founders, I was pretty hesitant. Indeed, I found the statement to come off as slightly arrogant. After reading more of his works, and of a number of other books and articles (and also monitoring the success of the Y-Combinator companies), it seems more and more that what he said is true: with the right people, the boat may as well steer itself.

Alright, now weave Ayn Rand into this web for us

If we look at the heroes in Ayn Rand’s novels, they are all extremely competent, driven by a need to conform to incredibly high standards, and exceptionally selfless (and they are all men, because Ayn Rand believed women existed to worship men, which is pointedly not an argument ever made by either Paul Graham or Jim Collins; on a slightly different note the Passions of Ayn Rand is a great book and I recommend it to everyone).Rand’s heroes deeply desire to work with one another (as evidenced by their joint retreat to form their own country at the end of Atlas Shrugged), and they are eternally frustrated when working with others who are not the “right” kind. Dorothy Taggert finds the one competent lineworker, and desperately attempts to promote him into a position of authority; she does this because she knows the Good to Great secret, that the “right” people are going to be “right” regardless of any current skills, they’ll pick up the training, but the “wrong” people will never pick up the attitude and standards.

Ending Thoughts

This has admittedly been a fairly disjoint article, the connections simply jumped into my head earlier today while reading, and have now leaped from my head onto these pages. Hopefully now that I have put it out there, I will receive some interesting feedback. Initially I wanted to connect Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi into the web, but I realized that that connection was really tenuous, and mostly the consequence of my enduring interest in his work (rather than the result of a strong parallel of concepts, although the autotelic concept--so finely honed by Mihaly--is prevalent in Good to Great).I really would recommend anyone to read through Good to Great, its a pleasant read, and probably wouldn’t take more than 4-8 hours to read, depending on your reading speed (its about 240 pages, but not particularly dense or difficult reading).