Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

The Power of the Marginal

I sometimes disagree quite a bit with Paul Graham, but The Power of the Marginal is a brilliant essay. Mostly, I think that Paul is a great observer, but he sometimes goes a bit too far into drawing conclusions. For example, he concluded that Europe could never match the USA economically because they had to support different languages. That’s about as silly as saying that Microsoft programmers can’t compete against the Java programmers because they have to support several languages (VB, C#, C++, and so on). But, as far as describing what one needs to be successful, he is right on the money more often than not. I would describe him as a modern-day Balzac. In fact, I’m looking for a co-author to write a paper I’ll call “From Balzac to Paul Graham”.

Allow me to quote some important parts of his essay…

You are not a member of the right private clubs? Don’t despair:

(…) great new things often come from the margins, and yet the people who discover them are looked down on by everyone, including themselves.

If you are a nobody, you still have several edges over people in-the-know:

There are real disadvantages to being an insider, and in some kinds of work they can outweigh the advantages (…) : the selection of the wrong kind of people, the excessive scope, the inability to take risks, the need to seem serious, the weight of expectations, the power of vested interests, the undiscerning audience, and perhaps most dangerous, the tendency of such work to become a duty rather than a pleasure.

Being able to take risks is an asset:

Outsiders should realize the advantage they have here. Being able to take risks is hugely valuable. Everyone values safety too much, both the obscure and the eminent. No one wants to look like a fool. But it’s very useful to be able to. If most of your ideas aren’t stupid, you’re probably being too conservative.

Brainstorming and risking it all on a possibly stupid idea, is not so stupid:

Almost everyone makes the mistake of treating ideas as if they were indications of character rather than talent– as if having a stupid idea made you stupid.

You don’t have a small army working for you? You can use this lack of ressources to your benefit:

So if you want to beat those eminent enough to delegate, one way to do it is to take advantage of direct contact with the medium. In the arts it’s obvious how: blow your own glass, edit your own films, stage your own plays. And in the process pay close attention to accidents and to new ideas you have on the fly.

Don’t try to compete directly with the expert, become an expert in a “new” field:

The second way to compete with focus is to see what focus overlooks. In particular, new things. So if you’re not good at anything yet, consider working on something so new that no one else is either. It won’t have any prestige yet, if no one is good at it, but you’ll have it all to yourself.

This quote is golden:

The professor who made his reputation by discovering some new idea is not likely to be the one to discover its replacement.

This paragraph is just great:

So if you’re an outsider you should actively seek out contrarian projects. Instead of working on things the eminent have made prestigious, work on things that could steal that prestige.

Here’s Paul’s conclusion:

If I had to condense the power of the marginal into one sentence it would be: just try hacking something together.