Link: Paul Graham on intelligence vs determination

by Vladimir_Golovin1 min read24th Mar 201118 comments


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Paul Graham of Y-Combinator on picking winners-at-life:
Paul Graham spills: Why some companies get his cash and others don't

What's most essential for a successful startup?
The founders. We've learned in the six years of doing Y Combinator to look at the founders--not the business ideas--because the earlier you invest, the more you're investing in the people. When Bill Gates was starting Microsoft, the idea that he had then involved a small-time microcomputer called the Altair. That didn't seem very promising, so you had to see that this 19-year-old kid was going places.

What do you look for?
Determination. When we started, we thought we were looking for smart people, but it turned out that intelligence was not as important as we expected. If you imagine someone with 100 percent determination and 100 percent intelligence, you can discard a lot of intelligence before they stop succeeding. But if you start discarding determination, you very quickly get an ineffectual and perpetual grad student.


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It is good to know how determination is important, but what I really want to know is how to increase my determination.

This is a commonplace of motivational self-help, e.g. the famous quote from Calvin Coolidge:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Obviously, you need something worth persisting with. But the capacity for mental long-distance endurance is an important strength to have to achieve a goal.

(I have very little, fwiw.)

for mental long-distance endurance

I do not this this is what he means by 'determination'

Hmm, possibly. I think that at worst it's closely related to other possible qualities he's describing.

I suspect in startup context what he meant is closer to "stubbornness in the face of failure", ability to mentally deal with obstacles.

Um, that's pretty much what I read the Coolidge quote as talking about.

Sorry, I interpreted your "for mental long-distance endurance" meaning traversing long inferential distances.

I think that would be more to do with raw intelligence :-)

Is he asserting that people with determination will be successful, or that success requires determination?

Both that success statistically requires determination, and that sufficient determination can overcome most other obstacles.

Yes, sheer persistence without epistemic rationality opens up a lot of possibilities for spectacular failures.

Determination is necessary for great success - and for great failure. Does increasing your determination increase your expected outcome?

Determination pushes (pulls? drags? propels?) you along the path you planned on your current map of reality, but won't do you any good if your map doesn't match the territory, or the point you designated as a target is unreachable. That is, determination is useless without at least some epistemic rationality.

I get déjà vu when I read this -- I'm sure this is not the first time PG has expressed these ideas.

Yes. Here's his essay from October 2010 -- I wasn't aware of it when I posted the link:
What We Look for in Founders

1. Determination. This has turned out to be the most important quality in startup founders. We thought when we started Y Combinator that the most important quality would be intelligence. That's the myth in the Valley. And certainly you don't want founders to be stupid. But as long as you're over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination. You're going to hit a lot of obstacles. You can't be the sort of person who gets demoralized easily.

Thanks for sharing, very interesting!

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Valuable information (since Graham is a reliable source and extremely well placed to make such observations) but what I really want to know is how to increase the 'determination' of myself and my friends. Of course, just determining to be more determined does not work.