The Technium

How to Make New Things

Paul Graham, an engineer who can write and think clearly, derived a reliable way to make new things: work on overlooked problems. I found the following bit of advice to not only be true, but profound.

Graham describes his strategy precisely: “Find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.”  That seems simple, but it is not. He elaborates: 

When I first laid out these principles explicitly, I noticed something striking: this is practically a recipe for generating a contemptuous initial reaction. Though simple solutions are better, they don’t seem as impressive as complex ones.

Overlooked problems are by definition problems that most people think don’t matter.

Delivering solutions in an informal way means that instead of judging something by the way it’s presented, people have to actually understand it, which is more work. And starting with a crude version 1 means your initial effort is always small and incomplete. 

I’d noticed, of course, that people never seemed to grasp new ideas at first. I thought it was just because most people were stupid. Now I see there’s more to it than that. Like a contrarian investment fund, someone following this strategy will almost always be doing things that seem wrong to the average person.  As with contrarian investment strategies, that’s exactly the point. This technique is successful (in the long term) because it gives you all the advantages other people forgo by trying to seem legit. If you work on overlooked problems, you’re more likely to discover new things, because you have less competition. If you deliver solutions informally, you (a) save all the effort you would have had to expend to make them look impressive, and (b) avoid the danger of fooling yourself as well as your audience. And if you release a crude version 1 then iterate, your solution can benefit from the imagination of nature, which, as Feynman pointed out, is more powerful than your own.


To sum up: Simple, iterative solutions to overlooked problems that someone cares about. There are other ways to make new things. But in my experience, Grahams approach is the most reliable and rarely fails.


© 2023