Jan 11, 2020

The Most Important Thing Paul Graham Taught Me

Few weeks back, Paul Graham published a post on having kids. When I was finished with the post, I knew I had read something very insightful. The topic of his essay was mundane, done probably a million times, but his perspective never is. I don’t know where the magic comes from, but he has a special ability to distill the wisdom lying in the far corners of the brain—what you might not know you know.

Paul Graham has taught me a lot, perhaps more than any other writer. There’s one lesson though that stands apart from all of them. And that’s from the essay, The Top Idea in Your Mind. (I recommend reading the article, but you can continue without that too)

What have you thought about in the past hour? Have your thoughts been about the world going downhill? Or the sad state of politics? Has it been about the argument you had last day? I bet these thoughts made you anxious. According to Paul Graham, that’s only part of the trouble. More importantly, these issues have hijacked your mental space displacing more important and productive problems, which Paul Graham calls the ‘top idea in your mind.’

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.


I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

Paul talks about this in context of startups and ‘hard problems,’ but the principle of ‘the top idea in your mind’ is widely applicable. And especially so in when it comes to arguments.

Try to recall the last time you got involved in a heated argument. Irrespective of who won or lost, the end result was that you subscribed yourself to being agitated for at least a couple of days. In that period, your thoughts drifted towards foolishness of the other person. The content of the argument ran and re-ran in your head like a tape. “He’s a moron,” “I could have fought that point harder.” Instead of ideas, your mind was filled with “what could have been said”, overlaid with anxiety and furiousness.

In the longer run, the cost of a five minute argument was much more than five minutes. Not only you failed to change the other person’s opinion, you lost your precious mental space, too. In the real sense, you lost, and so did your adversary.

Considering the harm, one can’t help wonder what’s the point of getting into arguments at all. Why do we do it? The only reason, I believe, is to gratify our ego. When stakes gradually get higher, we can’t stand losing, so we fight the point fiercely. However, it’s easy to miss that not much is lost if these situations are side-stepped entirely, in fact, it’s a terrific service to yourself.

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

After reading the article, I started doing exactly that. Instead of trying to prove my point, I started pulling myself out of arguments, losing them rather happily. In instances where I failed to do that, I realized fairly quick that in the upcoming days I was going to be miserable. The positives of this change can be observed with a simple question: have I ever regretted not getting into a dispute? The answer is obvious.

The principle goes beyond arguments. If you have your partner clashing with you on everything, you know you have nothing left in your mind for anything else. Same thing if you go cheap and hire a contractor who needs to be corrected half a dozen times before delivering the finished product.

These stressful situations and arguments corrupt your mental space. If you want it available for productive thoughts, it’s best to avoid them in every way possible. That’s the most important thing I learned from Paul Graham.

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