A fascinating conversation between Mastery author Robert Greene and programmer and writer Paul Graham. According to his official biography, Graham is “a programmer, writer, and investor”. In 1995, he and Robert Morris started Viaweb, which was acquired by Yahoo, soon becoming “Yahoo Store”. Graham has started or funded about 450 startups, wrote Lisp (one of the world’s most influential computer languages). He’s also one of the richest men on the planet.
This short extract conversation with Robert Greene is taken from an interview the pair did for Greene’s book Mastery – a book I cannot recommend highly enough for those of you who wish to understand what has made the great minds of history tick.
In this part of the interview Greene is honing in upon whether Graham has an intrinsic passion – a calling, no less. His answer is fascinating. Just as fascinating is the fact that there is the suggestion that “programming” was somehow a part of the collective consciousness of the Graham family, even though the idea was not openly discussed.
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ROBERT: Did you feel like, when you discovered computers, that that was it? That this was what you were going to be doing for your life?
PAUL: No, actually. There weren’t a lot of programmers around back then. So it didn’t seem like, it wasn’t clear that you could have a career as a software developer. I didn’t know anybody growing up that I would have called a software developer. I mean, they used computers a lot to do calculations in the design of nuclear reactors. In fact, my father was one of the first programmers. But he didn’t think of himself as a programmer. He thought of himself as a guy who designed reactors and he had to write programs. Just like now he would use a calculator to actually do the same things probably. But he didn’t think of himself as a software developer.
ROBERT: Did you learn from, was it in the air, in the family, in the house?
PAUL: He surely didn’t teach me anything about programming.
PAUL: I don’t remember him ever saying anything about this. But how can I not?
ROBERT: You absorbed it somehow.
PAUL: How can I not have heard him talking about computers? It was just in the air.
ROBERT: What were you thinking you would end up doing in life? Did you have any idea?
PAUL: No. I had no idea. You would take these surveys that would tell you something random, like, you are supposed to be a photographer when you grow up. You are supposed to be an insurance salesman.
ROBERT: What were you supposed to be?
PAUL: I don’t even remember. I don’t even remember. It seemed like the choices were all so boring like an actuary or something like that.
ROBERT: So where did you go to college, undergraduate?
PAUL: Cornell. I went to Cornell.
ROBERT: Very cool.
PAUL: Yeah. And it had a particularly good computer science department.
ROBERT: Oh. So that’s when, as an undergrad you started getting deeper into this.
PAUL: Yeah. I was pretty deep into it already. By the standards of the day in high school.