Scalability and immediate appeal

Paul Graham argues that people take bad jobs for the same reasons they eat bad food. The advantages of both are immediately apparent: convenience and immediate satisfaction. The disadvantages take longer to realize. Bad jobs drag down your soul the way bad food drags down your body.

I first read Graham’s essay You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss when he wrote it three years ago. I read it again this morning when I saw a link to it on Hacker News. I found his thesis less convincing this time around. But he makes two general points that I think I missed the first time.

  1. Watch out for things that are immediately appealing but harmful in the longer term.
  2. Watch out for being part of someone else’s scalability plans.

The first point is familiar advice, but worth being reminded of. The second point is more subtle.

Companies sell bad food for the same reason they offer bad jobs: it scales. It’s easy to create bland food and bland jobs on a large scale. Fresh food and creative jobs don’t scale so well.

When you choose to eat junk food, you more or less consciously choose convenience or immediate satisfaction over long-term benefit. But it may not be obvious when your range of options has been selected for scalability. For example, few students realize how much the educational system has been designed for the convenience of administrators. Being aware of an organization’s scalability needs can help you interact with it more intelligently.

More posts on scale

6 thoughts on “Scalability and immediate appeal

  1. John,

    It’s funny that you should mention Paul’s article. Just yesterday, there was an article in The Next Web titled The Problem With Silicon Valley Is Itself. The author of the article states:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that entrepreneurship in the Valley has become productized, as organizations like Y Combinator attempt to marginalize, commoditize or manufacture a process that is inherently risky.

    In it, she bemoans the lack of innovation in Silicon Valley, that startups aren’t solving real-world problems. So has Paul’s YCombinator model become the “fast food” of startups?

    Are many of the startups he is funding fall into the “immediately appealing but harmful in the longer term” category? Have they become just part of a sausage-making process churning out more and more me-too webapp companies solving mostly well-to-do first-world citizen’s problems they didn’t know they had?

  2. It depends on which side of the table you’re on. As an individual, Graham would want to work on a start-up with maximum opportunity for creativity. But as a venture capitalist, he wants things to scale. So a young Paul Graham might not want to take money from YCombinator.

    I heard something similar about Michael Dell. Someone asked him if he’d hire a college drop out like himself. He said no, but he added that a young Michael Dell probably wouldn’t want to work for Dell anyway.

  3. A motto allegedly from a Mexican machete:

    Más valen frijoles que alegria

    Which means to the best of my knowledge, “Beans are worth more than joy.”
    My granddad was a cabinet maker who worked with a guy who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese during WWII. No matter what happened, he just laughed.

  4. SteveBrooklineMA

    These days people are taking bad jobs to put food (any kind) on the table. And they are happy to get one.

  5. Steve,

    Yep, that was what occurred to me too. Plus how easy it is to forget what really bad conditions are like.


    Thinking about this reminded me of an interesting example from the Wikipedia page on backward induction.

  6. Nice analogy. It was good to meet you at Scipy as well. You are on my feeds now, so look for me trolling here in the future :)

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