To Gain an Edge, Run Up Stairs


Where can you find an advantage? This is the question I ask myself more than any other. There are many ways, but this (from Paul Graham) is one of the best:

Suppose you are a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully. You open a door and find yourself in a staircase. Do you go up or down? I say up. The bully can probably run downstairs as fast as you can. Going upstairs his bulk will be more of a disadvantage. Running upstairs is hard for you but even harder for him. What this meant in practice was that we deliberately sought hard problems. If there were two features we could add to our software, both equally valuable in proportion to their difficulty, we’d always take the harder one. Not just because it was more valuable, but because it was harder. We delighted in forcing bigger, slower competitors to follow us over difficult ground. Like guerillas, startups prefer the difficult terrain of the mountains, where the troops of the central government can’t follow. I can remember times when we were just exhausted after wrestling all day with some horrible technical problem. And I’d be delighted, because something that was hard for us would be impossible for our competitors.

Start by picking a hard problem, and then at every decision point, take the harder choice.

I see two important ideas in this analogy.

The first is the degree of difficulty. As Paul Graham points out, there is a huge advantage to going the harder way (up vs. down, the road less traveled so to speak).

The second is the stairs themselves. I am 5’11 and weigh 165 pounds. I’d want stairs with lots of turns and twists, and I’d want each step to be short (not steep) because I am more agile than strong. If I was 6’5 and strong as hell I’d want each stair to be steep, to play to my strength. It took me many years to realize it, but there is no point in trying to be well-rounded. The biggest advantages (which lead to the greatest successes) come from strength. When I hear “well-rounded” I think “mediocre.”

The most reliable path to success is to gain an exponential advantage in some area. That can only happen if you start with the stuff you are best at and build on it. At first, I wanted to be well-rounded because I was thinking linearly. Then I realized that I can be 10x or even 100x more productive and skilled in certain very specific areas, if I worked at it. I am not there yet, but I am on the right path. And as the Turkish proverb says, no matter how far down the wrong path you are, turn back.

The recipe, then, goes something like this.

  1. identify your strengths
  2. find the hardest problems for which your strengths may be an advantage in solving
  3. drive hard in that direction.

Find the right stairway, and run up it.