Mean People Fight; Creative People (Sometimes) Argue

In his essay “Mean People Fail” a few months ago, Paul Graham has provided more food for thought (for me, at least) than much of anything I’ve read of late. [1] The essay itself is a clear caution against acting nastily to others, as such actions can impede or prevent one’s intended goals. Most of the themes discussed therein I agree with readily as they are so common-sense that to disregard such proposals seems utterly preposterous.

There is, however, one area which Graham touches on lightly that I feel needs a little more attention. Graham’s short paragraph on fighting is truthful (I believe) in its intended message and account of reality. However, we all speak from our own experiences, and I feel that the term “fighting” may be too broad a term, particularly for an industry as genuinely artistic and creative as startups and tech. While I understand Graham’s point here (he is undoubtedly using the term “fighting” to refer to pointless disagreements, high tempers, and accusatory tones that lead nowhere), I think a deeper examination is warranted.

I fear the term “fighting” may be overrepresented in cases where the term “arguing” fits more appropriately. In an industry where creativity and outthinking the competition are not only realities but necessities for successful startups, it may very well be in times of arguing differing views that an answer or pivot point presents itself. Good answers and opportunities do not always appear within the vacuum of “a good day” and sometimes take a little more pressure to fully crystalize.

Much like the music industry where arguments between band members or artists and producers can (and many times do) produce the best creative results, arguing is not only a luxury but a necessity. The creative frustration can at times reach a critical mass before a meltdown occurs. But if the proper alternative lines of thinking are presented at the right time, then that critical mass not only returns to normal, but can yield a result not viewable before the high rise of creative pressure and focus. It is this creative force which drives many musicians, and which I’m sure can be likened to the creative drive to build that drives those within the tech space.

Creation is a messy, dissonant, sometimes quite frustrating process. But it’s precisely that power and sheer will to succeed that many of the great ideas (albums) are born from. Graham is not wrong about his discussion of fighting; pointless accusations and infighting drain a startup’s (as well as a band’s) lifeforce and ability to thrive (it’s this definition of “fighting” that I am convinced Graham is referencing in his essay). A band, like a startup, is very much like a marriage: both are living, breathing organisms, requiring constant care, adjustment, and which, at times, can become arenas for argument and restructuring. But, though the prospect of adjustment may pose a distasteful reality for a startup team, it could lead to bigger and better things. Then you go from being Iron Maiden with Paul Di’Anno to being Iron Maiden with Bruce Dickinson. [2]


Thanks to Mom, Dad, Charles Jo, Terrence Yang, and Scott Menor for reading earlier drafts of this.



[1] This essay does not reflect the beliefs of Paul Graham or any of those mentioned in his “Thanks” section, except where the original essay’s thesis was referenced. These are merely my own thoughts on the the thesis that Graham presented in his original text.

[2] Though I prefer the lead vocals of Bruce Dickinson, I quite like the Paul Di’Anno releases of Iron Maiden (1980) and Killers (1981) as well, since both albums are notable in their own rights. However, it is indisputable that Iron Maiden grew to new heights under Dickinson’s leadership, thus the point of the example in the essay.

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