Influences – Intro and Technology

In 2008, Paul Graham wrote an essay titled “Some Heroes” listing those who have influenced him and how they did it. His reasoning for writing this particular essay was because it’d “be so much fun to write about.”

While I respect his motivation, I suspect the essay had more relevance to him than he let on. He adds: “ I once asked a physicist friend if Einstein was really as smart as his fame implies, and she said that yes, he was. So why isn’t he on the list? Because I had to ask. This is a list of people who’ve influenced me, not people who would have if I understood their work.” [emphasis mine]

The people who influence us are more than just heroes. This is arguing over syntax, but heroes could be observed from afar. The word “influencer” has an intimate connotation, one implying someone has directly touched your life.

While reading Graham’s list, I couldn’t help myself from generating my own list. And due to Graham’s use of the word “influence” in his reasoning for rejecting Einstein, I began generating a list not of heroes, but of influencers.

As I was compiling the names, one major criteria gave me pause: My age when I encountered a person’s work. I have no background in the sociology or neuroscience, so I am inclined to believe the adage that we get stuck in our ways as we age. I greatly admire Richard Feynman work, but because I discovered him later in life (sophomore year of college when I was 19), my world views had already been set. I admire him, yet his influence on me is minimal.

Additionally, I found that I could compartmentalize sections of my life into themes. The influences for each of these areas of my life are grouped below.

To summarize my approach in selecting the names for this list: These are the individuals who, during my formative years, shaped my perspectives and/or abilities (excluding family members, who are influences by default).

At the end of the list, there is a short summary where I identify patterns among my influences.


John Carmack:

“I was sort of an amoral little jerk when I was young. I was arrogant about being smarter than other people, but unhappy that I wasn’t able to spend all my time doing what I wanted. I spent a year in a juvenile home for a first offense after an evaluation by a psychologist went very badly.” – John Carmack’s Slashdot Q&A

“In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”- John Carmack in Masters of Doom

“There are lots of brilliant people that come up with lots of creative things, and nothing that I’ve done changed the world in a way that somebody else wouldn’t have, it might just have taken several more years. But if that’s what I’ve brought to the table on any of this – bringing the future a little bit closer for the segment of the population that wants it – I’m proud of that, and happy to have given that experience to a lot of people. But I just turned 40 and I can be programming for another 40 years; there’s a lot yet to do!” – Carmack interview with NowGamer

When I decided to write this essay, John Carmack was the only name that really mattered. If it was shortened to one name, it’d be his. He is the most influential, non-friend-or-relative in my life. I read David Kushner’s biography of Carmack when I was 14 and it instantly, fundamentally changed my life perspective.

The feeling is hard to describe. When we are teenagers, the world starts to open up and becomes larger than we previously knew. It’s also a time when we start to develop our own sense of what we like and dislike. We can self-select our turn-ons without guidance from family.

Carmack was relatable in a way I had never experienced. Throughout middle school, I was already getting bored with monotony of school life and was luckily gifted enough to glide through classes with minimal effort. Yet, at that age, there weren’t many other students around who were as actively antsy about the lack of motivation in school and autodidactic enough to find external interests that, again, weren’t managed by parents.

Carmack, through Kushner’s writing, shone through as someone who had faced the same internal conflicts 15 years before me and solved them with such directed intelligence and single-minded drive that I realized I could never obtain, but very much desired.

I became a self-taught programmer because of Carmack. As a naive high school senior, I expected to drop out of Ohio State my freshman year to program full-time because Carmack had blazed a recent trail for those young kids who hated the restrictiveness of educational institutions. When founding his company with his partners, he never accepted venture capital and gave away software for free. For my generation of technologists, Carmack embodied the hacker ethic.

Carmack created the first-person shooter genre. His individual output can dwarf teams of intelligent programmers. He’s a part-time rocket scientist. He is on Bill Gates’s short list of geniuses. After Apple, id Software became the poster boy for rockstar technology companies, bridging the gap between the personal computers of the 80s and internet bubble of the late 90s, and having technical chops surpassing almost all of those who preceded and succeeded him.

My ideals are largely a reflection of Carmack’s: Singular dedication and love for your craft and having the stubbornness to not allow for distractions. Very few people have reached Carmack’s intellectual purity. I certainly haven’t, but it gives me something to strive toward daily.

Paul Graham:

“Programming should be fun. Programs should be beautiful. That’s the spirit I have tried to convey.”

“Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” – Paul Graham

While John Carmack is my biggest influence, Paul Graham is the person I cite the most. Perhaps next to the Google guys, Paul Graham has done more than anyone to promote the internet as a significant economic force and startups as the physical manifestation of that force. Through his prescient writings, he has established himself as the philosopher behind the Internet revolution.

PG spent his early life pursuing his interest in computers while also entertaining his intellectual curiousity with a major in philosophy at Cornell. After receiving a Phd in Computer Science from Harvard and a stint as a painting student in Florence, Graham and his friend Robert Morris built a pioneering web-based startup which sold to Yahoo for just shy of $50 million. With a sizable amount of money burning a hole in his pocket and a curious mind, he institutionalized angel investing with a new structure (YCombinator) which obsoleted traditional startup “incubators”.

What I find particularly inspiring and humbling is how PG’s career seems to be an odd combination of simultaneous forethought and luck. The concept of “awareness” might be an intersection of these two traits: Finding yourself in situations and having the presence of a prepared mind to understand your surroundings Based on his programming background, his preference for the programming language Lisp, a desire to control his application stack, and the ability to write software faster, he stumbled into web businesses at their incubation stage. In the aftermath of the Internet bubble, the costs of running a software company had decreased significantly while the web was still in its infancy. This soil, along with his newfound wealth, was fertile ground for the next evolution in startup financing.

While I don’t agree with him on everything, his writing styles blends concise points and illustrative metaphors into convincing arguments. If more non-fiction writers had as gifted a pen, more people would spend their leisure on intellectual pursuits.

Paul Graham’s legacy will be as the personification of the technology business in the mid-2000s. Hopefully it will continue to grow in the coming decades.