Better than It Has to Be

Thoughts about meticulous attention to detail and the quest for excellence, by Paul Graham in his 2003 essay "Hackers and Painters":

This sounds like a paradox, but a great painting has to be better than it has to be. For example, when Leonardo painted the portrait of Ginevra de Benci in the National Gallery, he put a juniper bush behind her head. In it he carefully painted each individual leaf. Many painters might have thought, this is just something to put in the background to frame her head. No one will look that closely at it.

Not Leonardo. How hard he worked on part of a painting didn't depend at all on how closely he expected anyone to look at it. He was like Michael Jordan. Relentless.

Relentlessness wins because, in the aggregate, unseen details become visible. When people walk by the portrait of Ginevra de Benci, their attention is often immediately arrested by it, even before they look at the label and notice that it says Leonardo da Vinci. All those unseen details combine to produce something that's just stunning, like a thousand barely audible voices all singing in tune.

Great software, likewise, requires a fanatical devotion to beauty. If you look inside good software, you find that parts no one is ever supposed to see are beautiful too. I'm not claiming I write great software, but I know that when it comes to code I behave in a way that would make me eligible for prescription drugs if I approached everyday life the same way. It drives me crazy to see code that's badly indented, or that uses ugly variable names.

(Graham notes: "This essay is derived from a guest lecture at Harvard, which incorporated an earlier talk at Northeastern." — cf Iambic Honesty 3 (2001-05-06), Universal Flourishing (2001-12-25), Pursuit of Excellence (2002-02-22), Heart of the Order (2002-07-03), Small Ideas (2005-12-12), Virtuosic (2009-11-10), Great Peace of Mind (2011-02-20), Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Unity (2018-11-30), Inimitable Sir Isaiah Berlin (2019-04-11), ...) - ^z - 2019-07-23