Relentlessly resourceful: beyond startups

December 28, 2020

Paul Graham, has an essay where he identifies what he thinks is the defining trait of good startup founders:

A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.

Till then the best I’d managed was to get the opposite quality down to one: hapless. Most dictionaries say hapless means unlucky. But the dictionaries are not doing a very good job. A team that outplays its opponents but loses because of a bad decision by the referee could be called unlucky, but not hapless. Hapless implies passivity. To be hapless is to be battered by circumstances—to let the world have its way with you, instead of having your way with the world.


But finally I’ve figured out how to express this quality directly. I was writing a talk for investors, and I had to explain what to look for in founders. What would someone who was the opposite of hapless be like? They’d be relentlessly resourceful. Not merely relentless. That’s not enough to make things go your way except in a few mostly uninteresting domains. In any interesting domain, the difficulties will be novel. Which means you can’t simply plow through them, because you don’t know initially how hard they are; you don’t know whether you’re about to plow through a block of foam or granite. So you have to be resourceful. You have to keep trying new things.

He also adds a caveat about being relentlessly resourceful:

That sounds right, but is it simply a description of how to be successful in general? I don’t think so. This isn’t the recipe for success in writing or painting, for example. In that kind of work the recipe is more to be actively curious. Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups. But in writing and painting they’re mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness.

I’ve found that even beyond the world of startups, being relentlessly resourceful has huge benefits, probably because a lot of life’s problems involve external obstacles. What follows is a list of anecdotes that both add to the evidence highlighting the benefits of being relentlessly resourceful, and are hopefully fun to read. I keep this list as a reminder for future situations where my determination to resist haplessness may be lacking.


On a final note: for every one of these stories there have been countless times where my attempts to get what I wanted have come up short. In those times of frustration, I like to remind myself that it’s a numbers game. If you try to undertake a large number of seemingly impossible/hopeless tasks, most will probably fail, but every once in a while you may find yourself experiencing some miracles.

  1. Name changed to preserve anonymity. ↩︎

  2. The full story behind this is actually longer and more interesting, and probably worthy of its own post. ↩︎

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