This morning I stumbled over a comment from last September that I somehow missed replying to at the time. I suspect it’s something more than one of my readers has wondered about, so here goes…
Edward Cree wrote:
If I’m really smart enough to impress esr, I feel like I ought to be doing more with myself than toy projects, games, and an obscure driver. It’s not that I’m failing to change the world, it’s that I’m not even trying. (Not for want of causes, either; there are plenty of things I’d change about the world if I could, and I suspect esr would approve of most of them.)
Obviously without Eric’s extroversion I won’t be as influential as him, but… dangit, Eric, what’s your trick? You make having a disproportionate effect on the course of history look easy! Why can I never find anything important to hack on?
There are several reasons people get stuck this way. I’ve experienced some of them myself. I’ve seen others.
If this sounds like you, dear reader, the first question to ask yourself is whether you are so attached to having a lot of potential that you fear failing in actuality. I don’t know Edward’s age, but I’ve seen this pattern in a lot of bright young people; it manifests as a lot of project starts that are potentially brilliant but a failure to follow through to the point where you ship something that has to meet a reality test. Or in an opposite way: as self-constraining to toy projects where the risk of failure is low.
So my first piece of advice is this: if you want to have “a disproportionate effect on the course of history”, the first thing you need to do is give yourself permission to fail – as long as you learn something from every failure, and are ready to keep scaling up your bets after success.
The second thing you need to do is finish something and ship it. No, more than that. You need to make finishing and shipping things a habit, something you do routinely. There are things that can be made to look easy only by cultivating a lot of self-discipline and persistence. This is one of them.
(The good news is that once you get your self-discipline to the required level it won’t feel like you have to flog yourself any more. It’ll just be habit. It’ll be you.)
Another thing you need to do is actually pay attention to what’s going on around you, at every scale. 99% of the time, you find important things to hack on by noticing possibilities other people have missed. The hard part here is seeing past the blinding assumptions you don’t know you have, and the hard part of that is being conscious of your assumptions.
Here’s my favorite example of this from my own life. After I described the many-eyeballs-make-bugs-shallow effect, I worried for years at the problem of why nobody in the hacker culture had noticed it sooner. After all, I was describing what was already a decades-old folk practice in a culture not undersupplied with bright people – why didn’t I or anybody else clue in faster?
I remember vividly the moment I got it. I was pulling on my pants in a hotel in Trondheim, Norway, idly chewing over this question yet again. It was because we all thought we knew why we were simultaneously innovating and achieving low error rates – we had an unexamined, unconscious explanation that suited us and we never looked past it.
That assumption was this: hackers write better software because we are geniuses, or at least an exceptionally gifted and dedicated elite among programmers. Our culture successfully recruits and selects for this.
The insidious thing about this explanation is that it’s not actually false. We really are an exceptionally gifted elite. But as long as you don’t know that you’re carrying this assumption, or know it and fail to look past it because it makes you feel so good, it will be nearly impossible to notice that something else is going on – that the gearing of our social machine matters a lot, and is an evolved instrument to maximize those gifts.
There’s an old saw that it’s not the things you don’t know that hurt you, it’s the things you think you know that ain’t so. I’m amplifying that: it’s the things you don’t know you think that hurt you the most.
It’s not enough to be rigorous about questioning your assumptions once you’ve identified them. The subtler work is noticing you have them. So when you’re looking for something important to hack on, the question to learn to ask is: what important problems are everybody, including you, seeing right past? Pre-categorizing and dismissing?
There’s a kind of relaxed openness to what is, a seeing past preconceptions, that is essential to creativity. We all half-know this; it’s why hackers resonate so strongly with Zen humor. It’s in that state that you will notice the problems that are really worth your effort. Learn to go there.
As for making it look easy…it’s only easy in the same way that mastery always looks a skill easier than it is. When someone like John Petrucci or Andy Timmons plays a guitar lick with what looks like simple, effortless grace, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort they put into getting to where that fluency and efficiency is natural to them.
Similarly, when you see me doing things with historical-scale consequences and making it look easy, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort I put in on the component skills (chopping wood, drawing water). Learning to write well. Learning to speak well. Getting enough grasp on what makes people tick that you know how to lead them. Learning enough about your culture that you can be a prophet, speak its deepest yearnings and its highest aspirations to it, bringing to consciousness what was unconscious before. These are learnable skills – almost certainly anyone reading this is bright enough to acquire them – but they’re not easy at all.
Want to change the world? It’s doable. It’s not magic. Be aware. Be courageous. And will it – want it enough that you accept your failures, learn from them, and never stop pushing.