Yesterday I discovered that Donald Knuth at least occasionally reads my blog. I only half-jokingly reported a vague feeling that I ought to be falling to my knees and crying “I’m not worthy!” In response, a “v. m. smith” popped up in my comments to say this:
Dude, you have written at least two books (that I have read) and possibly more. I have never read any of Knuthâ€™s books, so I am forced to consider this hypothesis:
You might be worthy.
Of course, itâ€™s only a hypothesis.
At this I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. That last line! I’m going to be giggling about it for weeks. But, you know, once I calmed down, I realized that “v. m. smith” had an actual point. Which led me to some interesting thoughts about fame, double vision and personal identity – how we choose to become what we are.
So, imagine you’re me for a moment. As an adolescent and a young man you were an eager hacker who dreamed of doing great things. You idolized, to the extent of your relatively limited capacity for idolizing, the great uber-hackers of yore: people like Ken Thompson and Bill Gosper (yes, I know you young’uns have mostly forgotten Bill Gosper) and, indeed, Donald Knuth. People who changed the world around them by the sheer beauty and force of their code and their ideas.
Years – decades, actually – pass. You code and you think and you struggle and you have inspirations and you write and you code some more. Lots of hard work and some talent and a bit of luck come together; you find your moments and you seize them. Fame follows, but that’s the least interesting consequence; what matters is that you really do change the world. Your code is everywhere, running on hundreds of millions of servers and PCs and cellphones and gaming consoles and router boxes. There’s a piece of the Internet architecture that you can point at and say “That was me.” You’ve engineered far-reaching changes both obvious and subtle in the hacker culture, with ripple effects on everything it touches. You’ve written a bestseller – about software engineering, of all the non-bestselling topics. Your ideas have spawned reform movements in at least three scientific fields that you know of and rewritten the business strategies of companies in the Fortune 50; there are so many consequences that it gets hard to keep track after a while.
You’re not that kid any more. You made it. You really did. And when Donald Knuth sends you email, you might be worthy. Heck, you might actually be more influential than Knuth at this point; you’ve probably sold more books, anyway, and Knuth’s code (brilliant though it is) doesn’t run on the router boxes in everyone’s basement.
But you recoil from such thoughts. They feel…blasphemous, somehow. It seems the natural order of the universe that when Knuth speaks it is the voice of thunder. When his secretary forwards email from him, you still feel like that kid inside. Do we never grow up, really?
I think we do, actually. But, on reflection, I’m not sorry that I still feel a childlike awe of Donald Knuth – because without being the kind of person who feels that awe, I would never have become who I am or have done what I have. After my initial shock, I see him now with a kind of double vision – both as a near-peer and as one of the archetypal geeks after whom I patterned myself in decades past. Both perspectives are valid. Both are part of my identity. Both are me.
I think I laughed as hard as I did at “v. m. smith” because he more or less forced me to pay attention to both of those perspectives at the same time. This was, in a small way, an enlightenment experience; I know myself better for it. Thank you, oh rascal guru.
And it causes me to ask the next question. I’ve been a famous geek for, oh, about 15 years now. Is that a long enough time for someone to be on the other end of this kind of double vision, with me in Knuth’s spot? I’m thinking probably not yet; there are plenty of people who relate to me as both “the famous ESR” and a development peer, but there hasn’t been enough time for them to become stratospheric ubergeeks yet, so the shift between childlike awe and the mature perspective is not yet as large or as funny as it was for me yesterday. Maybe in a decade or so, someone will find themselves in that spot.
So this post is partly a message to that future, about what I learned by thinking on my history with Donald Knuth. It’s OK to still have heroes when you’re all growed up, really it is. Your feelings of awe aren’t really about me at all, any more than mine were ever really about Knuth himself – which is good, because really being worshiped is a heavy burden that I don’t want and Knuth probably never did either. They’re really about what virtues you honor and seek, and how you’ve chosen to construct yourself.
And if you, oh future-equivalent-of-me, ever find that you are a model for some still later generation…well, I hope you’ll understand that it isn’t really about you, either, and I predict that you’ll find it humbling. And I’m pretty certain Donald Knuth would agree.