Heroes

I have an awful tendency to go back and reread things I find interesting. Mostly they’re articles on the web but sometimes they’ll be chapters in books or even scenes in novels. Not entirely sure why, but maybe it’s because I sense (or hope) that there is an important lesson to be learned from whatever I’m reading. if I read it over and over enough times maybe I’ll figure out what that lesson is. Something I’ve been rereading in the last few days is an article from 2008 called “Done and Gets Things Smart” by Steve Yegge. It’s partially about hiring and becoming a better programmer. But it’s also about heroes – people who are genuinely “superhumanly godlike”. Not superhuman in the sense that they can fly or have laser vision (though that would certainly qualify) but rather in the sense that they seem to be just like you and me, except that they get amazing things done, often in amazing quantities.

One thing you learn growing up as a child is that all people are equal. It’s a fundamental tenet of our society, written into democratic Constitutions around the world. But gradually we come to realize that’s not strictly true. We don’t mean equal in literal, definite terms. I think what we mean is equal in terms of potential and basic humanity. What we do with that potential is extremely varied. We may be created equal, but we don’t stay equal for every long. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that some of us manage to leverage and build upon this potential to become seemingly superhuman while most of us don’t (if we all did everyone would be superhuman, which is to say no one would be superhuman because superhuman would be the new normal).

For me personally, superhuman doesn’t mean becoming President of a country or the richest man on the earth or the fastest runner or the strongest weightlifter. Not to say that all those aren’t tremendous accomplishments, but the breed of superhuman I’m looking for right now are superhumanly creative. I’m interested in people who seem to be capable of building incredible systems, creating beautiful works of art, writing powerful pieces of literature. And many of them do it not just once or twice, but over and over again. The good news is that these people seem to be everywhere, if we just care to look. With the Internet they’re even easier to find and learn from.

Steve Yegge talks about incredible engineers in his post – people who almost single-handedly built and maintained a strong engineering culture in their respective organizations. Then there are people like Charlie Stross – a British author who seems to keep churning out critically aclaimed science fiction novels. There’s Cal Newport – a former graduate student at MIT’s computer science department while being a popular blogger as well as a best selling non-fiction author. Recently I read about Don Stewart, another graduate student who has an impressive list of projects in addition to being a very active member of the Haskell community. And I’m not even talking about the famous superstars that we all know and hear about.

How do they all do it? I don’t know for certain, but there seem to some common trends – the main one being what I call “maniacal consistency”. It’s a deep focus on a small set of activities (writing novels, doing research), but backed up by a ironclad habit that ensures that they get something done everyday. The habit part is important because you can’t sustain pure willpower for very long. Secondly they all seem to do something else on the side – they’re never just doing one thing. I’m not entirely sure why that’s important, maybe because you need a release and a distraction to keep peak performance on your day job. The final thing I’ve noticed is that such people are generally not obvious – they’re not bragging about how much they do and they’re not bitching and moaning about how hard they have to work, probably because they’re busy getting stuff done.

I’m deeply fascinated by these superhuman creators because I think they’re great examples to learn from, especially when they’re people in my field. Coming back to the question of equality I’ve been growing to think that it’s a mistake to squander our potential, it feels wrong not to be the best that we can be. The people I talked about are making the most of their potential – they’re making the world a better, more interesting place and having a good time while they’re at it. That sounds like a pretty good way to live life.

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