Superpowers

At some level all of us are virtuous, powerful and wise.
– Seth Godin in Linchpin

Heroes have superpowers. In many ways, heroes are defined by their superpowers. The good news is, as Seth Godin tells us, superpowers are everywhere. The more sobering news is that they’re not as glamorous as in the movies (probably closer to the gritty-reboot recent Batman movies than anything else). The perhaps not-so-good news is that superpowers don’t come easy.

The hacker culture in particular has a curious fascination with superheroes and superpowers. That’s why I’m writing these distinctly self-help-like posts on what is ostensibly a technology blog. I hope it’s justifiable why – we build entire worlds and universes out of pure thought. This isn’t Tetris we’re playing here, it’s full blown Matrix-style world creation. We have no dearth of people to look upto in awe and reverence – Turing, von Neumann, Ada Lovelace, Kernighan and Ritchie, Ken Thompson, Rob Pike, Linus Torvalds, Jamie Zawinski, Richard Stallman, hell even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (reality distortion field anyone?) – they’ve got mad skills as they say. They’re superstars, sure, but more importantly they’re superheroes with superpowers, which is to say they don’t just wow audiences on a regular basis – they get stuff done. Note that this list is necessarily incomplete. Heroes are made, not born, and thanks to the awesome depth and breadth of the technology industry new heroes are made each day.

The coolest thing though, is not that these superheroes exist, but that their powers are out there for the taking. What they know about computing, we can learn (to shamelessly paraphrase Alan Perlis and SICP). As Joe Armstrong one of the creators of Erlang tells us, “Then buy a decent book and type in the programs by hand. One at a time thinking as you go.” It really is that easy.

Ok, I lied, no it’s not. It’s going to take you ten years to get anywhere near superpower status (10000 hours to be more precise). And at some point it’s probably going to hurt like hell. At some point you’re actually going to have to use your brain and spend hours and hours thinking. But seriously, would rather spend ten years doing something that imbues you with superpowers or would you spend ten years doing something that leaves you the way you are, just older? Your choice.

Now, of course superpowers aren’t limited to hackerdom. Jeff Bezos, Tony Hsieh and Derek Sivers for example have the amazing superpower of figuring out what people want and giving it to them. Jonathan Ive has design superpowers a lot of people would kill for. Stephen King, Haruki Murakami and Stephen Pressfield have writing superpowers I would love to have someday.

For me, my superpowers equal absolutely zero. Nada. Zip. Squat. I mean just look at my Github page for example. And I’ve already been playing this game for four years. As annoying as that may be, it’s ok. Luckily for me lack of superpowers is a temporary state of being. After all, I have ten years ahead of me to get it right.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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