Sunday Selection 2013-05-24

It’s graduate week here at Cornell and over the last few week the Internetz have started to fill up various forms of commencement speeches (and excerpts thereof). It’s also been just over two years since I graduated from college. In keeping with that here are some Selections with the general theme of “Just What The Hell Should I Do With My Life?”. I’ll keep short, though it’s probably not sweet.

Around the Web

Dear Jr Creative, Earn Your Place, You’ll Be Better For It 

I have to admit that I’m only a recent convert to the school of hard work. And while I do think that hard work alone does not necessarily get you to a successful life and career, I also firmly believe that hard work definitely increases your chances.

Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking

As we increasingly live in an information economy and replace manual human labor with machines, thinking will be what we’re paid for. If being good at our jobs means being better thinkers, then we could do worse than to learn from an expert cognitive scientist and philosopher.


Why 30 is not the new 20

The TED blurb about this video says it best: “Contrary to popular belief, your 20s are not a throwaway decade. In this provocative talk, Jay says that just because marriage, work and kids are happening later in life, doesn’t mean you can’t start planning now.”

Process and Product

Yesterday I came across a post entitled “default behavior” by Ben Augarten about how important it is to put your products out in the world. It starts with him talking about how the code he’s writing is for an internal tool and hence will never see the light of day. Few people will use it and he’ll lose ownership of it once his internship ends. He implores programmers to release their code as products into the world and seems more than a little disdainful of programmers who don’t release their own products. He seems to be under the impression that if you’re not working on your very product that you’re dead inside.

He’s wrong.

It’s great to love to your product. It’s great to build something, to show it to the world, to have people use it, get feedback and make it better. If that’s what motivates you and makes you happy then by all means go ahead and release products. Life is too short to be unhappy (though people are working on that). What it doesn’t mean is that not releasing products makes you unhappy.

There’s a distinction to be made between process and product. Product is the fruit of your labor, process is the labor itself. In the rush to create startups, launch products, have dozens of repos on your Github account, we tend to lose sight of the process itself.

While I certainly understand (and have felt) the allure of releasing a product, there’s a lot of joy to be gained in the process itself. While many of us got into computers and programming because of the things we could create, many of us (including myself) got into it because of the joy of coding itself. I love learning new technologies, working through problems, crafting solutions. I love the mental strain of thinking my way to answer, I love the physical feel of my fingers on a keyboard and the seeing the characters of the screen. I love the process of seeing something being created as much I like the feeling of having created something. The same goes for writing or drawing or cooking – how you make something is just as important as what you make.

I suspect that this joy for the process itself is why so many incredibly talented and hardworking people are happy working for closed source companies (financial and material renumeration aside). If you are fulfilled by the labor itself then you care less about the fruits of your labor. This isn’t particularly new thinking – it predates open source, computers, software, even modern science and technology. As far as I know, the earliest well-known expression of such a notion is from the Bhagavad Gita where the god Krishna tells Prince Arjun:

“To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”

I don’t entirely agree with this: I do believe in property rights and I think that as a creator you deserve some say in how your creation is used. However I do agree with the underlying idea that you can find motivation in the actions themselves and not just their results. Getting too invested in the result can detract from joy you recieve from the process (and vice-versa). I’m not going to claim that process is better or more meaningful than product. Humans and their motivations and emotions are far more complex than such simple comparisons. But I am going to claim that finding fulfillment in the process itself is a perfectly valid way of living your life.

It’s great that Ben and so many other programmers and entrepreneurs want to create products and see them in action. We need that. They don’t have to become process-oriented. But they do have to understand that not all people will value products as much as they do and they have to respect that. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

The importance of a good environment

After a few months of wandering around I finally moved into my apartment for the next year on Monday. The next day I picked up my new Macbook Air. After a good amount of time I’m back to having a good working environment, in more ways than one.

Over the last two months I’ve realized that it’s vital to have a decent environment if you want to get things done. It doesn’t have to be the best, it doesn’t have to have all the amenities, it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, overly indulgent environments are probably less conducive to good work than merely adequate ones. However, your environment does have to be good enough for you to sit down and do your work without constantly thinking or worrying about other things.

I’ve grown to like working in coffee shops and similar semi-public spaces. I also like my current internship office and I’m looking forward to setting up a nice office space once I start at Cornell. However it is nice to have a nice home to come back to. It’s nice to have options when it comes to work locations and spaces but it’s even better to feel that you’re not forced to choose. I had romantic notions of being a true techno-nomad – being able to work from wherever, whenever. Unfortunately I’ve found out the hard way that I’m not quite that hardy. I’m all for frugality and minimalism, but a good work and living environment is definitely worth investing in.

Talking of being a techno-nomad, for me my computing environment is just as important as my physical living environment. Just as it’s hard to get anything done if you’re constantly worrying about your living conditions, it’s hard to do anything if your machine is fighting against you instead of cooperating. Since almost all my work involves a computer in some shape or form it’s all the more important that I have a stable, working and adequate computing environment. Admittedly, getting a Macbook Air was a bit indulgent. But I wanted something that would last a few years, was close to the high end and that I could use as my only machine day in, day out. Since I had some money to spare (by virtue of previously mentioned internship) I decided it was worth it. I like the decision so far.

I’m considering the last few months to be part of my leaving college and growing up experience. And the importance of environments is one very important lesson that I’ve learned. I think I always knew that theoretically a good environment helps you create good work. However, now I know the practical effect of that theory firsthand. I’m sure there is some amount of personal preference involved, I know people who have done great work in pretty bad conditions. However, if you have the resources to set up and maintain a good environment then there are very few reasons why you shouldn’t do so.