Sunday Selection 2021-05-16

It’s been a little over two weeks since my second shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Here in the US we are starting to see a gradual return to normalcy, though at least in Massachusetts masking in public spaces and reduced capacity will continue to be a part of life for a little while longer. On a personal note, I’m in an extended transition period: I’m moving soon, and for the first time in a number of years will be living on my own. My housemates are in the process of moving out, the house is a mess (but also feeling more like my space), and the cats are increasingly perturbed by the changes. I am looking forward to having my own space, but not super thrilled have to do everything on my own again. And I’m not exactly happy about the not-quite-extortionate amount of rent I’ll paying starting next month.

Like many transitions, this one has gotten me thinking about life again, something I last did at the start of the year. In particular, I have been thinking about practice as a way of life. As someone whose life has often been about chasing goals, or reaching certain milestones as quickly as possible, the forced slowdown of the last year was a shock to the system. As doing things becomes possible again, I am trying to cultivate a life that is about more than moving from one thing to the next as quickly as possible.

How to Practice

Here’s a realization I didn’t have until after I turned 30: that life (for most of us) is actually quite long. And that, somewhat paradoxically, making the most of that life requires a certain amount of slowing down. It’s not going slow for its own sake, but rather, slowing down is a prerequisite for the intentionality required for a good life. As Ann Patchett tells us in this narrative, that intentionality is improved by practice and imagination.

Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting

On the other hand, often the point of practice is just that: to practice. This again, is somewhat paradoxical, and I began to appreciate it only after a couple years of a regular meditation practice. It was also something that completely eluded me in the several years that I spent playing the violin as a teenager. I suppose practice is requirement of that elusive state: mindfulness, the feeling that you’re actually here, living your life and not just passing through it. And learning to just sit, for maybe 10-15 minutes a day, is a good way to get started.

What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

Closely related to practice, I think, is play. In fact, as this article suggests, play or fun might just be one of the foundational organizing principles of the universe. Given how much our brains seem to require meaningful work and play in balanced proportions, this idea strikes me as a having a certain amount of credibility. Besides, living with cats for two years has firmly convinced me that the importance of play reaches deep into the animal kingdom.

The Man Who Found the Flow

Finally, it seems likely that practice and play (and meaningful deep work) both help us tap into the psychological state of flow. I first encountered Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas in college, I have been thinking more about them recently, especially in context of a year when doomscrolling become a de facto part of our daily routines. It’s perhaps unsurprising that later in life I become interested in meditation, which I think helps bring about a similar state of mind.

Flamenco dancers, programmers and excellence

Tuesday night I went to see a Flamenco performance by the Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana company. It was a wonderful performance, especially the second half (at least that’s what I think, knowing nothing of flamenco). It must have them days of practice to get the choreography and music down right and years to get to the point where they could actually move the way did. Not to mention, the continuing time and effort investment in keeping in physical shape and on top of their game. Being the nearly obsessed student of programming that I am, I of course thought about programming as well.

It’s occurred to me more than once that I really don’t know many great programmers. I go to a small school and most of my fellow students are about the same level as I am (or lower). Actually I don’t really know what level they are on because I don’t get to work with them as much as I would have to in order to find out. There is only one person whom I can say for certain is a better programmer than I am and I’m currently doing a project with him. My professors are good computer scientists, but I have no idea how good at programming they are.

But from what I’ve read (and what I can attest to from personal experience, to some extent) achieving excellence in any field (especially programming) requires a lot of dedication and hard work — about 10,000 hours of it. I’ve thought about whether or not it really is worth it to invest so much time in one activity, even if you really love it. I love spinning code, but I don’t want to be sitting in front of a bright screen all the time. Watching the dancers the other night, I got to see what dedicated practice can bring. They put on a great performance and everyone enjoyed it (including myself) and creating something beautiful and wondrous is a worthy cause. But I’m also interested in getting to know about what they dancers themselves think about their work. I’d love to know their feelings and emotions as they dance and have people cheer and whether they think it’s fair compensation for their commitment. And I don’t mean compensation in only the monetary sense, though that is important too.

Admittedly there is nothing in the programming world that is quite the same as a great dance performance. Our victories are more personal and what people see (and sometimes applaud us for) is often a small sliver of everything that we do. But that’s fine by me. When I solve a hard problem after a long time (my personal record is 3 hours hunting a pointer bug) or make something that I think is really cool (a recursive-descent parser for a little language), I think I feel some of the elation, satisfaction and relief that I think the dancers would have felt too. Yes, it does feel really good. As each year goes by I get better at doing what I love doing. But I rarely ever think about all the practice and experience that has gone into making me capable of whatever it is I am doing. Not too long ago, I would never have imagined myself capable of writing a UNIX shell or designing a programming language, but know I am doing both those things and it feels almost natural.

Ok, that last sentence was a lie. It doesn’t feel natural, but it feels like it’s just outside the range of being natural. When I’m doing things like that, I’m on the edge of incompetence. It was hard and it was painful, but now that I know I can do it, I feel much better. In some ways, I wish such chances came more often (I think the education system for computer-related studies needs to be revamped significantly, but that’s another matter) and I know that each such experience leaves me just a little bit better. Do flamenco dancers feel the same way? Maybe. It would be interesting to find out.

Excellence is a rather strange thing in that it’s hard to achieve and the return on investment on its pursuit can be very little until you get to a certain tipping point. And then there all the people who seem to be trying really hard without getting anywhere. I’m not surprised that many people choose not to put in the investments that it takes to be excellent. As a girl I liked once told me, there are a lot of people leading average lives who are very happy about it. I guess that’s true. I’m not clear about where I stand on excellence myself. I do want to be really good at what I want to do and I fully understand that it won’t be easy. But I also don’t want to give up everything on the quest for excellence. “No sacrifice, no victory” sounds very noble and all, but there’s a tinge of recklessness that I really don’t like.

At this point, the word “balance” might seem appropriate. But that’s bullshit too. I don’t think people who are great at something got there by seeking balance. The better option is breaking the rules, or at least fracturing them. The prime example is 37signals. They’re a small company, with little VC funding who don’t give away their products for free and still make millions of dollars. And they didn’t do it by working round the clock either. They broke “rules” like working 80 hours a week and making free products and other such things. But they also knew what rules to break. They didn’t break rules about being thrifty or having a solid business plan. They might not be the paragon of excellence and they’re certainly arrogant, but they’re doing well so far.

As someone seeking excellence myself, I’m trying to bend my own set of rules. I bend rules by taking courses out of sequence, doing independent studies where I can write lots of code and meet interesting people and actively trying to talk to people I admire. I need to put in 10,000 hours, so I build my life to provide opportunities to do just that. I really wish that there were a lot more people doing the same.

Happy hacking.