Mind Expansion

I think the world owes a debt of gratitude to Malcolm Gladwell. To my knowledge his book “Outliers” was the first popular work to expound at length on the 10,000 hour rule: the scientifically grounded theory that achieving expert level in most fields requires about 10,000 of “deliberate practice”. Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated” is similar, but in my opinion not quite as well written. However, both books are elements of what I see as a growing trend: the idea that improving yourself, becoming more than what you are, becoming what you always wished you were, is not only possible but actually achievable given a proper strategy and adequate dedication.

This idea of gradual, but consistent self-improvement isn’t just applicable to becoming top athletes or musicians. Tim Ferriss’ “The Four Hour Body” including the increasingly popular slow-carb diet applies a similar idea to health and fitness. Cal Newport, a recent MIT doctorate and professor at Georgetown seems to be applying similar ideas to becoming a top academic researcher. My personal goal is to apply it to become the best programmer I can possibly be (as most readers of this blog already know).

For a few weeks now I’ve had a two-fold concern. First, I didn’t know what exactly I was or wanted to be. Was I a programmer? A computer scientist? A software engineer? A technologist? A writer who just happened to use code as well as words? Secondly (and more importantly) I couldn’t see anything resembling a clear path from my current “not totally incompetent code slinger” phase to getting to the point where I could understand the works of the great masters (and maybe create something of similar lasting value). And that really, really bugged me. Combining my current indecision with no idea of how to move forward put me on a path leading straight to madness.

Here I was, a recent college graduate with two rather expensive degrees and a certain amount of knowledge about my field of interest. And yet my four years of education seemed like a piddly little drop compared to the proverbial ocean of knowledge and capabilities ahead of me. Not only could I not cross said ocean, I couldn’t even comprehend it’s boundaries. Sure I could write you a topological sort of some arbitrary graph structure. I could also bit-twiddle my way into a reasonably resource constrained embedded application. I’d even wager that I could build a reasonably stable concurrent system that isn’t too embarassing. But beyond that? I just barely grasped functional programming, my knowledge of type systems was rudimentary at best. I only had the foggiest notion of what a monad was and yet I had signed up for a good few years working on advanced programming languages. What on earth was I thinking?

One of the great dichotomies of our field is that on one hand it is possible to be completely self-taught but on the other there are few systematic guides on going from novice to expert. Most advice on the matter seems to reduce to “Read code. Write code. Think. Repeat.” Wise words to be sure, but not exactly a 12-step program. So what is one to do? What am I to do?

Though Gladwell and his ilk may have shown us that tangible self-improvement is possible, it’s not a quest to be taken lightly for there is no end to it. Until you come up against fundamental physical limits there’s always farther you can go, harder you can push yourself. And yet, after a point I’d argue that a law of diminishing returns kicks in, most victories past that point are Pyrrhic. Which is why it is important that I do what I do for fun, first and foremost. Because I find our field infinitely fascinating, constantly stimulating and there’s nothing else I’d enjoy more (though writing comes a close second).

After the why comes the how. What is the path from point A to point B? Where is point B in the first place? Do I even want to go there? Ostensibly I’m going to graduate school for Computer Science. I have a hard time calling myself a scientist or even a engineer. There’s a formality and heaviness about those terms that seems a little off, in the way that “colonist” has a different connotation than “explorer“. A colonist has a definite, long-term purpose – an unknown world to tame, a new land to cultivate and defend. An explorer is looking around, seeing the way things are, understanding and learning, eventually moving on. I’m content to explore for now. I think I’ll stay “just” a programmer for a while, or maybe even a writer, those two seem the best fit.

Though I do this for fun and computer technology has far-reaching effects on the human race, I’ve grown to see programming as a mind expanding activity in it’s own right, independent of other motivations and effects. I’m looking at our technology as a medium for creative expression. Programming is a way to become familiar with that medium, a way to increase our creative powers. And so the direction to explore is the one which will expand my mind the most, increase my creativity the greatest. It’s easy to stay within my boundaries, to stick to the stateful, imperative programming styles I’m familiar with. To go beyond that, to throw myself into functional programming, to use advanced type systems, to write compilers and virtual machines, to do all that, is hard. It is also a form of “deliberate practice” and essential to becoming better.

For fields and pursuits that aren’t easily quantified, deliberate practice is hard. However one heuristic is to look at how much a potential problem bends your mind. An interesting, worthwhile problem changes the way you think about your field in a general way, but requires you to acquire specific new techniques and skills. Once you solve the problems you’ve increased the size of your toolbox, but you’ve also changed how you will look at and approach problems in the future. With each problem you gain the capabilities to solve a wide range of new problems and inch closer to “expert” status.

A few weeks ago I tried looking for a 12-step program – an organized, decently, reliable path to becoming an expert programmer. I wanted a way to put in my 10,000 hours with a reasonable guarantee of a good payoff. I haven’t found such a plan, but I have found some principles – what I’m doing needs to be fun and must be mind-expanding. I have to keep programming, keeping reading and writing, keep thinking. I’ve reopened my computation theory books, I’m taking baby steps in Haskell, I’m scripting Emacs on a more regular basis. I’m trying to continually expand my mind and abilities, I’m trying to keep getting better. I hope in 10 years I’ll get close to where I want to be. But for right now, I’m drained.