The brightest people I know practice or learn. Engineering things on the Internet is strange; it’s a new frontier. It is folly to hope to understand even a fraction of our beloved and capable global network. In the tangle of all these topics to practice, what kind of patterns are we imprinting?
This weekend, you’ve learned the basics of Ruby; next weekend, as per usual, you’re interested in learning something new. You know the basics of Ruby, but how about… LanguageX. Another weekend, another basic set of syntax. Or, perhaps a new book about design patterns. Maybe you have written a new application, or library, or chipped away at a side-project; you are inspired by the potential and feel as though you’re staying on top.
Let’s take a step back and establish some premises:
- Web engineering/development is an industry that moves with ferocity, speed, and depth; it’s akin to a global tsunami of complex growth.
- We accumulate knowledge of advanced topics and skills to stay afloat.
- We habituate the collection novel knowledge.
There are two avenues I’d love to explore. The first is what is driving our constant desire for knowledge.
I often prevent myself from visiting sites I deem too distracting. HackerNews, somehow, has survived purge after purge of activities that are more distraction than benefit. The frothing, victor-less political and moral battlegrounds of social networks: gone. Aggregators with dubious ranking algorithms and suspect turf composition: gone. Once focused and objective tech media outlets: gone.
Yet HackerNews remains because it’s an insulated bubble of technology’s new and fascinating; it self-governs well. It’s raw and organic, with the occasional submarine. It plays host to many perspectives and engaging debates, albeit with an often-overwhelming pedantry, brooding cynicism, and negativity. To understand why every weekend we feel something must be gained, we should understand the persuasive impact of thousands upon thousands of our peers.
Never before have flavours of the month been so apparent; in every compelling thread, an expert on every niche subject. This does not inspire comfort. It is easy to get the sensation that someone or something is always ahead, always better. We feel that if we don’t study that we will fall behind the unseen, unrelenting curve. Our cushy jobs will vanish, the robots will take over and the rare chosen few, those who learned that little bit extra will be their handlers.
We tell ourselves that we’re interested; this is my hobby and I love spending my weekends programming and reading books that will improve my performance and productivity. We are smart, and to the smart, it’s implied: learning is effortless. One thing we’ve learned, a meme that courses through the currents, is that the best work is done by those who love what they do.
So, of course we all love what we do; we’re all going to stick around and find that money or that success or whatever it is we’re seeking. It is going to be easy because we’ve mastered the recipe: we’re smart and we love it.
Fear and insecurity begin to drive us. We are driven by the fear of irrelevancy and the implication that the current thing we’re doing, that once important and popular thing, is splashing towards meaninglessness. An even bigger wave is right behind it, rolling with ease over what once felt so monumental.
If we consider that fear is in the driver seat, the second avenue deals with what sort of patterns we are forming when our reading lists balloon with the data we feel we require to remain competitive in the market. We are learning to respond to fear and to place a higher value on the externalized realities whose potential persuades us more than that of our current reality.
When we get lost in the limitless nature of new potential, we lose track of the present. The present, once shimmering with possibility, has brought to light the challenges and struggles required to realize that potential.
And so, we begin to defer.
Deference is a dark pattern. A casual example might look as follows: It is Wednesday afternoon and you are already wiped out; it’s been a long week and you are stressed out. While eating dinner on Wednesday you tell yourself: “On Friday, I will relax”.
Wednesday comes and goes and you’ve remained in a state of distress. Thursday, the same: tomorrow is Friday, when that day comes, you’ll relax.
Friday, sweet Friday arrives on its golden cloud… You finish your meal and it is time to relax. But do you? Can you? When have you practiced, what is required to relax? Has relaxation become the consumption of substances that simulate contentedness? Your being cares little what day it is on the calendar; to it, it’s like every other day. If you wanted to relax on Friday, or any day, you should have relaxed on Wednesday when you were in the midst of stress.
The only time that one is capable of relaxing is right now. You are unable to defer relaxation. If on Wednesday you can relax, then on Thursday you can relax, and Friday, and on and on – you are a relaxed person, you have taken the time to habituate relaxing patterns. Patterns do not come when called, they are woven and created over-time.
When learning chases us out into the future, we are deferring the development of patience. Instead of getting deeper into, and learning to enjoy, our present state, the now where we take place, we look for the new to bestow a more immediate reward.
Without curiosity and a hunger for the knowledge we need to actualize wisdom, it’s unlikely any of us would create beautiful and wonderful things. But it takes great care not to lose oneself in the insatiable nature of the human condition.
Polishing ourselves and our abilities is useful, but to what end? Perfection is an unattainable goal. We are never able to make perfect, the best we can do is make ourselves content with our own progress. What is it that you’re practicing?
“We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”
― William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy