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17 March 2010 @ 10:03 pm
Geekery as a spiritual practice  
I have a great many mental blocks and hangups. I've been told that I make avoiding them in flight look natural, so it's easy to forget that I'm like everybody else that way. Oh good?

My wife, rightkindofme, is thoroughly awesome. Despite the whole toddler-plus-pregnancy thing we're doing, she's willing to take care of it all solo for an evening (sometimes two!) a week and let me go off to the Hacker Dojo and geek on my projects.

That's awesome. I really, really need to feel like I'm making progress in some active way, so it helps a lot that I can do that.

Of course, those mental blocks and hangups that I mentioned get in my way. Often.

I started off with a sort of wizard-slash-academic self-image. I wanted to be that about as long ago as I can remember. And you know, I did it. Computer programming, deep mathematical geekery, intuitive juggling of bizarre concepts and lateral thinking... I'm not the best on every sub-topic, but I did a pretty damn fine job, as such things go. I got very good at it, and remain that way.

Only it turns out that that's not enough to get most things done. Damn it.

So I went out and wrote something that a few people used, and that taught me a lot about making things usable. There were some pretty serious mental blocks in my way, because I thought of myself as a Guy Who Does Deep Magic, and it turns out that Deep Magic mostly sucks for letting people get things done easily. Who knew?

I got better at making that project better for users. I improved it and myself in parallel for a few years, and then realized that what I wanted to build was never going to be terribly successful. It took me another year or two to pass the project on, put it in mothballs and generally go on with my life. Sunk costs are a bitch -- that's not just my mental block, it's most people's. But I certainly share it.

And I went out and learned how to build web sites. I've always avoided that as something that Less Talented People Did, which is mostly statistically true, alas. Stubborn biases are always harder to get past when the real world provides tempting-looking corroboration. But realistically, if I want to change the world, I need people to be able to use the things I build. And for a long time to come, that means being able to build a web site.

I turned out to be good at it. Oh, good. My profession believes that dinosaurs my age can't learn a whole new set of technologies. And to be fair, it took me several years to do it. But it came out all right.

And in doing that, I realized that I'm in a surprisingly good position to change the world. I've got a place to stand. I've been building levers.

Unfortunately, while I believed in myself as a Guy Who Does Deep Magic, I'm kind of afraid of being a Guy Who Moves The World Just a Little. What if I do it wrong?

But it turns out, all kinds of things move the world a little. Almost everything, really. And as I realized that, I started to become kind of paralyzed.

I keep learning these things that will let me go out and try to move the world. And that means I'll know, sometimes quickly, when I screw up, or when I can't. The problem with moving into a larger world is that the smaller world is so comfortable, and I know where everything is, and I've totally got it just how I like it and can't I please avoid terrifying reality for just a few more years? It's cool -- I'll be forty before long, and if I don't do much between now and then, I'll have the "I'm too old" excuse for as long as I like. Doesn't that sound convenient?


Having just one or two current projects, no more, that specifically do things that people actually want is making me run smack into all of this. Because I know when I'm procrastinating.

I feel tired lately. Some of it is schedule, and work, and housework, and so on. But some of it is that I totally can't be blamed if I'm too tired to work, right? That's perfectly normal.

And that's why I need geek time. And lists of things to do. Because I think it's vitally, scarily important that I have this shit staring me in the face, saying, "hey, you know this doesn't take long, and it's what you should be doing, and you're not doing it. We've noticed. Just sayin'."

And every time I pause for long, I notice that it's another of those I'm A Guy Who blocks. Like, when I got my little program compiling on Windows, it turned out I couldn't deny that I'm A Guy Who Builds Software That Normal People Can Use. Oh shit. Why haven't I been doing that? Do I need to do that? But, like, if they use it it might turn out to suck. Oh shit.

And building things for people has a lot of those mental blocks built in. I really need to switch web-hosting providers so I can run my programming blog and stuff somewhere resilient and fast with a good web connection. But if I do that, I can start posting some of my better articles on places like Hacker News without having the excuse, "oh, I shouldn't do that, the site will just go down and nobody will read it and...". No, suddenly I become a Guy Who Can Publish Stuff, and not coincidentally that means I will find out, whether I want to or not, whether anybody wants to hear anything I say. Oh shit.

On the one hand, I'm spending a lot more time dealing with mental blocks and being terrified of Being Important Things. And on the other hand, I think I'm going to like being a Guy Who Does Things That Matter. It'll take a few years, and a lot of being ignored. But I think I'm done with not mattering. I think it's time to spend a few years being scared of not mattering, instead of living in a comfortable little bubble.

The rest of the world is trying hard to head that way. Maybe I'll get there early and beat the rush.

Looking back at this, I so, so need to work on decent writing. But tonight, I mostly want to get this out and said. So tonight, this gets posted just like this. If you read this far, thank you.
Anselm: Approvedribbin on March 18th, 2010 05:30 am (UTC)
wizard-slash-academic self-image

I get that. And I get the rest of this, too. If we deny something is "good enough" it remains in limbo- untested and potentially perfect. If, however, we put something out there, it might fail.

So the question for you (and me) is: is it better to have the potential for success, or the potential for failure? The answer, I think, lies in the realization. If we do not test, we have the permanent potential, but no realization. Only if we test can we realize it, but at the risk of permanent failure. In short, we need to open the box if we ever want a live cat.

You're smart. I've talked to you, I've read your stuff, and you're damn smart. Now remember, you don't need to be the smartest person ever, just one of the smarter people in the room. That's all it takes to move the world, so start there, and when you see that you are, open the door and add the next room.

Oh, the writing? The writing's fine*. Perhaps not a Nobel prize piece, but plenty good enough to get the point across, and I didn't notice any errors. If you made it artsy, you'd just make it harder to understand, and that would ruin it.

*I say this as a writing teacher and tutor at the university level.
Noahangelbob on March 18th, 2010 06:06 am (UTC)
I don't want my writing to be artsy. I want it to tell enough of a story that people remember and share it.

I have the raw skill for that, but not yet the inclination, practice and habits. More work will be required.
Krissyrightkindofme on March 18th, 2010 12:57 pm (UTC)
"Now remember, you don't need to be the smartest person ever, just one of the smarter people in the room."

He's already done this long ago. He just doubts it. That's why I suck it up and hold down the fort and make him go work.

"The writing's fine"

I agree, but as usual he is comparing himself only to the top 5% of writers and he's not as good as them. NOT THAT I KNOW WHAT THAT'S LIKE.
vito_excalibur on March 18th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
I'm excited to hear about how these projects go on!

Also, you get my special productivity icon!
satyrlovesong on March 18th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
There's a lot I want to say, and I'm having trouble saying it. I'm reading though, and appreciate what you have to say.