Monday, December 17, 2012

Passion Practice Proficiency Profession

Back in the early 1980s I was a humble graduate student sitting in my office grading papers when I overhead one of the academic advisors for the computer science department talking to one of the undergraduates in the hallway. The student was saying "I really don't like programming but I'm majoring in computer science because I want to make a lot of money". This is a guy who was going to spend many years and a lot of money getting a degree so that he could be miserable in his job for the rest of his life. I'm also pretty sure he was never going to make a lot of money. I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now.

* * *

A few years ago I found myself at a banquet at that same university at which I was unexpectedly called upon to speak. I had to come up with something extemporaneously. Those who know me well will understand that this wasn't a big problem for me. This is more or less what I said.

"Most high technologies have a half life of about five years. Some technologies have done better than that: C, TCP/IP. Most haven't. This means that no matter what technologies you are teaching when a freshman enters the university, they will almost certainly not be what you are teaching when that senior graduates. And whatever technologies that student learns will not be what he ends up needing expertise in when he enters the workforce. Every six months or so I am expected in my job to become the world's greatest living expert in some technology that I may have never heard of beforehand. The most valuable thing I was taught during my time at this university was how to learn. Continuous, life-long learning isn't a buzzword, it's a requirement. Core skills, and learning how to learn, is what your students need. Not the latest fad. People who grasp specific technologies but can't quickly learn new ones on their own are the ones who are going to be laid off or whose jobs are going to be outsourced."

* * *

One of my favorite movies is the 1948 British film The Red Shoes. The film tells the story of the career of a ballerina and features a beautiful dance sequence based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. But the film is about ballet in the same way that the book Moby Dick is about the whaling industry in New England in the mid-1800s.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie has the aspiring ballerina chatting up a famous ballet company impresario at a dinner party, something that probably happens to him several times a day. Finally he snaps at her: "Why do you dance?" She cooly replies: "Why do you breath?" "Why... why I don't know. I just know that I must." "That's my answer too."

* * *

Not so many years ago I found myself on a chairlift with my niece, who was getting ready to graduate high school and was planning going to college to major in the performing arts. To their credit, her father, a professor of engineering, and her mother, at one time a technical writer, to my knowledge was never anything but supportive of her career choice. But given the professions of her parents, and the fact that her older brother was graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, she was a little nervous. While her mother and my wife were getting caught up with the sister thing in the next chair back, this is more or less what I told her.

"To be happy in any profession, you have to be successful at it. To be successful, you have to be proficient at it. To be proficient at it, you have to have spent thousands of hours practicing at it, no matter what your natural skill at it may be. You have to be passionate about it, otherwise you'll never spend enough time at practice. You have to love it so much, you can't imagine not doing it. So much, you'd do it anyway even if you didn't get paid to do it. There is no point in choosing a career in anything that you don't love to do that much. No point in anything that you aren't compelled to be better at than anyone."

 * * *

The past six years or so have had some challenges. I lost both my mom and dad, although that wasn't a big surprise: mom was 86 when she died, dad was 94. I hope I do as well. I lost an old friend about my age to stroke. Another to cancer. Two colleagues to separate vehicular accidents. Three former colleagues to suicide. One friend to murder. It was after the sudden and unexpected death of one of those people that I went home and told Mrs. Overclock: "If I go to work tomorrow and don't come back, I just want you to know, it's all been good."

I don't know how I was lucky enough to end up in a profession that I can't imagine not doing. That I love so much I practice it even when I'm not being paid to do so. That I managed to make a decent living from. And that gave me an opportunity to routinely work with people smarter than myself and from whom I could learn.

But always with a work-life balance better than that of a certain aspiring ballerina.


Anonymous said...

Another wonderful blog post, John. This should be required reading for every high school graduate before they select a major in college. Keep up the good work and excellent blog writing. :)

Unknown said...

I mentioned your name at work today, realized I had not been out to your blog in a while. Reading backwards from 06 May 2013 ... damn, you have some good life stories. I really like this one. I should pay more attention, there is always something to think about. If only I could have formed such an eloquent statement about passion and pursuits for my daughter :)