What’s Possible

I worry a lot about not being introduced to enough new things. For the last couple of years I’ve spent most of my professional and personal time on DHTML and JavaScript. While I used to write quite a bit of Python, I now spend my time almost exclusively in some sort of ECMA-262 interpreter, and it scares me. Not perhaps because it’s too limiting an environment, but because I’ve gotten too used to my own pre-conceptions of what is possible. With DHTML in particular, I find just having my conceptions of what’s possible expanded is enough to turn intractable problems into straightforward tasks. Being able to value a problem more accurately is the key to solving or avoiding it.

A conversation I was recently in turned directly to the value of valuing things. Someone pointed out that in the valley, and esp in a time of growth like right now, it might just be better to shut up and let the hype do some free marketing for you. Another other countered was that if you stop exercising the capacity to discern good from bad, you eventually loose the ability to make the distinction. Obviously, making the distinciton and announcing it are different, but both points still stuck. The value of looking locally for short-term opportunity is a bet against the opportunity cost of continually integrating new information which would allow better foresight of what can happen. Conversely, investing in expanding my view of the possible robs from making the *currently* possible a reality.

That’s the basic tension playing out in my head. On the one hand, I know I need to spend time discovering new things, but in doing so I consciously allocate time away from things with measureable payoff, e.g., fixing one more Dojo bug vs. learning a new programming language. So 8 years after I started first feeling this particular brand of guilt I’m only now coming to terms with the fact that it will always be with me. I’m not sure if that’s liberating or frightening.


  1. Posted November 23, 2005 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Learning a new language or technology will have a measurable payoff–in the long term. So it’s probably better to allocate some time to learning something new now than later. You never know what that new information might come in handy, or when JavaScript and HTML goes the way of the dodo.

    My suggestion since you have a laptop: learn a new language in the loo.

  2. Posted November 23, 2005 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Allocate some time for learning new stuff. You have to understand the difference between tactical advantage and strategic thinking. Fixing more bugs (I am all for it!!!) is a tactical task. Learning new stuff is a strategy. IMHO, strategic tasks should have priority over mundane work. But to keep things in balance you should allocate some fixed time (say, 1h/day) to read, study, and so on. Otherwise you risk to become a victim of some unexpected paradigm shift or more prosaic burnout. ;-)

  3. Posted November 23, 2005 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I guess what, perhaps, I didn’t point out is that I *do* allocate time to learning new things. I tend to keep a stack of papers that I’m reading in my backpack and I always have at least one book that I’m slowly slogging through on some topic that I know very little about. What fills me with fear is the thought that I’m not spending *enough* time on that, or that I’m spending it on the wrong places.

    The fear is that I’m either ill-equipped (i.e., have previously wasted time) or too myopic (are currently investing in learning wrongly) to figure out what’s coming down the pike. So I learn new things, but are they the right ones? Am I spending *enough* time on it? Am I being introduced to new subtleties in my current understanding or being introduced to new sets of problems?

    These are the kinds of un-knownable questions that gnaw at me. Right now, I tend to see the only tractable path as some kind of mentor, but that is it’s own set of blinders.

    I guess the good news, if there is any, is that I still care enough to worry about it.

  4. Posted November 24, 2005 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    If the fear of learning the wrong things begins to take over, then take a step back and survey the field. Learn a little about a lot to see where things are going, and then dig in. But so far I think you’ve been on the right track.

    The future is yours, define it! :-)

One Trackback

  1. By Continuing Intermittent Incoherency » clarity on December 27, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    […] About a month ago I wrote about the internal tension I feel between learning, doing, and experimentation. Yesterday Jennifer pointed me to a new essay by Paul Graham that hits the nail on the head. I had posited that my tension was between figuring out what is possible and working on things that I know to be possible, but I may have been lying to myself a bit. As I reflect on it, the tension is between things that I know to be easily tractable and relatively unimportant (chores) and difficult but terribly important (real work). […]