Mission 1701

Emma Long

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

Something happened today—I was unintentionally rude to someone, and though I tried to explain myself, somehow I felt I wasn’t eloquent enough. So I came home feeling a bit down and thought I’ll just put together some thoughts to explain myself to myself, and then I thought hey I’ll share this with Lucy because we often talk about this, and then I thought well I’ll just put this on Facebook.

When I meet a person for the first time, the first question I ask them after the pleasantries is always “What do you do?”, which kind of really means “What do you do well?”

There are no correct answers to this question. I am not trying to inquire whether you have the kind of career that would make you a valuable connection. I’m not looking for a car mechanic because my car’s got a dent on the hood. I already have a dentist that I like. Every answer is correct—except nil—in which case I try to salvage the situation by asking “What would you like to do?”, which kind of really means “What do you wish you did well?” And if both answers yield no spark of passion, I immediately become uninterested. Sorry—I have no interest in idle chit-chat about the routine. There are other people I can’t wait to meet.

Achieve Master Rank in Hearthstone. Raise an interesting person. Ride a motorcycle around the world, or just ride the entire Emma Long trail. Make a DPDK networking library. Build a school from scratch. Create a gorgeous real-time 3D renderer. Write an ALGOL compiler. Design a building someone lives in. My examples have obvious bias in my interests, but really anything works. These are neither accomplishments nor credentials. They are skills (casually sampled from my friends). And two things set this kind of skills apart.

One, nobody can do any of these things by accident, without long, sustained determination, and copious amounts of work. You can’t just take a motorcycle around the world—you’ll need to work towards that for a decade, otherwise you won’t make it. You won’t achieve Master Rank after a dozen matches—it’ll take thousands of games, combined with a lot of reading and analysis. Nobody can casually build a DPDK library. Learning to make a high-performance real-time renderer and actually making it easily takes a decade of everyday hard work.

Two, no human being possesses the capability of pursuing these things long enough to unlock them without a key ingredient—love. Without love, everyone gives up. Without love, it all gets kinda boring. This is where hobbies get an edge over careers—they are fueled purely by love, and have no greed component to taint them. So when I ask “What do you do?”, I really mean to ask “Are you capable of love?”

And if not, why are we here?

Life’s not meant to be lived in one place.

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love, but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.

—Khalil Gibran

One could wonder—what’s the big deal? Giving calculation instructions to a man-made machine. Yet every time I fire up the editor. I type in the magic incantations, fel green flowing from my fingertips onto the dark parchment of the terminal, and the spells glow brightly with colors as the syntax highlighter gives a silent nod to my austere accuracy. As I’m done casting the spells, the compiler percolates the magic from the abstract void into the haze of the reality. And I feel that distant eight year old again, sitting in front of that old, barely-working soviet PC, trying to fathom the miracle that for the first time someone—something—understood me strictly as I expressed myself, with precision unspoiled by emotions, ignorance, or hubris. What a privilege to have this passion, every day, for so many years, and with no end in sight.

Anything worth doing, is worth doing to perfection.

Part of the problem is convenience. Convenience is like familiarity. It also leads to a kind of contempt.

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