It’s a wonderful Saturday morning, just after Thanksgiving, and I’m at my favorite local cafe - Donut King - with my two oldest kids. We just finished up a great breakfast with our books, and now it’s device time. I get to pull out my laptop and “think”. They get to watch some educational videos on my phone, a fairly rare treat.
This is our typical Saturday morning routine, and it’s a highlight of the week for everyone. My wife gets some time by herself, the kids get to go out with Dad and get breakfast, they learn the value of having and reading books all the time, and I get to hang with my kids and then write.
I had with me today a book called Journey Through Genius, by William Dunham, that takes a look at some of the most amazing mathematical breakthroughs in history. Picking randomly, I read about Giarlamo Cardano’s generalized solution to the cubic equation, which required some significant biography to understand the full story (it wasn’t just his discovery).
What struck me wasn’t the math, but the story of his life. Dunham summarizes:
Cardano spent his last years in relative tranquility and died quietly, after a very full life, on September 20, 1576. [He] remains a fascinating, if self-contradictory, character. He was incredibly prolific; his collected works fill seven thousand pages and cover a bewildering array of topics, scientific and otherwise. Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz summed him up quite aptly: “Cardano was a great man with all his faults; without them he would have been incomparable.”
This made me think about a few things, and one of them was Macklemore.
Macklemore’s song Glorious is.. glorious. Seriously, go watch the video:
One of his lyrics really resonates:
I heard you die twice, once when they bury you in the grave
And the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name
Which is derived from an earlier version:
They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions your name for the last time.
— Banksy (maybe)
Which comes from yet an older thought:
Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead - when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?
— Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy
Living Memory is a powerful thing. Captivating. I even think a reasonable definition for “consciousness” would simply be “the recognition of your own end”.
Writing and Legacy
So how did I get from Cardano to Macklemore? Well, it’s 2018 and I’m sitting here reading about Cardano. He’s not dead yet. He’s still a vibrant, real figure in history and I’m still learning from the ups and downs of his life.
Cardano had an interesting life, and we’d probably still at least know who he was from his cubic contributions. But the reason we have such a vivid picture of his life is because he wrote. Prolifically.
Every once in awhile, someone asks me why the heck I still write on my blog. It happened again just recently. In the past, I’ve used canned answers from others to describe my why. But legacy is the real reason.
One of my most treasured possessions is a book my grandmother wrote to me - an “Anecdotal Genealogy”. It’s a great look back at the past few generations of my family tree, interspersed with pictures and stories that she remembers from her childhood. Apparently, at some point when I was younger, I told her I wished she wrote more. So she did, and this book was the result.
Now, to me it’s a very special and delightful gift and one I love. But think for a second about what it will one day mean to my kids. Or their kids. They’ll never really know my grandmother or anyone from those past generations, but through this book they’ll know way more about where they came from and what their family was like. That’s priceless.
I write for the same reason. I’d like to think I’m a reasonably interesting person with a reasonably interesting life. It’s already been useful for myself to see what I’ve been thinking about over time; I hope it will be useful to others in the years to come. Even more long term, I hope that, like Cardano, I die peacefully in old age after a few years of tranquility, having written out my life’s story so that it survives for future generations.
Originality and Accessibility
And who knows, that may not happen. But even so, all of this is worth it. Like it or not, the grand castles of ideas we build in our heads have to come out somehow. If we can’t get our ideas across to others, then the castles are worthless. And the way we do that is language.
Language is froth on the surface of thought.
— John McCarthy
A few years ago, Googler Steve Yegge wrote a scathing rebuke of Google’s platform problem. It was supposed to be internal, but happily it made it’s way out into the world, and we all got to read it. It should be required reading for any young software engineer not only for the ideas presented, but also for Yegge’s willingness to put it out there and make it.. accessible.
And Accessibility is The Big Thing that Yegge points out as a crucial aspect of computing:
There’s actually a formal name for this phenomenon. It’s called Accessibility, and it’s the most important thing in the computing world.
The. Most. Important. Thing.
… When software — or idea-ware for that matter — fails to be accessible to anyone for any reason, it is the fault of the software or of the messaging of the idea. It is an Accessibility failure.
— Steve Yegge
There’s a concept that’s orthogonal to accessibility that stops people from writing all the time. And that’s Originality. The fear of not being original and just repeating what others have said is the ultimate writer’s block. It’s paranoia and fear of what other’s will think. It’s believing that you don’t have anything to add to the dialogue of humanity, that you have nothing new to say. And it’s completely wrong. Originality is the least important thing.
The. Least. Important. Thing.
When people look at starting a company, they often look at the competition. If they see competition, they can get scared and stop the idea. If they see nothing else out there, they get excited and think it’s a new market.
But the reality is actually reversed. Competition is a good thing because it signifies that a market exists. No competition is a problem, because it’s entirely possible that nobody wants that good or service.
The premise here is that most of the ideas for companies have been thought of or done, so there’s nothing completely new.
Of course, that’s basically true. Every new idea stands on the shoulders of giants. Google was a new search engine when Excite and Yahoo dominated. Under Armour was built in a world of Nike. And Facebook came up through Friendster and MySpace.
The same is true for lots of things, and writing fiction and stories is another example. Depending on how you count, there are only seven basic plots for stories out there, and everything is recycled from that. (Vonnegut had a really interesting and slightly different set, with a nice infographic too.)
Which means that originality doesn’t matter at all. Ditch that particular concern. Don’t worry about being original. Just produce. Because what matters is Accessibility. See, the one thing that Stevey never did say in his epic Google rant is that it’s impossible to be 100% accessible to everyone. The power of a story isn’t its rich new ideas, rather it’s that it strikes some people so powerfully. Sometimes an author can strike A LOT of people - like Tolkien or Rowling. They are famous and respected not because they were totally original, but because their stories became accessible to so many people.
A Call To Arms
I hope this series of thoughts struck you, even a little bit. It sure isn’t original - heck, look how many quotes I included.
But you should write. I should keep writing. Everyone who wants to provide a legacy for others, to contribute to the fabric of human thought, and to leave a mark that outlives themselves, should write.
So this, yet again, becomes a call to do just that. To my Mom and Dad, to my friends who do or don’t write already, to my wife and my kids. I hope all of you find the time to get your thoughts down. The richness of your lives and experiences can be valuable, believe it or not, to people 100, 200, or 500 years from now that you’ll never meet. Your words and ideas can outlive you. Let them.