Working directly in the medium

I'm in the middle of building the largest and most complex piece of software I've ever worked on. It's a stepping-stone tool for high schoolers and undergraduates to start reading scientific literature.

The basic features are all in my head. As I code, I build whatever gives me the most bang for my buck. So far, I've been able to create a pretty sophisticated working prototype without a to-do list or any other detailed plan.

Very often, I have to stop and skill up before I can build a feature. I might just read an article or post on Stack Overflow. For bigger learning projects, I take a Coursera course on some concept I'm unfamiliar with. I just plow through it and keep getting things done.

When you're working directly in your medium, the project itself tells you what to do next. It reveals itself step by step, moment by moment.

It's the same when I'm teaching music. I never plan lessons. The right thing to do reveals itself to me from moment to moment.

Useful planning and meta-level thinking

Useful planning is generally obvious. Make a list before you go grocery shopping. Talk out what your needs and desires are when house-buying with your spouse. Check the personality traits of the dog breeds you're considering. You have an obvious question, you look up the answer, and you move on.

Try before you buy. Do some independent research before you apply to a PhD program. Hang out a lot before you have sex. Take the car for a test drive.

Bad planning

It's the finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself.

It's a long to-do list that doesn't translate into action. A spreadsheet where you gather information in order to forget about it. A long chain of thought culminating in an epiphany that goes nowhere. An argument about an issue that you never work on directly.

Bad planning like a belief in telepathy. It makes you feel like your private thoughts can change the world. The quintessential example? A college humanities essay that gets read by the student, the professor, and nobody else, but which the student remains proud of for the rest of their life.

The mechanism is the mission

If you have a big dream, set yourself up to work directly in a medium that would help you realize it. If you want to build technology, learn to code, build electronics, machine metal. If you want to do work in the life sciences, set up a little home lab. If you want to spread an idea, create a website, write articles, do a podcast, organize a protest, make a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, and start talking about it with everybody who will listen.

All this work will let you create mechanisms. Mechanisms work in a repeatable way. They're separate from you. They're interactive. They change the world.

Don't worry so much about making a useful mechanism. Don't worry if you can't build your dream yet. Just let yourself discover the pleasure of manipulating the medium, of building mechanisms. Get in the flow. Learn what it feels like to be making.

Be obsessed with creating visible signs of progress. Things that work. Minor accomplishments. Change the world a little bit.

Spend enough time building mechanisms in a certain medium, and you'll be shocked at what you can create. And the changes you can make will grow.


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Thinking back on my own experiences, I've gotten a lot out of this kind of approach. Do the thing that seems useful/necessary at the time and that moves towards achieving some legible goal. It's highly motivating and keeps the feedback loops tight to avoid spending a lot of time doing things that don't matter. Plus I think it's a useful "therapy" for coming out from under years of training to, say, do what others tell you to do and not knowing what to do if no one is asking you for anything.

I think there's a lot to be said for investing effort in work that won't pay off for a long time and where the objective is not obvious, but I also think you can only develop the intuitions to engage in such work usefully by first getting a good idea of what good work that "moves the needle" looks like over shorter time ranges.

I also think you can only develop the intuitions to engage in such work usefully by first getting a good idea of what good work that "moves the needle" looks like over shorter time ranges.

This all resembles the problem of learning a strategy game. It's complex. You must:

  • Choose a victory condition/goal.
  • Determine a variety of strategies that will let you arrive at that destination/goal.
  • Make a tactical choice from a variety of paths that enact the strategy/converge on the destination.
  • Select from a variety of resources to achieve the tactics/motion.
  • Know how to acquire and manipulate resources.

When people learn chess, they almost always start by just pushing the pieces around. If they are smart or have a good teacher, they gradually figure out higher-order tactics. Over time, positional strategy becomes relevant. And of course, the victory condition isn't winning at chess, but being good at it.

My major stumbling block in chess is watching too many grandmaster games, reflecting on their higher-order strategies and complex tactics, and trying to play that way. The result is that I make lots of stupid one-move blunders resulting in lost pieces.

There's that famous Ira Glass quote saying roughly the same thing.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

I think this a useful message for many on this website. I would potentially word the college humanities essay example differently, as if the student is proud of their work irregardless of how much impact it has it does not seem to be a good example of what you're trying to refer to. No 'incorrect' value function and all that. I might reword it to more explicitly state how they are proud of how impactful it was, or how they were 'speaking truth to power', or something along those lines, or potentially use a different example. Overall though, very interesting read that seems relevant to my own journey and that I will try to keep in mind in future, so thank you.