July 30, 2018

On dilettantism, craft and mastery

Hello, world. It’s been a while. There are some words that I’ve been holding on to that I’d like to set free. I’ve also been hiding somewhat and now taking some tentative steps back into the light. This is the first meager step. I have some more to follow. Please be gentle and patient with me.

For continuity, I’ve cross-posted my last public appearance here.

I’ve always been a generalist. And this has served me well. It seems there is utility in this trait, especially in the realm of tech, and consulting in particular. The essence of which is being able to effectively filter noise and extract value across many different contexts. It relies a lot on the ability to identify patterns and make disparate connections, analogies, metaphors, models. And the dilettante has an endless plethora of references to draw from.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had the urge to learn about and understand everything I encounter. How do countries work and why do starfish have an uneven amount of limbs? What kind of tax system can support a standing army in the iron age1? It was probably inevitable that I’d end up in tech. But apart from that, I think it also translates into being more resilient to information overload than the average person. Evidently, this resilience seems well suited to the oft dysfunctional2 world of software development.

All of this has an implicit trade-off (of course). It means I often never gain a deep understanding of topics, usually because I never needed to in order to be productive. There’s always the next thing that demands my attention and “perfect is the enemy of good”, after all. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. In business, good enough is an immensely valuable principle to optimise for3. However, after spending most of my life wading through the marshlands of ambient knowledge, I think it’s time to strive for more rigour and deliberate grit. This dilettante must strive to be a polymath, but never a specialist – specialisation is for insects (and doctors).

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

  1. If you’re really interested. [return]
  2. For the canonical explanation of this, see stilldrinking.com/programming-sucks, which captures some of the worst parts of working collaboratively to build software. To be clear, it’s definitely not the worst thing ever but does have its own challenges. [return]
  3. Going by the Pareto Principle, this strategy is suitable 80% of the time. But that remaining 20% can be critical. I hope to expound on this more in a later post. [return]

© Sett Wai 2020