On Grit (and Math)

I really like this:

I find myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when people call me a generalist and imagine that to be a compliment.  My standard response is that I am actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the degree to which I keep returning to the same few narrow themes.

Venkatesh Rao

I’d say the exact same, actually, especially as it relates to this blog (and my vlog) as I spend a lot of my time repeating the same ideas and themes and topics.

But, what I enjoy doing very much is exploring so many different parts of life and bringing those elements back into my work. For instance, I enjoy finding parallels and analogues that may be a bit more non-obvious, like the evolution of locomotives and decentralized protocols – you simply wouldn’t intuitively put those two things together but I find them oddly similar and relatable.

I have come to the conclusion that if I cannot trace a coherent history of at least 20 years for something that claims the label “discipline,” it isn’t one.

The problem with this though is that increasing amounts of valuable stuff is happening outside disciplines by this definition. It isn’t multi-disciplinary. It isn’t inter-disciplinary. It is simply non-disciplinary. It’s in the miscellaneous folder. It is so fluid that it resists extrinsic organization.

So given that most excitement centers around short-lived fruitfly non-disciplines, how do people even manage to log 10,000 deliberate practice hours in any coherent journey to mastery? Can you jump across three or four fruit-fly domains over the course of a decade and still end up with mastery of something, even if you cannot define it?

Yes. If you drop extrinsic frames of reference altogether.

My career path (as well as yours) shouldn’t be as easily defined as you (or others) may like it to be, especially in our information age. This is actually to our advantage as things are changing far too rapidly to simply “box” one into a predetermined career trajectory and path. The folks that are going to be the most successful will be inter-disciplinary, covering many different areas of life and humanities and science as they explore their world.

I see this a lot in my kids as they understand, perhaps better than myself, the many cross-sections of culture and life and knowledge and their understanding of “buckets” is pretty darn leaky at this point in time.

My goal, as a parent, for them is to keep them curious about their lives and their world, which shouldn’t be too hard to handle.

Nevertheless, at some point I realized with a shock that I had accidentally logged several thousand hours along a marketing career path without realizing it. I had just completely misunderstood what “marketing” meant based on the popular image the field presents to novices.

One of my friends calls me a “content marketer” all the time and I really hate it when he says it but there’s a lot of truth to what he says because after more than 20 years of being a software designer and developer I have picked up a ton of skills in that department without even really knowing it (and I’ve directly benefitted from those skills in increasing measure).

Looking back, and trying to make sense of my life in retrospect as “the training of an accidental marketer,” it makes sense though: I’ve logged the right mix of complementary experiences. Marketing is still not my primary identity though (that would mean returning to a Procrustean bed of disciplinary identity).

This is exactly what happens when you continue to build, deliver products for a global audience through the internet. And, talking about them every single day, for the last 17+ years…

I used to believe this understanding of grit as a superhuman trait.  I used to think I didn’t possess it. Yet people seem to think I exhibit it in some departments. Like reading and writing. They are aghast at the amount of reading I do. They wonder how I can keep churning out thousands of words, week after week, year after year, with no guarantee that any particular piece of writing will be well-received.

Yup. Yup… yup. Can’t stop, won’t stop. Finally:

So rework, reference, release. Flow through the landscape of your own strengths and weaknesses. Count to 10,000 rework hours as you walk. If you aren’t seeing accelerating external results by hour 3300, stop and introspect. That is the calculus of grit. It’s the exponential human psychology you need for exponential times. Ignore everything else.

We need it more than ever.