On Not Knowing


When I was a wee lad, 28, 29, 30, I knew the C Windows API by heart.

I had, in my bathroom, both the technical docs and a copy of Petzold, and I knew it cold, stone cold. Every one of the ~500 calls, all of the arguments, and for most of them, the order of the arguments.

I was a good programmer because I was a terrific memorist: I could learn things by heart, and I could organize them in my mind in such a fashion that I could get to them whenever I needed them.

It is the nature of humans that whatever they have had so far, they assume they will have forever.

There’s a default assumption that whatever’s going on will continue to go on, ad infinitum.

This applies to the good things they have, and also the bad things, of course, and is a defining property of humans, in my view.

How I scoffed at the proles who could not remember these things! Of course, on my good days, I merely pitied them. Even an asshole tells the right time twice a day.

Anyway, you’ve heard the ominous background music I spent hours getting at the right volume level, so you know that this condition, my seemingly infinite capacity for memory and organization, turned out not in fact be infinite.

It isn’t just that my mind got old, like my knees or my back, though that’s surely part of it.

It’s also that the C Windows API lost a great deal of relevance over time. In C#, or C++, or Java, or Python, one basically never needs to know the Windows API, and instead needs to know a whole lot of other stuff. Some of it resembles the Windows API, much of it does not.

So whaddamigonnado, right? My strategy of knowing everything is breaking for two different but equally powerful reasons:

1) "Everything" is undergoing constant change.
2) "Everything" is undergoing constant growth.

No matter how skilled I might be as memorist, I am just totally screwed. I need another strategy.

You know the strategy I wound up at, unless you’re a brilliant memorist in your late 20s: Instead of having one box that holds 1000 things, have a hundred boxes in a hierarchy, each of which holds ten things. Open boxes, and refresh the ten things. Close boxes, and forget them.

And what I discovered, upon adopting this strategy? Three things.

First, that in spite of my earlier story of myself with my infinite memory, my actual practice was exactly that I was good at making that hierarchy and those boxes.

So good at it, in fact, that it seemed transparent to me.

I did not change my practice at all. I changed my story of my practice. And I did change my, mmmmm, awareness(?), and surely some meta-practices — emphasis, attitude, etc. — but the practice itself? Same thing. I just woke up to it.

Once I understood that I had been creating small bounded contexts with only a few items in each box, I could lean into that, I could be aware of it, and practice it not just implicitly but explicitly.

(Cognitive scientists call this "chunking". I’m a computer geek, and I call it maintaining a stack and attending only to the current stackframe. Same difference.)

Second, I discovered that doing this, that leaning into it, being aware of it, didn’t just save my career as a geek.

I did it as a desperate attempt to stay at the same level of skill I already had. That’s not what happened, tho.

I got better.

And I’m not talkin’ a lil bit better. I got way better.

Stronger, smarter, faster, bolder. More creative, more energized. By any ready measure, I went from "very strong journeyfolk" to, idunno, the words kinda ick me out, but whatever I am now, "doofus lord of all he surveys".

I came all the way to the threshold of mastery by knowing everything, but I didn’t stumble across it until I learned how to not know everything.

So that’s my story.

By normie standards, I still have an encyclopedic memory. I didn’t get senile at 40. And thank all the gods, my wife happens to think guys that are walking encyclopedias are actually kinda hawt.

But I don’t spend my time knowing everything, I spend my time opening and closing and arranging little boxes.

Oh. The third thing?

The third thing I learned is that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a brilliant 28yo memorist that the second thing is the actual truth.

I didn’t stay at the same level when I stopped trying to memorize everything.

I got better.

Love to all my geek friends.

Y’all the best.

Play for keeps, or don’t play.


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