Designers, Administrators, and Scientists

“Love what you do” is a phrase paraphrased umpteen times to highlight the importance of passion,  motivate the employees etc, and the ‘creatives’. These creatives are not just the designers but also the software developers and managers who are in quest of excellence and innovating their ways towards it, by their own means and in their own domain. The creatives always seem to be in a state of hopefulness to find their own ilk of people to get excited about the beauty, performance, and simplicity of their state of the art web2.0 applications, if we take the domain of the software apps 😉

With all the talk of passion, and loving what you do, and doing whatever you do with flair and excellence, I find the last month’s Paul Graham’s take on “The Top Idea in your Mind” poignant and relevant with respect to doing what you do.  He stresses that the Top idea in your mind, that is what you’d think while in shower, is in fact the most important work you can reasonably expect to accomplish. And if that top idea is not directly related to what you love doing, or need to be doing, what you’ll end up doing will not be what you’d have loved to do. It’ll sap all your energy, effort, and attention! And this is what is found in the Corollary (and have tweeted about):

Avoid becoming an administrator, or your job will consist of dealing with money and disputes!

Now of course, this is applicable only for those whose top idea in shower is a task other than Administration. For administrators and certain managers, dealing with money and disputes will, in fact, be the top idea. But yes, for the designers, developers, and design managers I’ve often talked to, a nagging mail, or a helpless situation indeed can become a driving force for couple of days. It would be safe to maybe slightly modify the statement to

Avoid becoming an administrator, or your job will consist of dealing with meetings, charts and bug counts!

Interestingly, this sort of advice is not unique to the domain of software development. In the world of scientists – a world much older and more organized than software, the same advice is as applicable.

Take the case of Stephen Wolfram, the brain behind the Computational knowledge engine Wolfram|Alpha that computes an answer from structured data for any search query, rather than the more common way of quering the related (or even exact) strings from a list of resources.

Wolfram|Alpha is based on a complex computer algebra system Mathematica, developed in Stephen Wolfram’s Center for Complex Systems Research, which he founded in 1986. And just a year before starting this Center, in 1985, when the 26 year old scientist asked the famous physics Nobelist Richard Feynman for advice, the world famous physicist and indeed an inspirational influence on lots of young minds, advised him thus :

Dear Wolfram:

1. It is not my opinion that the present organizational structure of science inhibits “complexity research” – I do not believe such an institution is necessary.

2. You say you want to create your own environment – but you will not be doing that: you will create (perhaps!) an environment that you might like to work in – but you will not be working in this environment – you will be administering it – and the administration environment is not what you seek – is it? You won’t enjoy administrating people because you won’t succeed in it.

You don’t understand “ordinary people.” To you they are “stupid fools” – so you will not tolerate them or treat their foibles with tolerance or patience – but will drive yourself wild (or they will drive you wild) trying to deal with them in an effective way.

Find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible, with one exception, fall madly in love! That is my advice, my friend.

Sincerely,
Richard P. Feynman

(source: The incredible archives of letters of significance – the www.lettersofnote.com)

Notice something similar? The advice is more or less on the same lines with the corollary in Paul Graham’s note. The mention of administration, and the travails associated with focusing on administration resulting in not doing what you’re meant to be doing.

In retrospective, we can say that Stephan Wolfram did the right thing- believing in himself, and ignoring the above advice! Or, perhaps his vision indeed was building an institute with the exact administrative setup that does not inhibit “complexity research”. Or perhaps, he somehow realized the right balance between administration and research. Whatever the reason, Wolfram turned out to be good, if not a resounding success (okie, if you’ve not heard of it, try http://www.wolframalpha.com/, or check out the iPad applications etc.) in about 25 years of time since the “advice”.

The uncanny similarity does not end there. There is this mention of “ordinary people”, who may seem like “stupid fools” to a scientist of the caliber of Stephen Wolfram, as observed by and in opinion of another great scientific mind Richard Feynman!

This perception of “stupid fools” as opposed to distinction of “ordinary people”, is exactly the thing used by many a brilliant engineers, managers, and of course some designers, about their “users”. And further, there is larger business of killing complexity and relegating complexity to its deserving corner (Law of conservation of complexity as Advocated by Larry Tesler).

In the realm of software application development, the developers and their ilk (designers and mangers included) are grappling with problems that may seem trivial or moved away from the concern of ordinary people, or just that their intellect happens to the the only cohesive force and common ground at the time when they train their diverse faculties to solve a complex problem.

And it is here an interesting connection can be made between Scientists who’ve never heard of web 2.0, and between engineers who’ve not started a day without web 2.0 being the “top idea” in their mind.

Both the types can do, what they love to do, which is mostly the ‘top-idea’ in their mind. But they are also acutely aware of, or are reminded painfully of this friendly advice of not thinking like ordinary mortals, or not knowing the experience of walking in moccasins of others but being happy in comfort of their own hush-puppies.

What is it that makes this sort of advice pop up all the time?

Are the geeks really in a bubble that separate the ordinary folks out of it?. This is understandable, for somebody very focused on something; and is expected as normal in any high intensity, creative endeavors.
But for this to be interpreted or even suggested as demeaning ordinary folks into lesser mortals – is that natural? or just plain stereotyping, or just a reality check?
What if it IS the reality??

Well, there is only one way to find out, reach out and talk to the advisors, as well as the people who are not part of your bubble – at the same time not letting go of what you love to do.

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