Building bridges to geekiness

On the #emacs channel, aidalgol asked me if people ever looked at me as if I were crazy because of my interest in Emacs. =)

I used to worry about being too different, being someone people couldn’t easily relate to. There were practical reasons for thinking about this. At IBM, I wanted to help people and teams make use of new tools and ways of working. Early adopters are terrible at helping mainstream people try out new technologies or approaches. You need someone in between, someone who can relate to early adopters and with whom mainstream adopters can identify.

If people thought I was too different from them, they would stop really listening. You know the excuses people give: “Oh, you’re young, that’s why it’s easy for you. I’m too old to learn this.” “You’re a techie, of course this is easy for you. I’m not very good at this computer thing.” There’s this gap, and that gap becomes a reason for people to not even try. This is also why I don’t like being called a rock star. It creates too much of that separation.

So it was natural to respond to compliments by downplaying what I do. “Oh, they’re just stick figures. You can do this too!” “It’s just that I’ve been doing this for a while. Everyone starts somewhere!” I toned down some of my excitement, tried to giggle less. Worked on minimizing the gap.

It’s becoming more and more fun to revel in the geekiness, though—to follow my curiosity into the winding rabbit-holes and share that sometimes incomprehensible joy. Emacs, Quantified Self, visual thinking and sketchnoting, cooking, reading… I am deeply into things. I play.

People often come up to me after presentations and tell me that I blew their mind. I used to think that was… hmm… Not bad, but not particularly good either. I wanted to show the possibilities, sure, but I also wanted people to walk away with practical things that they could do right now, those first few steps that could take them on even more interesting journeys.

But then there’s this quote, still one of my favourites over the years:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Here is what I’ve come to realize: it’s okay to be weird, to be geeky, to be different, to explore things that many people don’t get a chance to do so. It can inspire people to know what’s out there and what’s possible.

And then periodically come back and balance that with building bridges and on-ramps and ladders. When people are stymied by a seemingly insurmountable gap between where they are and where you are, help them figure out the next small thing that can help them move forward in the direction they want to go. Find it or make it. Then do that again, and again, and again. People come from different perspectives and start at different levels, so your answers may feel scattered in the beginning. Keep doing it. Then the patchwork of resources will grow, and you’ll be able to see how different things can come together and what’s missing. Build, organize, build, organize, step by step, and you’ll learn tons of things along the way.

This seems to work a lot better than trying to convince someone that you’re just like they were and that they can do what you do. No one believes that anyway.

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  • It’s okay to be a rockstar, as long as you remember to help other people be rockstars themselves.

    Personally what I try to do is become “expendable” by making people learn what I do so that they can do things instead of me and I can work on something else more fun as a side effect. That’s part of my Programming Style

    No I won’t think you’re crazy for liking emacs either :D I’ve used it before, just outgrew it to support my style

    Since most of the time I try to work with other people, if I had my own toolset, trying to pair up with people will be a bit more troublesome.

  • dodgethesteamroller

    I love that quote too. I’ve usually seen a slightly different translation that flows a bit better: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather wood,
    divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the
    vast and endless sea.”

  • Pat Thomasson

    I am in the scattered beginnings. Feeling scattered frustrates me, but I am learning to relax in my scatteredness. Helps to recognize it as a normal phase in the starting new things process. Thanks for the blog post. Enjoyed it.

  • Harvey Chua

    That’s right, Sacha. I don’t want you to say that “anyone can do it.” Instead recognize that some of us need you to hold our hand as you teach us step by step how to do what you can do. Take us to where you are by recognizing that you have a gift that we are still trying hard to discover in ourselves.
    Much love,

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