Thoughts on my personal mantra
Laziness, Impatience and Hubris
On a professional level I mean.
In 2004, I was in engineering school at ENSIMAG, Grenoble, France.
Our class was struggling on a quite difficult algorithimic challenge.
For my part, I had given up and was trying to find a way to work around the main difficulty.
Suddenly, a loud intervention from my professor:
Jean-Michel, I have been watching you for a while now.
And I must tell you something
You are very lazy
You will be a great engineer
We have all heard at least once this stupid question in a job interview.
Actually, if that's not your case, please write a comment, that would give me hope.
And as a general rule, stupid question -> stupid answer.
Or frankly here, you would be justified to turn the tables:
Yes sure, give me one minute to order my thoughts.
In the meantime, I have a question for you :
What would you say are the three most annoying questions one could ask in a job interview?
But humans are creative, and no matter how stupid the question, one can always try to give it a clever answer.
🇬🇧 Most of you are familiar with the virtues of a programmer. There are three, of course: « Laziness, Impatience and Hubris »
Larry Wall is a US linguist.
He is also best known as the creator of Perl. At least to the odler folks, Perl is not often used those days (I think? Maybe I just lost track.). But Perl played a big role in daring to question the old Unix dogmas, helping the early internet to rise, playing the role of Python's nemesis, and was a major inspiration for Ruby.
But even if you don't use Perl, and I don't, Larry Wall is a very interesting guy.
I mean most programming books are bad or boring (same for every other subject), the good ones are helpful, a few are super interesting, but Larry Wall's book belong to the happy few programming books that on top of all that made me laugh.
I didn't know that was possible.
You should watch the video, I think it's a quite cool one. But I know you are probably in the subway, if you live outside of the US anyway, or you are in a super loud café, or you have an hearing handicap.
No issue, I will make a transcription just for you.
Laziness, Impatience and hubris.
These originated as sort of a joke in the first edition of what we call the Camel Book, the book that teaches the Perl programming language.
And in a sense, these are the three virtues of a programmer.
A lazy person will try always to find some way to do something, will always be looking for ways to do something faster, more efficiently.
And if you really want to control the world, that’s really sort of a hubristic notion. Excessive pride. The kind of thing Zeus zaps you for having.
But it really was sort of a joke….
In the Japanese edition of the Camel Book, they had to add “Laziness, Impatience and Hubris. (THIS IS A JOKE)”. Because they thought people could take it seriously.
But really … what makes someone a good programmer is much more than those three things.
If you have either read Lord of the Rings or seen the movies, you know about Hobbits. Well : Hobbits manifest many of the virtues you need as a programmer.
You need to have persistence when the going is rough to keep slogging through. A kind of innate stubbornness. In an happy way, not in a mean way.
You have to be smart enough to outwit your enemies occasionally.
You have to be able to be social, you have to be able to deal with a group of team members. Some of which are like you, they are other hobbits. Some of which are elves, dwarfs. Or even men.
They think very differently from you.
So you have to contribute your part as a hobbit, but also be able to understand other things. The day is long passed where programming was done individually. Almost all programming is done in teams.
So for example you need to be literate. You have to be able to read documentation. And to write documentation that others can understand.
But mostly you need to be just slightly insane, in the way hobbits are. Where they can view the long term, where the goal is to go back to your village. But also at the same time, they can forget about all that and deal only with the problem they have at hand.
On more concrete terms, you may be telling a computer to do various things. On one hand you have to be aware of what happens at a low level. But if you are aware of that all the time, you are going nuts. So you have to shutdown and work on high-level abstractions.
And doing both simultaneously gives the best results in programming. If you ignore one of those, you end up messing up.
So that’s what you really need.
A hobbit is lazy in a very industrious way.
A hobbit is impatient in a very patient way.
A hobbit is proud in a very humble way.
It sort of sounds contradictory. But to the extent that you can increase your dynamic range on all of those …. you will be a better programmer.
One name: Napoléon.
In the early 1800s, after having vanquished many European coalitions, Napoléon controlled pretty much all of continental Europe. But he couldn't help himself and decided to invade an allied country, Spain. Disaster. And then he couldn't help himself and decided to invade an allied country, Russia. You know where this leads: in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
That's what hubris is. Dangerously excessive pride.
As Larry Wall mentioned, there are pretty cool Greek mythology stories around Hubris, as you can find out on Wikipedia
If you have read this far, you probably find the mantra interesting, funny, clever.
And sure, it is all that. That's part of the reason I chose it as my personal mantra.
But for me this mantra is more than that, it has meaning. It tells something important about me
Hubris, for me, consist in being stubborn and selective when I choose the kind of project I work on. It's not enough for me that you put things on the Blockchain, or that the Elon guy tweeted about it, or that BigCompany pays for it.
I need a convincing answer to one nasty question.
Who really needs this project, and why?
The search for meaning is the constant struggle of my career.
Impatience is clearly a personality trait that I have. I left the Android world in part because its slow build times were for me an agony. And that was the right thing to do.
Caveat : impatience is my least favorite of the three virtues, because it is very much a double edged sword. I have sometimes hurt people I love by being too impatient. And that's where the extend your dynamic range principle shines : what I have learned is to be way more patient with people, and even less patient with tools.
Laziness finally is my dominant great virtue, as first observed by this clever teacher.
And it would be easy for me to put an asterisk on lazy. I could point out that I have written 100 articles here, and more on in my french-speaking blog, that I have started a successful open source project, that I have shitload of stuff on my GitHub, that I have learned 7 programming languages, and also 7 real languages, and 5 music instruments, learned the culture of 4 different countries...
In sum, I could say that it's only a joke.
But I won't hide behind my little finger.
Unironically: I have a significant amount of laziness in my soul.
And not just because nobody is perfect.
But because I choose a profession that fits my personality: Programming means automating.
We are not supposed to be the digital equivalent of Charlie Chaplin's depiction of workers of the industrial age doing boring and repetitive tasks.
But it's also spiritual: Laziness has often been the sacred source of my creativity.
And I won't apologize for it because I don't want my creativity to dry up.
This post's title was inspired by this pretty cool article from @sobolevn
Please have a nice lazy day ☀️