A few weeks ago I was having an IM chat with an old friend and as is usually the case, I started talking about some aspect of my work and off hand mentioned the fact that to me , fun is working on a hard problem. It can also be incredibly frustrating when a problem evades solution but that only makes me want to solve it more. I realized that this way of looking at problems is very rare, this was something I noticed not in software engineering but in art. When I was a child I had a bit more talent than my peers when it came to line rendering, it was something I enjoyed and practiced by reading comic books and then drawing the characters in them by eye. As I got into my teens and entered HS I became more interested in under standing the mechanics of drawing. As I've mentioned in past posts , skill at any thing can be learned, it is only a matter of figuring out the necessary object interactions and mastering them to the point that we can visualize and create arbitrary configurations of them. Around this time of growing interest in art technique I was learning about the master of art illusions, MC Escher. I had perused one of his books in my HS library (go Brooklyn Tech!) and was stunned by his ability to not only create the incredible illusions and tessellations but to render them as an expert illustrator. I set myself the task of studying and practiced rendering the human figure using construction methods of my own design, these were partially successful in improving my free rendering capability and kept my confidence strong that I was getting better, and then I met Bernard...
In my second year of HS, I was introduced to a fellow student Bernard. We met one day in the school lunch room, I immediately noticed the open drawing pad he was doodling in. In the pad was a partial rendering of Batman and Robin colored with colored pencils. The instant I saw the rendering I knew that Bernard was better than me and the feeling of mixed anguish and envy that went through my body is hard to describe but this feeling is one I've had only a few times since that day over 20 years ago. The anguish came from the fact that in that moment I felt all my work to get better (for an instant) was nothing. It may not have been true, since I did improve greatly but the fact that I felt it was not a good feeling. The envy of course was an expression of how far I felt I was from the talent I saw being expressed by Bernard in that pad. I sat down and looked at his work, I observed his style to understand his "mechanism" and I noticed important differences in his approach that I saw could contribute to my getting better. I left his lunch table not sad but angry, angry that I had not been as good as him. I know it sounds nuts, how could I possibly expect to be as good as every one who does what I do even if I've never met them?, but that is I think, a distinguishing characteristic of those with a rage to master a given subject. The anger was not a destructive anger, it had no target in Bernard...it's target was in me.
As I walked away from the table I resolved myself to redouble my efforts, to continue to study, to spend more time learning construction techniques. I bought an excellent art anatomy handbook, the classic by Stephen Rogers Peck "Human Anatomy for the Artist" (today I have both my old tattered soft cover and the bound hard cover version) I spent the next few years focused on learning human anatomy so as to render human and non human characters more convincingly. In 1989 I graduated and aside from seeing Bernard in the days leading up to the graduation ceremony I never saw him again, but he was always in my mind when I drew. I kept in mind the possibility I would see him again so we could compare skills (though he never even knew that I was making such a comparison) this drove me to continue learning and perfecting my craft. To this day I have a bit of a paranoia about it...so if you are out there Bernard, let me see what you can do. The piece below is sketch I did in digital circuit design class, over 10 years ago:
Since that early experience, I noticed that most people do not thrive on implied competition in the same way that I do, I've only met a few other individuals that compete with themselves or with others even when , well those others don't even realize it. I coined the phrase Nortal ("normal - mortal") to describe the mindset that many have that they are unable to do a given task and on the basis of the belief , fail to even try. The minute I tell myself I can't do something I use that as a goal to prove myself wrong. I know that had I not had the rage to master I would have never improved as I did, never derived the benefits. Since then I've applied the same rage to master various topics and through out have encountered Nortals that are easily beaten by a problem into being convinced that they can't solve it. The difference between Nortals and those with a rage to master is not magical, it is simply desire, will , drive and hard work. It just so happens that a few weeks ago a paper was released that came to the same conclusion, the belief in ones ability to succeed coupled with the practice perfect the ability is the overriding determinant of ones success at a given endeavor, so I guess my crazy hyper competitive way of looking at things is not that far off after all. ;)