Developing skills that breathe life into people's ideas.
Eric Zhang • March 6, 2022
What does it take to wake up a generation? How can you make someone take off and fly?
—tick, tick… BOOM!
An creative’s job is to bring people’s vision to life, both themselves and others, by acting as a vessel for their ideas. All individuals are important and have the ability to dedicate themselves to a task; what makes people’s output uniquely valuable is their skill and dedication to craftsmanship.
Sometimes, as a developer, I seriously look back on all the projects I’ve worked on in the last 2–3 years, and I’m honestly impressed by the outcomes. Even with school and other priorities, I feel like I’ve been slowly and steadily growing as a engineer, researcher, designer, and empathetic human being thanks to these creative passions, which is exciting.
For example, when I made Set with Friends (over 2 years ago now), I was going into web development from a completely blind lens. I had never made websites used by more than a half-dozen close friends at once, and I was guided primarily by a beginner’s instinct on what a website could be. In this case, it was good enough to resonate with over half a million users, but the site could have been so much more with better web design, business execution, backend infrastructure, and attention to online communities.
Did I learn a lot from the experience though? Of course. And that’s the only real way to learn when you’re working in a new field. Part of this instinct comes with age, but most of it comes from experience.
One of my hypotheses is that given any educated individual and any knowledge skill, it takes four years of attentive, dedicated pursuit for that person to attain a world-class level. I say this personally because four years is:
- How long it took me to go from writing Tic-Tac-Toe in Python to winning a gold medal at the IOI.
- The length of time between Scale AI’s founding (my former employer) to becoming a unicorn company raising venture funding at $3.5 billion.
- Roughly consistent with the “10,000 hours” theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.
But something seems wrong here since people live for 80 years, and it’s absurd to suggest that people develop world-class skill in 20 different pursuits during the course of their lives! It’s rare to even have such a high level of expertise in anything. I attribute this to two factors:
- People don’t need to develop strong skills in any particular domain to excel in their life, work, or just be generally happy. In fact, they may be actively disincentivized because it makes them stand out from the crowd.
- People are just too busy to focus on any particular task for its own sake. There are many other things to spend time on in life that are immediately fulfilling, like family, nature, and spirituality. There’s also rent to pay and food to put on the table.
Still, when you move past all of the work-for-sustenance motives, there’s only a few reasons to do the things we do. We can work to make money, or we can work to expand the breadth of the human condition. And when people express themselves, their unique skills turn into creative prowess.
The assumption that four years is enough means that even difficult holistic work with a steep learning curve is accessible, given a moderate amount of time and dedication. In other words: you can be anything you want.
For me, the grounding result of my work in software has been the joy in creating artifacts that are seen and used by others. When you make things that you can look back on a couple years later, it’s so inspiring to think about your own growth and all of the people that you’ve positively influenced over time. That’s what’s kept me motivated, and it’s instrumental to what I consider to be true “passion projects.”
If not for skillful individual creatives, who would express human dignity?
I’m grateful to Vincent and Rachel for conversations that inspired this post.