TITLE: Deeper Things Under The Surface AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 06, 2006 6:35 PM DESC: ----- BODY: As a runner, I sometimes fall into the trap of expecting to see progress in my abilities. When I expect to experience a breakthrough every day, or every weekly. I am sure to be disappointed. First of all, breakthroughs don't happen all that often. In fact, they don't happen often at all, and when they do they seem to come in bunches -- PRs on several different routes at several different distances in the span of a couple of weeks. These spurts often tempt me into thinking that I'll just keep getting better and better! But when these breakthroughs occur, whether alone or in spurts, they aren't really the point. What you did that day, or in the previous week, isn't often directly responsible for the breakthrough. The big gains happen outside conscious sight. After years as a casual runner, I saw my first big improvements in speed and stamina only after many, many months of slow increases of in my daily and weekly mileage. I hadn't done anything spectacular over those months, just routine miles, day after day. This is what the gurus call 'building my aerobic base'. Deeper things were are happening under the surface. I think that this sort of thing happens when we learn, too. Can I memorize facts and be a whole smarter tomorrow than today? Maybe, but perhaps only for a short time. While cramming doesn't work very well for running, it may help you pass a fact-based final exam. But the gain is usually short term and, more important if you care about your professional competence, it doesn't result in a deep understanding of the area. That comes only after time, many days and weeks and months of reading and thinking and writing. Those months of routine study are the equivalent of 'building your mental base'. Eventually, you come to understand the rich network of concepts of the area. Sometimes, this understanding seems to come in a flash, but most of the time you just wake up one day and realize that you get it. You see, deeper things are happening under the surface. I think this is true when mastering programming or a new programming style or language, too. Most of us can really grok a language if we live with it for a while, playing with it and pushing it and having it talk back to us through the errors we make and the joy and pain we feel writing new code and changing old code. Students don't always realize this. They try to program a couple of days a week, only to be disappointed when these episodes don't take them closer to being a Master. They could, if they became part of our routine, if we gave time and contact a chance to do their magic. Deeper things can happen under the surface, but only if we allow them to. "Deeper things under the surface" is a catchphrase I borrow from an article of that name by Ron Rolheiser which talks about this phenomenon in human relationships. After a few months in my department's headship, I can see quite clearly how Rolheiser's argument applies to the relationship between a manager and the people for whom he works. We can all probably see how it applies to our relationships with friends, family, children, spouses, and significant others. I have to work over the long term to build relationships through contact. "Quality time" is a fine idea, and important, but when it becomes a substitute for sufficient quantity over sufficient time, it becomes a meaningless slogan. But I think this applies to how we develop our skills. Just as in relationships, routine contact over time matters. In this case, absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it doesn't make the heart stronger. The cliche that better captures reality is "out of sight, out of mind". A lot of techie students aren't comfortable with the sentiment I'm expressing here, but consider this quote from Rolheiser's article:
What's really important will be what's growing under the surface, namely, a bond and an intimacy that's based upon a familiarity that can only develop and sustain itself by regular contact, by actually sharing life on a day-to-day basis.
It may be sappy, but that's pretty much how I have always felt about the programming languages and topics and research problems that I mastered -- and most enjoyed, too. -----