One Art

Published: 2024-02-11 | tags: engineering, career

A long time ago I stumbled upon an article that attributed a piece of advice to Warren Buffett.

The advice claimed, in a nutshell: make a list of (say) the 10 to 20 things you’d like to achieve in life. Now sort them from most to least important. Then, cross out the items from the second to the fifth. The rationale is that while the items from, say, the sixth onward are probably not things that would absorb you much, the items higher up on the list are threatening the fulfilment of the first item, that is supposed to be the most important one.

To be clear, I don’t give half a fuck about Warren Buffett or his pennies, even less for his advice (or attributions thereof). But these days something liberating happened to me, and I made a connection with that piece of advice, and it felt like falling into piece. Like any advice, it’s worthless until you’ve become, through your own ways, ready to use it. In a way, it doesn’t even count as advice anymore: you’ve just come to that realization yourself.

For longer than I can remember, I have wanted to write a book. In my most inspired moments, I’ve been more precise and claimed that I wanted to write a novel. Recently, to people asking me what is my job, I’ve answered: I’m a novelist. (Then after less than a minute: “But that’s not the way I make my living.”) Variations: “I’m a novelist, but I do software”; “I’m an artist and write code to make pennies and eat”; and so on.

Now here’s the thing. I love software. I have a great respect for it, even. It’s true that it’s mostly messy and very frustrating, and when you have to do it because it’s your job, it’s inevitable that on some days, even most days, you’ll come to hate it the way you hate someone who you love but doesn’t love you back. But still, I used writing as an escape hatch. On bad days, when I would feel the most incompetent, I would say: Oh, but that’s not me. I’m not what I do for a living. I’m an artist.

Yet writing has always mostly been a chore. And its attraction has been misleading. I have it more easily than a bunch of people I know, because many engineers write poorly. I manage to write things in a way that people understand them. I can write poetry, and prose, too. I’m sure that with some dedication I could write a novel too.

But here’s the thing. Every person has a Job with the capital J, like Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in his Wherever You Go, There You Are. Most people end up in jobs that have nothing to do with any of their vocations, and that’s totally okay. You can grow fonder of any job because you can become competent at it. (Let’s ignore the cases where conditions make it harder or impossible.) But I started this career because I liked it. I’ve looked for escape when it became really hard and I felt like giving up. That happens more often than I care to admit. But I’ve never given up. It started in 1999 when I enrolled in university, and I enrolled in that course because I felt a closeness to the subject even earlier, even without knowing much about it.

It’s been 25 years. Twenty-five. That’s more than half of my life. A couple of weeks ago I was watching Blue Eye Samurai (a very good show), and in one of the last episodes the master swordsmith had an enlightening conversation with Mizu. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Why would I cloud my mind with such an absorbing goal, when I already have found my art?

From Blue Eye Samurai, Episode 7 (Nothing Broken):

Sword Father: I did not train you to be a demon or a human. I showed you how to be an artist. To be an artist is to do one thing only. Look at me. Cannot fight, or weave, or farm. I make swords. I cook for strength to make good swords. I study the sutras to cleanse my heart to make good swords.
Mizu: You think revenge is an art?
SF: Swords, pots, noodles, death. It is all the same to an artist.

This doesn’t mean that I give up writing altogether. I just don’t believe anymore that it’s my secret mission in life, or something that makes me interesting. Now, when I’m done with work, I can still think about my career and invest in it my mental energy. I’m making it my art and I’ll give it my all.