Thursday, November 5, 2009

Coyotes, A Pulitzer, And DHH's Lamborghini

A few months ago, Yehuda Katz came to LA Ruby and gave a presentation on his plans for Rails 3 and Rails 4. The presentation consisted almost entirely of a history of DHH, based on what appeared to have been a detailed (almost obsessive) analysis of everything DHH had ever put on the web in any way shape or form. Yehuda was looking at e-mails from 2003, Subversion commit messages from Rails 0.13, and beyond that to commit messages from Instiki.

Some people who have seen this presentation might have marvelled at Yehuda turning into some kind of web stalker or DHH historian. Personally, I thought it was awesome, because I had already spent a lot of my own time doing the exact same thing. That's how I know what color DHH's Lamborghini is (white), what model it is (Gallardo), and where he races it (Autobahn Country Club).

photo by symmetricalism

If that's creepy, I apologize. But it's also how I found Code Generation in Action by Jack Herrington. I did a whole presentation (at MountainWest RubyConf) about how every programmer needs to read this book, after I found it in an offhand comment on DHH's old blog.

(The sad thing, of course, is that the number of people who told me they loved the presentation is much, much higher than the number of people who told me they went and bought the book.)

I spent time studying DHH because when Rails came along, it was a Post-It Note - something so obvious you had to wonder why nobody had ever created it before. I started on the web before Perl even had database libraries, back when the way you used a database with a web app (which we called a CGI script) didn't involve opening a database handle, but creating a SQL string manually and putting it in backticks. All that SQL generation in ActiveRecord descends very directly from how this thing started, at least as far as I'm concerned. If I had taken that and just made it gradually cleaner day by day over the course of a few years, we could have had Rails in 1997 - and I could have done it. But I didn't. And neither did anybody else.

Why not? What did this guy know that nobody else did? These questions fascinated me.

Not just with technology, either. Only a few years before Rails emerged, I left San Francisco with the goal of never returning and never, ever having a thing to do with technology ever again. I was disillusioned, disappointed, disgusted, and bored out of my mind. I had a pimp 2-bedroom apartment in a pricey San Francisco neighborhood, and I traded it for a camper parked in the forest on my parents' land in the mountains of New Mexico. I stopped writing code and I put all my energy into studying electronic dance music production and writing screenplays instead.

this is an actual pic my dad took looking out his bedroom window

New Mexico is beautiful, but let me tell you something about RVs. If you decide that you're going to live in one, and you go looking to find out what your options are, you're going to find something out about RVs. You're going to find that Lamborghini doesn't make one. It's a different demographic.

not made by Lamborghini

My parents have a nice house on their land now, but they didn't at the time. It's there now because we built it. We got a small construction vehicle called a skidster. I cleared space for their house by driving that vehicle into sandstone boulders to smash them. Let me tell you something about skidsters - Lamborghini doesn't make those, either. Even if you ram it into a boulder at top speed, you won't be going very fast. I know because I've done it.

also not made by Lamborghini

Before the house existed, there were plumbing issues. On top of that, I was broke. But I was happy with this. I considered it a huge improvement. When I wasn't smashing boulders, I was writing and making music. Giving up success as a programmer to struggle as an artist seemed like a good deal, until my high school classmate Sarah Ruhl got nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and won a MacArthur genius grant.

Sarah's a very successful playwright. I hadn't heard her name in a decade. But this was someone whose writing I knew, someone I worked on a high school arts magazine with and co-founded the first ever high school chapter of the ACLU with, someone who I remembered struggling with math when she was ten years old. There I was, living in a forest like an idiot hillbilly, while she was up for the Pulitzer. I realized it was probably a lot more fun succeeding as an artist than struggling as one. I realized what I was doing was ridiculous, and I wondered how in the hell I had gone so wrong, and what Sarah had gotten so right.

she lost to John Patrick Shanley, but still, holy shit

So when Rails came along, I was already obsessed with the general topic of what makes greatness.

If this question interests you too, I have good news. This book contains the definitive answer.

There are a couple other books that came out recently addressing the same question, but in my opinion, they suck. Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is, in my opinion, self-indulgent, incoherent, uninspired, and flat-out unworthy of Gladwell - easily his worst book - and Talent Is Overrated looked too shallow to even investigate. Also, it matters to me that a book be well-written. If you're looking at a book wondering if it's well-written, and the book is called Talent Is Overrated, well, honestly, that ought to be a clue. If the clue isn't enough for you, let me give you another one: I read some sample pages, and it ain't Hemingway.

not the author of Talent Is Overrated

There are a couple other books I can recommend - The Inner Game Of Music and The Creative Habit - but they're really just related books. They don't come anywhere near hitting the same target, or even aiming at it. When it comes to the question of what makes greatness, and how to achieve it, The Talent Code is, in my opinion, the best book on this topic, and for many people, the only book about this topic that you need to read at all.

The book builds on some new research in neuroscience, around a substance called myelin, to a general theory of skill before launching what is (to me) infinitely more interesting: a tour of talent hotbeds all over the world. These are schools which produce disproportionate numbers of superstars in various fields - for instance, a Russian tennis school which trained a staggering number of top ten female tennis stars, a Dallas voice coach who trained Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé, and a ton of American Idol contenders, and a tiny island nation which produces an absurd number of baseball stars, despite having only one or two baseball fields on the entire island. (I think it was the Dominican Republic.)

In fact, my own high school might qualify as a talent hotbed. Alumni include Donald Rumsfeld, Rahm Emanuel, Rainn Wilson, Adam Baldwin (star of Firefly and Chuck), Pete Wentz from the band Fall Out Boy, Al Jourgensen from the band Ministry, Rock Hudson, Charlton Heston, notorious Internet fameball Julia Allison, and many others. Others such as Sarah Ruhl. The Pulitzer nomination didn't actually surprise me all that much, to tell you the truth.

Anyway, the author flew all over the world visiting these places and met with a staggering number of coaches and teachers who send their students straight to the top on a regular basis, and The Talent Code combines detailed theory from neuroscience with a long and impressive survey of the people and places consistently producing greatness, and pulls examples from that survey to illustrate that theory.

It's awesome.

The ultimate message is just practice makes perfect, but it matters a great deal what kind of practice, because practice doesn't always make perfect. Some practice does, some doesn't. You can't get good at something by doing it wrong over and over again. The brief, shallow answer is you require slow, deliberate, focused, challenging practice, but if your goal is greatness, you want more than the brief, shallow answer. If you want to find out what kind of practice makes perfect, and what kind of practice is just useless time-wasting bullshit, believe me, you need to read this book. If you want to find out how to be great at something, or how to teach your kids to be great at something, again, get this fucking book. Seriously. Get it.

Sarah Ruhl with Mary-Louise Parker, star of Weeds, who also starred in one of Sarah's plays. at roughly the same time this picture was taken, I was defending my parents' chickens from a hungry pack of coyotes.

yes, goddammit, coyotes. they tried to eat the chickens. and my dog.

Full disclosure: The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, which pay small sales commissions. This includes the links to books that I told you not to buy, because fuck it, why not. But seriously, forget those books. Read The Talent Code.