Practice what you love

I recently watched an excellent documentary, Scratch. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the world of DJ-ing, turntablism and hip-hop. Below is a video of Roc Raida performing at the 1996 DMC US finals. A clip from this set is featured in the documentary. (Check out the DMC videos page for more recent championship performances. I highly recommend C2C's 2005 set).

One of the interesting things I picked up from in the documentary was how much work each of the DJs put into their sets. Roc Raida and Rob Swift talk about how it took months of practice to complete the set above. Earlier in the documentary another DJ, Steve Dee, talks about how he read in a book, "if you practice for one year and give up everything -- women, wine -- you'll be the best at what you do." So that's what he did, and he went on to become one of the most innovative and respected DJs in history of hip-hop.

(Part of my awe towards these guys could be attributed to the fact that in college I bought a couple turntables and a mixer and set upon what was probably one of the most feeble attempts ever at learning how to become a DJ.)

A few months ago the authors of Freakonomics recently published another very interesting article in New York Times Magazine. The question it addresses is one that I've been thinking about a lot recently, "When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?"

The article presents an answer: people get good through a process of deliberate practice, explained as "setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome." The authors argue that people who are the best at what they do become that way because of hard work, not because they're born with that ability. Related to this discussion, the article points out, "when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good."

As I think about where I am today, the answer posed in the article seems relevant to my experience. Not that I can be compared to Michael Jordan in anything that I can do, but I feel like I'm fairly proficient within my specialties. I know I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't blessed with the opportunity to create a career out of something I loved doing.

I had an eye-opening moment about a year or ago was when I was cleaning up some old directories on my computer. I noticed a fully-functional web application I had created a couple years prior that I had completely forgotten about. It was something that I developed as a personal project, with a slight hope that I could sell it to a client someday. As I dug through my archive, it amazed me to see the collection of software that I created on my free time -- a web-based email client that I wrote one summer in college, a few solitaire card games that I created for my wife to play (because that's what geeks do for their wives instead of buying flowers), dozens of scripts to automate assorted things (one of which served as the foundation for Ponyfish), open source software that I hadn't touched in a long time (you can still find some here and here), and many half-started or half-finished projects that had been abandoned for one reason or another.

The trove highlighted the fact that I loved creating software products, something that my career was starting to take me away from. It was also eye-opening to think back and realize that the skills I possess today were mostly acquired and developed on my own. I have a degree in Computer Science, but I never had a class that taught me about the web. I've never been at a job that sent me to training to learn to do what I do now every day.

If I didn't love what I do, I wouldn't have spent countless days of free time learning and doing on my own. And if I didn't spend that time, I wouldn't be able to enjoy any of the success I have today.

What if I find my love for software development fading someday? If I don't dust off the dozen business plans I also found, or the short stories and half-finished novel I started in college, maybe I'll get those turntables out of the closet.

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