What got you here won’t get you there.
I sit down in front of a piano and for a frustrating hour try to translate what my eyes are seeing and where my fingers are. I write code for a living, I think, as my fingers pick out Cs and Fs at a snail’s pace. I can touch type. My fingers are good fingers. But suddenly I am a child again, and there is a gulf of space and understanding between my brain and my body.
I’m watching my mentee’s eyes light up as she talks about the code she’s written. It’s sloppy and rough, but it works. It works and she’s excitedly walking me through the challenges she had and how she conquered them. I’m so proud of the work she’s done and yet I feel the need to walk her through how to neaten up the work; explain that part of why it works now is that she has a bunch of knowledge in her head that’s required to decrypt what she’s written. I feel like a misstep here will crush her interest, and I wonder how important it is that it fits my definition of ‘good’ right now. I remember with guilt the code I wrote when I started writing code. It was worse than this. If someone had taught me then how to write good code, I might be a better coder today.
If someone had destroyed my enthusiasm for code then, I wouldn’t be any kind of coder today.
I’m resting my fingers on the keys and being told to make a grip like I’m holding an apple. I’ve got to read the notes out loud. I feel stupid and frustrated and embarrassed and angry, because my self-worth is at least partly tied up with being good at things. I get to the end of the lesson and decide that if I’m going to do this, I’ll need to wait until I can buy my own piano so I can practice every night. It might be rationalisation. I think my teacher thinks it is.
I picked up code because it was a joyful exercise in solving problems. I still write code today. I’m getting better now, but it means unlearning bad habits. Those bad habits were picked up because I rushed to do it because I enjoyed it. The slow process of breaking down and rebuilding a skill, refining it, is easier because I love it.
What got me here, to reflective self-improvement, was love of the thing. It was bloody-mindedness and failing a thousand times and tearing out my hair. What will get me to the next level will be focus, concentration, and teaching. Bloody-mindedness is not enough any more.
I decide not to instruct my mentee more than is necessary. One day she’ll have a mentee to whom she can show this code and explain that what gets you here won’t get you there – but what gets you there might not get you here.
l’appel du vide
For me the feeling takes root in my calves. As I edge close to a precipice a sensation snakes up my legs and nestles, dry and smooth, in my stomach. It is simultaneously revulsion and appeal: it beckons me over the edge even as it mocks me for imagining it. It gets worse the longer I stand there. My fingers clutch at the railing, twitching in sympathetic resonance with the me in another universe who has vaulted cleanly over and even now forms a perfect arrow that points to certain doom.
Apparently my experience isn’t universal. A friend of mine refuses even to step onto my balcony. His knees shiver when he approaches the door, and even after my coaxing and entreating he’ll do no more than rest a foot on the wood. His whole body is whip-tense, ready to pull back from the edge if it collapses. Not a meter ahead is another friend, who’s sitting on the railing and smoking a cigarette. His posture is perfect. His head is balanced on his spine which traces a curve to his buttocks, and he sits still and composed with one hand resting on his thigh and his bare brown feet glowing in the morning’s light. Smoke curls from his lips; a louche Buddha. He’s completely beautiful. I admire the way he doesn’t hear the call. I wonder if my other friend, white-knuckled and clinging to the frame, hears it too.
I’m still being interviewed by people for new roles. At the same time I’m being asked to take on more responsibility in my day-to-day role. The extra responsibility will help me enormously when I come to apply for more senior roles in my organisation. It’s a secure position from which I could apply anywhere else in the wider organisation. From where I am I get first dibs on a number of roles. I won’t get that from the outside. I’ll lose the contacts and the network: as much as I hope we’ll stay in touch, there’ll be soft little bits of friction that wear away the relationships like tissue on stone. But the more I talk to my friends and colleagues, the more I realise I’ll need to have been out for a little while before I can come back. I need to do a reverse tour of duty: live a life of high pay and international travel before I come back to do the hard, necessary work I love.
I realise suddenly that my friend hears the call just as strongly as I do. The difference between us is that he’s come to peace with the balance, with the in-between-ness of being halfway between the two. I’m almost there now. I’m going to take the role, if it’s offered, and try to improve my skills before coming back to public service in two or three years. I think I can do it.
Only one way to find out.