Against Esoterophobia

First Published: Jan 2021

An insidious anti-pattern in my work goes something like this. I get hung up on a minor technical detail and get frustrated. Then, I somehow convince myself that this thing I’ve spent hours of my time grinding at + for which I had a sound reason to do doing going in is worthless. What’s the value in unit-testing this minor function, anyway?

So I stop working on the thing 1, telling myself it’s not ‘big picture’ enough or won’t have impact or some BS. This strain of thinking is dangerous because it makes it far too easy to stop focusing on the details (which are often the hard bits which you get hung up on).

Flashy and high feluten ideas and technologies are often lagging indicators of progress. Before you get Tesla you need Li-ion battery technologies, large scale manufacturing etc. Before you get AlexNet you need CUDA (and large-scale fabs and the transistor - the list goes on…). And before you had a complex financial system you had to have methods for accounting. Companies couldn’t exist without HR departments and Netflix wouldn’t exist without load balancers.

Each of these ‘breakthroughs’ demanded tens of thousands of hours of head banging on small problems that mostly had seemingly no short-term impact.

The net result of progress on the ‘boring’ details was amazing systems and technologies that we couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) live without. And they wouldn’t have been possible without these ‘largely academic’ breakthroughs.

Note to self: Avoid thinking what you are working on or learning in the moment is too esoteric to contribute to something useful. Against esoterophobia.

Relatedly, avoid discounting the impact of unrealised potential (future ideas) or systems that are less immediately visible2. An easy trap to fall into, and just clearly suboptimal behaviour.

PS. This is not to discredit the incredibly important consideration of teleology and working backwards from the problem. Having a theory of change is vital for doing anything useful. But once a solid strategy is set, stick it through and don’t get discouraged when the going gets tough.

  1. At least temporarily, this doesn’t (usually) lead me to wholesale abandonment of projects which I have thought long and hard about undertaking. But it has killed my reading of a fair few books, papers, etc. ↩︎

  2. Beyond even the availability heuristic, there is a definate discounting of the impact of non visual ideas. There is something to the idea that in most people’s minds much of the world things boil down to a few scenes from a Hollywood movie. ↩︎