The end of the beginning

I am a stereotypical thirty-something programmer who started writing BASIC programs when I was six years old and “fell in love” with technology at that age. More accurately, I fell in love with the idea of producing creative and useful software.

It took about a decade until I could turn that idea into a reality. Everything I was doing up until my late teenage years or early 20s was just playing around: tinkering and learning, dreaming and hoping.

But then I turned professional. I gave talks at conferences. I built open source projects that tens of thousands of people still use. I wrote several books. I ran a code school. I’ve served as a trusted consultant and advisor to a whole bunch of interesting and important businesses. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

* * *

What they don’t tell you when you’re growing up is that once you reach this point, you don’t get to settle in and say “Oh hey, I’ve finally made it! Everything is awesome now, forever.”

What they really don’t tell you is that a decade of learning plus a decade or more of honest-to-God work experience is just the end of the beginning. And worse, that there are no shortcuts that will get you to this point sooner in life.

The problem that happens once you get the skills, the experience, the connections, the support network, etc… is that you have to really answer the question: What end am I working toward? What is the point of all this?

It’s much easier to answer that question, in a vague and sort of abstract way, when you lack some of what you need in order to be held accountable for your answer. Life is so much easier when you can say “Well, as soon as I learn X, I’ll be able to Y”, or “As soon as I gain a strong reputation for A, then I’ll finally get to B.”

It’s much harder when you actually have everything you need to succeed in the ‘raw materials’ sense of the word, but then realize that deeper things are holding you back: fear of failure, or even success… the pain and suffering that comes from unskillful living and a lack of adequate health and wellness… the ennui that comes along with realizing that hard things are actually hard and that you may in fact not be just five years out from “changing the world” in any meaningful sense of the world.

Education and experience have a tendency to make the world appear larger upon deep reflection. And the larger the world gets, the more you realize how small you really are. Some find this humbling, although I’d guess that most people also find it terrifying. I know I do.

And so I’m driven these days by only two questions:

– How can I be of service?

– How can I live well?

These questions are my personal guardians at the gate to the “beginning of the middle” of a six decade long career. I do not know yet whether they are friends or foes, only that they are there and that in order to move beyond the “end of the beginning”, I must wrestle with them.

It’s bittersweet, but also inspiring in its own way.