Saturday, September 30, 2006

Big Things are Made up of Lots of Little Things

Part 1 - God is in the Details

Big things are made up of lots of little things. This is perhaps the first aphorism I ever wrote. I want to make it clear that I take no credit for the ideas behind my aphorisms, only the form. "There is nothing new under the sun," as King Solomon once said. However, some aphorisms convey more than they may seem at first, and this one has proven to be one of them. In fact, it has meant more and more to me over the years, so much so that I am going to have to divide my discourse on this deceptively simple saying into several sub-topics, each dealing with one possible interpretation of it.

Now, as to the subtitle, there are several well-known versions of this aphorism, which was to the best of my knowledge, originally penned by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German architect who lived at the turn of the 20th century, about 100 years prior to this writing. He is the author of several excellent aphorisms, such as "Less is more," and "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." I'm sure you're familiar with one or more of the variations.

I can certainly appreciate Mr. van der Rohe's thinking; in fact, building physical buildings has a great deal in common with software development, and in recent years, "Software Architect" has become a common term for a software developer who designs software systems, much as traditional architects design human environmental systems. In my younger and more "eclectic" years, I spent several years as a framing and finishing carpenter, and when I began to write software, the similarities astonished me.

In modern societies, the average life expectancy has increased to nearly 80 years. Assuming that the average human being sleeps about 8 hours per day, that time span comes to 5,840 days of waking time, or 93,440 hours. This comes to 5,606,400 minutes. Now, a minute might not seem like a long time, but if you've never tried this experiment, take a watch with a second hand, or a stop-watch, and simply watch it for exactly one minute, doing nothing else. Everything is relative. Now, imagine that one was to pay attention and put forth one's best effort for every minute of one's waking life. Imagine what could be accomplished.

But we humans are lazy by nature. I'm not talking about never relaxing, as relaxation is necessary for good health, but let's not forget that we are assuming 8 hours of sleep per night, which is certainly a fair amount of relaxation (1,868,800 minutes during the average lifetime) as well. But of course, relaxation during one's waking time is productive, if it is done in the right amount, no more, and no less. But let's face it: we are lazy by nature. In fact, it is entirely possible to relax, have some fun, and be productive, all at the same time. Life is much like a chess game; the more objectives one can accomplish with a single move, the more likely one is to be successful. I often relax by watching the news on television, or playing computer games that exercise my problem-solving and analytical skills.

To be brutally truthful, we all waste a great deal of our very limited lifetime on this planet. And being self-deceptive, we often excuse it with existential philosophy, or ignore it altogether. Now, it is not the purpose of this discussion to define what constitutes "productive" activity. For the time being, let us presume that in many ways, what is productive is largely subjective. But at least, let us agree that for each of us, a personal definition of "productivity" exists.

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, in about 7 years. Of course, life expectancy was much less at the time, but Michelangelo did live to be almost 90 years old. So, he spent less than one tenth of his waking lifetime painting what is arguably one of the greatest works of art created by any human being.

In the early 1900's a Latvian-American sculptor and engineer named Edward Leedskalnin, in the space of 28 years, single-handedly built a castle in Homestead, Florida (USA). It was built entirely from blocks of coral, many of which weighed several tons. There are some other remarkable aspects of this castle as well, such as a 9-ton revolving door, so perfectly balanced that a child could move it with a single finger. His lifetime was about 64 years, so he spent nearly half of it working on this mysterious wonder. Nobody knows for sure how he managed to do it, and there are, of course, various theories, some of which are clearly superstitious. But the point I am trying to make is that a single human being, in the span of 28 years, built something marvellous and incredible, that will remain one of the wonders of the world for centuries, if not millenia to come.

What do these achievements have in common? These were men who were incredibly detail-oriented, and "simply" paid attention to every little detail of a monumental task, over a period of years. This is a rare trait, but it is my contention that any human being is capable of greatness, simply by diligence and a consistent committment to excellence in the small things. Each of these accomplishments, as great as they were, was achieved by a long series of small efforts, exercised with consistent attention to detail.

The trick, of course, is to achieve that level of self-discipline. But it seems far better to me to, perhaps, "waste" a "meaningless" life time to accomplish something remarkable. Even if it all comes to nothing in the end, at least one will have the pleasure in the meantime of enjoying the fruit of one's labor. And of course, this harkens back to my earlier remarks about excusing laziness with "existential philosophy." Although I believe in life after death, even if I did not, the sheer beauty of such excellence would motivate me to both admire and seek to achieve it.

If for no other reason, I would follow in the footsteps of George Mallory, the British mountain climber, who, in 1924, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, answered simply "Because it's there." Mr. Mallory disappeared during his attempt to scale the summit; it will never be known if he achieved his goal. Many people would probably agree that his effort was wasted. I certainly have no aspirations to risk life and limb to climb a mountain. But I cannot help but admire his willingness to give everything he had to achieve his life's goal, and his determination not to falter. Let the "existentialists" try to call him a fool. If all is useless, or "vanity" as Solomon would have said, then nothing is wasted either.


Charlie Brown said...

Just wanted to drop a line and say hello. I often see your comments in the newsgroups, most recently "Argument with a developer". Your comments have helped me in some of my projects, thanks for taking the time to give back to the community.

Uncle Chutney said...

Thanks, "Charlie." I try, and you are very kind!