How Fast Can You Take Your Time, Kid?

Ryan James Spencer

There is nothing wrong with chopping wood and carrying water. Hard work certainly pays off. Hackers are notorious for revelling in laziness but laziness has a stigma of the lazy party not being enough. Wikipedia states,

[laziness] may reflect a lack of self-esteem, a lack of positive recognition by others, a lack of discipline stemming from low self-confidence, or a lack of interest in the activity or belief in its efficacy.

I'm not sure I think laziness is the right virtue for what hackers claim it stands for. I'm not sure I think laziness is right for me.

Taoism has this idea called Wu Wei "a concept literally meaning "inexertion" or "inaction"". Wu Wei implies that going against one's nature is an act of exertion. A tree has Wu Wei as it grows; there is no thinking or straining towards the new shape but simply an act of being, of following it's instincts towards the light and water.

William S. Burroughs wrote an essay called 'Do Easy' and Gus van Sant recorded a video about it under the same name. The Discipline of Do Easy embodies much, in my eyes, that is Wu Wei.

There is sometimes an illusion of progress through lots of pull-requests, updated dependencies, rushing to complete features, and so on. Discomfort and pain are nature's way of telling us that we are growing. It is the same when your brain hurts when you study as it is when you exercise at the gym; growth is a constant cycle of compression and decompression. How do we pair this cycle with the idea of Wu Wei and Do Easy?

The Parable of Cook Ting is my favorite Taoist fable. In it, an emperor eats a meal that touches him deeply; someone who cooks a meal like that must know a thing or two about life! And off he goes to beg the chef to share his secrets. The cook replies:

What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

he goes on to talk about his tool of the trade,

A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone. However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

It isn't to say that discomfort or pain won't come. Overexerting yourself when a task needs far less effort is wasted effort. It damages you and your tools. You and your mind are the knife. You are the chef. Many times we jump to hacking away tirelessly when a no-code solution is right there in front of us. When code is required finding the toil and automating it away alleviates wasted effort from repetition you don't need to make.

Work in a way so you never need a grindstone. Growth is no different. Exercising without any rest means there is no time for your body to recover and build new muscles. Sleeping on a subject you've been studying allows your subconscious to forge new connections which is the essence of learning. There are healthy ways to grow as there are healthy ways to work. Don't be the machine.

Keep your eyes on what you're doing, be patient, and move with the greatest subtlety until the whole thing crumbles before you.