Skill is effortless

Last night I was near the front of the dance floor at The Sound Table, vibing to the inspiring beats so skillfully laid out by Anna Lunoe. Seemingly effortlessly, she transitioned from track to track, guiding the crowd and letting the crowd guide her. Listening to another set by the inimitable Eric Prydz today, I started thinking about that effortlessness.

While practicing Hapkido at Black Knight, I first heard the saying: a black belt’s job is not merely executing a technique correctly; it is doing so and making it look easy, making it look effortless. You watch a black belt doing a backspin kick, and you think “I could do that”. Until you try to do it, of course, and you realize that somewhere between you and them lies a huge gap in skill.

I like to say a developer’s skill lies in how good they are at searching for existing solutions and answers. You see a problem, your brain connects a few dots, apparently without effort, and you come out with the right set of words to put into Google to figure out your thorny problem of the day (or hour). Or you see a problem, some synapses fire, and you realize “this is just like this thing I did two years ago, only with these three changes”, and you’ve got 80% of your solution already figured out.

When people who know what you do are impressed with your abilities, their reaction isn’t usually “you are so good, I would never have thought of that”. It’s something else: “how did you know to look in that spot first?” “How did you know that putting that track on would make this crowd go wild?” “How did you realize that on this floor your foot shouldn’t rotate as much when doing this kick?”

Skill and beauty in snap decisions, in evolution #

You can spot skill in the snap decisions. The seemingly natural variations to the technique that you wouldn’t have thought of. The extra bass this particular DJ lays down just tonight on a track you’ve heard 100 times so that the music takes on an entirely different flair. The choice of an abstraction you wouldn’t have expected that makes sense in a way completely different from how you saw a problem.

And you can spot the skill in the evolution. The slight difference in the side kick’s direction to set up the followup knee. The choice to drop an obscure old track to follow the latest hotness, out of nowhere, in a way that fits perfectly with the weather and the crowd on this particular evening. The slightly weird decision that leaves your architecture perfectly ready for the next feature, even though no one knew what that feature would be when the original code was written.

To me, that is beauty. That is why software can be beautiful. That is why a martial arts combination, however brutal, can be beautiful. That is why a DJ set can be beautiful.

So thanks to all the skilled folks out there throwing more beauty into the world. Every discovery of an effortless, nearly perfect decision is an inspiration.


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