Reverence for the Craft, Business, and Your Immortal Soul

I have fortnightly piano lessons with an extremely young teacher - yes, I left Asia only to become more Asian than I ever was back home. At a guess, I would say he's about 21 years old - very cool. Long hair, a very laid back manner of speech, and always ready with some fascinating detail about whatever piece we're working on.

And my God the dude shreds! I'll be asking for advice on beginner-level improv, and he'll say something to the effect of "Well, start by really learning your scales even if they're dull... then you can do something like -" and will proceed to absolutely rock the fuck out for a minute.

Absolutely effortless, and with such immense passion and focus for what is being done at that exact moment. It got me thinking about reverence for your craft.


On any given day at work, I'm doing one of two things - I'm drinking tea, which is spiritually good even though the office provides terrible tea, and participating in uploading data to a warehouse from utterly soulless third-party enterprise systems, which is spiritually not good, because it turns out even proximity to things that aren't cared for is corossive.

What do I mean? Well, I used to work personally with one of these soulless sytems, that we had purchased at great expense, to handle some critical business details. The implementation details of this software were awful. The data model was lunacy, all the fields were the wrong types, the table names were all things like 'ABV_FGV_774', the field names were chock-full of abbreviations, our internal staff had resorted to just typing data into unrelated fields that were seldom used to save on asking for modifications, and the vendor charged a prohibitive amount of money to make improvements. I am likely not describing anything new to any readers in technology, but for those not in technology, this is a bit like renting out a car for $100,000 that needs to be pushed into a running start by twelve burly gym-goers, and changing a tire is going to run you up $20,000.

At first, I thought the problem was that working with the thing was frustrating because... well, look at it. It sucks.

A few years later and with a little bit more wisdom under my belt, yes, it was frustrating for that reason. But frustration isn't always a problem. I learned to code. That's basically just blasting through six months of frustration because you're too dumb to read a stack trace carefully.

No, the issue is that it was obvious no one cared about the quality of this thing. In fact, let's say that again with the capital it deserves. No one cared about the Quality of this thing. It was the exact opposite of how my piano teacher approaches his playing. When you work day in and day out with something where Quality isn't important, you take psychic damage. When you work with people that don't at least share a vision of Quality, then you struggle to have happy relationships with them. When you have to compromise on Quality in favor of money, the soul cries out and you draw the borders of yourself away.

Of course, and this is a sad statement, but this seems to be the very nature of working for most businesses. The reality is that there are considerations other than the pure pursuit of Quality and patient work. The business must earn money, there are people you must avoid pissing off because while they do not produce Quality, they may also be peers or seniors, and also sometimes you don't have enough left in the tank to insist on Quality. Also, more frequently, someone wants to get promoted so we're doing the thing they want.

I have, this very year, approved some bad code because I was worn down on that particular day, and wasn't looking forward to another argument because I'm like one of two people that ever rejects code. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

So it seems inevitable, but also, fuck that. Upon reflection, there isn't a quantity of money large enough to make me ditch the pursuit of Quality in the largest domains of my life. I turned down a job that would have doubled my salary last week because the person talking to me gave me slightly off vibes. Again, I am not a reasonable person.


What is Quality? Let's not waste too much time on that. You know what it is. It's a vague constellation of things, that I and most of the people I consider 'good' will agree on. It doesn't mean complex and it doesn't mean simple, but it's frequently simple.

But maybe it's worth talking about what it's not.

Firstly, it's not synonymous with something that brings you grand meaning in life, though it helps. At this point, I've spoken to so many more experienced people that I am extremely confident in one fact - you can't find major meaning in life at work if you work for someone else. That's okay. In many ways it's easier than self-employment, and you get lots of time to find the meaning elsewhere. And if you don't get enough time, get paid more and work less. This is left as an exercise for the reader.

Secondly, it's not something you can unilaterally enforce at work because it isn't visible to many other people. If they don't have aesthetic sense and if they can't program (or do whatever your craft is), then that's it. This is why it's absolutely disastrous to have managers with no technical knowledge running any sort of team that relies on it. They will be able to pick up superficial quality - tickets cleared, sprint velocity, and how big the buzzwords you use are. They will completely miss out on Capital Q Quality, which might be how carefully crafted the code is, how gently you treat a co-worker, and how big the buzzwords you use ironically are.

Lord forgive me, I am done with management that can't see Quality.

Thirdly, Quality isn't always good for the business. Sometimes you have to ship garbage now, and that's just how it is. If customers choose to buy something bad because something good is too expensive, well, the business may adapt and go uphill financially, but it will go downhill spiritually - but the other choice was bankruptcy, so that's that. But honestly, at this point, just move to something Quality again. No being reasonable.

And finally, Quality isn't fun. Detecting Quality requires mastery, and mastery is like, really fucking boring sometimes. It's just important to realize that boredom isn't going to kill you.

I used to be a pretty good fencer. I competed a bit at the inter-university level, led a team once inter-state, and have occasionally beaten some pretty talented people. Do you know how fencers start to get good?

You just drill footwork relentlessly. In fact, my coach was relatively lax in this regard by modern standards, and still felt like a lot of footwork. I probably spent three hours a week, out of a total of nine spent fencing, getting hit and hearing a livid Polish man say "You are allowed to step back!". Once you're done with the footwork, you get promoted to "You are allowed to parry!"

Now I'm learning the piano, and before I get to have fun, I have a million years of catching up to do because half the maniacs I'm trying to catch up with were forced to practice from age 10 to 16. So guess what? It's pretty basic songs and trying to flash-burn Anki cards onto my cortex so that I can read sheet music with the tools that an adult has the discipline to use.

And you know what? Even in the technology space, I've just crunched through like 450 pages of reading material, some of it relatively technical, because I'm hoping that the ability to see better Quality will let me work at places that have higher Quality. I've finally learned a Lisp and basic data structures (what are the universities teaching kids these days!).

To quote a reader:

It’s a rare thing, and it’s mostly worthless from a “career” standpoint: in corporateland, it doesn’t matter if you’re best or serviceable. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great accountant or an accountant. As long as the books are done, no one cares. Doesn’t meant you shouldn’t strive to be the best accountant, but you gotta live with the reality that being great at something is mainly for you.

I know one person whose love of Quality in a very boring field doubled his salary, but I wouldn't count on it, because my brilliant piano teacher is also forced to teach me (though he enjoys it, I hope!) because I work in I.T at 1/10th his skill level.

All that study is mainly for me. But I keep the piano going on the side, because I, not management, have to take responsibility for the maintenance of my soul (and the same goes for you too).


A lot of this, including the capital Q, was inspired by a reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance this year. I picked it up when I was 18, fully 11 years ago now, and pronounced it as absolutely insane garbage. Now I think it's still a bit insane (which, given the subject matter, is not entirely unexpected) but certainly not garbage. Here's a relevant passage:

"What I wanted to say," I finally get in, "is that I've a set of instructions at home which open up great realms for the improvement of technical writing. They begin, 'Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.’ "

This produces more laughter, but Sylvia and Gennie and the sculptor give sharp looks of recognition.

"That’s a good instruction," the sculptor says. Gennie nods too.

"That’s kind of why I saved it," I say. "At first I laughed because of memories of bicycles I'd put together and, of course, the unintended slur on Japanese manufacture. But there's a lot of wisdom in that statement."

John looks at me apprehensively. I look at him with equal apprehension. We both laugh. He says, "The professor will now expound."

"Peace of mind isn't at all superficial, really," I expound. "It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don't have this when you start and maintain it while you're working you're likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself."

They just look at me, thinking about this.

"It's an unconventional concept," I say, "but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don't have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn't any other test."

DeWeese asks, "What if the machine is wrong and I feel peaceful about it?"


I reply, "That's self-contradictory. If you really don't care you aren't going to know it’s wrong. The thought’ll never occur to you. The act of pronouncing it wrong's a form of caring."

I would argue that assembly of piano piece, database, fencing bout, management, blog, and possibly life, requires great piece of mind. Definitely Japanese bicycle. Time uninterrupted by meetings, an amount of pressure that isn't constantly distracting you while you work, and whatever you need to attend to the building or maintenance in peace and quiet. You have to be able to work slowly and patiently, and to whatever standard your soul is happy with.

You know the progression of angry fencing coach admonishments above? You start with "You are allowed to step back!", move on to "You are allowed to parry!", and then, and only then, do you graduate to the highest-tier of advice:

"Move faster - but slowly!"

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