The Importance of Making Junk

I was just sitting here looking over some old code projects of mine, and thinking “Man this stuff is junk. How’d I write this?! And why’d I waste my time on it?” These included a Java library for parsing tweets for data mining (boy that was going to be a great open source project), my first .NET application that was for work and used Microsoft Access as a back-end, and various other half-started works that never really took hold. At first this was rather discouraging, since it reminded me of my genetic pre-disposition to not following through on my projects (a topic for another day for sure).

Then it hit me: it’s only by writing all this crap (and believe me, most of it really is steaming piles of crap), trying out different routes and ideas, and ultimately letting them fall off that I’ve been able to improve my skills as much as I have. Picture the proverbial writer sitting at the typewriter with a pile of crumpled papers next to them, head in hands. But then, one day, something clicks, and out comes a masterpiece.

It’s not important that all we produce is wonderful, glittery, and perfect. No, what’s really crucial is that we keep going and pushing ourselves, especially when it seems like all we churn out is junk. That junk is gold, because it’s what teaches us to do better. As long as we keep learning from our mistakes and bad ideas, then we grow as professionals and human beings. And sooner or later, you might just produce that golden egg.

The importance of writing things down

My co-worker Vikas (or VK as we like to call him) said something quite funny today that struck a chord with me.  As we were walking out I jokingly chided him for not responding to an e-mail from our development group regarding an upcoming release.  His response: “Of course I didn’t remember.  My brain has a session cache expiration of 20 minutes!”

*Note: for those of you on the less geeky end of the spectrum, a “session cache” is essentially a stored picture of various things you’ve entered into a particular web site.  It’s how GMail knows you’re already logged in, for instance.  The “expiration time” sets how long this information is kept in memory on the web server before being purged.

His remark, though meant in jest, actually made quite a good point.  Human memory is nothing if not volatile and unreliable.  All you need do is browse the pages of Wikipedia or Blogger to find some good references.  In fact, I would say that this is one of, if not the, fundamental principle behind GTD: don’t trust your brain, it will inevitably let you down.

I always make it a point to get everything out of my brain and into my lists as quickly as possible.  If I don’t have access to my tool of choice (Remember The Milk), I’ll usually write myself an e-mail via the Crackberry.  Once I process through all the items in my inbox, the task will get added to the relevant list in RTM.  I do also use my trusty notebook when in meetings, using a variant of John Kendrick’s excellent system to record all the action items or questions that come out of my sessions.  I’m not perfect, and I do slip up from time to time.  But it’s still a far better alternative than trusting the vast amount of information coming in to that pile of gray matter between my ears.