TO STAY ON THE TOP OF THINGS OR TO STAY ON THE BOTTOM OF THINGS?

TO STAY ON THE TOP OF THINGS OR TO STAY ON THE BOTTOM OF THINGS?

2021, Jun 20    

Donald Knuth, winner of the Turing Award (considered the Nobel Prize of computer science) famously wrote,

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

An interesting perspective, especially because it’s coming from a computer scientist, a field that advances (in another word, changes) every day. In Information Technology, being on top of things is often considered a prerequisite, not just a recommendation for success. And yet, Donald Knuth, being immensely successful in this field is instead choosing to be on the bottom of things.

I thought about this deeply and made some conclusions.

Breadth vs depth

The breadth of computer science is endless and its depth is bottomless. Many of us in this field pursue breadth and keep jumping from one thing to another. But I think Donald Knuth knows what he is doing. He is not trying to get to the bottom of a lot of things in computer science. Rather, he focuses on just one area at a time and reaches the bottom of that.

For many of us, taking a side in the breadth vs depth debate is not really a choice. Our life and job always force us to be in firefighting mode and to strive for staying on top of so many things. We can’t just say goodbye to email no matter how badly we want to do just that (on a side note, for my non-work-related communications, I decided to use just one messaging app to safeguard my sanity). For work, I can’t eliminate email (or Slack) but I have my very own, time-tested email management which is a discussion for another day.

Am I a swimmer or a diver? 

Here is a confession. Although I know going to the depth of something would be personally fulfilling and professionally rewarding; but from time to time, I find that I don’t have the patience and mental capabilities to fully devote myself to just one thing for a long period of time. It’s easier to swim around (breadth) than holding my breath for a deep dive into depth. There are many reasons why after diving in shallow water for some time I gave up on diving deeper  -

  1. My intellectual ability reaches its limit at some point and by that time, I don’t have the energy and motivation left to resurface and solidify the basics and try again. 

  2. I get distracted by the latest and trendiest technologies (aka hypes).

  3. I don’t have enough love for the subject matter to go through the pain and sacrifices mentioned above.

The sweet spot 

Although I have been working in IT roles and in the industry for over a decade, academically, I did not study computer science. But I always loved computer science and IT. To me, it’s almost a form of entertainment! Luckily, as a by-product of that love, I have been able to earn some decent income throughout my career. So, I was never really forced to deep dive. And as I mentioned earlier, I lacked the discipline and motivation required for a self-imposed deep dive. Is it a bad thing? Probably not. At least for me. The world needs both swimmers and divers. More importantly, I enjoy learning about a wide variety of things. Of course, I often feel overwhelmed and lost at times. That’s where I can learn from the deep divers. Even if I cannot dive to the deep water, diving to the shallow water from time to time can surely help me to swim better on the surface water.

This is not a new realization for me though. And I also understand that this approach has made me dive into the wrong spots.

I hope one day while swimming in yet another amazing place I will take my regular shallow dive. And for a magical reason, I will decide that it’s worth sacrificing the beauty above the surface water for a real deep dive despite the uncertainty and struggle attached to it. I just don’t know how and when, or even if it will ever happen. Apology if you read this far thinking I would at least offer a cliche solution for this. Well, I won’t. Let me know if you have any solutions. But then again, maybe it’s not even a problem that needs a solution.


Love traveling? Visit my travel picture blog Tales of Trails