May 22, 2019
The Tao of do
When I was ten years old, we moved into the house that had belonged to my great-grandparents. My father and his three brothers did most of the work building this house. They left a large part of the basement unfinished, which is where my great-grandfather had his shop and my great-grandmother did her churning.
When we moved in, we were short one bedroom. Dad decided that I should build out my own room out of part of the unfinished basement, under his supervision. We began by putting in joists over blocks on the concrete floor, and then I started nailing the tongue-and-groove pine flooring over the joists. I tried to be careful not to miss the nail and scar the flooring. Nailing at an angle just above the tongue so the nail heads wouldn’t show, I kept on glancing off the nail and sending it flying across the room, or bending the nail after it was half-way in.
Dad tried to give me helpful advice while he sat on the exposed part of the joists and sipped his beer, but occasionally he couldn’t help chuckling at my frustration. I wanted so badly to do a good job on this project, and with each wasted nail or scarred plank, I felt the tears welling up in my eyes.
Finally, I lost my composure. I began blubbering uncontrollably, and at the same time in my anger I grabbed nail after nail and pounded them in as hard and fast as I could go.
They all went in perfectly.
I stopped and caught my breath and wiped my eyes. Dad was laughing so hard he had to hold his sides. “You could always do it,” he said. “You just had to get mad enough!”
I don’t know that the anger was essential, but doing without over-thinking was the key in that case.
I’ve seen that at other times. For instance, when playing pool, it’s easy to over-engineer a difficult shot. Sometimes you just need to shoot, almost without looking.
In programming, too, you can easily think yourself right out of solving the problem at all. Yet, if you take the “cowboy coding” approach all the time, you end up with an unintelligible mess.
When we do well without forethought, we are following the way.
Yet never employing forethought is not following the way.
To say that there is one true way is not the way.
Yet to say there is no true way is also not the way,
Though it may be for a while.