Let me tell you about my day today.
Tonight is the first day of the Jewish new year, and my housemates are having a festival dinner. They didn’t ask me to make anything, but I decided to bake a desert my family traditionally makes for the holiday. I’m quite fond of the dish, a chewy honey and walnut rod wrapped in dough, and I thought it would be a good piece of home to take with me. My parents faxed me the recipe, I bought the ingredients yesterday, making a few substitutions. (It wasn’t worth buying a bottle of nutmeg when all the recipe needed was a dash of it.) Anyway, this being my first solo baking escapade, it went about as well as could be expected. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that the honey got slightly burnt, the dough was crumbly, and the result was merely edible.
As I was doing my best to preserve family history as a part of a three-thousand-year-old holiday, my housemates were recovering from an alcohol-drenched night out. (I had stayed in uneventfully.) As I called my family several states away, I learned that my older sister was flying across the country, from L.A. where she had a job interview and caught a stomach bug, to Boston where I was before driving up to New Hampshire. My mother suggested I should invite her over for dinner. I texted my housemate and asked if that was okay. It was not, she hadn’t prepared enough food, so I offered to make something and told her my sister doesn’t each much. At this point I received a number of … high-strung text messages from her. (I learned later that she had been in the middle of recounting the story of last night to a friend that had blacked out.) Meanwhile I was panicking about how the cores of my baked dish had turned out hard and burnt. I decided the best thing for my sick and tired sister was to go be a mature, married adult, and stay away from these collegiate shenanigans.
We all have crises, but how do we handle them? And then do we handle the next crisis differently?
The Jewish new year has a rather different feel than its secular counterpart. Rather than look forward with brash resolutions we already know we won’t keep, it’s a time to look backwards, remember, and introspect. Rosh HaShannah, meaning “head of the year,” is not so much a holiday as a holy day. It’s joyous, but not celebratory. It marks the traditional date of the creation of the world, at the hands of forces far beyond those of frail, mortal human beings. It is a day of humility, of honest recollection of the year past, and a reminder that creation is much larger and more mature than any one of us.
For everything that went wrong with my baked creation, I learned how I can do it better next time. And even though the recipe didn’t turn out how I would like, I’m happy with it. When all I was sent was the paper recipe, I lost the knowledge that my father had accrued about it. I also did not have access to the tools (like a rolling pin) and spices found in my parents’ house. But I’m happy got to make the same recipe as my father at the same time he made it back home. (I was consoled to learn that it’s a difficult recipe and he’s had 30 years to perfect it.)
It was, perhaps, naïve to think that I could replicate the dish of my childhood, infused with the secret ingredients of memory and family, on my first try. This is the state of being an amateur, and there is nothing wrong with it if you know where you are and work to get better. I’m not particularly proud of my baked sticks, but I’m proud that I tried and I proud that I learned something. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made in my academic studies in my chosen field of computer science over the last few years, even though I still have a long way to go. I’m proud that I’ve decided that I don’t need to get black-out drunk to have fun, and that having learned that about myself I don’t have to keep learning it.
A computer programmer revels in creation. Every new program brings the chance to start from scratch, a clean slate. There is only the programmer’s own abilities and imagination against the constraints of math and logic. Invariably, as the program gets bigger, it acquires its own quirks and imperfections like deepening ruts. If left unchecked, the program becomes unmanageable, unfocused, and incoherent. Avoiding these issues takes both careful planning and expertise born of making mistakes.
On a larger scale, this is exactly what has happened to the Internet, that gift of programmers to the rest of the world. As Andrew Keen describes in his book The Cult of the Amateur (2007), the internet is based on the idea that “anonymous, volunteer enthusiasts, could aggregate their knowledge into the sum total of human wisdom.” He is critical of this idea, insisting that the real-world institutions like college degrees and journalism bylines create the gates and accountability necessary for a quality product.
But his argument falls on deaf ears, all the more so five years after publication. Wikipedia, which he criticizes, has forced Britannica to abandon their print edition. Open source software, aka amateur software, is the ultimate quagmire of locking in old practices and locking out clean visions. With YouTube, amateur musicians remix existing content in a downward spiral of quality and make it harder for the best musicians to make a living. (I agree with Kirby Furguson that Everything is Remix, but “everything” includes the bad as well as the good.) And now education too is falling into the same trap: the amateur Salman Khan is creating a series of educational videos, despite having no formal training as a teacher. Much like Wikipedia, he has a nonprofit and enough hubris to lay claim to all of human knowledge. The Khan Academy, and other organizations funded by the Gates Foundation, think they are masters of creation. They delude themselves in their willful immaturity.
Mr. Khan, a question for you. In all your time in prestigious engineering and MBA programs, did you ever find something you couldn’t do? Did you ever, say, walk in on some guys baking a weird stick-shaped desert, and insist it was easy? Did you make substitutions in the traditional recipe indiscriminately and ignore the people who had baked it before? If you ever made a mistake like this, did you take the time to realize that it’s not at all simple?
I know I won’t get an answer out of him, but I think I know what he would say. He celebrates that he isn’t tied down to the dogma of teaching. When he makes a mistake, he tells journalists that it was intentional. This is a man who can’t own up to the fact that he has more trust vested in him than warranted. And how could he, with all the millions of dollars in donations he’s brought in?
Maturity and creation are intertwined. On Rosh HaShannah, I am reminded just how much maturity it takes to create. Human beings are fleeting and ignorant on the scale of evolutionary and cosmic time. And yet, we’re offered hope that we can improve, that we can become more mature and more capable creators, but only if we candidly acknowledge our faults, and diligently avoid making the same mistake twice.
If everyone would act this way – not saying that I always do – I think the world would be a far better place.