This was originally posted on Medium in May 2014
You, the Archer
Whatever your field, craft, or work, for a moment consider yourself an archer. Think of everything behind you as the past, and everything in front of you as the future. The arrow that you fire is your end product, the sum of your efforts. You want your arrow to fly as far as possible. You want it to pierce through time, to be a basis for the works of future generations.
Now, if you’re just working to make a quick buck, you probably want to stop reading here.
With a bow and arrow, all other things being equal, the power of your arrow and the distance it flies are functions of the draw weight and the draw length. Basically, how hard and far you can pull the bow string back. Empires have risen and fallen on this relationship. Genghis Khan’s Mongol war machine, which conquered much of the known world during its time, could decimate powerful medieval armies from hundreds of meters away thanks to this relationship.
Even when all things aren’t equal, draw length and draw weight are still essential factors in how far your arrow flies. You can use all manner of technologies and tricks to help you increase draw weight and length. But at the end of the day, that string has to reach far back to launch your arrow with any meaningful power to any meaningful distance.
You are the archer. The farther you draw that bow string back into history, the farther your arrow (your work) flies into the future. The better you understand the history of your field, the more likely that your efforts and work in that field survive the test of time.
The Problems That Matter
The big problems, the ones that matter, were considered long before you and me. Cultures change, knowledge accumulates, and so the framing of these fundamental problems change. But the problems themselves? They persist. You can see that persistence in science. For example, “how did Zeus get thunderbolts?” became, “how do thunderclouds become charged?” Thousands of years of cultural change, experiments, and learning live in the difference between the framing of those two questions. The people who are answering the new iteration of the thunder question know that encoded history. Their ability to work depends on the information contained in that history.
But outside of science? It’s become fashionable to be forward-looking at the expense of fully understanding your craft. Some use this motivated ignorance as an attractive means of rebellion.
“I am my own being. The work of old and dead men has no bearing on me. It might even hinder my creativity. And these guys were probably no smarter than me. I bet some even screwed up the field. Some probably screwed up our whole world.”
And some of that might be true. When you reach into history, you run into occasional blunders or even catastrophes. But mistakes are just as important to learn about and understand. Understanding the history and traditions of your work won’t hinder you. Nor will it cause you to repeat those mistakes. It arms you with the insights that help avoid making them. Better yet, when you understand the history of your craft you gain insights that could help you solve your most challenging problems. On your own these insights might take years to discover.
Start Learning the History of Your Field
But where do you start? Well, it depends. How much do you already know? Did you become a programmer or designer by noodling about on your computer, shunning all history and tradition? Then it might be a good idea to start with an overview of your field. Where, when, and how did it all begin? What led up to it? Who were the important players? What were their contributions? What events shaped your profession? The internet can be a good way to get the broad historical picture of your craft. Use it.
As you learn about the overall story you’ll find information and specific topics that inspire and interest you. Keep track of these. Write them down. See if you can find the historical thread that connects to the very problem you are tackling right now. Where does it lead back to? Who does it lead back to? Jot these down.
While you’re exploring the roots of your craft, start asking yourself, “how does my current work fit in?” and, “how do I fit into this overall story?” When you put yourself and your work in a historical context, you tap into the power of an emergent property of sorts. By yourself, you’re just kind of there. But when you see yourself as a part of a lineage that stretches back longer than you’ve been alive…something happens. A new kind of thinking emerges. You approach your discipline and the world around you differently. In that sense, knowing the history of your field and profession can actually change your work by changing you, the worker. That in turn makes it more likely that the problems and work you choose to tackle will have a lasting impact.
Study the Greats and Their Works
Once you grasp the overall picture of the history of your field, you can start having the real fun. Remember the notes you took about what interests you? Now you get to dive into learning the details about the greats, their stories, and their works.
Find actual works that came before you and study them. Are you a designer? Analyze the designs of the great designers. A programmer? Read the code of the great computer scientists and software engineers. A composer? Pore through the sheet music of great composers. Learn from them. Draw inspiration from their work. Question their work. Why does it work the way it does? Did the creator make the best decisions? What can be improved? What can you glean from it for your own work?
It’s okay to be overwhelmed, baffled, or utterly lost as you analyze the artifacts of your craft’s history. You are feeling the gaps in your understanding that you can fill. Make a note of them and come back to them.
Again, write things down. Writing things down gives you a systematic process for learning and understanding. Writing also lets you preserve your own history. It shields your present thoughts from the corruptive forces of recall and time. Your mood and thinking before and after your morning coffee can drastically change. Recording things as you go along gives you the power to learn and understand your very own history. And every millimeter you can pull that bow string back in time counts.
Pull the Bow String Back
How do you know if you have a good understanding and appreciation of the history and traditions of your craft? Imagine I transport you back in time. There you meet some of the great people from your field. You want to be able to sit with them over a cup of coffee (or your preferred historic beverage) and have meaningful conversation about their work, their methods, and their lives. You want to be able to tell them “this is how I’m applying your work in my time. This is how your methods are helping me do my work. This is how your story inspired me when things got really bad.”
When you can do that, you know that you are pulling that bow string as far back as you can. You’ve become part of the tradition and history of your craft. Knowledge of that history colors and drives you and the work you do. It steers you towards the big, meaningful questions. And it’s tough to play it safe, give up, or cut corners when you keep the company of great people, works, and historical events.
And like the very events, people, and their works you took the time to study, you and your work will one day be studied. Because when you release your arrow, it will fly far into the future.