This is the twelfth sending of Letters to J
. We hope this one reminds you of a good friend.
(Justin ⇒ Jasdev, 8/10/20)
I’m curious to hear about folks in your life who have embodied this. Who’s the smartest person you know (in any sense of the word, acknowledging the dimensionality)? And as importantly, why?
— Jasdev, in letter #11.
My first reaction is to recoil a bit at the word “smartest”. I’ll elide the obligatory paragraphs about gifted kid syndrome, but I think an important realization for me (cliche as it is) was that intelligence was a characteristic rather than a virtue.
I think I spent so long optimizing for wielding “intelligence” like a mace that I could throw at problems that the people whom I admire (and I like that word — admirable — because it fits the roundness of what I’m trying to convey) are people who are clearly brilliant but don’t make it their personality.
It’s hard to pick a single person, but I’ll go with the three I had in mind during the original tweet (with initials instead of names, so as to slightly minimize the embarrassment of public adulation):
- M is definitely the best engineer I know; I worked with him for a year and a half, he was incredibly competent and clever and pleasant, and someone who worked for the work — they had (have) retirement money, but are clearly so attracted to the problem-solving nature of their work they can’t stay away. (To wit, we stopped working together because they changed orgs, to find a more interesting problem to solve).
- A was one of my first mentors in industry, and probably my first friend at a company in general. They reminded me of (and they would absolutely ravage me for making this comparison) Murakami’s Nagasawa — they were at a FAANG to be at a FAANG for life, and were politically savvy and forward-thinking in a way that both impressed and scared me a little.
- C joined my current company all of two weeks before I did; they’re five years my senior, and to me represent the closest thing I have to a “where do you want to be in five years?” — happily married, running a farm co-op, kicking ass for exactly forty hours a week, dog and kid on the way.
It’s tempting to look at this and fall prey to the whole fig tree paradox again: do I want to push myself to be an engineer’s engineer? Do I want to claw my way to the top of whatever corporate structure seems most luminous? Do I want to settle down and optimize for quietude?
Maybe this is talking around the question a bit. You asked why they’re the smartest people I know, and (beyond the baseline competence) the factor they share is that they know how to focus on what they care about and they care about what’s most important to them.
Is that vague? I feel like perhaps I’m not doing a good job of explaining myself. Let me try a different way: I think they’re very smart and very admirable because they know what they want out of life and they drive towards it swiftly.
I know this is the point in the letter where I am compelled to turn my denouement into a question for you. But, frankly, I think we need to revisit something from last week:
I used to be way into Halo modding (a story for another time)