Erik Bernhardsson    About

What is your motivation?

I’ve been trying to learn Clojure. I keep telling people I meet that I really want to learn Clojure, but still every night I can’t get myself to spend time with it. It’s unclear if I really want to learn Clojure or just want to have learned Clojure?

Which makes me thing about my teenage years. I really wanted to make music on my computer. I would spend a couple of hours per week messing around with various tools. This was in the heydays of DSL and I downloaded gigabytes of music on Napster. I just really like the thought of making something that was as good as I heard. Fast forward fifteen years and this guy roughly sums up why I never succeeded:

Moodymann isn’t just a character, he’s also a producer from Detroit who explains his motivation:

I’m not into this to press up a mass amount of records. I’m not into this to travel the motherfucking world. I’m not into this to impress anybody. I’m into this for my own heart and soul. A lot of people, after work, you got to go home, you take a bath. A lot of people go home, you fuck your wife. A lot of people go home, you cut your grass. I go home, and I fuck that motherfucking MPC all fucking night.

The key points here is that (a) Moodymann derives instrinsic joy from making music (b) it’s a prime example of a kind of Lutheran work ethic that lets you excel at what you’re doing. Of course, regardless of my intent to learn Clojure, someone else will actually enjoy doing it all fucking night (paraphrasing Moodymann) and eventually they will be 100x better than me.

I’ve met roughly 100 people who say they want to learn machine learning. But do they? Or do they just want to have learned machine learning? I don’t know. But I know that I’ve never learned anything nontrivial without having fun learning it. So it seems like the trick to learn anything is really to find a way to enjoy learning it. Not try to find any shortcuts. If you want to learn Spanish, try to look for a way to enjoy it. Then do it all night long.

The other extreme

Turns out there’s another extreme of this. When the joy from doing something is so strong that it overshadows the whole utility of it. I’ve met about 1000 developers who just love to work with cool things. Building algorithms, messing around with machine learning, whatever. People roughly fall on a spectrum in terms of motivation: are they motivated by delivering value or are they motivated by the tool?

I’ve learned to avoid hiring people in the latter category. I love ridiculously smart people, and I don’t mind at all if they like to geek out and study Haskell in their spare time. But they turn their whole career into a quest to advance their knowledge of functional programming then there’s some fundamental misalignment between the company’s interests and their interests.

Another example of this phenomenon is a trap I fell into myself. I was coding for many many years and built up this innate sense of satisfaction every time I implemented something. Being a new manager I really struggled with the lack of satisfaction from actually doing management. As a result I would fall back into the zone writing code and ignore everything that really mattered. It took me years to build up the sense of satisfaction of doing something that mattered at a higher level.

What is your motivation?

My mental model is something like this: there are all these long term goals like become successful. But planning for that would take an incredible amount of mental effort so we end up establishing some proxies for that. In a day to day setting these proxies manifests themselves as a sense of accomplishment. You get 2 units of satisfaction when you write code for an hour and you get 1 unit of satisfaction being in a meeting for 1 hour. Or whatever. But those numbers can be completely out of whack with reality. Sometimes they grossly understated and sometimes grossly overstated.

Erik Bernhardsson

... is the CTO at Better, which is a startup changing how mortgages are done. I write a lot of code, some of which ends up being open sourced, such as Luigi and Annoy. I also co-organize NYC Machine Learning meetup. Here's some more facts about me.