Doing your future self a solid

One surprising and surreal experience that has been discussed in the course of my podcast listening is that of Googling something to solve a problem and discovering your own blog in the search results:

I encourage people to start blogs if they’re able to and have the time and inclination. In my career, when I first started, I was 35 years old. I couldn’t just jump into [working as a developer] and make a very entry level salary because I had bills to pay. So I used my space on the internet. It’s still joelhooks.com. It’s basically my developer journal. I’d solve a problem…get a problem, be confused, do the research, ask somebody, and then take that information and basically write a journal entry to myself about what the problem was and how I solved it. And that’s the situation where you end up Googling and in the future you land on your own solution, which is like an amazing feeling. It’s like, Wow, look my past self doing my future self a solid. That’s amazing.1“Transcript of Escaping the Software Trough of Despair With Laurie Barth | Egghead.Io Developer Chats,” August 14, 2019. https://egghead.simplecast.com/episodes/escaping-the-software-trough-of-despair-with-laurie-barth/transcript.

—Joel Hooks

There have been other places where the importance of writing things down for future reference has come up, as in Peter Drucker’s admonition to conduct feedback analysis:

The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised. The feedback analysis showed me, for instance—and to my great surprise—that I have an intuitive understanding of technical people, whether they are engineers or accountants or market researchers. It also showed me that I don’t really resonate with generalists.2Drucker, Peter F. “Managing Oneself.” Harvard Business Review, January 2005.

Memory is fallible. We forget what we said, what we did, and why we did it.3One book that poignantly describes this phenomenon in chilling detail is Night of the Gun by David Carr. In the book, Carr describes his journey from crack addict to Pulitzer-prize winning journalist at The New York Times. He talks about the idea of continuity bias, which basically means that if we can’t remember how past events connect to present circumstances, our brains have the tendency to make up connections that are plausible, but not accurate. Details slip and the past takes on a nice Gaussian blur. I can barely remember what I ate for lunch three days ago, much less what I was thinking six months ago or what I experienced four years back. If I don’t write things down, my days have a way of running together.

During the past few months, I’ve been getting reacquainted with the value of journaling. Since college, my relationship with journaling has been at times faithful, obsessive, nonexistent, and spotty, depending on various factors like work, family, and interest. And yet various articles and podcasts and books have reminded me time and time again that I want to write things down to remember. I want to do my future self a solid.

Writing helps me solidifies connections about what I’m learning so I can remember later. It gives me the opportunity to pause and reflect. I’m excited about looking back to see both progress and blind spots.

A lot of the people who talk about the importance of writing things down tend to focus on the professional benefits. I agree with their sentiments wholeheartedly, and I think the value goes further than that.

I once attended a memorial service, and one of the friends of the departed came up to deliver a eulogy. They had met in grad school and had kept up a long-distance friendship over decades. He said that in preparing to speak he had conducted a search of 25 years of digital journaling. He searched for his friend’s name and his system recalled 25 years of memories that he had recorded. He said there were so many mentions that he was only able to get through a year ahead of the service. I was in amazed. Here was a man who had recorded a lifetime of friendship, and now he has the blessing of being able to remember and savor a deep relationship in a special way simply because he took the time to write it down.

When I get old, I want to be able to reach back across time and see where I’ve come from. I want to remember the struggle of learning. Since most of my work is done via a screen, I can’t exactly point to it and say, “Well, check out that cool skyscraper I made.” I want to remember what I took time to do. I want to remember the things my kids did, the things they said, and those precious moments when you wish you could just freeze-frame everything and save it in a bottle for later. I want to remember what life was like for me and my wife. I want to remember the friendships and the conversations that happen. In short, I want to give myself the gift of memory.

That’s why I write. It’s the solid my future self would appreciate 25 years from now.

  • 1
    “Transcript of Escaping the Software Trough of Despair With Laurie Barth | Egghead.Io Developer Chats,” August 14, 2019. https://egghead.simplecast.com/episodes/escaping-the-software-trough-of-despair-with-laurie-barth/transcript.
  • 2
    Drucker, Peter F. “Managing Oneself.” Harvard Business Review, January 2005.
  • 3
    One book that poignantly describes this phenomenon in chilling detail is Night of the Gun by David Carr. In the book, Carr describes his journey from crack addict to Pulitzer-prize winning journalist at The New York Times. He talks about the idea of continuity bias, which basically means that if we can’t remember how past events connect to present circumstances, our brains have the tendency to make up connections that are plausible, but not accurate.
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