I had a conversation with my friend Tavish once about people we respect, and how to think about them, and how to be like them. (Tavish, by the way, gave a SUPER INTERESTING talk at PyCon this year about what programmers can learn from software engineering research, and about how measuring what makes good software instead of just getting into flamewars).
But about AMAZING PEOPLE. There are all kinds of people who I think are amazing. And Tavish suggested instead of being all “wow that person is so great they must be a genius and a wizard”, it’s better to ask “okay, what specifically do I admire about that person? Is that a way I want to be? How did they get like that? Can I do that too?”
And sometimes I can’t be like them, or I don’t want to! Like I might think that Terence Tao is an amazing mathematician, but it turns out I don’t actually want to be a mathematician. But I also like that he writes about his work in a public way, and that tries to demystify math research. And demystifying and writing about things I find interesting in public are things I can do without trying to win the Fields medal :)
Or my friend Sumana is delightful in many ways, and one of the many things I like about her is that she’s very good at giving thoughtful compliments and criticism. And I’m learning that looking at someone’s work carefully and telling them what I think is good about it and what could be improved can be a incredibly helpful thing to do. So I’m trying to do more of that! And she’s also a better writer than I am, and she’s been writing a blog for 14 years, and probably if I write more I will also be a better writer than I am now.
So I feel these days like saying WOW THAT PERSON IS SO GREAT I COULD NOT POSSIBLY is kind of… being unfair. Because I could probably be a little more like them if I think it’s important! And it’s kind of awkward for people to be idolized like that, and it’s better (for myself, and for the not-idolized-person), to just figure out what parts of them I’d like to be more like, and try some things out, and see what works.
And perhaps tell them sometimes that I think they are doing a Very Good Job of doing what makes them awesome.
(edit: There was a pretty huge omission in the original version of this post, which has been bothering me. There’s a lot of privilege involved in saying “hey that awesome thing? I can just go ahead and do that!“. I have this huge abundance of support and free time and money and amazing people who are happy to help me, and it makes it so much easier to do things that I think are interesting or important.)