When I was in college, and the nascent web first began to emerge on our computer screens, I’d breathlessly show a friend something I thought was exciting and, while acknowledging some novelty around the matter, said friend would respond that whoever was responsible had “too much time on their hands.”
It’s been long enough now that not only have these people emerged from a 90s style internet presence of anonymous handles and minimalist pages of text, they’ve grown up and gotten careers. Take Eve as an example – I had one of those crush/fascinations with her back then because of her obsession with pi – she grew up to be a honcho at Google leading efforts on AI.
Paul Graham’s essay The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius is, for me, evocative of people like Eve. People who used to litter the web with interests like number theory, history, or pop culture. Granted, Paul’s essay describes something he calls “disinterested obsession” and how that is linked to discovery and work that is meaningful. In the essay he uses a high threshold for “genius” with examples like Darwin, Newton, and Ramanujan.
It is my belief that disinterested obsession in people; a love for something “… they’re not doing to impress us or to make themselves rich, but for its own sake” operates much closer to us in people who have successful and productive careers. Maybe it is the chemical engineer who loves Tolkien or the academic publisher who reviews comics – these are people who weren’t satisfied with dialing in perfunctory sociology papers on the fast track to mediocrity.
What I find myself thinking in reflection is how I’d like to encourage my kids to develop passions that go beyond validation of their peers and conventional recognition. I’m also inclined to think, for myself, how I can modify my own interests from many shallow hobbies into a few deep mine shafts.