I Am Not An Original Thinker

And it turns out that’s actually totally fine.

Assumed audience: Other folks interested in metacognition, learning, growth, self-awareness, and (perhaps especially) vocation.

Over the past few years, I have sometimes become frustrated at the kinds of work I find myself doing, when compared to others’ public work — a temptation to envy. As I’ve considered exactly what it is I’m tempted to envy, though, I have found myself at a loss: it’s not for the usual reasons of their greater influence, fame, etc., none of which appeal to me overmuch. Lately, though, it became clear: it’s because they’re at least somewhat original. I am good at many things. I am not, however, an original thinker.

What I mean: I do not trade in novelties or deep new insights. My gift, so far as I can see, is in translation: in understanding something deeply and well, and then conveying it to others in terms that will help them understand it deeply and well. Whether the subject is Christology or technology, there you will find me, helping others understand. And this has, at times, frustrated me. But why?

Since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of discovery or novelty or both. In my earliest years I imagined being a pioneering astronaut. Later, I fantasized about being a genuinely great and novel composer, or becoming the physicist who unified quantum mechanics and general relativity, or even of writing a field-altering book.

My actual life, and my actual output,” is rather more quotidian than any of those dreams. I write ordinary software which helps people talk to each other online and find jobs: good software, but nothing revolutionary (at least in 2021!). I teach others how to be more effective software developers, by showing them how to use the tools already at their disposal, and sometimes by showing them tools they’ve never seen before. At most I apply others’ good ideas in a specific place they have not yet reached. What I do not do is: invent new programming idioms or paradigms or tools.

It is not that any of this is bad — only that there is a disconnect between who I envisioned myself to be all those decades ago and who it turns out I actually am. I am not a discoverer. I am, perhaps, a rediscoverer. I am a translator of old books (occasionally literally!). I am a bridge across mental divides so that others can cross who might otherwise get stuck. I am a teacher! This calling is, it turns out, very good. But it does take some adjusting to, when my aspirations had run for so long in other directions!