3 min read

Why I Write

"You can't lie to yourself when you write. You can either put the words on the page or you can't. And if you can't you'd better get back to reading and wrestling with the topic until you can."
Why I Write

I went through school without understanding much. I was good at memorising things and taking tests, so I got good grades, but my understanding of concepts rarely scratched below the surface.

When you're getting good grades and winning awards, you tend to think that you're on the right track. Teachers tell you that you're doing what you're supposed to and family members tell you that they’re proud of you. I attached my identity to the status and prestige that came with that.

After school, I went to university and studied law. I didn’t choose law because I found it interesting. I chose it because of the status and wealth given to lawyers. I enrolled without questioning things, without stopping to think about what I actually enjoyed, found fascinating, or wanted to dedicate my life to.

But the good grades kept coming. It's probably the worst thing that could have happened. If I’d failed I would’ve been forced to confront the fact that I didn't understand things properly. I would’ve realised that memorising is not the same as understanding. That I needed to figure out what I actually wanted to do instead of following the path of status and prestige. Failing would have stopped me from deceiving myself.

I'd spent almost five years studying to be an attorney when I decided that I wanted to be a software engineer. I was playing catch up and trying to join people years ahead of me. I couldn't fake understanding. There were no tests  I could prepare for that would falsely signal a sense of competency. I had to learn and practice and develop a deep understanding of the world I wanted to operate in. It took about 10 months but I landed a position as an engineer.

That journey gave me a thirst for knowledge and understanding. Not the superficial understanding that gets you good grades, but the understanding that lies at the heart of a nuanced worldview. There’s nothing I crave more.

It’s so easy to think that you understand something when you actually don’t. Feynman said that the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. This is why writing is important. You can't lie to yourself when you write. You can either put the words on the page or you can't. And if you can't you'd better get back to reading and wrestling with the topic until you can [1].

I can’t stress how empowering it feels to sit down and write out of sheer desire to understand something. There’s no grade, no deadline, no judgment. You’re doing it because you’re wrestling with something. Because you want to quench your thirst for knowledge. Few things are as satisfying as taming a beast you've been battling with.

"My countervailing advice to people trying to understand something is: go slow. Read slowly, think slowly, really spend time pondering the thing. Start by thinking about the question yourself before reading a bunch of stuff about it. A week or a month of continuous pondering about a question will get you surprisingly far." - Nabeel Qureshi [2]

Writing forces you to go slow. It forces you to question your assumptions and prove your understanding. It prevents you from fooling yourself, even though you’re the easiest person to fool.


[1] You almost always can if you're willing to bang your head against a wall enough times.

[2] I highly recommend reading the whole article. It’s practical and thought-provoking. Since reading it about a year ago, I’ve had those ideas about learning and understanding bouncing around my head. When an article shapes your thinking like that, it’s generally an indication that it’s worth reading (multiple times).

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