To Build Something Beautiful

I am a serial starter. I have unfinished projects in the double digits. These projects are locked away in shame, constant reminders that I failed to manage my time appropriately, get enough sleep, and answer “no” to that age old question, “are you still watching?”

If you’re like me, you have to have at least ten projects going on in order to focus enough to wash the dishes. You have maybe 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus in a meeting before you wonder what everyone’s Wu-Tang Clan name would be (recent highlight was Phat Kafka and Namooh the Magnificent). You also take to heart Jack Dorsey’s quote of: “Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details to perfect.”

My grandfather was a tool and die maker, and is now a master carpenter. My grandmother was an award winning fine arts teacher, and is now “picky.” With my grandmother’s sense of design, and my grandfather’s micrometer-level precision, I grew up in a world where things had to be perfect. This sort of environment isn’t always the kindest to a small child. There are stories of my mother and uncle reassuring each other of how nice their pictures were for fear that “mom would fix it.” In my mind, chairs aren’t supposed to break, and algorithms/implementations aren’t supposed to wear out.

But what to do with this ever growing pile of “half-baked”? As a small child I took apart my grandparent’s alarm clock, but didn’t bother to put it back together. In middle school I had a dresser drawer full of computer fans and another filled with remote control car refuse (still do, mom please don’t throw that stuff out). As a grown ass adult I have a table designed to chill champagne, and a table made of bicycle frames residing a floor beneath me as I write this post. This list is partial, but the paranoia from seeing it get longer was recently wearing on me enough to want to do something about it. Or rethink it.

What is it that connects those three snapshots of me? Why is it that I can’t turn my brain off and instead ideate and create constantly? For me and my family, I think we’re all trying fill the desire to build something beautiful.

Yes, “something beautiful.” In a world of agile development, critical clients, hotfixes, and never enough time to do things, you don’t often hear of anyone bringing up how “beautiful” a project should be. We often rush to provide a minimum viable anything that we forget just how much debt we accrued in getting there.

Yes, I “over-engineer” things — a trait that is apparently genetic in my family. My brother’s bed, designed of course in autocad, is theoretically capable of handling the weight of a sedan. My mother’s workload always has room for a dozen more pro bono cases. My uncle’s house has as much cement as the city block I live on, and is designed to be “hurricane-proof.” These manifestations of work are based in a powerful sense of pride, and the knowledge that this work can be a reflection of our best selves.

Yes, this is insane.

I’m not writing this as an advocation for building the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to get across a creek. I’m writing this as an explanation for anyone who ever has to work with me to show them where I’m coming from when I build something. But I’m also writing this to tell you to build something beautiful. Do you even know what something beautiful would look like to you?

Having the ability to create and contribute something beautiful, no matter how small, is an amazingly gratifying experience. Rending the world around you to see your imagination brought to life is the thing of addictions. Confidence, tenacity, curiosity, creativity. The unfinished projects will most likely pile forever, but knowing that they are an inevitable result of compulsion is much more comforting than being blind to all of the projects I do complete. I’m not a failure, I just need a lot of eggs to make an omelet. So here’s to starting something new and trying to build something beautiful.

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