What hackers (and you) can learn from the Pope

Nature of Learning and Growing


Are you thirsty for knowledge?

How will you recall 2013? Did you want to do something great? How far did you get?

One of the hallmarks of a great hacker (not just in programming, but great leaders, great teachers, great anything) is thirst for knowledge. That trait is a cornerstone of greatness.

What is a clear evidence of genuine thirst for knowledge? Learning. If you are learning with intent and consistency, it might be driven by an underlying thirst.

Why you learn

And why are you learning? Why are you thirsty to do something great? It is because we are human beings with capacity to do more than simply copy and paste spreadsheets or make sales calls all day. Here, I want to reference a well-known hacker manifesto called “How To Become A Hacker” by Eric S. Raymond. Raymond asserts, “hacker attitude” includes the following beliefs:

  • The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  • Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  • Freedom is good.

If you think about it, education isn’t simply about learning facts to obtain a degree, in order to be employed. Rather, learning is a means to knowledge and wisdom, such that you can become free. So that you can avoid drudgery, but most importantly, to elevate beyond personal freedom to solving interesting problems (interesting to you individually, but also with the potential to help many around you). That is why you learn.

How you learn

Steven Raymond’s exhortation is more specifically about programming. He notes that:

“Learning to program is like learning to write good natural language. The best way to do it is to read some stuff written by masters of the form, write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a little more, read a lot more, write some more … and repeat until your writing begins to develop the kind of strength and economy you see in your models.”

So how do you learn? You learn by waxing on and waxing off around the master.

Mr. Miyagi

Apprenticeship is quite powerful. I don’t know the full history behind it (and may be interesting for someone to write about it), but it is plainly a model widely adopted across human disciplines — from medicine, academia, computer programming, politics, the list goes on.

How else can you learn apart from apprenticing and tireless practice? You have to be curious. You have to tinker. Otherwise, you’ll never surpass the master.

  • Step 1 — stand on the shoulder(s) of giant(s)
  • Step 2 — copy/master everything they teach you
  • Step 3 — try a variance, try and fail, and learn

Along these lines, the person who most refreshed my attitude about learning to program wasn’t a programmer, but the Pope. And I’m not even a Catholic. And I think there’s a lot that other hackers (in any discipline) can learn from his example.

Personal Dilemma: Enter the Pope

Pope Francis

So, one of my personal frustrations and dilemma has been picking up a new field of knowledge.

Frustration comes from feeling like teachers in past disciplines have failed me or failed to save me time by pointing me in the wrong direction — teaching me such useless things like spelling or accounting.

Dilemma. Now that I have an aim, I still have to learn. It’s time and energy-consuming to ‘wax on, wax off.’ I’m lazy. Is there a short-cut? How can I do it without the hard work, without the 10,000 hours?

And it would be far better if I were still in college. But those years have been squandered. I’m now in my 30's and I feel I have less luxury with time. The thought is frustrating.

Enter the Pope. He taught me the following.

One: You’re never too old to be New

The man is almost an octogenarian. That doesn’t stop him from breaking thousand year traditions (like washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday or inviting former Pope as an equal to the alter).

Pope Francis also warmed millions of hearts when he embraced and kissed a severely disfigured man suffering from pain.

Affirming our humanity

There were many other incidents that demonstrated the uniquely human iconoclasm of this man from Argentina. (We are all human, so why aren’t we all as human as he is?)

Truly, you’re never too old to do something new, to do something amazing.

Two: To be yourself is to be Great

At this point, let me note that I’m not Catholic. I just admire this man, because he teaches me much. Apparently, Pope Francis is so humble, that when he became the pope, hecalled his newspaper delivery man to cancel subscription.

Now, that’s ridiculous. And amazing. Amazingly humble. Amazingly himself. This is not for show (apparently), not a pretense. The newspaperman, he knows the Pope well. When he realized what was happening, he apparently broke down in tears. The story relates that the then Cardinal used to collect and even “return the 30 rubber bands around the newspaper.”

Cardinal Bergoglio is just being himself. There are thousand such stories among the parishioners who fondly remember this man’s kindness.

In the end, greatness isn’t about being good at something. Rather, it’s about being good. About letting the goodness in us shine forth.

Three: To fail is to Learn

But the most revealing thing I learned is that the path to this kind of greatness — of goodness in life — is never smooth.

Sure we may read of the touching stories of the Pope before he became Pope and think he was always like that. Sure we may see stories of startup success and 20-somethings who have become CEO’s of corporations.

“Surely, they have known nothing but success,” we think.

Not so. James Carroll recently wrote a piece about the Pope in the New Yorker. The former Cardinal had had some difficult periods of leadership during violent “Dirty Wars” years of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Some priests might have lost their lives because of the Cardinal’s misjudgments.

What sort of pain and frustration might such difficulties leave on one’s memory? The experience, apparently was “searing,” according to Carroll’s article.

Failure is absolutely necessary to growth. Failure. Mistakes. The trick is not to dwell on it. The trick is to learn from it.

And what is learning? Learning is a sign of desire for thirst for knowledge. And why do we thirst for knowledge and wisdom? So we can be free and solve the world’s problems.

And you’re never too old to do that. You just have to be yourself and learn from your past. Like the Pope. Then, in a manner of speaking, you’ll be great. You’ll be a hacker.

What’s Next?

There aren’t many days left. Before the year ends, I’d like to write two more posts.