Choose your own adventure

I loved those “Choose your own adventure” books. Each choice I made created a different outcome, and somewhere down the road, I might end up with the same point which resulted from a different choice. There were only a few final endings, finite due to the limitation of a book, but there were still lots of different story plots to go through.

Because it’s finite and limited, if you play through enough times, you’ll discover the “best” route to the “ideal” outcome. You can construct a solution choice tree and tell your friend, and your friend will be able to navigate through the book in one reading and get the best ending. It’s tried, it’s proven, and it’s also incredibly boring. Where’s the fun in that?

I’m telling you this with regards to learning, specifically when learning from other people. When studying code samples from reference books (or sites), test them to check if they fit your purposes. Understand what the code is to accomplish. When reading other people’s works and writings (that includes me), question their intentions, question their understanding, hey, even question their questions.

Think for yourself. I’m not saying you can’t agree with nor trust the information. I’m saying to think about it before blindly following along. Choose your own adventure books have finite paths. Learning doesn’t.

This actually reminded me of something from those wealth seminars I attended. The general idea from the presenters was:

  • Found a way to become fabulously wealthy
  • Am rich (show proof: screenshots of PayPal accounts, cheques)
  • Will show you how, step by step (for a fee of course)

Granted, the methods do work for some people. It’s not that that puts me off. It’s the step-by-step part. Because normal people find it difficult to navigate the road to wealth, they are presented with a step-by-step, hold-your-hand, do-as-I-say process to follow. I find it fascinating and utterly insulting at the same time. So there’s little room for experimentation, huh?

I have another story to share with you. Welcome to another lesson from the great kungfu master Chen Min!

The holes in stones

Some time after Chen Min’s training in the bamboo grove, a travelling master and his disciple arrived. Long story short, the disciple, Xu Fang, became a good friend and sparring partner to Chen Min. The thing was, Chen Min lost all the battles with Xu Fang thus far, despite his proficiency with the staff.

During one of the battles, Chen Min lost because Xu Fang extended his staff, from holding the end in his hands to holding it with his index finger and thumb. Both thrust their staves at each other. The extension meant Xu Fang hit Chen Min, even though the staves were of the same length.

So he decided to see what Xu Fang every day, to see if Xu Fang did any special training. He watched Xu Fang closely during breakfast, to see if there’s anything he did with chopsticks. He peered surreptitiously at Xu Fang during daily training to see if he did anything differently. Nothing.

Chen Min then decided to train his index finger and thumb. At night, he would write, using only his index finger and thumb to hold a brush steady. When chopping vegetables during chores, he’d hold the chopping knife by only the index finger and thumb. He trained his arm strength by holding a piece of firewood with his arm outstretched horizontally. Yet he still got no closer to winning Xu Fang.

One day, Chen Min saw Xu Fang carrying his staff into the woods, apparently for training. Chen Min decided to shadow him. Xu Fang went past a small brook, and caught sight of something in the water. He went into the water and got into a stance, holding the staff at one end and pointing the other end down at the water.

Then he started jabbing into the water with amazing speed. After some time, Xu Fang stopped. He looked down at the water, breathed a sigh and wiped his brow. Then he left.

Chen Min sprang forth from his hiding place and went into the water, wondering what Xu Fang was hitting. Then he saw them. Stones resting on the bed of the stream. With holes in them. Round holes made by the end of a staff. The stones weren’t shattered, they were bored. Chen Min was astounded by the strength and accuracy required to thrust through water and drill a hole in a stone.

So Chen Min practised boring holes in stones. The water made it difficult to aim due to its flow, and difficult to strike because of its presence. But Chen Min persevered. Stones shattered, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to just break them. He had to be strong enough, fast enough and accurate enough to bore holes in stones. He was ecstatic when he finally made it, holding the bored stone in his hands. Chen Min went back, feeling like he’s catching up to Xu Fang.

The next day, Chen Min followed Xu Fang again. This time, Xu Fang went to the woods again, and stopped in a clearing. He stood before a large boulder and stared at it. And waited. Chen Min held his breath.

Then Xu Fang went into his signature stance, right hand holding a staff end, the other end aimed at the boulder. The staff was held horizontally at shoulder level, his left hand in front, as though aiming at a particular spot.

Then he struck. A loud knock echoed in the clearing as wood hit rock. Xu Fang lowered his staff. A split appeared diagonally across the boulder. Then the top half of the boulder slid off with a dull thud on the grass.

It was at this moment that Chen Min realised he couldn’t catch up with Xu Fang.

He went back dejected, and told his own master what happened. The master smiled. And told Chen Min that if he was always copying Xu Fang, if he was always following in Xu Fang’s footsteps, then he’d never be able to surpass Xu Fang.

It’s a brave new world

You, my friend, are going to face some tough challenges. You’ve read what others had written, heard what others had done and used what others had created. You’ve learnt a lot. Yet it still seems insufficient.

It’s a brave new world out there. Things seem to move quite rapidly. Maybe it’s not enough to play catch up, to keep following other people’s footsteps. Maybe it’s time to do it your own way. Because all those skills, all that knowledge, isn’t as good as what’s in your head, the way you think.

Learn and adapt what you can, and come up with something uniquely yours. The world doesn’t get better if you keep choosing other people’s routes. For crying out loud, forge your own path and choose your own adventure.