I'd like to imagine myself as the sort of person with dozens and dozens of hobbies and interests. A true Jack of all trades. But, sadly, it just ain't true. I have only three. Yes, in this great big world with infinite things to see and do, I can count just three things that have stood the test of time. Three things that are deep enough to continuously reignite my love and enjoyment: guitar, chess, and programming.
As I was thinking about this a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that each hobby, like hiding medicine in dog food, managed to provide unique, valuable lessons that have overflowed into how I organize and construct my life, in general. I'd like to share some of these personal lessons with you today.
We'll start with the one that is closest to my heart: guitar. (I bet you were expecting programming, weren't you? Not so. More on that shortly.)
I grew up in a musical family. My mom was a professional songwriter in Nashville, and my two brothers were AC/DC fanatics. Like all fans, each had his own Gibson SG to emulate Angus Young as closely as possible. At eight years old, staring at my older teenaged brothers playing the solo to Back in Black, it wouldn't be fair to say that I discovered guitar. It was prescribed. I was defenseless.
For the next fifteen years, I practiced daily. I went to an arts high school, and spent half of each school day with a guitar in my lap. My freshman year of high school, every other week, we took a school bus downtown and performed in front of City Hall during lunch time. We'd play songs like Baby It's You, Hoochie Coochie Man, and Autumn Leaves in front of onlookers who would stop for fifteen seconds, smirk, and then continue into the building. A bunch of fifteen year olds fumbling through songs they had no business playing…and I loved every minute of it.
Guitar taught me the value of one simple phrase: “do it again.” Yes, like all good advice, it's laughably generic. But, to be fair, terms like "generic" and "cliche" should be thought of as badges of honor. A phrase is only upgraded to that status after proving itself to be true time and time again.
Okay, listen up. I'm going to teach you the secret to playing guitar well right now. Ready? Learn the notes on the guitar, learn your scales in every position, learn your arpeggios, learn your triads. That's it. That's the secret.
…Well, sort of. The secret is actually this: learn them, and then repeat them again and again and again. At eight years old, I learned how to play a “D” scale using open strings. Today, I'm 38, and I kid you not: I still practice that “D” scale.
Guitar taught me the importance of repetition and routine. Your ability to fluently move up and down the neck is determined by these little exercises that you repeat 10,000 times.
I love thinking about the stereotypical '80s guitar god. Can you picture one in your head? Loud guitar? Long hair? Sweat all over their face? And then they smash a guitar on stage before diving into the crowd. Can you picture it? They're nuts! But they're also incredibly good musicians. Now picture this: leading up to that dive into the crowd required hundreds and hundreds of hours sitting in a quiet bedroom playing basic scales over and over. It's hard to reconcile these two things, isn't it?
Lesson: If you want to become good, repeat it ten thousand times. There's no shortcut.
Like every industry, guitar players are not immune to the disease of over-complication. I spent many years hoping to memorize my major scales, minor scales, and the various modes. It's a lot to remember; so much that there are - right on cue - a variety of courses dedicated to teaching you them.
It might have been nice in those early days - long before Youtube - if someone had told me that they're all just variations on the major scale. Or, in other words, if you know how to play G major, you already know how to play E minor (Aeolian). You already know A Dorian. You already know B Phrygian. Why this was not taught to me in my first year of learning is still somewhat confounding. Did my teachers not know?
Why does it so often turn out to be the case that basic fundamentals are the secret sauce.
Okay, let's move on to chess. Chess represents one of the many missteps in my life. Like we often do in our teenaged years, I abandoned it in favor of pals, girlfriends, and a driver's license. As an adult now, I look back with a bit of regret. “I could have been so good,” I think to myself, “if I had just stuck with it.” Nonetheless, in recent years, my love of the game has been rekindled.
I want you to imagine the stereotypical nerdy twelve year old kid at a state chess tournament. No, I didn't have glasses, but in every other way: that was me. But, oh, was it fun and exciting. And I get it: exciting isn't typically the word you'd associate with a game like chess. But it was. It felt like a sport. We weren't just moving pieces on the board. We were doing our best to mentally psych out our opponents. Sure, take a break and walk away from the board for ten minutes during a timed tournament game. Let the kid sit there nervously by himself, waiting for you to casually return to dominate. 😈 Law of Power #6.
So here's my chess lesson for you: see ahead. There it is, again. Laughably basic, but rarely followed. Chess teaches you to fold your arms on the table, rest your head on top of them, and stare at the board until you see a pathway forward. You're not allowed to move until you've considered all potential options.
I'm reminded of a line from the movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” in which the main character's coach repeatedly whispers, “Don't move until you see it.”
...Wow, if there's better life advice than that, I'm not sure what it is.
“Don't move until you see it” effectively translates to “have an aim.” As we've all surely experienced at some point in our respective lives, aimlessness leads to anxiety and depression. If you never take the necessary time to fold your arms and “see” your goal, you'll forever be doomed to walking in circles.
But, like many things, this is easier said than done. Aim assumes a bit of thought, doesn't it? We're not magically born with focus. It requires that we sit and think and decide what it is that we actually want. A goal. Once we have that goal in our sights, the next step is to break it down into pieces (more on this in the next section).
Cause and Effect
Now, there's one variation that we should discuss. Chess doesn't just teach you to think. It instructs you to constantly be aware of how your opponent might respond. It's not enough to think to yourself, “Okay, I'll go here…and then there…and then checkmate.” The world isn't static. That's not how it works, naturally. Every action you take will be responded to. Chess teaches us to ask and answer the question: “If I do this…then what will they do?”
Here are some life parallels you might relate to:
- If I argue with my spouse, and raise my voice disproportionately, how will she or he respond?
- If I repeatedly do the bare minimum at my job, how will my boss respond?
- If I adopt a “do as I say, not as I do” style of parenting, how do I expect my children to respond? Will they emulate my words or my behavior?
I'm only an intermediate chess player, but I know enough to recognize that the secret sauce is simple.
Lesson: Don't move until you see it.
The chess world, from what I can gather, doesn't seem to be quite as susceptible to bullshit. I don't often come across courses and YouTube videos that promise to tell you the secrets the chess pros don't want you to know about - all for two easy payments of $99.
No, the only BS I can imagine is one of a more personal nature. Each of us is incredibly skilled at conjuring a world where the great ones are different from you. They're granted, or gifted, access to some special ability that is forever off limits to peasants like us. I used to assume that chess masters could, like computers, think forward fifty moves in advance. How do you beat someone who already knows how the game will play out?
These days, I no longer think that's true. There's simply too many permutations to see that far ahead. No, instead, I think the pros are significantly better at spotting patterns and considering an incredible array of short-term possibilities very quickly.
Alas, we come to the final hobby for this article, which also happens to be my career. Perhaps, that latter point is why it comes third on this list? Hmm. Here's an unfortunate truth that many of you might relate to:
The moment your livelihood becomes contingent upon a particular hobby is also the moment it's no longer a hobby. Nonetheless, I still enjoy programming - even after fifteen years or so. And it has undoubtedly made me a better person.
Programming taught me to, when it matters, think like a computer. How did I get into this mess? Well, let's start the debugger and step through it line by line. It taught me to break complex tasks into small, manageable pieces. It taught me, like chess, to think before writing. It taught me to be a conscientious person. If there's a mess in my code editor, there's no one else to blame. I am the reason why. Grab a mop.
There's one general writing tip that has lived rent free in my head for years now. I refer back to it often. “Just start.”
- Do you want to write a novel? Stop thinking about it. Just start.
- Want to write a Laravel tutorial? Cool. Just start.
Get something down on paper, and then take as many revisions as needed to clean it up.
The same is absolutely true for programming. Step one for any new feature is to get something down on paper. Open a scratch file or a blank test file, and start writing. Programming is writing...and writing is thinking. What are the nouns for this feature? What about the verbs? What are the abilities that this feature should allow? Next, construct them, one at a time. Not too fast. It's okay if they're not quite right. You'll do another pass shortly. The point is to start…which, like many things, is the hardest part. Programming teaches us to break complex tasks into small pieces.
Time for School
My daughter just entered second grade, and is now encountering her first series of mildly confusing, wordy Math questions. I can already tell that they give her anxiety. Her eyes glaze over the words as she reads the question to me. You surely remember these, yes?
“Joe collected a total of 48 apples on Sunday. On Tuesday, he gave half of them to Sarah. On Wednesday, he bought 3 more. On Thursday, Sarah returned half of her apples to Joe. How many apples did Joe have on Friday?”
This is all basic math, but even as an adult, it can make you pause for a minute. My advice to my daughter is the same advice I offer to programming students...
I might tell her, “Okay, if you want to answer this question, the first step is to break it down into small pieces, like a puzzle. Begin with the first line.”
- Joe started with 48 apples. Put that number at the top of the page.
- Next piece: he gave half of the apples away. Let's cut the initial number in half. 48/2 = 24. Joe and Sarah now have the same number of apples.
- Next piece: he bought 3 more apples. Joe, with 24 apples in his kitchen, has no business buying more, but Joe is gonna Joe, it seems. 24 + 3 = 27.
- Next piece: Sarah is ungrateful and returns half of her apples to Joe. Figure out what half of her apples is, and add it Joe's current total. (24 / 2) + 27 = 39.
- Joe has 39 apples on Friday.
Granted, this is second grade math, but the point is we can break any complicated question into relatively simple puzzle pieces. Once you've done so, assembling the puzzle often becomes trivial.
Lesson: Be conscientious in all areas of your life. Construct a plan, and if that plan is too difficult, smash it into manageable chunks.
Boy, oh boy, does the programming industry include an endless stream of bullshit. You need only travel five steps on Twitter/X to find a developer who can show you the light for the small price of $699. You see, they've uncovered the secrets to maintainable code. Add your email at the bottom of this sales pitch, and we'll share it with you.
Here's the bullshit, I think: programmers are going to program. It doesn't matter if the thing they've built solves an actual business problem. That's often secondary. Most important is that they've managed to assemble a glorious architecture that, often, only they can unravel and explain. It's a great form of job security, when you think about it. And don't worry: if you want to learn it, well, …($699).
Now, you're surely thinking to yourself, “Wow, ain't this the pot calling the kettle black. Jeffrey, you run a paid programming education business!” And you're right! Perhaps, this is why I'm sensitive to this particular ilk of bullshit. However, you'll notice on Laracasts that at no point do we ever use bait-worthy terms, like “secret.”
All of the things we teach can be found for free around the web. The things that we're truly selling at Laracasts are curation and trust. You will never, ever see me promise the keys to the kingdom in exchange for your money.
Look, nobody dives into a new hobby with the awareness that it may one day influence who they are as a person. Most hobbies don't. That privilege is exclusive to the few that continuously reassert themselves over the course of your life. What are yours?
(And let's be honest: there's a reason why you were attracted to those particular things in the first place: you needed them. 🔥)