Some life introspections are only available to us after we have some years of experience. This last week I was going through old pictures that captured some of the journey I’ve taken from college through graduate school to where I am now. I stumbled on first this picture:
And then this one:
Do you see it? The first is a drawing on a notebook pad I downloaded from Google Photos, and I was surprised to see that the title of the image was “epiphany.jpg.” This was where my mind was right before I applied to graduate school. I had just been introduced to programming, and was doing the basic data processing and analysis workflows for a neuropsychology lab. I remember going on an early morning run, so early that it was still basically night outside, and stopping in a moment of inspiration and despair upon realizing that I wanted to build something beyond my ability at the time. It was a decision point in my life where I needed to either decide to push a little bit more and see what I might be capable of, or to fold back comfortably into my current routine that I had come to love. Ironically I look at this picture now and see reproducibility in a nutshell - a concept that wouldn’t become mainstream for easily another half a decade.
The second is a whiteboard thinking session I did right before finishing graduate school. I had done the researcher and science thing, and identified that there was a problem, this missing layer of software engineer at a university that I called “Academic Software Developers.” [REF]. In this drawing (which isn’t all captured here, unfortunately) I laid out a service at my institution that would provide support around reproducible science, and along with that was empowering researchers to create workflows with containers and store them in a registry. If you know my history you’ll know I went on to stay at Stanford to do exactly that.
So do you see it? Those are pictures of vision. This is the post where I want to talk about vision.
Vision often comes at you as a surprise, like you are walking along and ruminating and all of a sudden the pieces come together in your mind and you stop and metaphorically fall to your knees. It can happen suddently and unexpectedly, or be a slow growing ache. I suspect that most vision starts with something we notice in the world that we aren’t happy with. And then by way of rumination, turning around ideas a thousand times in our heads (and even subconsciously), we accidentally stumble on an idea that we think could be actionable. But maybe it’s not actionable for us in that very moment, because we have to overcome challenges to get there. So what do I think vision is? I think it is very personal.
Vision is a hypothesis about a future reality that we think could be possible given our own personal growth.
It may be something that happens only once or twice a decade, or depending on the person, more or less frequently. It’s a pattern of thinking I suspect is hard to recognize, or perhaps easier to recognize as you get older and have it happen multiple times.
If we abstractly understand the idea of vision, we can now think about what a specific vision might be. A vision does not have to be grand or impressive - it can be even a small thing that you dream about for a better reality for yourself, others, or both. By my definition a vision cannot exist yet - it must be something that we aspire for or dream about.
To go back to looking at these pictures I shared earlier in the post, I see the ideas of “me-of-the-past.” They are each a vision because they are not actualized, nor are they easily in grasp. What is definitive of these moments is that I see something larger than myself, and something that I am certain I am not capable of doing in the present moment but perhaps someday might be. This is an important quality of vision - it is relevant to the self.
A vision is something that can give you direction and purpose.
Depending on your level of skill or time in your career, someone else’s vision may seem trivial. This is why someone else’s evaluation of your vision is not important. The important piece is that they mean something to you. They reflect a desire to grow, and a desire to imagine the world differently.
I would suspect that vision starts out as a mental experience. And how you choose to express it likely varies on your preferences for thinking and communication. For me at both times, I seemed to seek out the closest medium where I could draw out ideas - first a notebook pad, and then a whiteboard. Likely these choices of expression reflect the fact that my visions were systems and had structure. If you are an artist and have vision for a painting, you might spec it out on a white piece of paper. If you are a writer, you might draft out an outline. If you are a baker, you might start writing down a recipe. Indeed we are visually oriented so writing and drawing are likely streams. However, I could also see someone seeking out another person to talk to, or even recording their ideas with audio or video. I suspect that if I we trace through our life stories with aha! moments as the starting point, we might see any of the following:
And inherently in the above is a decision to pursue a vision, period. You can imagine having a quick inspiration and then deciding you don’t have the bandwidth, or that it’s not worth pursuing.
The underlying driver of a vision is likely a combination of creativity and some personal incentives. The specific incentives, of course, will vary based on the person, and you might judge someone else’s vision differently depending on how their values line up (or don’t line up) with yours. In fact, the same idea can be pursued for different reasons depending on the person. For example, it might be that someone pursues making a particular tool and being driven by a want for money and/or power. The same idea from a different person could come from a place of genuinely wanting to improve the way that a practice is done. These two cases aren’t mutually exclusive, however. If you are a keen business person you may both want to make money and improve things. What you choose to communicate, regardless of your true underlying incentives, is a third thing entirely. It could even be that you aren’t privy to, or introspective enough, to fully understand your own incentive structures. I’ve introspected quite a bit, and personally speaking, I am motivated by the desire to build. I want to create things larger than myself. The joy and fulfillment that drives me comes from the process itself. It is not something that I have to do, or need to be told to do, it is simply something that I must do.
While I don’t think the business mindset is bad, I think it can be in conflict with a community that champions open practices and tools. The problem comes down to who your customer base is. If you want to attract startups and other businesses, fine. But if you tout wanting to support an academic landscape but then keep everything private and dangle your price tag in front of a community that (frankly) doesn’t have the money or interest? You are preaching to the wrong choir. If you want to grow community and inspire people you can’t approach them to sell them something. You also can’t create a faux semblance of a community with a board of directors and charter and tell people that it’s a community - we see right through that. You have to really care about solving a problem that many people face, and then organically build up your troops toward that shared vision. You have to present people with something they can be a part of, and something that they care about.
This is why I want to argue that vision is branded. The process of expressing the idea to others and convincing them that they should care is no different than establishing branding. If they already care, then that task is done for you and you just need to ensure that using or working on your tool is fun. The vision will have stronger impact if it’s something that people genuinely might need or value, and if it’s something they feel like they can be a part of too. This brings me to my next idea.
While a vision may start with one person, it must ultimately be driven by people.
Your vision can get pretty far with you, yourself, and I, but it’s not really going to flourish. Flourishing requires it trickling into the hopes and vision space of others as well.
You can make a vision much larger than yourself if you share it. In research software engineering, this may mean growing a community around a need or a technology. For smaller projects, it may just mean finding someone that can be a partner in crime to develop fun things. I’ve experienced both cases. You extra doubly win if you can figure out how to integrate your vision into your job, which isn’t so challenging if it’s a problem that people are actively facing. It probably tends to be the case that we develop vision around what we are actively working on or the communities we interact with, so this isn’t such an unlikely case.
Depending on your frequency of having vision and how you express and act on it, you can likely identify a pattern for yourself. The neat thing about identifying this pattern is that as your skills improve, something that would seem like a reach when you are 10 years your previous self is something that you do for a weekend project. You don’t even see it as very impressive or important. That can be good and bad. It’s good because you strive for harder, more challenging things, but it’s also bad because you lose sight of your skills. You feel like the same person you were 10 years ago, ability wise, but indeed you are not. You possibly don’t value yourself as much as you should. Or maybe it could work in reverse - if you’ve had spurious success with previous vision then you might over-estimate the value of your current vision. If you built a community before that was based on an actual need, you might have the false perception that you know the formula and can do it again. I think I’ve seen this in practice too.
Ultimately, having vision means that you have a desire to grow. It means that you get excited about ideas and then act on them. I am grateful that I’ve been able to progress in my career, and still get excited about things. I’m still excited to learn, dig in, and fail a million times in pursuit of a fun idea. Having vision, for me, is a heartbeat, or a signal that tells me I’m still alive. And why is it important? I believe that vision can not only be the basis of growth, but the basis of innovation in a space. The most dangerous and sad thing that can happen to us is complacency. And so I hope to see many decades ahead of me where I will continue to have vision, and I wish the same for you, reader, as well. It’s not so important that our visions come to fruition or if they are impressive to others. They are entirely ours, and in the rare occurrence, these ideas that we get excited about and pursue sound like a good recipe for changing the world.
Vision on, friends!