headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

January 2022

Looking Back on Looking Forward

Given the time of year, I thought I would look back on how I've looked forward in the past. It's interesting to consider choices I made, what I was thinking at the time, and how those choices have played out.

In my youth, I was an organic vegetable farmer. In the mid-1970s, before big businesses jumped on the "organic" bandwagon, the word didn't bring higher prices in the market. My girlfriend and I worked hard and were successful at growing vegetables. We were less successful at earning money, however.

In late summer, my sister and brother-and-law came to visit. My brother-in-law asked me, "what do you do about health insurance?"

"I don't get sick."

He was aghast at that reply, and rightly so. The fact that I got through those years without getting sick doesn't diminish the risks I took. I don't know what I would have done had I had a serious illness or injury--become a burden to my parents, I suppose.

Risks and Opportunities

When people talk about looking forward, and making plans with incomplete information about the future, they generally talk about the risks of things going wrong. Another aspect of looking forward is creating opportunities. Louis Pasteur is quoted as saying "Chance favors the prepared mind." I often see this interpreted as a call for selecting your goal and making plans to achieve them. To me, this seems far too deterministic. My explicit goals change all the time, and my tacit goals are far too general to drive concrete plans.

Perhaps rather than creating opportunities, it's more accurate to phrase it as being prepared to take advantage of unknown future opportunities. "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" is attributed to the Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger.

I suppose that you could imagine some particular opportunity, prepare for that, and then wait. My fortune telling is not specific enough to take advantage of that, though. I have taken a more general and flexible approach to preparation. Everything I learn and every skill I hone is preparation for some unknown time in the future when it might come in handy. I can't reliably know which knowledge will be useful, so I let curiosity and interest select for me. What's important is retaining the knowledge and being able to sufficiently retrieve it when needed.

I don't know when I started playing with electricity. I showed enough interest that when I was about 5 years old, I was given a #6 dry cell for Christmas. This 1-1/2 volt carbon zinc cell was about 6 inches high and 2-1/2 inches in diameter, and had screw terminals on the top. I was also given a Christmas light string that didn't work. It was one of the early sets that were wired in series, and if one bulb went out, the whole string did. If two bulbs went out, it was very hard to find the problem. But if you cut out a single bulb, it was just right for being powered by a single cell.

From there it went to building my own switch out of a scrap of lumber, two 10-penny nails, and some AWG 12 house wiring scraps. Then electromagnets using more of the same components. Then salvaging parts unsoldered from old electronics, building crystal radio receivers, and a science fair project of a "computer" that could add and subtract using a telephone dial for input.

All of this was driven by curiosity and the thrill of learning something new. It didn't hurt that these were tangible experiences and gave me some results that I could hear and see. I also had friends who shared the electronics bug, and I could collaborate with them. I was preparing, but not for anything in particular.

Then opportunity presented itself. At the TV shop where I bought some capacitors for my science fair "computer," I'd been told I could get a job if I came out after school was out. It turned out that it wasn't a serious offer. When I cycled out to start my new job, I found that the guy who told me that didn't have the authority to offer it, and was no longer there. I was crushed with disappointment. After my long bicycle trip, I offered to do whatever I could to help, rather than waste my day. At least I could learn what it was like in a TV shop. That willingness led to the owner offering to hire me as an extra pair of hands for antenna installations and to learn to repair TVs and radios.

It was the experience I gained there that opened the door for a job as an AV technician at a community college after a couple years of subsistence farming. Employees qualified for free tuition, and I took all the electronics classes they had--expanding and organizing my knowledge. That knowledge, and my brief ham radio experience, got me in the door as an engineering technician. It was a good time in the industry microprocessors were replacing random digital logic, and I made a transition to writing firmware.

Do you see the pattern, yet? While I'm sure I've learned some things that never matched up with an opportunity, I've certainly learned things that did. I'm not worried about "wasting time" learning something that may not open an opportunity. Learning is, itself, a reward for me. And the more I learn, especially the more varied things I learn, the better I prepare for unknown future opportunities.

As I look back on things I've learned, I realize that, at the time, I didn't know for what they might serve as preparation. I also notice things I neglected to learn, and only later realized how valuable they would have been at preparing me for opportunities that later presented themselves. I can't know what will be most valuable later. There is no optimization of life; there is only continual preparation. The best I can do is always be learning something.

That's how I look forward. I work at learning things that are interesting to me. I have a bias for learning things I think may give me more opportunities in the future. Or perhaps those are the things that are interesting to me.

How do you look forward and prepare for the future?

/signed/ George


I'd love to hear how you look forward and prepare for the future. And how has that approach worked for you in the past. You can simply reply to this email or send an email to newsletter@idiacomputing.com to continue the conversation. There's a person, not a bot, on this end. I'd really love to hear from you.

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