Keep your ambitions in check David 11 May 2006

34 comments Latest by kenobi

It’s human nature to strive for bigger and better things. To increase ambition on the back of success. In many fields that’s fantastic. Software is rarely one of them.

The problem with ambition is that it leaks and it loops. You get high on your ability to solve that one hard problem and march on to prove your ingenuity to the remaining stack of todos. Stop it. Take your mind for a cold shower.

Most problems in this world do not need to rev your ambition meter to the red line. You have to train your brain to see and take the detours.

Take “climb Mount Everest”. That’s a hard problem. Could “get a fantastic view from high in the sky” suffice? If so, you now have an easy problem with an array of easy solutions: Take the elevator to the top of the Sears Tower, fly a plane across snowclad mountains, or simply watch others do it on Flickr.

All problems are negotiable. Don’t solve before you settle.

34 comments so far (Jump to latest)

DHH 11 May 06

The best book I know on this subject is Are Your Lights On? by Jerry Weinberg. One of my all-time favorite books. At just 176 pages in 9x6, it’s short and sweet too. Get it.

Jason Kolb 11 May 06

I couldn’t possibly disagree with you more.

Frank 11 May 06

I’m another who completely disagrees with this philosophy.

For me, I would much rather set my goals extremely high, goals that will require me to stretch to achieve because if I do fall short (which most people do), where I fall short will be might higher than that unambitious goal.

If that makes sense what I just wrote.

Jamie Tibbetts 11 May 06

If I actually understood what DHH was trying to say in this post, I think I’d still be more inclined to agree with Jason Kolb.

Jamie Tibbetts 11 May 06


You developed an entire web framework that is being used by thousands of people around the world, and you’re telling people not to set lofty goals and to keep their ambition in check? Seems a tad odd. ;)

Dan 11 May 06

Hang on, I think we’re writing about two different things.

Problem: a question to be considered, solved or answered.
Goal: The purpose toward which an endeavor is directed; an objective.

DHH’s example of “climb Mount Everest” would probably be considered a goal, not a problem by most; hence the posts above discussing goals, not problems.

I completely agree however, that people can “jump to define problems” just as badly as they can “jump to define solutions”.

hm 11 May 06

well thats not very romantic

Parand 11 May 06

David, increasingly I get the sense that you guys are “getting high on your ability to solve that one hard problem” and trying to express deeper concepts than your words allow … I’m sure there’s a point you’re trying to make, but you didn’t make it very well here.

Don Schenck 11 May 06

I get what he’s saying.

It’s a Zen thing … and it’s good.

Thanks for the nudge.

I'm With Stupid 11 May 06

I think you guys aren’t getting what DHH is saying. He isn’t talking about ‘goals’, per se, but how you should look at problems. All problems aren’t as big as ‘climb Mount Everest’ (well, all of mine aren’t, maybe all of your problems are).

Let me put it another way. When a baseball player goes to bat, does he automatically try to hit a home run? Of course not. Sometimes, a bunt is the right hit to make. Sometimes, a single is as good as a homer. Sometimes, the coach says to swing away and you let it rip.

To bring it back to what DHH said: just because you just solved a Herculean problem doesn’t mean the next one is of the same scale and nature, so you shouldn’t charge out and engage it like it is. You need to step back and examine the problem. Don’t get wrapped up in your own cleverness. Find out what the real problem is, which may have solutions that are much easier and/or simplier to achieve than.

DHH 11 May 06

I’m With Stupid is spot on, but let me elaborate on just a few additional points. Most problems are best served with simple, mundane solutions. It’s often unglamorous work. You don’t get to flex your great intellect or fulfill your ambitions of grandeur.

I’ve met lots of people who can’t deal with that. Once they’ve solved something truly hard, it seems as though the mundane is beneath you. I’ve felt the same sensation from time to time. Solving ever harder problems becomes a drug and you’ll look for your next rush regardless of whether its a good time to get high or not.

As an example, Rails is in large parts a collection of polished solutions to mundane problems. It doesn’t try to change the world by overly clever, complex, or computer science breakthroughs. Just like all the 37signals applications are just polished collections of simple solutions to everyday problems.

So. The next time you feel your ambitions soar, reconsider. Perhaps it is time to engage all your intellect to solve that hard problem. But probably not.

Rick 11 May 06

I will have to remember this advice the next time my 4 year old boy asks me if I think he can be an astronaut.

I’ll have to tell him to “keep it simple”, and pick a much less ambitious career.

Anonymous Coward 11 May 06

I will have to remember this advice the next time my 4 year old boy asks me if I think he can be an astronaut. I�ll have to tell him to �keep it simple�, and pick a much less ambitious career.

what is wrong with you people? do you really think that was what dhh was suggesting?

Eric 11 May 06

Mundane solutions rock - they are what makes this world actually work. This post wasn’t about ambition - it is about practicality. What is the easiest way to really clean your carpet - I mean really get it clean - using a Roomba or vacuuming it yourself? The answer is - vacuum it yourself. The Roomba is a fun toy - but not practical. Should we stop trying to create that robotic house cleaner? Heck no! But, the best solution for now is the Mundane Solution.

bleargh 11 May 06

i love the idea of trying to strive to achieve tremendous things, but david is probably more or less right on this. some miscellaneous thoughts:

1. richard hamming talked about something related to this in his famous speech/talk, “you and your research.” he mentioned famous researchers winning the nobel prize and then not being able to work on anything small after that - because they came to feel they had a reputation and a precedent to keep up. but the small things seem to be what snowball into breakthroughs (which are what in fact are desired in the natural sciences, i guess), and you have to go through any complex problem solving process in small steps at a time. although in that talk, hamming actually encouraged and challenged people to only attempt to do world-changing things.

2. and speaking of not trying to be overly complex, it happens that in the area of machine learning, the models that are the most parsimonious almost always give better results with unseen data. so trying to make super-complex things will probably hurt you.

3. probably a side benefit of not trying to conquer the world from your computer is that when it’s ready for public consumption, you won’t have any ideas built up in your head that the world will instantly go bonkers over your products (“this is my magnum opus/my masterpiece/my baby, how could they not love it?”).

Dave 11 May 06

Interesting article. DHH, people seem to be missing the point. You’r not suggesting that it’s ok to be unambitious, right? To not care enough to even bother finishing what you sta

Sarah 11 May 06

AHHH. Now I can explain why people created toilet paper.

It is a simple solution to a mundane problem (how to clean my …)

DHH 11 May 06

I’m suggesting that ambitions are often harmful to the mundane details of every day software solutions. Be ambitious in what you want to achieve in life, were you want to take your business, but tone it down when it comes to dealing with software to help people get stuff done.

Mark 11 May 06

I understand and agree with David. I think one of the causes of the problem he addresses is the seemingly universal fear of the “one hit wonder”. The idea that the next thing — be it an album, movie sequel, version of a software program or bionic man has to be better then the previous.

We can rebuild him…better, stronger, faster

While there is nothing wrong with that kind of ambition in and of itself, we tend to find ourselves getting wrapped up in that ideal once we have achieved a big success and tend to lose perspective in providing a truly relevant solution to what might not be as big a need the next time around.

To borrow from IWS’s comment — We want to hit another homerun, when a bunt is actually the better choice.

Dave Rosen 11 May 06

Rocketfuel David. Ambition is a poor excuse for not having sense enough to be simple. Enjoy simple stepping stones.

Edmundo 11 May 06

Put the context of mount everest to software maybe you’ll understand. Here we have, for example, Mircosoft trying to F***ing kill Google by making everything “Live”. EVERYTHING. While they’re trying so hard to defeat Google, Google is already coming up with new and better things that Microsoft is going to have to their pile of things to compete against while fixing their own stuff which is a bit crappy. That’s a lot of work, but I guess that’s competition for you. But if Microsoft focused their power on making better things instead, then they could actually get somewhere.

As for flickr, the original ambition (or so the story goes) was to make an online social game of sorts. And a little piece of that game which started out as the photo sharing “module” became flickr. The ambition was made much smaller, to focus on just one thing of the big goal, but that one thing became great. A simple solution to an everyday problem.

Anonymous Coward 12 May 06

Madness! Seems to me as though you could be suggesting that everyone else lowers their sites/goals just to lesson the competition for yourself. I’ve never read such utter rubbish in my life. You need goals, you need targets, you need dreams and vision. You swicth those off, or make them insignificant and nothing gets done.

What if Mozart had thought “Bugger writing these big symphonies I’ll bash out chopsticks with one finger - that’s a heck of lot easier and less painful”. What a drab sad world we would live in.

Michael Ward 12 May 06

I think this is best summed up as ‘don’t forget to solve simple problems, and solve them with simple solutions’.

Aiming high can be dangerous if you you become so single minded that you lose focus on the real issues and use silly solutions to chase the impossible dream.

Think ‘this web app will be huge one day and I’ll have a million users per day, so instead of launching it now I’ll spend the next 18 months redesigning it so it scales’ - that’s grand ambition, but the solution is getting in the way of real achievement.

Adam Groves 12 May 06

Some of the above comments remind me of an exerpt from a Scott Adams DNRC newsletter a few years back:

You: Vegetables are good for you.
Them: Don’t be ridiculous, if you ate a truckload of vegetables you would die.

Me: Torture is wrong.
You: Don’t be ridiculous, what if the only way to prevent the death of millions of people was to torture a terrorist?

As an aside - isn’t google great? I could remember the general context but only the specific phrase ‘are good for you’ and that it came from a DNRC newletter.

Richard Hyett 12 May 06

Someone once said,could have been Steven Covey, that nature didn’t give us the power to imagine goals without giving us the capacity to achieve them. The process of formulating goals takes time and is sacred. No one can tell you what the goal should be. I have the movie of my goal playing in my head every day, but it’s still not clear I’m still looking for more detail. Step 1 Write the Goal down every day, Step 2 Play it in your head every day. If you do that the means will become apparent.

Ka Wai 12 May 06

To what Frank said (2nd post)…

“For me, I would much rather set my goals extremely high, goals that will require me to stretch to achieve because if I do fall short (which most people do), where I fall short will be might higher than that unambitious goal.”

This kind of thinking, from my experience, leads to burnout. If you’re constantly trying to bite off more than you can chew, or being more ambitious than you can possibly think to achieve, you are constantly failing despite the fact that you may be creating bigger,better things than if you started with the “unambitious” goal (which I dont think is David’s point here either).

Achievable goals that are routinely solved make for the happy programmer. And certainly, once you achieve one goal, you can then set slightly higher goal. I think the idea here is to set reasonable expectations, achieve them, then define the next set of expectations built off of the goals you’ve already achieved. In the end, you may get to climb Mount Everest but without having to constantly feel like your failing in the process. I’m sure your code will be cleaner too.

Kego 12 May 06

Wow. I can’t believe that so many people who are so “goal” oriented can’t read. Lots of the posts keep mentioning how bad it is not to have goals.

The word �goal� isn�t even in the article. He is talking about solving problems. Nothing to do with goals.

Bryan C 12 May 06

It’s not about you or your life goals - it’s about fixing the problem at hand. Do you think you have it in you to implement a more comprehensive, elegant, or long-term solution? That’s great. You should go do that, and the world will thank you. But don’t make everyone else wait while your brilliance achieves full flower.

“A man’s reach must always exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” There’s nothing wrong with lofty goals or ambitions, but if you don’t take care of the basics first you’ll never have the time or resources to solve the problems that really are important to you (or your customers.)

Michael S. 12 May 06

What if Mozart had thought �Bugger writing these big symphonies I�ll bash out chopsticks with one finger - that�s a heck of lot easier and less painful�. What a drab sad world we would live in.

You’re missing the point. Not everything has to be a symphony. How would it turn out if a modern-day Mozart tried to write “Walk the Line” for an orchestra? Sometimes it’s just better to have a guy sit down with a guitar. I think part of what DHH was saying was to know the difference.

JF 12 May 06

You�re missing the point. Not everything has to be a symphony. How would it turn out if a modern-day Mozart tried to write �Walk the Line� for an orchestra? Sometimes it�s just better to have a guy sit down with a guitar. I think part of what DHH was saying was to know the difference.

That is exactly what DHH was saying.

condor 12 May 06

once again . . it’s about getting real ;)

sammy baby 12 May 06

bleargh’s (heh) comment about working after getting a Nobel is instructive. To flip it around slightly into a couple of cheesy aphorism: solving a hard problem is not the same as making a problem hard and then solving it.

At my last job, I had the opportunity to talk with an intern about what makes a system administrator good at what he does. My answer was that he’ll spend a day working on a problem that could have been solved in an hour, but only if it means that next time it’ll only take a minute.

Don Schenck 13 May 06

Truly … make things as simple as can be, but no simpler.

kenobi 23 May 06

For the love of god - is this site an homage to David Carradine and Grasshopper?