Mainstream precludes cool

When Ruby on Rails emerged on the web development scene in 2004, it was undeniably cool. It brought a new vibe, a new look, a new approach, and plenty of novel ideas about the psychology, culture, and technology to the broader world of web development. It was hip hop assaulting airwaves dominated by techno. It was different.

Culture shocks like that don’t stay shocking. If they’re successful, they cease being the shock and become the culture. The path to widespread adoption is the path to the mainstream. To becoming the new accepted wisdom. From heresy to common sense.

Fighting to remain cool after you’ve won is folly. Movements that conquer the world either accept the role of establishment with grace or find themselves with no role at all. This was the best case scenario. Celebrate it!

That celebration is a lot less dramatic than the battles of the early years. It’s less exhilarating in the fight-or-flight sense of adrenaline highs. But there’s a different, deeper sense of satisfaction from seeing the ideas you championed benefit the many, the masses. Not just a tiny, cool elite of early adopters.

Because make no mistake, you can’t span a spectrum that includes both early adopters and the mainstream masses with any sense of coherent vision. Early adopters were there in part for the thrill of the frontier. The mainstream masses just want the toilets to flush every time.

So you have to be able to say goodbye to a few in order to say hello to the many. That transition can be hard. “Where did everyone go?” is a natural question when you see a handful of prolific frontier fighters make way for a much larger, quieter crowd of people who just want functioning plumbing.

But again, this is what winning looks like. This is what being around for the long term feels like. That doesn’t mean you should stop moving, stop improving. It just means you’ll be doing so at a different pace. In the early days, you can go from 50% done to 60% done in short order. In the later days, it’ll take ten times as long to go from 98% to 98.5%.

Once you accept this new state of affairs, there’s a new sense of calm available. You’re no longer fighting for survival. But there’s always more work to do. A different kind of work. Less revolutionary, more administrative, more marginal. It takes a different temperament to manage the schools and maintain the roads than it does to lead the rebellion.

This is true of all movements, and programming is no exception. When I first picked up Ruby, it was already a decade old. Now it’s been around for a quarter of a century. It’s evolving, but it’s not revolutionizing. That’s how it’s supposed to be!

I spent plenty of time sleeping under the stars on the early frontier, and it was fun. But so is indoor plumbing. It hasn’t constrained my creativity or ambitions to enjoy the sophisticated amenities of modern Ruby on Rails development.

There’s a parallel to the highs and lows of working at an early startup. I thoroughly enjoyed building Basecamp together with three other people, but I’m also OK with the fact that I no longer have to wake up in the middle of the night to save a server. Enjoy the memories, but live in the present.

The same is true of life in general. I had a lot of fun in my 20s, but I don’t look back at them with longing. I traded one set of thrills (like partying) for others (like kids), and I got to enjoy both. My 30s have been wonderful too. And I’m looking forward to my 40s as well.

Enjoy the ride, accept when it’s over, and stop pining for the past.