Did I just do that: the process of learning & growing

I’ve come to find the process of considerable growth is often filled with “did I just do that” moments.  These are moments of dramatic growth that are so surprising that they seem to occur and perhaps only occur, at the extreme ends of one’s imagination or realm of possibility. These uncommon, unexpected, pleasant and gratifying moments aren’t an occurrence of chance but rather are a pattern of attitudes and actions.  I’ve experienced a few of these in the past two months and I’ve also identified some patterns that lead to such events.

My first did I just do that moment this summer occurred when I wrote my last function of a general recommendation system I had spent a few weeks building in the C programming language. Although I had worked with recommendation systems for years this was particularly challenging as I was using new algorithms while learning C, a very demanding and more rigorous language than what I was accustomed to. When I compiled the code, ran it, I experienced a true moment of awe: Did I just build a recommendation system in C from the ground up, without the comforts of “easier” languages and it worked?

My second did I just do that moment occurred a few weeks later. In the midst of building a cryptocurrency, again in the C programming language, I was faced with the challenge of encoding very large numbers, used to represent users and transactions, and decoding them — a task that quickly revealed gaps in some of my “low-level” knowledge. After a few days of exhausting all possible options and making very small progress I began to think the task might either impossible or not worth the trouble. With the last ounces of hope left I reexamined my notions, assumptions about the problem, made explicit the implicit connections and eventually gave it another try — and it worked. I had persisted, strengthened my scope of knowledge in order to derive a solution.

Last week I experienced another did I just do that moment in which I successfully converted my recommendation system to run entirely in the browser using Web Assembly (wasm). Web Assembly is considered, by its proponents, to be the greatest web technology to emerge in the past decade — it ushers in a new era of performance and plethora of possibilities for web applications. I remember when the idea first entered my mind what if I could create a recommendation system that runs entirely on a user’s browser eliminating the need for massive servers yet providing dramatic speed improvements?
This fascinated me as I had spent the past few years of my career primarily examining scale and efficiency in creating and managing recommendation systems. My initial attempts in converting my C recommendation system into wasm failed — perhaps this was the result of working on a cutting edge but still experimental technology. Feeling lost I retraced my steps. I decided to try out lesser grand goals — converting small c functions into wasm. I reexamined my assumptions, reconstructed the entire process into small granular steps. I made more attempts and it worked — Did I just do that? Yes. Yes I did.

Did I just do that moments occur when one is working at the edges of one’s abilities. These moments occur when one is living beyond one’s comfort zone. The moments are diverse in type and available to anyone. It could be leaving a promising career to fulfill a bigger promise to oneself. It could be moving thousands of miles away from comfort and familiarity to achieve a goal, a calling.
As I write this post thousands of miles away from home and familiarity, and where the focus of my career at the moment is to learn and grow dramatically (so as to be a better servant to humanity), I’ve experienced each of these cases intimately. I can attest to the personal growth I’ve gained although it’s still hard to quantify it as I haven’t given myself ample opportunity to examine it or offered myself fitting credit for the personal victories achieved. My technical growth however in just two months is quite apparent, and honestly shocking to myself.

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about these experiences, the did I just do that moments, and a few patterns have begun to emerge:
1. A strong belief the result desired will be achieved– that it’s going to work out, no matter what.
2. A healthy response to moments of failure. To take failures not as denial of an ultimate goal but rather as an illumination of that goal or other goals — indirect successes.
3. A Strong passion and ambition — the desire to still carry out the labor and toiling required even without immediate reward or accolades.

I can say it is only because I believe a solution exists and my desired goals can be reached and I’m passionate enough to motivate myself in the journey to the destination desired I do not mind moments of failure, pain, and disappointment no matter how numerous or their magnitude. I want what I want. I expect more frustration, I expect more difficulty but more so I expect and look forward to the many did I just do that moments I have yet to experience.

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