Today’s entry from The Daily Stoic, entitled “The Smoke and Dust of Myth”, discusses how quickly things — particularly trivial and petty things — are quickly forgotten.
Smoke and Dust
This is inspired by writings in Meditations from Marcus Aurelius in which he notes how most emperors before him are mainly forgotten:
Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.27
This is a common Stoic theme: at the end, all your anger at trivial things and all your desire and passion to chase fame and possessions will have been for nothing.
The Impermanence of Things
This transient, impermanent nature of things has played on my mind a lot over the last three to six months. It resonates strongly with me personally as it is a theme explored in one of my favourite Romantic poems:
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
— “Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Here, Shelley beautifully describes a strong contrast between the sneer and the arrogance of an ancient king with the inevitable decay of his impermanent place in the world. His status, achievements and “works” may have felt significant — and worthy of pride — in this time, but ultimately, was it worth it?
This is not just applicable to those seeking to be emperor, however. We can apply this concept in daily interactions at work or in personal relationships.
Essentially, if we are disputing something or worked up over a disagreement, we can remind ourselves daily that some of this anger or frustration will be forgotten in weeks, months and years to come. We can ask ourselves of any issue: will this matter in a year? In ten years?
Now, there are some things that will matter longer term and there is an irony in Marcus Aurelius’s words which I will explore with a personal example.
While statues may survive in deserts for millenia, working in software engineering is the polar opposite. The same could be said for a lot of professional or project-based work today, but my experience is primarily in building sofware-based systems and websites.
It is incredibly common for long-running, service-based applications to run only for handful of years before being replaced or decommissioned. There are many systems that have been running for far longer than they should, but clearly this is an industry that operates in short time frames if we are shocked to discover things that have been running for over ten years.
So, while Eiffel or Brunel have a legacy of physical structures to their name, I am only half way through my own life and witness to whole teams of engineers work tirelessly to replace and tear down whole service and applications I had a personal hand in designing, building and deploying.
I have observed many software developers fall into an emotional trap of having a personal investment in code they have written and applications they have worked on. They seek to continue to fix unresolved issues, even when the business does not need them fixed. They want to continue to maintain these systems, even when there are diminishing returns in doing so. At worst, they might get upset or angry at the idea that these applications are no longer valued and are inevitibly going to be decommissioned.
However, when we apply what Marcus Aurelius and Percy Shelley both remind us, we accept that if things we have worked on are inevitibly going to disappear, then it does not matter if that is next week, next year or new decade. The software is already transient the moment you worked on it.
As software development is usually collaborative within a team, this impermanence puts into perspective any dispute or debate you might have had over the code, design decisions or even how to name parts of it. These debates seem important at the time as you are expected to deliver high-quality results and it is important to “get it right” as much as possible, but maybe we can evaluate our tendency to over-polish something if we are reminded of its temporary nature?
People who work in other professions may also recognise aspects of their work that have a inevitible, finite lifespan. You can work incredibly hard on a report, on a software application or any other short-lived thing and its value will disappear.
So, does that make our work pointless? Should we abandon it? Not necessarily. This is where we need to dig one level deeper into Marcus Aurelius’s and Shelley’s words above.
Marcus Aurelius was right to write meditations over the forgotten emperors before him and he was right to keep humble over his own anger and passion in light of that. He was right because he was unable to foresee the irony his words would acquire: he himself was not forgotten. We are ready his words some two millenia later and gaining wisdom and value from them.
In a sentence, we have not forgotten his words reminding us not to fall foul of anger or passion because these things will be forgotten.
This applies again to our working and personal lives. When we work on projects like software applications, papers or other things with transient outputs, we are learning. We might use the project to try a new approach, we might have to solve a problem we have not had to solve before or we might use our work to train less experienced people.
I have worked on at least two major projects from which I have been able to extract papers and talks. As I focused on using project work to learn, improve and then share these things with others, I built more permanent value out of them.
Specifically, it is when we focus on the Stoic principle of virtue in sharing our learnings that our wisdom and ideas have potential to live beyond us. We won’t all be remembered as Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton for contributions to the body of human knowledge, but it is not likely that these people did their work with the intent of being remembered for centuries either. They worked and shared that work with others.
Your software or other project likely provided some value to someone for its lifespan. That was the value and virtue it provided and, I would argue, that is the primary output of any project — not the superficial output many assume to be the main deliverable. That value may have had lasting effects on those who consumed that output, but even if it didn’t you owe it to yourself to create more value by focusing on the aspects of work that improve you and improve others around you.
You were paid to create something, but you can choose to extract more than just pay from the work.
I am happy to witness or even have a hand in tearing down things I worked hard on. As I strive to use each project to learn, grow and develop myself then anything created by a past version of myself is, by definition, built by someone less competent than me.