Recently I came across an interview with the author of the Linux kernel, programmer Linus Torvalds. Although authorship of an obscure operating system may not seem like much of an achievement to an outsider, this guy has literally single-handedly revolutionised the world of information technology. Vast majority of the internet servers run Linux, the kernel is used by operating systems such as macOS or Android, as well as most of our household electronics. Furthermore, the Linux community, which the fifty-year-old Finn keeps on leading, is one of the most vocal advocates of free and open-source software and leads the campaign on privacy, freedom and security in the online world.
Surprisingly, the interview didn’t quite go the way one would expect of an interview with someone this successful. No visionary ideas, no big words, no “Sky is the limit”. Even though I disagreed with Torvalds on many points, his main message resonated quite strongly with a lot of what I have been thinking about recently.
Torvalds started programming the Linux kernel at the age of 21. For him, it was an entirely personal project building on his previous work. It was something he needed himself. Something in which he believed sincerely and which he expected to be useful, nonetheless, on which he worked day in day out without any ambition or vision. Out of pure joy. Programming was simply something he loved doing. When he made the first prototype of the kernel publicly available, it was not with an idea of a huge open-source operating system with a thousand contributors in mind. He simply wanted to share his creation. He wanted to show the world what he was passionate about and what he was fascinated by.
That is to my mind the right mindset to have. I believe that big ideas driving the world forwards are incredibly important. The society needs people who point in the right direction. It is only that I feel like these ideas are often overglorified these days. Torvalds is a prime example of someone, who changed the world without them. By doing what he loved and what coincidentally turned out to be ground-breaking. He worked on Linux not because he wanted to be a famous programmer, but because he loved the act itself. He loved programming.
I think that is precisely the source of uncertainty many people of my age feel when making important decisions. In the swamp of motivational information, we are losing the distinction, once presumably obvious, between the ideal and the means of achieving it. I cannot imagine working solely for the ideal. To study physics because I want to be a famous physicist or get a Nobel prize. To learn how to play guitar because I want to be able to play guitar. At the end, it is the activity itself, completely isolated from the society, its nonsense expectations and trends, ambitions of parents or teachers, which fills the everyday life. If our motivation stems from the activity itself, we are on the right track.
Whether at the end of this track we eventually turn the world on its head suddenly becomes irrelevant. That is not the point. Life is so much more than world-changing projects. It is a complex interplay of our collective existence, joint effort of organisms, which exist purely for their own society’s sake. I am not suggesting to get rid of ideals, big goals and dreams, the exact opposite, actually. I am suggesting, however, not to rely on them as the primary source of life power.
Not everyone will change the world. That is a good thing. Else the world would become quite a hostile place to be. That is the reality we all must learn to accept. I also dare to suggest that not even the best of the best will change the world. There too much chance involved. But we can all do something we find meaningful. Something we love and what we simply cannot give up. And then, maybe, when everything comes together just right, grab the opportunity so hard, that finally, to ultimately join those I criticised in the opening paragraph, the sky really becomes the limit.
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