Alex Shalman has a great post at zenhabits about how to avoid letting your brain decay into apathy and atrophy. It’s a great call to action, to find ways of self-improvement. I think the behaviors listed here dovetail very nicely with the attributes of highly effective programmers.
By continuing to do as we always have, the quality of results will be the same as always. Only when we step out of our comfort zones, and push ourselves to improve, will we gain useful new experiences, knowledge, and ideas.
I think the methods of expanding the mind are highly applicable to software developers. I just have a little bit of commentary on each one.
11. Reading – I think I would have put this at #1. It’s the easiest way of cramming information into your skull. It’s the most efficient method of information transfer, and that’s our bread-and-butter as programmers, so we should become expert at it.
10. Writing – We write code for a living, not necessarily prose, but communication is key to so many areas in life, that learning how to write effectively is critical to most careers. For myself, I definitely find it easier to express myself in writing than in-person. Doing this well becomes a critical ability.
9. Puzzles – Developing a large software project is in many ways like an enormous software project. It’s so large, though, that we can’t comprehend it all at the same time. But practicing other types of puzzles can train our brains to look for patterns and to develop new, creative ways of thinking. My favorite offline puzzle is the New York Times Crossword, but I enjoy the occasional sudoku.
8. Mathematics – a good understanding of boolean logic, prepositional calculus, discrete mathematics, asymptotic notation, etc. are great things for developers to have. A general understanding of algebra, calculus, trigonometry, and statistics also comes in handy more-than-occasionally. Another valuable idea that comes out of mathematical understanding is the idea of precision in thought and rigorousness in testing or understanding your software–think loop invariants.
7. Painting – I am definitely not an artist by any means, but the underlying principle of some kind of artistic self-expression is important. The creative side of your brain must be regularly exercised. For me, this is in the form of building Legos.
6. Cooking – I initially found this to be a peculiar choice, but it makes more sense when I ponder it. Cooking is at once creative and precise. Not only does it use all the senses, but it requires you to think on your feet and be very, very organized and detail oriented, especially when you start cooking for more people. Planning and execution both become huge issues.
5. Music – I wholeheartedly agree, and I’ll even go out on a limb and say that you need to listen to lots of genres of music, especially classical. Why classical? Because it exhibits more musical complexity than all others. It doesn’t minimize various musical aspects (variation, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, i.e.) for the sake of a single one (i.e., rhythm).
4.Poetry – I used to write fiction and poetry in high school and earlier, but it’s been quite a while. I do remember it being quite the exercise to compose sonnets–it forces you to be extremely creative with grammar, syntax, meaning, vocabulary, and more.
3. Meditate – This is an art I need to learn more about. I find I do this automatically in some situations where I’m not otherwise preoccupied (the shower), and I can solve a question I’ve had. I find that NOT doing something is as important as doing something in many cases. When I’m faced with an especially thorny problem at work, it really helps to just write down my thoughts about it and let it sit for a few days while I think about it in my off moments. Most of the time, I can come back and have a better solution than if I had started right away.
2. Learn a language –
A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming is not worth knowing. – Alan Perlis
The original article obviously means foreign spoken languages, which I definitely agree with. I speak Italian, and the insights it’s given into my own native English are quite valuable. If you’re a careful student, knowing two languages definitely forces you to think about the meaning of words and constructs. It’s much harder to take things for granted.
I think the same is true of programming languages–knowing more than one helps your mind think about a problem in different ways. Once you understand functional programming, for example, you will never look at programming the same way again.
1. Question Everything – This is analogous to love of learning in my Effective Programmers essay. It’s not being a jerk and denigrating everybody else’s ideas. It’s asking yourself continual “Why” questions in order to understand the issue.