I spoke last week with a woman in her mid-twenties who is working at her first start-up, and would like one day to start a company of her own. I asked her why: why start your own company when there are so many good ones out there to join? Her answer was that she likes starting things—always has. "Yes, but why?" I asked, several more times. Is it that you like being in charge? Is it the echo-of-creation thrill that comes from making something out of nothing, or the social cachet that is attached these days to being a founder? I said then that knowing why you enjoy certain things is as important to your life and career as knowing why people buy your product is to your business. If Steve Jobs was right, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do, then shouldn't your number one priority be figuring out what you actually love?
I had a similar conversation the next day with a former student who has become one of the best young programmers I know. He has been working for one startup, is transitioning to another, would like to do some teaching, and would also like to—well, that's what he wanted to talk to me about. He'd like to get into a larger, long-term project of some kind, but wasn't sure what. After kicking around a few suggestions (humanitarian open source, extensible programming systems, et cetera), we came to the conclusion that what he really wants is the coding equivalent of a regular running partner: someone he won't have to slow down to keep pace with, someone who'll be out there rain or shine to keep him going. What he really wants is to find a bunch of people who enjoy the same kinds of things he enjoys, for the same reasons, who will go as far and as fast as he will. Right now, I think that means he should go off and explore functional programming, but that's not what really matters. What really matters is the sit-by-the-fire warmth that comes from knowing that you can pick up the conversation where you left off, and that if you're out there in the cold and wet, someone else will be there too.
In the end, the search for that feeling is the common thread through almost everything I've done. Grad school, teaching programming to scientists, running student projects at the University of Toronto, editing books, organizing music classes for kids—they're where I was looking, not what I was looking for. And as my sister's time draws to a close, I've realized why. We are none of us long in this life, and I think we all want to believe that when we have to run our last lap, we won't have to run it alone. I think we all want friends to keep pace with, day after day, while we're alive, so that we can be sure that someone will be out there, still running, when we're not.