My friend Joseph Perla is taking a year off from his undergraduate degree. Joe has created a rare opportunity for himself to spend his time any way he pleases. To be honest, I’m a little jealous of him – for a long time, I’d dreamed of living alone for a few months in a sunny, comfortable cave with high-speed internet access near a supermarket and a pub, just to think and read and write and code.
We talked about how to fill this period meaningfully. It would be pretty easy to fill a year reading RSS feeds and masturbating, though this would leave you with little to show for your time. I want to have some more substantive impact on the world around me. To be able to look back on my time spent with pride. To do something worthwhile. Joe and I talked about how to decide what projects would be worthwhile, and this was the metric I suggested:
Create something shareable.
Add to the sum total of human knowledge. Create something that others can use.
To be shareable, it has to be useful. It has to be trustworthy – if it’s flawed/buggy, or its conclusions are ill-founded then it could actually be of negative value. It’s probably going to require some effort, since if it was easy and quick, then it would be easier for other people to generate it anew than to internalize your solution. It probably needs to synthesize or improve upon what already exists, maybe surprising us or overturning existing intuitions.
The internet provides the medium for distribution, advertisement and collaboration. Commoditized hardware, open source software and freely available information provide the tools and raw materials.
This validates a whole host of online activities. Write carefully considered opinion pieces. Build up a corpus of entertaining posts to create an online persona. Gather interesting tidbits. Develop your art in whatever form it appears. Maintain an existing piece of open source software or create a Debian package. Write a new application or library. Edit wikipedia articles. Release your photos under a Creative Commons license. Put your notes online. Provide instructions for building cool things. Share your tools. Run a controlled experiment on yourself. Curate a dataset. Write a scientific paper and make it easy for others to replicate it. [These links are just some of my favourite examples of each activity].