The Projects That Matter The Most To Me Are Small

Art is high-quality endeavor. That is all that really needs to be said. Or, if something more high-sounding is demanded: Art is the Godhead as revealed in the works of man. -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I love to build projects that make my life "more quality" and "less suck". While there's no rigid definition of a "more quality, less suck" life, you know it when you see it. A quality life seems to flow, it doesn't get stuck in local maxima, it seems to have a musical quality to it. It rarely (if ever) is dominated by a few mega-corporations, and has a DIY sensibility, a insatiable curiousity, and a clear pathway to achieving goals.

For me, the projects that fit this task of making life more quality are small. Small enough to be a champion for one problem only in scope, but large enough to fully solve an issue. By solving small problems one by one, life becomes more free and systems become workhorses, allowing for a "proactive laziness".

Again, small projects aren't ambitious on purpose. But they've changed my life, have made me a much better software engineer, and a more fulfilled person.

By the end of this post, you'll understand why small projects are very much wort pursuing, and understand more about what it means to be "accomplished".

The Allure Of Ambitious Projects

And yet when it comes to creative endeavors, so often we find people going at them from the wrong end. This generally afflicts those who are young and inexperienced—they begin with an ambitious goal, a business, or an invention or a problem they want to solve. This seems to promise money and attention. They then search for ways to reach that goal. Such a search could go in thousands of directions, each of which could pan out in its own way, but in which they could also easily end up exhausting themselves and never find the key to reaching their overarching goal. There are too many variables that go into success. The more experienced, wiser types, such as Ramachandran, are opportunists. Instead of beginning with some broad goal, they go in search of the fact of great yield—a bit of empirical evidence that is strange and does not fit the paradigm, and yet is intriguing. This bit of evidence sticks out and grabs their attention, like the elongated rock. They are not sure of their goal and they do not yet have in mind an application for the fact they have uncovered, but they are open to where it will lead them. Once they dig deeply, they discover something that challenges prevailing conventions and offers endless opportunities for knowledge and application. -- Mastery, Robert Greene

In the movie Election, the character Tracy Flick is ambitious and hardworking, but struggles to make friends. “That's okay,” she tells herself. “I've come to accept that very few people are truly destined to be special, and we're solo fliers . . . if you're gonna be great, you've got to be lonely.”6 Like Tracy, we often use soldier mindset to protect our egos by finding flattering narratives for unflattering facts. I may not be wealthy, but that's because I have integrity. The reason I don't have a lot of friends is because people are intimidated by me. -- The Scout Mindset, Julia Galef

I'm glad that you mentioned people having their own websites, because your website is fascinating. As opposed to a lot of people who are doing work on the internet — where these days, for programmers, the norm seems to be that you have a Github Pages website that has a couple of pages on it, or a blog, or something like that — your website is more like a wiki, but a wiki that only you get to edit, which is a really interesting feeling for being invited to explore somebody's work. It's something that I'd love to see more of, where... like you're saying, context. Each of your projects is presented as: here's what this is, here's why I made it, and links to other projects that are used by this project or vice versa. You try to make the connective tissue between your work really visible. -- 44 • Devine Lu Linvega • Making Your Own Tools

Many ambitious projects are sourced from ego, not reality.

There is a belief in big tech that code isn't worth writing if it doesn't have the potential to become a gazillion dollar company. Seemingly, success is only reserved for those who win the zero sum game, who monopolize a product and become immortal through their work.

The cold hard truth of this is that many (most?) of these tech businesses will fail before they reach billionaire Nirvana.[click to tweet] Survivorship bias is real, and many (most?) of a cohort do not have what it takes to adapt against a hostile environment of other zero sum players.

The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility—that's ego. -- Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday

"But what if I win!?", I hear you say. "What if my project, my algorithm, etc. is the sole survivor??"

That may not be better.

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that I think many CEOs, including myself, have experienced. The company could be doing well – great, even – and yet an exit is many years away. The CEO could feel depressed for all of the other reasons listed here, regardless of performance. But the CEO can't leave – and that's key to understanding why so many CEOs experience this learned helplessness. Just outright leaving is complicated for lots of reasons. Investors and employees joined the journey in part because of you. Other stakeholders including potential partners or major customers could be rattled. It could create a negative halo around the company. It typically takes a lot of planning for a CEO to leave and it is extremely difficult unless the CEO is fired. For me it was years in the making. -- My Emotions as a CEO

One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. -- Sapiens, Yuval Nooah Harari

Small Projects Provide Peace Of Mind

I recently heard one computer scientist talk about this, and he took a line that was analogous to the philosopher Robert Nozick’s utility-monster thought experiment. He said that in creating superintelligent, even godlike AI, we would be creating systems that are more conscious, and therefore more ethically important, than ourselves. We’ll be creating gods. So we could be creating the utility monsters whose interests outweigh our own to a nearly infinite degree. And this will be the most glorious thing we’ll ever accomplish. That they may trample on our interests and even annihilate us shouldn’t really matter—no more than it matters that we occasionally trample on anthills. -- Making Sense, Sam Harris

Place utility: Make something inaccessible accessible Form utility: Make something more valuable by rearranging existing parts Time utility: Make something slow go fast Possession utility: Remove a middleman -- The Minimalist Entreprenuer, Sahil Lavingia

On the other end of the spectrum are small bottom up projects. These projects solve a problem for n = 1 person, where the 1 is the creator themselves. Anyone else who benefits from projects of this scale is a positive externality, a la icing on the cake.

These projects provide peace of mind because they are trivial to maintain, easy to modify, and most importantly, are made by you, for you.

Let's examine a few real life examples to see small project quality in action.

Case Study: yt-transcript to obsidian

2 rules for consuming content that changed my life: I'm only allowed to save new content to my read later app (not consume it immediately) When I want to consume content, I have to choose from what's in my read later queue -- Tiago Forte

I needed a way to search the content of the videos I've watched on YouTube before. YouTube itself searches by title and description, but I wanted to have my favorite videos stored in Obsidian where I could jump directly to timestamps of what was said in the video itself.

Over time, this script proved immensely useful. I came to it day after day with a new YouTube video to transcribe. It was only then, after this script continued proving its utility to me as a writer (and as an enjoyer of quality content!), I put it into an Alfred workflow to automate it even further.

GitHub Repo - bramses/youtube-transcript-obsidian

Case Study: readmeme

If you've read this far, you may be under the assumption that small projects need to serve some sort of utility to provide "quality".

This isn't the case at all!

Many of my favorite projects serve no productive purpose. They won't save your business 200% on staffing costs, nor will they file your taxes for you. The real purpose of this category of projects is: to learn, to sate curiousity, and to make something that makes me (and hopefully others) smile.

README(ME) has a simple premise. A new meme on my GitHub README every five minutes. That's all it does.

Along the way of building this project, I got to learn more about the Notion API, image serving optimization on S3, GitHub actions, how to spend nothing on server costs by playing limbo with GitHub action machines, and scheduling with cron jobs.

A great learning experience, with the unintended outcome that I end up checking my Github profile many times a day to see what meme the action has posted.

GitHub Repo - bramses/bramses

In Sum

Both of the projects above provide daily value to my life, arguably as much value as items I have purchased from big box stores, or subscriptions I have to tech platforms. Both are less than 200 lines of code put together. These case study projects are among many small projects I've built (check out the Kingdom Hearts portfolio on the homepage (desktop only) or Instabram Stories for more examples).

The advice of those who have climbed to the top is to "start small". But what if true freedom is achieved by "staying small"?[click to tweet]

If you have a billion users, and a mere 0.1% of them have an issue that requires support on a given day (an average of one support issue per person every three years), and each issue takes 10 minutes on average for a human to personally resolve, then you’d spend 19 person-years handling support issues every day. If each support person works an eight-hour shift each day then you’d need 20,833 support people on permanent staff just to keep up. That, folks, is internet scale. -- Working in Public, Nadia Eghbal

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