the miracle at the heart of the ordinary

One summer day I was working in what used to be my wife’s room in her teenage years. It was the year of the pandemic. My vaccination was scheduled a few days after, so many of us were still working remotely. I started freelancing six months earlier. It was going well, working on my own terms. The good weather and the dropping number in cases justified a somewhat optimistic attitude.

I was in the middle of reading some Python code and writing user stories for other people to implement. This wasn’t the favorite part of my job, since I would’ve rather done the coding myself, rather than imagining it and handing it over. My progress was a bit slower than I’d liked. But that’s what I was paid for. This was what was expected from a freelance senior cloud engineer, apparently.

It was also one of the few humid, hot days of the year. There are no more than three of those in the Netherlands. I was in a procrastinating and distracted mood. So, without thinking, I stood up. In a shelf behind me there were several books we stashed away when we moved to London for a few years and emptied our Amsterdam apartment so we could rent it. As a consultant, my life has been pretty much in between two cities for a few years back then.

I reached out automatically to one among them: “why we make things and why it matters” by Peter Korn. I remember reading that superficially a few years before. I have a secret admiration for wood and woodworking. I even bought a bunch of tools once, but never really did anything worthwhile with them. Only a single, wonky, useless mortise and tenon joint watching a YouTube channel. The middle aged man in the video was so obviously a master of the craft: his movements economical, his cuts precise to the millimeter. A longing aspiration to be just like that. The crushing reality I never will. The void. And a furious desire to learn and be better. Life-long learning, they call it. Works wonders in job interviews.

A Dishoom loyalty card emerged as an abandoned bookmark on page 125. “Earn a stamp every time you come for breakfast. When you have five stamps, we will buy you a Bacon, Sausage or Egg Naan Roll and Chai” it said. A rush of memories from a distant, different world. A world without virus. Every week, I used to fly back and forth: Amsterdam-London, London-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-London, London-Amsterdam. Every week? Was that normal? Was I imagining it? Was that my life?

It was my life. I have digital boarding passes to prove it. This little book has been my companion on one of those flights. The bookmarked page said:

As a child and teenager I longed for competence, for the ability to do something well in a way that mattered in the grownup world…

Suddenly the memory of the core message of the book slapped me in its gnarly truth as it couldn’t have years before. More than anything, is mastery I’ve always craved. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself and others. Life-long learning, right?

I’ve been working with code professionally for years now and even longer for fun. I am far from being the craftsman I would like to be. I have a lot to learn. What changed since then is that, as Peter Korn says, I now see and cherish the miracle in the ordinary. The truth is that many of us are after a fantasy. That fantasy is that being good at your work is equivalent to being good at life. We delude ourselves into thinking that being a successful software engineer or woodworker is a shortcut to a good life.

When I first aspired to be a competent woodworker, I tacitly assumed that having your craft together would mean having your life together - that virtuosity equaled virtue.

That virtuosity equaled virtue… When you write code all you do is rearrange bits in a way that matters. From tokens of text, logic. From an oak board, a table top. From chaos, order. From raw materials, something of value. All of this through the concerted action of experience, hand, mind and intuition. And that is the miracle. It doesn’t make you a better person. It doesn’t make you more worthy of respect. That doesn’t give you happiness. The more beautiful your table, the more clever your code, the more your worth? That’s a bunch of nonsense. It merely anchors your bullshit to reality and puts food on your table.

Sometimes the stars align in such a way that being good at your craft also makes you successful and rich. But truly, that’s just an accident. A miracle in the miracle. There’s so much more here. The fulfillment of a job well done is an integral part of a meaningful life. Working while being sound in your mind and body, in itself, is the miracle. And is so obvious, so ordinary it’s almost always overlooked. I did, at some point, intuitively grasp this truth, but completely lost its compelling power among flights, meetings, job titles and salary expectations.

One of the pleasures of getting older it to be reminded of the impact that ideas had on your younger self. Perceive at once a glimpse of who you were and who you are. Have an intuition of progress, of growth. That your life is consistent, and ultimately worth living.

There is a moment when a long-germinating idea crystallises in your mind and rings true in your bones.

It’s not the money nor flights, it’s not the successes nor the achievements. It’s the process that makes you whole. It’s the process we must strive for. Being a master at your job won’t make your life happier. But it will infuse it with meaning and fulfillment.

The goal is the process.

The process is the goal.