Matt Ambrogi

To Live and Breathe Something: Reflections on Progress, Programming, and Skateboarding

"When you surf, as I then understood it, you live and breathe waves. You always know what the surf is doing. You cut school, lose jobs, lose girlfriends, if it’s good. Domenic and I didn’t forget how to surf—it’s like riding a bike that way, at least when you’re young. We just diversified, and I, for my part, plateaued. That is, I had been steadily improving since I started, and at fifteen, while hardly a contender, I was a little ripper. My rapid progress stopped when I got interested in the rest of the world." - William Finnegan, Barbarian Days.

Last summer I highlighted this quote from Barbarian Days. The book is a poetic reflection on a life. A life weaved together by surfing.

Under it, I noted:

"If you want to progress rapidly at anything, you have to let it become your world. Ideally for years, but even just for a few months."

I’m not just taking Finnegan’s word for it. I know this from experience. Similar to Finnegan, I was afflicted with an addiction early in childhood. His was surfing, mine skateboarding. Long gone are the dreams of going pro, but I still, in my mid 20s, spend hours every week battling with tricks. Some new, some that I've lost command of over the years.

Sometimes, from the eyes of an impartial observer, I note how substantially my progress slowed, all but halted, when I entered college. But how could it have not? As Finnegan said, "my rapid progress stopped when I got interested in the rest of the world." I’d say mine all but reversed.

I've always loved, and identified with, the work required to hone a craft. I can't tell if skateboarding, which I started doing when I was five years old, created that love or was simply the manifestation that stuck. I think I always had it in me. I've found the same pleasure, one that is painful and obsessive in its lows and blissful in its highs, elsewhere outside of skateboarding. In music most notably, writing to a lesser extent, and now programming.

Everywhere I spot this work, I'm inspired by it. I see it in artists, and art, of all types:

Friends I grew up with in a small town who choose to pursue a life working with their hands.

Famous song writers and rap artists who have evolved their lyrics meticulously over the years.

In the young band who practices every single day in the garage next to my parent's house.

In the way a professional skateboarder will weave together a line of tricks that are both flawlessly chosen and executed.

My love for the process, and result, of dedication to a craft is what drew me to Recurse Center. I love to chase the fulfillment that comes along side a new level of mastery. And surely, if the pursuit of craft is the measure, I made the right decision by coming to RC. I've been lucky enough to lay the foundation of mine, but luckier still to be surrounded by others who are masters of theirs.

Thoughts of craft and progress have been floating around without recognition in unattended parts of my mind for months. Recently I had a strange dream that brought them front and center. In the dream I was witnessing a conversation. I vaguely recognized the speaker. He was a skateboarder, a very good one, about my age. He was joking about a wildly impressive trick he had done recently. He walked out frame and into the bathroom, as he looked in the mirror, my point of view changed from that of a third party observer, to his. I looked in the mirror and it was me. Or what I could have been.

But I'm awake now, and I know that’s not really the life I want. For many reasons. What I do want, and what I'm really dreaming of, I think, is to dedicate myself completely to something once more.

I think that’s what really brought me to Recurse Center. The goal here is to make it, if just for a period of time, ok to spend the majority of your time on one thing: programming.

And so I come back to what I noted this past summer: to rapidly progress at anything, you need to live and breathe it.

After my dream, I woke up and reflected on that very thought. I decided that, for the last month of Recurse Center, I was going to completely live, and breathe, programming. That was that. For one moment. Almost immediately I came to an unpleasant realization: I can’t. Or won’t. Not really at least.

I didn’t know why, but I felt I wasn’t being honest with myself. I thought back to a time when I truly, absolutely lived and breathed something. I was looking for answers as to what that really meant.

For a period in my teens, I attended Woodward for two weeks every summer. Woodward is a camp, heaven on earth, for action sports athletes of all types. A sprawling campus of connected skateparks and cabins set away from the world in the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania. When I was 15, if you had given me the option, I would have stayed at Woodward all year. Or at least months. And for those months, I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything but skate. I would have woken up and skated till I couldn’t move. Then after dinner, gone to one of the parks that was lit up and skated some more.

Reflecting on this, I realized is that, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t feel that way about Recurse Center. There’s two reasons why: I’m not in a camp full of other kids psyched on skateboarding and I no longer could be happy doing just one thing.

Recurse has done a phenomenal job of adapting to an online world. But I would never have skateboarded 12 hours a day when I was 15 and at home, only Woodward could enable that. I imagine that being at home now is similarly different when compared to in person RC. One, I have all the distractions of my daily life. Two, the social inertia is missing.

One of the fastest ways to get better at anything is to have a group of people, roughly your skill level, with whom you are constantly practicing. Reflecting on skateboarding, the social reward of progress, of showing off a new trick, was one of the the strongest motivators for practice. It was exciting to get together each day and see where your peers were at, to challenge each other. If RC was in person, I would feel some version of that energy. Surely this is still where much of the value of doing RC, over programming on your own, comes from. Reflecting on this actually makes me feel lucky to be doing what I'm doing. Although it might be better in person, RC's virtual manifestation is immeasurably better than working on my own. I recognize the power of check ins, presentations, working groups, and more. It just doesn’t feel truly, completely immersive.

The second reason RC doesn’t feel like Woodward as a 15 year old is this: I wouldn’t want it to. Finnegan said, "my rapid progress stopped when I got interested in the rest of the world." But I am irreversibly interested in rest of the world. I have other things that I want to give my time to. I want to spend time with my friends and girlfriend during my last few months in DC. I want to cook meals, keep my house clean, get outside, skateboard, write this. That’s who I am now. And while I romanticize an alternate world in which I completely immerse myself in one thing, that’s just not the the world I occupy in this moment.

So on one hand I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not a 15 year old at summer camp anymore. But on the other, I still feel an intense drive to commit myself to programming and learning right now - to go all in.

So where does that leave me?

Where it leaves me is dedicating myself to a remote, adult approximation of living and breathing something.

Maybe that sounds defeatist, but to me, it feels right and it feels honest. The type of right that is both calming and exciting. I know just what that approximation looks like. It’s full of subtle, but important shifts. It looks like watching programming videos on YouTube over lunch. It looks replacing my novels with programming books before bed. It looks like walks during which my mind wanders not to what I’ll do this weekend, but to problems I’m working on. It looks like de-prioritizing some of the other things I love for a little while. Most importantly, continuing to make programming the sole focus of my day 9-5. This is a shift from 'all in' meaning I do nothing else, to 'all in' meaning I have a single, well-defined focus. The most important aspect of this shift is that it leads to a type of life that I’m honestly excited about.

Programming isn’t becoming my whole world, but rather the biggest part of it. When it comes to making rapid progress, I’m optimistic that just might be good enough. I have a few weeks of Recurse Center left and a little longer to work on my own after that before I set out to find a new job. So for the time I have left in this experience, I’m making a commitment: I am going to live and breathe programming, approximately.

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