Curiosity as tourism
I have always loved learning things.
Hearing about a new topic evokes in me a profound feeling of awe: I imagine the intricate beauty that would reveal itself if I could just spend enough time studying the subject—I want to understand the nuances informing experts' statements; I want to grasp the abstractions underlying the field's theoretical frameworks.
In a burst of enthusiasm, with aspirational discipline, I will jump into a new endeavor for weeks at a time. I'll research what the "great" books in the field are, watch a few lectures and tutorials, attend workshops or conferences, and often start a project—understanding is gained from both theoretical knowledge and practice: one complements the other. There is intense pleasure in making progress and in discovering how something works; learning unlocks a whole dimension of beauty in the universe.
I will usually stick with a topic for a couple of weeks, a year at most. This used to leave me feeling like a failure. I tried hard and gave it my all, but I never became proficient enough to reach the depths I originally wished to attain. This is especially true for fields that require a modicum of talent to really make it to the next level—talent I lacked: I was never good at playing an instrument, drawing, or making things with my hands.
In fact, for a long time, I felt the same way about computers—without a doubt, my main interest. I would learn about C and Unix and then discover that C++, Common Lisp, VMS, or Plan9 existed; low-level imperative programming would give way to functional programming; Perl would give way to CLOS; web development would give way to writing bare-metal operating systems. I never wholeheartedly got into algorithms or numerical computation, nor did I ever fully understand how a transistor works (don't get me started on motors). All I was was a manic flea jumping from topic to topic: a superficial jack of not enough trades, an aspiring master of none.
As I got older, I did manage to find closure, especially after realizing how my autistic brain misread the signals of confident people: no one actually "fully" knows anything, confidence is a form of self-delusion. I have returned to certain topics repeatedly—enough to feel eloquent enough to have something interesting to say, not just being good at executing.
I still feel anxious about my week-long bouts of buying all the books about database engines, writing half a datalog compiler, and then moving on to find all possible execution techniques in Hitman 3's manor level.
I recently started reading Olivia Cheng's "The Joy of Abstraction"(as part of my current obsession with Category Theory). In the prologue, she puts "receptive" knowledge in contrast to "productive" knowledge, which allows one to actively participate in a field. She compares "receptive" knowledge to tourism. This resonates deeply with me; I feel that the analogy aptly puts my insatiable curiosity into a more positive context: being relentlessly curious and distracted is akin to being a dedicated traveler.
Three ways of experiencing a foreign place
While I am foremost a homebody, content with my never-changing daily routine, I do enjoy traveling and moving to very different locations. I can group my traveling experiences into 3 broad groups and, for each, draw a parallel to learning about a new topic.
One way to be a tourist is to go sightseeing: see the major monuments and a few museums over the span of a couple of days. You discover the beauty, elegance, and history of a different culture by visiting its most prestigious achievements. But you don't get to experience how way people live or what modern culture is like; your impressions are mostly superficial, often colored by mercantile interests.
If I were to compare this to learning about a new topic, I would relate it to reading a pop-sci book, maybe watching a documentary and a TED talk, or listening to a podcast season. I could take an afternoon workshop or pursue an evening course for a few weeks. It is a great experience and might spark my interest to dig in further. But it is ultimately entertainment.
Another noncommital way to be a tourist is to stay somewhere for a few days, maybe visit a friend, go to coffee shops and bars, and enjoy normal life. I like this way of knowing a city or country much more than sightseeing: it is less stressful, and you get a glimpse into the working lives of people.
To me, this is similar to reading blogs by practitioners, working through a few tutorials on youtube, or going to a local meetup (I am privileged to live in a major city where I can usually find a meetup about any topic that interests me). The polished presentation of a documentary or pop-sci book is often deceiving—I would rather see behind the scenes a little bit; I might even make new friends.
Staying for a few months
My preferred way to experience a new locale is to stay for a few months. I'll often stay somewhere to work on a project. This is long enough to create habits, to get to know what life feels like from week to week. As an autistic person, I value structure—the disruption of only staying for a few days is a significant stressor.
In the context of learning, this would be like working on a larger undertaking: staying with a topic long enough to develop muscle memory. This could be shipping a product in a new programming language or developing a daily practice in a new artistic field.
This form of learning is about sticking with something for longer periods of time without relying on the energy and enthusiasm of novelty.
Often, this will involve working right alongside people with experience: at a company, by joining community discords and going to conferences, conversing with people on social media, and reading and writing blogs. It means studying from books, then applying the newly gained knowledge to concrete tasks with real stakes.
This way of experiencing a new field means that you are not a weekend hobbyist anymore, where being sloppy or abandoning things midway through was an option: this is real life. If things go badly, they have to be dealt with. Like getting lost in a foreign country, having to ship a project for an impatient customer is an effective (if stressful at times) way to learn the actual ropes.
You "lived" somewhere; you didn't just "visit."
Moving to a foreign country
Finally, you can actually emigrate to a new country. This is, in some ways, like losing your identity: you leave behind your homeland—yet you don't belong to your new country of residence either. You are also not a tourist anymore—you have fully committed to the move, and there is no easy way back; there is no safety net waiting at home.
As an adult, I moved from France to Germany to the US, and feel both like an expatriate and a native in each of them. I am a native French and German speaker and picked up English well enough that I now consider it to be my primary language—it is a peculiar feeling to lose your native tongue(s). Changing your identity at such a fundamental level is an odd way to learn a country's culture—one that probably only a few people get to experience.
I've stayed in each country for at least a decade; I dealt with taxes, immigration, workplace dynamics, and political and social change. I was part of different scenes; I lived in different cities. Living in a country full-time changes your understanding of a place from something that is a reasonably cohesive unit ("In France, they really like cheese") to a complex amalgam—a rich tapestry of nuances, similarities, and conflicts.
This feels very similar to undergoing a career change, the most significant form of tourism of the mind.
Roughly aligned to my geographical migration, I've switched my main interests and profession several times. I have gone from fancying myself a fringe hacker in the early aughts to failing to be a musician (jazz and electronics) towards the end of the decade to running an electronics company in the following years. When that turned out to be unsustainable (I didn't understand that a company is primarily about making money), I switched to freelance in web and embedded development.
Before moving to the US, I joined a hardware startup and became a full-time employee in a quickly growing company. During those times, I became reasonably proficient at drawing, publishing a book and taking on some illustration gigs; recently, I decided to focus on becoming a "real" techno musician and published a few EPs and singles, successfully enough not to be perceived as a fraud.
I will never be able to shake off the feeling that I'm still a newbie in each of these domains (computers, electronics, drawing, music). However, I've realized that people value my knowledge and contributions—I'm not just visiting anymore, I don't need to be shown around, and I can be productive. In fact, I am well equipped to show newcomers around, as if I were a tourist guide for people visiting for a day or two.
On the flip side, living somewhere else creates a certain sense of alienation from what was once your home country. I now have reverse culture shock when visiting Europe, but I will never feel at home in the US either—I have become a tourist in what used to be my home.
This is eerily similar to returning to web development after a decade in embedded and cloud. A lot is familiar, but most old frameworks are gone, the languages have changed, the community has grown a thousandfold, and the tooling is more colorful.
I would confidently call myself a web developer and a hacker in 2004 because it was all I knew; it was what all my friends were—the world was our small oyster. Now that I have written exponentially more software, I feel I can barely call myself a web developer anymore.
Enjoying learning things as a tourist
The biggest value I get from learning about so many topics is seeing the parallels between each, the larger forces at play—how things are the same in the big and very different in the small. There is visual thinking when writing software, just as there is formalism when painting. There are rules in music, but there is improvisation in electronics. The same code can work in an embedded context or a web context.
Having read a few books makes me perk up and listen more attentively when someone brings up the topic. I can appreciate the depth of their insights and a better sense of their way of finding beauty in the world. It makes it easy to have long, fruitful dinner conversations.
Having stayed somewhere for a longer period of time allows me to build immediate rapport with people in the field. I can exchange anecdotes; I can often relate their way of thinking to mine and discuss cross-disciplinary concepts.
It also makes it easy to come back to a certain topic. Not only might I recognize a few landmarks and already have a few connections, but I now have the confidence that I have been here before—that things turned out alright. While I have only surface knowledge of building analog synthesizers, I don't fear getting back into it. What seemed confusing and insurmountable at first is now something distantly familiar: I have made enough mistakes to know that mistakes are ok and something to actually look forward to.
Having so much time trying out new things means that one thing I am deeply connected to is being a visitor. I welcome being a beginner, a tourist of sorts, like meeting an old acquaintance. It gets easier each time.
Living in a different country fundamentally shapes who you are; it transforms your very understanding of the world. Europe will never be the same for me after living in the US. French will never be the same after thinking and writing and speaking English for a decade.
In the same way, web development will never be the same after having written so much embedded software. Drawing is now an integral part of how I build software—my pen and ink skills directly shape my designs. Learning to make music as a professional shed light on what experimentation and creative practice mean as a developer.
Learning about new topics, becoming a professional, and even adopting some as a new vocation, a fresh identity, has been a bittersweet transformation at times. Yet, for all my aimless peregrinations, I wouldn't do it any differently: it taught me just how big the world is and that I am ultimately but a newcomer everywhere I go.
The tourism analogy relieves me of the pressure to know "enough": feeling like a visitor is something to cherish—first impressions are usually the most vivid. Two days, a month, a decade—they are different ways of traveling, and they each bring something different to the table.