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You Are Not Special *

Linus Benedict Torvalds is special. If you’re not sure why, allow me to issue a prompt – Linux. Linus is the Finnish software engineer widely recognized for creating the open-source computer OS which led to the ubiquitous Linux kernel. For programmers collaboratively developing source code, he also invented Git, a version control system for tracking changes in any set of computer files. There are lots of ambitious folks who dream of becoming like Linus.

For those seeking to turn their dreams into reality, there is an overabundance of motivational media to get started with. A common theme is this – stop believing you are ordinary, work hard and stay focused, and you can be special too. Names like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs flash before our eyes daily, furthering the vision that we can grind our way to specialty.

One motivational speaker I listened to recently began her talk by slinging some numbers. There are 7 billion humans currently on the planet she said, and 108 billion that have ever lived. Throwing in DNA base pairs, mutation frequency, and other assorted variants, she reported that there are 3 X 10^614 possible humans, concluding that there is no one else exactly like you. While any number with 614 zeroes after it is special, (most calculators can’t even handle it) you are not. The numbers only prove that you are a unique, one-of-a-kind human – just like everyone else.

In spite of all this, it’s not wrong to feel special – you were programmed for this from the very beginning, and chances are that your parents merely added fuel to that fire. It is only natural that we strive to fulfill that prophecy, an effort for which we are rewarded with gold stars and participation trophies from an early age. Eventually we start to notice others who are smarter, better looking and have more stuff. So begins a life-long battle with envy and self-doubt.

It's taken me years of therapy with Dr. Merlot to embrace the truth – I am probably a better engineer than Roger Federer, a better cook than Elon Musk, and I will never play guitar like Tommy Emmanuel. Out of 7 billion people, my odds of being better than average at some things are pretty good, while my chance of being the best at anything is basically zero. Just because my writing will never surpass Hemingway is no reason to quit.

There’s an old joke among Software Engineers – “How are computers like air conditioners? Both stop working when you open windows.” Linus Torvalds recognized this as an opportunity to develop a new, better OS and then took the risk of opening his kernel’s source code to everyone. He once said, “I think everybody involved ends up being much happier when they know that everybody has equal rights, and nobody is special.”

The people we think of as special, the successful ones, did not achieve things merely by working hard, but by strategically using the skills of others to reach their goals. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and countless others used the same strategy. Linus also embraced this approach – “In open source, we feel strongly that to really do something well, you have to get a lot of people involved. “ ... “That's what makes Linux so good: you put in something, and that effort multiplies.” It doesn’t hurt that most of the contributors are stakeholders themselves, frustrated with hardware-dependent operating systems that fail all too often.

So why is Linus Torvalds special? In his own words, “I'm "special" only because - and as long as - people trust me to do a good job. And that's exactly how it should be.”

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.




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