About a week back, I helped decorate the tree at my parents house. It is the same tree my family has had since 1991, and it is aging pretty well. I did notice it was shorter and a little more see-through than I recall — yet I still love to look at a Christmas tree on these long winter nights. It has to look a very certain way, though. I’m extremely particular about the type of lights: I can see the 60Hz flicker of LEDs (if you can’t see the flicker, try looking at them out of the corner of your eye) so I’m a staunch supporter of incandescent lights, the bigger the better. The fact that I notice, dwell on, respond to, take pride in getting these details right, things like color temperature, replacement bulbs, wattages, things that seem insignificant to most — I used to think that was a part of me to minimize, to downplay, to somehow outgrow.
But I love that stuff. I love the details.
Dentistry is a job that rewards extreme attention to detail: just ask anyone who casts gold about getting stone expansion right. Or any dentist who has bonded with a 5th generation system and not paid enough attention to dentinal moisture. I delight in mounting casts and checking their articulation with shimstock — I love thinking through how to build in negative error into restorations, I love how you can refine a tooth prep with different grits of diamonds. I love this stuff. The other day I popped on a rubber dam, preparing to do a quadrant of restorations, and I realized that I was in my happy place. How lucky I am!
So the turning point in accepting my detail-dwelling was reading the essay Hypercritical by John Siracusa, a famously particular software developer and technology writer:
But my scrutiny was not limited to my own artwork or the products of multinational conglomerates. Oh no, it extended to everything I encountered. This pasta is slightly over-cooked. The top of that door frame is not level. Some paint from that wall got onto the ceiling. Text displayed in 9-point Monaco exhibits a recurring one-pixel spacing anomaly in this operating system. Ahem.
But much worse than that, it means that everything you ever create appears to you as an accumulation of defeats. “Here’s where I gave up trying to get that part right and moved on to the next part.” Because at every turn, it’s apparent to you exactly how poorly executed your work-in-progress is, and how far short it will inevitably fall when completed. But surrender you must, at each step of the process, because the alternative is to never complete anything—or to never start at all.
Sircausa was describing exactly my life — and yet I had never ever ever had anyone at all to talk with this about, and suddenly here was somebody articulating my own personality back to me, more eloquently than I was able. So, he goes on to point out the value of this critical eye, and of course he’s right. The dearth of those so honed in on details makes them rare and their contributions valuable — as long as they figure out a way not to drive everyone around them insane.
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