What are Fundamentals?


I'm still thinking about the amateur/professional distinction I wrote about recently, not least because I blundered into it.

Before that post, I had been planning to write about a minor productivity hack. But the more I followed that line, the more I felt uneasy. Then suddenly, an idea I had heard about all my life finally clicked into place, and I felt my perspective completely change.

As a reminder, "amateur" and "professional" are attitudes. And the professional attitude is to master and treasure the fundamentals.

The writing on fundamentals that I'm familiar with is vigorous and inspiring. But I also often find that it's either so abstract that I don't know what to actually do or so localized that I can't use it for my work.

In this post, I'm doing some ground clearing for myself so that I better understand what fundamentals are.

Fundamentals in the games of life

Game theory is a formal way of studying how people act and how they interact with each other. The word "game" sounds playful, but it is meant seriously. In fact, one of the early applications of game theory was in deciding nuclear strategy.

If I'm writing a function, that's the game I find myself in. I call this situation a game because it has these three aspects:

  1. Rules: the programming language I use, the time I have available, the existing codebase, and my build system all constrain and define the game.

  2. Outcomes: my code's correctness, quality, performance, and reusability might all vary, and some outcomes are better than others.

  3. Actions: I must act to get the best outcome I know how to.

Sometimes I find it useful to think about life as a set of games. The insight here is that we are always playing multiple games at very different scales:

  • Time: Games repeat. A game can be short-term (a hackathon project, shipping an urgent feature) or long-term (making a flagship product, paying down technical debt).

  • Space: Others are playing games too. A game can be individual (solo projects, low-level IC work) or social (collaborative projects, high-level IC work).

  • Scope: Games are deeply nested. A given game might include lower games (typing quickly, naming a variable, reading API documentation) and be included within higher games (creating a great product, keeping my team happy, having pride in my craft).

Fundamentals are principles that apply to games across time, space, and scope. They are important because they affect the entire set of games we play.

Finding fundamentals

At the broadest level, every game you play is constrained by reality, human nature, and your own self-nature. So all you need to do is find the deep principles that characterize all of reality and humankind.

Easy, right?

I can think of a few heuristics here:

  • The top-down approach is to start with a formal theory (like game theory) and find rules that seem to apply to simple games. Then we can see how well those rules apply in practice.

  • The bottom-up approach is to try what seems like it should work and see if it helps or not. If you do this for long enough — across different domains, eras, and cultures — then what survives is probably what's fundamental.

One ancient idea is to live in reality, which I think is the most important fundamental of all:

  • Great startups make something people want, not what they think people want.

  • Great scientists rigorously test their ideas and keep only the ones that survive.

  • Great relationships are about being authentic and dealing with who the other person is, not who we assume they are.

  • Great people face their shortcomings honestly and address them. To paraphrase Fred Rogers, what is mentionable is manageable.

Why fundamentals are simple

As principles become more fundamental, they inevitably lose detail and become simpler and more essential. Three scenarios:

  • Your high-end restaurant is losing money. You have great chefs and excellent equipment, but your ingredients are terrible.

  • Your spam detector does well on your training data but struggles in production. You investigate and find that many of your training examples are mislabeled.

  • Your team has done another deathmarch to make a deadline. All of your colleagues are getting burned out, and one of them privately tells you that he's leaving the company.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Why fundamentals are neglected

Simple principles cut across multiple domains, so we've heard them our whole lives. The most important ones instinctively sound like clichés, and their meaning is so obvious that even young children can understand them. You don't need any cleverness or intelligence to know what these fundamentals mean.

And it's precisely this quality that makes them feel childish, basic, and embarrassing. How would you feel if you were rushing to finish a project and someone told you "haste makes waste"? Even knowing better, I feel stunned to think about someone saying that to me at work.

On one level, we all know this stuff already [...] The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

— David Foster Wallace, "This is Water"

The instinctual resistance is that there is surely a more clever and interesting solution. And sometimes there is, especially in rapidly growing fields. But I still think we should search for them only after mastering the fundamentals.

Why fundamentals are difficult

Fundamentals are abstract generalizations across many different domains. The more applicable they are, the more abstract they become.

But go deeply enough into any domain and you'll find that it's enormously complex. John Salvatier writes memorably about the unexpected level of detail he found when building staircases with his father:

It’s tempting to think ‘So what?’ and dismiss these details as incidental or specific to stair carpentry. And they are specific to stair carpentry; that’s what makes them details. But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.

There's a clear tension here. The fundamental seems too abstract to work with the details of the situation. Or in the worst case, the fundamental makes sense from the perspective of a higher-level game that we don't understand or even know about.

Again, the approaches that come to my mind are top-down and bottom up.

The top-down approach exhaustively applies a fundamental we trust. How do you live in reality with software engineering? Maybe this means:

  • knowing your values, interests, and aptitudes
  • measuring ceaselessly: timelines, metrics, performance, hotspots
  • checking that your work solves a real need
  • vetting your logic with unit and integration tests
  • documenting your project to clarify your APIs and design goals
  • mastering your project's languages and infrastructure
  • understanding your project's costs and projected costs
  • comparing your system to others and debating the trade-offs
  • researching similar projects to learn about new breakthroughs
  • scouting your company's competition
  • asking your CEO to explain your company's business needs

The bottom-up approach tests a principle we're not sure about. How would a skeptical person live in reality with software engineering? Maybe this means:

  1. Ignore the principle and seeing how well that works.
  2. Get experience by solving many different kinds of problems.
  3. Introspect on what worked and what didn't.
  4. Realize that the principle would have prevented a lot of headaches.
  5. Apply the principle to new work with great success.
  6. Declare that the principle is fundamental.

Either of these bring along multiple corollary values and skills: diligence, courage, effort, persistence, organization, learning, practice, memorization, communication, focus, social skills, creativity, measurement, objectivity, patience, efficiency, speed, ...

But perhaps that should be its own post.

Coda: Riffing on the games of life

As a parting thought, what I like about the "game" framing is that it neatly includes a lot of big concepts. To riff on it a bit:

  • Getting a good outcome is the meaning of a game.

  • Choosing long-term games is wisdom.

  • Low-level games are tactics. High-level games are strategy.

  • Social games are culture. Long-term culture is tradition.

  • Games we choose subconsciously are habits. Subconscious cultural games are deep culture.

  • The games a person plays with their own mental state are called inner games. High-level inner games are spirituality. In theory, the culture that supports spirituality is religion.

  • The rules of the game are reality. The rules of the players are human nature. Our preferences among games and outcomes are our values. The actions available to us are our ability. Knowing which actions to use and which games to play is judgment.

  • Values among low-level games are likes and dislikes. Values among mid-level games are ethics. Values among high-level games are morals. The sum total of our values is our personality. To reveal our highest games and values is authenticity.

  • Discovering a new rule is insight.