"How to progress" [in programming]
1. Read books other people aren't reading
The computer programming community tends to follow fads in which everyone reads the same books at the same time. For example, books on extreme programming or design patterns. I think this is unfortunate. If you read books that other people are not reading, then you will know different things from the things they know, and when they come to you with a problem they can't solved, you might be able to solve it with your different equipment.
When everyone in the community reads the same books, you can an inward-looking, intellectually impoverished community that can only contemplate its own navel. When we read all different books, we all have more to learn from each other.
Of the many things I think can make a better creator of SF&F, this I rank at the top as well. Most everyone I know who wants to write SF&F reads a lot of SF&F, maybe some other kinds of fiction (if they're lucky), and not much if any nonfiction. The end result as I see it, is a lot of folks writing more or less the same kinds of things, because they feed off each other's works, and almost no one is pushing the input envelope.
This leads me into discussing something that I think may get me yelled at. One of the reasons I don't read much SF&F published recently is because my curiosities were drawn more strongly to other things: fiction from other languages and times, fiction published before I was born, nonfiction that isn't simply aimed at C-suite people sitting in airports, etc. When I read current-stream SF&F, I felt like I was just getting a rehash of whatever was currently floating around in the writing zeitgeist. This isn't to say that stuff is bad, only that it wasn't feeding my curiosity in the way other things did.
By the time I was thirty I had read a lot of SF&F from across the years, and I'd gotten to the point where I felt like I was seeing too many of the same things. That was also about the time when interesting stuff started coming into print from other languages, thanks to newer and better translations, and my curiosity about such things (which had always remained dormant) jumped again. Life's short and there's only so much you can read, so I figured I would go where most of my peers didn't seem to be going.
See, I imagine some folks out there feel I'm doing myself a disservice by not learning about what's popular right now, or what the state of the art is. I have enough casual exposure to what's published (by way of reviews, chatter from other readers, etc.) to suss out what sells and what other people are producing, and every now and then I do try out something that's current to see what it's all about. But as far as reading experiences go I don't find much of it to be fulfilling.
Maybe what draws me so much to work that's not produced in the here and now is how that by itself manifests as a kind of escape. Work produced in the here and now, or something close to it, brings with it certain mindsets, certain assumptions, certain perspectives. Get outside of that and you see new things, or old things that have become new things by dint of distance and time. Note that "old" doesn't here equate to "better"; it's just a powerful way to shake up one's own frame of reference and re-see it with cleared eyes. As Fred Pohl put it in his story "Day Million" in 1968: "You—with your aftershave lotion and your little red car, pushing papers across a desk all day and chasing tail all night—tell me, just how the hell do you think you would look to Tiglath-Pileser, say, or Attila the Hun?"
Right now the current popular thing seems to be the Young Adult / New Adult flavor of writing — what's being published, what's being sold and promoted, what people are reading and talking about, and what writers are using as their model and fuel for future work because that's what's published, sold, promoted, and discussed. I don't have a problem with any one particular mode as such; I have a problem when a given mode pushes everything off the table, in the same way it's become exceedingly difficult to make and market a movie that isn't a blockbuster franchise of some kind. It's not because those movies are automatically bad, but because their sheer prevalence crowds out other possibilities. You have no idea what's possible, or why, until you come into contact with a great example of it and understand its context.
With all this I try to keep distinct the things I want to do for myself from the things I think others should do. I don't think everyone should stop reading SF&F, or YA/NA, unless they actually want to do that — and if they want to do it, they'll do it anyway; they don't need a schlub like me telling them anything. I do think people should read as widely as they can, and find out where their own blind spots are. Nonfiction is an easy example: a lot of my peers don't seem to seek out much of it, or when they do, they seek out what I call "airport nonfiction" — lightweight stuff aimed at business professionals who want the veneer of smarts without the actual hard work.
Then there's all the "alternative" or "bizarro" work out there, and my problem with that material, from what I've seen of it, is that it is as reductive in its own way as anything mainstream. It's a label, one that's become a self-conscious marketing channel. Most of it isn't written from the absolutely personal perspective of, say, a William S. Burroughs or a Pierre Guyotat or a Henry Darger. It's written mainly to emulate other bizarro fiction in terms of its style and subject matter. Real weirdoes can't help themselves, and they don't advertise as being weird. They just are. Bizarro fiction is to High Weirdness the way an Elvis imitator is to the historical Elvis.
What I've struggled with, and still do, is the idea that all this has made me into a snob. My way to fight back against that is to confine my advice to myself, to not pretend this is something that everyone should follow (because they won't and they can't), and to leave slightly ajar the door to discovering some current author who really is worth the trouble. But for now the older books are what command my attention, if only because they seem to have so much more to give me than what's floating around right now. They have "survived the filter", as it were, and maybe there's a good reason for that.