Tilting at Windmills

StockSnap_SBDZFQ3UHL By Joel Taylor, Backend Engineer

In Don Quixote, a novel by Miguel de Cervantes, the title character and protagonist Don Quixote sets out as a knight-errant to fulfill his chivalrous ideals. Early in his journey, Quixote comes into view of a large number of windmills on the horizon and is convinced that he is standing before giants. For Quixote, this is a fortunate event bound to bring glory and riches that drives him to declare battle against the giants. Despite the warning cries of his squire that the giants are merely windmills, Quixote gallantly charges at them only to be knocked down when his lance is caught in a windmill’s sail.

Thanks to to the above anecdote, the idiom “tilting at windmills” was born as a way of expressing the act of jousting with imaginary enemies. I’m particularly fond of its nuanced meaning — as it’s not simply the act of believing there are enemies, but it’s believing in so much that you are compelled to engage with them whether that be by attacking, wrestling, or perhaps even fleeing.

Early in my software engineering career, I had a bone crushing fear of contributing to open source projects. In part, I made it hard on myself by following projects that were maintained by heroes in the Ruby community and felt overwhelmingly inadequate. In my mind, I saw them as giants not to be reckoned with, but unlike Quioxte, I choose to flee and refused to challenge myself.

Luckily for me, I had a mentor who was fearless (and less starstruck than me) when it came to open source and demonstrated how easy it was to dive in. Eventually I submitted my first contribution, recevied valuable feedback, and had my code accepted. While it felt great to have finally given back to open source, the big deal for me was realizing that the giants in my horizon were nothing but windmills (or in this case regular people.)

Since that realization, contributing to open source has proved to be a consistent catalyst for growth. Instead of being afraid, I’ve been able to converse, question, and learn from individuals all over the world that I respect. It’s astonishing how many lessons waiting to be explored behind the mirage of giants.

I’m convinced fear is one of the most incognito adversaries to professional growth. Just as it was with Quioxte seeing giants, the line between the fiction we tell ourselves and reality can sometimes be hard to discern. The best way I’ve found to combat that distinction is to look at my fears and ask, “am I tilting at windmills?”