Why I don’t accept would-be disciples

Every few months I get a letter from a would-be hacker petitioning me to accept him (always a “him” so far) as my disciple. Happened again today; I think this time I’ll share part of the request, and my response, so I have it to point to next time this happens.

The aspirant writes:

Thus, I started my search for Master Foo, who will accept me as disciple. A master whom I can look at, follow, walk with, see through and ultimately become a master myself. A master in front of whom I can empty my cup. One who will introduce me to computer considering me a newbie.

I know it might take decades or even my lifetime to achieve what I pursue. But, it’s worth it.

I have written this email to ask a very simple and the most sophisticated question:

“Will you accept me as your disciple and teach me all you know ?”

Here is my reply:

No, because the communication path between us doesn’t have the required bandwidth. Sorry.

Yes, there are important aspects of being a hacker that are best learned by mimesis (actually this is true of any really skilled craft). If you lived near enough to a master hacker to be social with him face-to-face, or you worked with one day to day, you might benefit greatly from observing what he does and what kind of person produces those behaviors.

Unfortunately, the most valuable parts of those interactions won’t pass over an email link. Jokes, spontaneous reactions, small and at first sight unimportant behavioral examples that fit together into significant wholes, all the things the master is teaching when he is not thinking about teaching and the student is learning when he is not thinking about learning.

I can’t give you that experience; I don’t run an ashram for you to live in. Trying to create a counterfeit of it over email would only cheat you and frustrate me.

And that pretty much disposes of “disciple”, unless you’re a billionaire’s kid whose parents are willing to offer me enough money to persuade me to uproot my life for a few years so you can have what you want. The “you Alexander, me Aristotle” scenario wouldn’t be utterly impossible, but it would be very expensive.

Eric S. Raymond