by Leon Rosenshein


Just what is a tradition? More importantly, what do we get of traditions? According to Merriam-Webster, tradition is

  1. a: An inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom) b: A belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable
  2. The handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
  3. Cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions
  4. Characteristic manner, method, or style

Lots of words that describe what a tradition is. Basically it comes down to “Something we’ve gotten from the past”, and often without proof. And nothing about the point of a tradition, or it’s benefits.

There can be lots of benefits to learning from the past. If something worked once then maybe it will work again. If it didn’t work then figuring out why and avoiding that failure mode is a good idea.

Tradition can also reduce your cognitive load. If people share a tradition then you have shared context. It makes communication easier and can reduce transmission errors.

Tradition can reduce the number of decisions you need to make. I, j, and k are often used as simple loop variables or counters. Not because there’s any particular magic to them, but because that’s the way it’s taught and what we expect. Maybe ‘i’ because it’s the first letter in index and then j and k are the next letters, or maybe not. It’s a tradition and we do it.

Which touches on the problem with tradition. When we follow tradition because it’s tradition then we’re not thinking. Any time we’re not thinking we’re making assumptions and we open ourselves up to problems.

Consider that loop variable again. Is ‘i’ really the best choice? If we’re counting then maybe using count is better. Or some other name that describes intent. Sure, I know ‘I’ is some kind of loop variable, but what does it represent? Blindly following tradition means losing that context.

Which is why I like describing tradition this way.

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire

                Gustav Mahler

The point of tradition is to pass on the information, the knowledge, the learnings that we have come up with. To avoid replicating problems. To make things easier and more shareable. To not forget where we have come from. To be a guide to doing things better in the future. It’s not to do something the same way just because we’ve always done it that way.

Blindly doing what was done in the past without understanding why it was done that way does us all a disservice. It leads to cargo culting. But that’s a topic for another day.