Focusing and Doing What I Love

For years my efforts have been scattered between various projects. I have too many things going on at once and it's hard to keep it all straight and get anything meaningful done. When I stop to think about it, I want to focus on one thing at a time and make bigger, more awesome things happen, but I have a few major areas of interest with little overlap and I tend to go around in circles. Until now I've just dealt with it and forced my way through bouts of disinterest, but after watching Adam Savage's speech at Maker Faire San Mateo 2011 along with a few other coinciding events I've been driven to re-evaluate the things I'm doing and why I'm doing them.

I think the fundamental problem is that I'm doing too many things that I'd be good at or that would be beneficial and not enough of things that I love. I've frequently heard the axiom that to be happy and effective at work you have to be doing what you love. I never really considered that very deeply. Ever since high school I've known I wanted to write software for a living because I thoroughly enjoyed computers. As I grew in that through college I began to love writing web applications. Incidentally, I also really appreciated data mining and I've kept that interest alive on occasion, but I largely abandoned that. I knew I needed to specialize and while the web and data mining often complement each other they are very different disciplines. That's probably the healthiest approach to this problem that I've ever taken.

As I got my degree in computer science and continued marching toward becoming a software engineer another passion started growing: woodworking. I had liked building things like simple desks and furniture out of wood in the past but I never took it seriously. As I worked harder at software, I was becoming more interested in making more complicated things from wood and making them higher quality. I didn't have much guidance in that discipline so I ended up like any typical modern suburban man might; I bought a gaggle of tools that I didn't know how to use in an attempt to compensate for a lack of knowledge. Ultimately I gave up without making anything noteworthy, but my passion for making things never went away. It was a different facet of the same passion that brought me to programming in the first place. While I was stuck unable to make things as well as I wanted with wood, computers enabled me to make things without needing any particular talent beyond an analytical mind and there were teachers at my schools who could help me along in my development.

After graduating college I continued improving as a software engineer. I met with local user groups about Linux and Python, I designed and wrote applications in my spare time for the joy of solving interesting problems and for the sake of improving my skills as a developer. I progressed professionally and was pleased with the success I had. I continued carrying a torch for making things - keeping some of my tools in my apartment even though using them there would be extremely impractical. (Not that that always stopped me!) I even rented a garage at one point and kept my tools there so I could build more things. I made a collapsable hammock frame that failed dismally but had some design features I'm still proud of. I made a computer chair that struck a balance between reclining for comfort and sitting up for serious work. I made a small shelf for my then girlfriend's bathroom and an “emergency” Guy Fawkes mask box. These things were all very simple due to my limited woodworking skill, but they were very rewarding to make. They also weren't too distracting from my course as a software engineer. There were more things I wanted to make that were too impractical for me to do, like make an aluminum foundry or a steam engine, but I knew these were well beyond my reach not for a lack of skill but that I believed they couldn't be done in a city like Chicago.

Then I was introduced to the concept of a hackerspace. Specifically, to Pumping Station: One, a hackerspace that was just beginning. It was essentially a group of dozens of people very similar to me. People who had modern jobs related to making things but were dissatisfied with the limitations they'd experienced on their ability to produce their ideas. Many were even programmers who wanted to explore more tangible mediums for making. I knew this was a community that I needed to be a part of, and joining the hackerspace did turn out to be a great decision, but it also became a huge challenge. The hackerspace movement was rising around the country but it didn't come from nothing; the DIY mindset was increasingly popular in general and more things that appealed to a maker mindset were springing up. These things provided lots of inspiration to a group like our hackerspace. Too much inspiration in fact, at least for me. Initially I did end up building my aluminum foundry, but all the while countless these inspirational projects would cross our mailing list and would get added to my to do list, and I got overloaded. There were things from a wide range of disciplines that I wanted to sample to see if I could do them. I eventually had to prioritize, but the new ideas always seem like the greatest and most important ones so prioritization too often devolved into jumping into the new thing with the last one half finished. I've been proceeding like that for a year or two, and I don't think I've really made much that I'm truly proud of since the aluminum foundry.

At the same time, programming became more of a job than a passion. With so many tangible things that satisfied my passion for making I became less interested in software. I stopped going to user group meetings. I occasionally wrote software to scratch my own itch but most of it wasn't very interesting. My skills continued developing, but only where my job took them. I wasn't working with new exciting tools because the time I would have spent on those was now being spent with wood and metal at the hackerspace.

This state of endless things to do is very demoralizing. I always had five or six projects on my mind and not enough time to complete them. That lead to having to force myself to work on things that I feel like I should be happy to be able to do. I'd lost my motivation to do things that I used to love doing. I even lost the motivation to do some of the basic necessities. And it was hard to recognize what's going on because on the face of it I was doing exactly what I want to be doing, but it wasn't fulfilling. I should have been happy, but I wasn't.

Now to bring this back to where I started, I believe the problem of the endless to do list and constant new project distractions came from not knowing myself well enough to know when to say no. There are huge swaths of maker projects that interest me, and the way I interact with them through the internet they are cut down into easily digestible articles and videos. I love seeing things like that so I think I should make it to learn more about how it works and see if I can do it. That’s a huge mistake. There’s a tremendous difference between liking an article about something and liking something enough to spend dozens to hundreds of hours working on it. To do the latter, it has to be something that you really love doing and have a strong passion for. This is something that is obvious to anyone who thinks about it but is not so obvious to consider in the moment, at least for me. I’m learning that if an idea excites me, it may be because it’s an important idea for the world, or that it’s a fantastically executed example of what it is, or just that it’s something I haven’t seen before. Those are all great qualities for something to have, but none of them are good enough by themselves for me to commit myself to it. I have a lot of interests but I only have a few passions, and passion is what drives you through the hours of labor producing substandard junk until you get good enough at something that you can appreciate the product of your work on its own merits.

As I continue to make things, be they atoms or bits, I’ll be paying much closer attention to my motivations and I’ll be culling projects that are the product of fleeting interests and focusing on labors of love. I expect that this will leave me with more time, a clearer mind, and a more fulfilled life.

P.S. Much of this insight came from a combination of sources. One of them was a cognitive crisis when I worked hard to get ready for maker faire and I didn’t seem to get the response I expected. The rest were well timed readings and that speech from Adam Savage, linked here again for convenience.