Death Sheep from Hell (fenton) wrote,
Death Sheep from Hell

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My perspective on it

[ This is in response to elfs' post and ysabel's response here. ]

For context: married to ysabel, used to work at the same place she still does. I escaped last fall, to a place where the software written is somewhat more mundane and "plodding" in some ways, but is actually a whole lot more satisfying than just about anything I did there.

The soul-sucking part can be fixed by finding saner work; the "enh" part, and the "scattered fragments of a million and one things started but never finished" doesn't change. My personal past tends to gang up on me over it, as well, because I listen too much to demons of the past whispering "if you just *cared* enough, you could manage to do this". Down that road lies yard-work at 2 in the morning for an entire summer, to accomplish nothing of the intended original goal.

One thing I've noticed *very* distinctly is that when I shifted to being a developer (rather than being a network administrator with a heaping side of systems administrator and a smidgen of development, mostly in couple-of-hours-a-week chunks)... I not only stopped enjoying doing development on my own time, I *also* stopped enjoying doing admin work on my own time. While I'm still on the rolls, and contribute once in a blue moon, I haven't really been a very active member of any of the projects I used to dump hours upon hours into. It isn't the only cause (changes in medication and life outside of those activities are also huge contributors), but I've noticed it now and again.

Even having projects I really *want* done doesn't suffice; I've been working on a project that regularly gets brought back to the front of my mind at least once or twice a week (it involves weather monitoring, so any time I *notice* the weather, I tend to think of it) since before last Christmas. I have all of the technical skills required to deal with both the software and the hardware parts, and I've put quite a number of hours into it, but at some point I hit one or more "blocks" and just couldn't bring myself to *care* enough about it to focus through those, at least not for long enough to get past them.

But there is one thing that I've noticed that I will always make time for, always generally enjoy, and which consistently produces "results" (even though those results are pretty useless in any other context): I regularly play video games. And I think I know what the differences are (because, in many ways, they *aren't* any less work than any number of other things; certainly they involve a lot of time invested, and for most of the ones I play, often a fair amount of effort to keep track of things or figure things out). They largely boil down to one of a couple of pieces:

  1. Low bar to entry. Even if I'm not up to any *specific* game, there is pretty much always *some* game that requires little enough energy and brainpower that I can play it no matter how brain-dead I am after work.
  2. Small increments. I don't play games that require you to do many-hour-sessions at once (among other things, it just isn't *possible* to sanely do them anymore, with my home life). So I can put in half an hour or an hour when I have it (or even 15 minutes, but usually I don't bother booting things up for less than half an hour). Even then, if I need to pause it for a five-minute task, the games I lean towards make that easy.
  3. Random but frequent positive feedback, even in small increments. A battle in a normal JRPG takes a couple of minutes, tops (barring very special cases). You get a cookie in the form of a win, with goodies, at the end. But they require interaction, and in the better games, not just "hit one button over and over" interaction, so you feel like you *did* something for the reward. Pacing this is a *huge* design issue with such games, because it is one of the most powerful draws they have for folks who play them (and often not recognized consciously).
  4. 4) Periodic, predictable major positive feedback that can't be "undone". Also known as "milestones". Complete a chapter/story arc, hit the next major level break, or something similar. The items in #3 are too small, on their own, to provide an ongoing sense of accomplishment without larger milestones to give you a sense of anchoring things. A game with close to 1000 battles (or even more, in some) over the course will still usually have a dozen or fewer major segments, often as few as half a dozen.
  5. 5) Definite tasks with finite bounds. Even in the most open-ended of games, you almost always have *some* sense of what you need to do, or at least the general tack to be taking, to make forward progress in the game (the best games just don't force you to do *only* that). And every task, from "complete the story" to "complete the arc" to "survive this battle", has a definite goal and a reason to trust that the goal is attainable in some remotely reasonable fashion. I've actually run across a couple of games recently where I cannot *imagine* how you're supposed to figure out a couple of crucial things, short of consulting an FAQ (the things you have to do are not only non-obvious, but seem like they would be Really Dumb Things To Do if you didn't know otherwise ahead of time) -- this is, IMO, terrible design, because it can leave someone completely adrift without any way to figure out how to progress, or even any reason to believe that they *can* progress.
  6. A lot of this does reflect back on "how to get things done" books from various sources, but I think many of those books focus so much on how to keep track of the tasks themselves that they lose one of the more crucial pieces: how to make getting it done *feel worthwhile*. And the short answer is that in a lot of cases... it isn't. Even if it once was, the things you enjoy shift over time. The real problem is not being able to find the things you enjoy enough to make it worthwhile *now* (and, for a lot of folks, myself definitely included, it really seems like there simply *aren't* nearly as many things that can accomplish that, as we get older).

    I have to wonder if part of it isn't a form of "getting jaded". Doing the same thing a second time isn't as rewarding, for *most* things, as doing it the first time is. The third time, even less so. By the fourth time, it's just a chore you do to get the result; there isn't any discovery or novelty left in most things by that point. Problem is, as you do more things, the category of "things I have already done" gets bigger rapidly, *and not just linearly*. Learning a single programming language has a certain set of requirements and results. Learning a *second* programming language is easier, even if it is of a completely different category. By the time you've learned four of them, unless they're all basically identical you have probably covered everything there is to cover in one of the major language domains (or at least everything you're likely to ever bother with). Quite possibly more, if the languages spanned domains.

    By the time you have six or seven, picking up a new language is more a matter of adjusting mental mappings for "how to do this thing" than it is new discovery -- and you rapidly find that *no* new language has enough *new* things to feel like it isn't just a variation on a theme that is already old hat to you. Suddenly "what I've already done" is no longer "program in " or even "program in ", but rather "program". Programming is helped *a little* by the fact that there are a lot of problems out there, and a lot of ways to go about solving them, but eventually you get into the same sort of boat; often you aren't creating *art* in the sense of "infused with the energy of new discovery and the power to *do* this", so much as creating a fine piece of craftsmanship. It has value, it can be a matter of pride, but that isn't the same as being *inspired*.

    A stray thought that occurs to me is that this may have more than a little to do with something I saw a magazine about a while ago (I forget which one; TIME, perhaps?). It discussed the fact that religion as it is practiced in most cases seems to be a "fact of human nature" in no small part because humans have the capacity to experience "transcendent moments" of exactly the sort you discussed. But the biochemical reasons for that don't kick in for anything that isn't fairly "new"; this draws back to the adage about "seeing the world through the eyes of a child" -- full of wonder and discovery. Or, alternatively, "learn something new every day". The problem is that "new" becomes harder and harder to come by, and if you need that sort of kick in the pants to get over obstacles or to feel like the reward is worth the effort... it becomes more and more rare that things are worth bothering over.

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