I’ve been reading Alex St. John’s blog for a while, and it’s just amazing. His stories of ancient Microsoft history, his tracing popular video game features to fundamental human behavior shaped by evolution, his insistence on the importance of hard work and commentary American Privilege. A couple of his articles lately, though, have kicked me right in the throat. If you have any entrepreneurial aspirations, I highly recommend:
I might also throw in this less recent one from Hanselman:
I’m a Phony. Are you?
Over Sharing Inbound
I sometimes feel like these articles were written directly to me, probably because I’ve internalized a lot of guilt. Guilt about not taking action on my ideas. After all, since software is eating the world it doesn’t seemed too far fetched that every competent software developer is sitting on a gold mine. The only thing between me and amazing success is the will to make it so. Yet, I have no idea what I did with my 20s (professionally) and despite often thinking about and working on business ideas, I’m still a wantrepreneur in my late 30s. The Saint’s comments on work-life balance are what really got to me. My week night schedule might be something like:
• Get up at a questionably late hour, go to my good-paying job.
• Come home, make an unnecessarily elaborate dinner.
• Hang out with kids, clean up, etc.
• Hang out with wife
• Devote a few pre-bedtime brain cycles to open source projects, blogging, continuous learning, and modeling stuff for one of my business ideas.
Unsurprisingly, I can think of no successful business owners who share my story. Have you ever read an interview with a truly successful individual that sounded anything like “Yeah, we worked 10 hours a week or so on this, no big deal, until it was done and we hit it big.”
I’m doing better than I ever have before in my life, yet it’s still not enough. One of the reasons why I haven’t been participating in community as much is because I’ve been writing huge amounts of code. It’s not enough, it’s not getting done fast enough for my taste. There needs to be more hard work. Some people may find themselves in an existential dilemma trying to figure out what to cut out so there’s time for more productive work. In my case, this has been an evil exercise. I shouldn’t spend less time with my kids! Surely not less time with my wife! I need my sleep and exercise. I need my movies and video games to decompress from the “hard work” and “stress” of my day job. Yet I shed a tear when I think about how much time I played Diablo 3 last year. (Not really, but I should be ashamed!).
This is where The Saint’s words hit home. If you’re content with the overall trajectory of your life and career, there would be nothing wrong with seeking balance between work/sleep/games/movies/wife&children/hobbies. If you’re not, though, you need to think really hard about how much down time and “balance” you actually need. If you’ve always wanted to be a blogger with a million followers or a successful Micro ISV writing phone apps, or to become an independent consultant, what value will you place on ‘balance” when you look back and realize you are no closer to those goals than you were years ago?
The real problem in insisting that a few days of productivity entitles one to some marathon gaming sessions or re-watching all of Battle Star Galactica is the value of the particular hours when most of us are doing our side work or learning projects. I call these the Golden Hours.
Many of us, in our day jobs, are not afforded much focus. We may be committing code on multiple projects, reviewing our peer’s code, and generally participating in various unfortunate unproductive activities. No so during the Golden Hours.
My home workstation setupis slightly better than what my employer gives me. There’s a door I can close and I can play music through my excellent Klipsch PC speakers. The house is quiet, my family is asleep, there’s some red wine on my desk, and the time of night where my mind is most awake and focus approaches. What to do with this time?
If you have the numbers available, take a look at your favorite PC games (or Xbox or PS3) and see how many hours you spent playing your favorite games. Suppose that number was 400 hours last year. (oh, if only it were a mere 400 hours last year) At your day job that 400 hours may represent a fiscal quarter worth of office hours and you may have built a major module or accomplished a similar cog-in-the-machine type of contribution. But now, you’re at home. You’re using only the tools you love, only the libraries and frameworks you love. No architect has told you what you can’t do and how you can’t do it, no scrum master has told you Boring Crud Screen must take priority over Interesting Problem from a later sprint. The Golden Hours where you are awake and in your most productive environment approach. Now what could you do in 400 hours?
This, for me, is the true tragedy of seeking balance with hobbies, entrepreneurial dreams, and the stuff that actually must get done. Many of us have ambitions and skills, but proceed to spend the most productive time we have available surfing hacker news, watching zombie movies, online gaming, engaging in meaningless debates on twitter, or re-connecting with people we hated in high school on Facebook.
You may in fact reach a point where your brain is Jell-O and you truly need some downtime in order to return to productivity. Most of us probably indulge ourselves way, way too early though. I suspect that, like training your body with a “couch to 5k” program, you can train your mind to expect a life of more and more productive work and less and less Archer or Game of Thrones.
It’s easy for a programmer to do incredibly well in America today. If you want more, though, If you want to be really disgustingly successful, you must evaluate every activity through a simple heuristic: is this simply indulging my entitlement to wealth and leisure, or is this moving a possible revenue stream forward?