The Great Push

SUMMARY: The hard, demoralizing work that goes into doing necessary chores drains me of energy faster than I can replenish it. This essay examines the factors that are behind the drudgery, and postulates how to integrate the fun of learning the right way back into the work. This is based on the experience of mentoring a 12 year-old boy and reading James Somers’ recent article How I Failed, Failed and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code.

It’s been a month of pushing. I have two active personal projects:

  • I’ve been wanting to resurrect my childhood dream of making a really cool space video game, but there’s a TON of stuff that I need to learn. While there are applicable ready-made tools available to use, if I’m willing to spend some time learning how to use them, I still need to fit all the pieces together by hand; it is the only way to ensure a certain originality and beauty in the work.

  • On the work side of things, I’m still sloughing away at Inexpensive Websites II, a WordPress-based product that I’m making to meet the need of local artists who need a basic web presence. The product itself is done; it’s the instructions and marketing that’s slow going. I’ve been able to work on it in 4-6 hour bursts, and then I take a mental break for 2-3 days before hitting it again. I’m finding this work very boring and uninspiring, despite being so close to actually having a product ready-to-test with a local market.

I don’t like this feeling of resistance and sluggishness. It makes me feel that there’s something wrong with me. It’s very tiring and at times demoralizing. My working theory for much of the past few months has been to suck it up and push on through. That hasn’t stopped me from analyzing the feeling, though:

  • For the space game project, I think the resistance comes from anticipating the frustration of dealing with bad documentation. I’m also not sure how the game is going to work technically; I’ll also have to come up with my own ways of representing basic ideas in code, and that seems like it will take a long time. I’m impatient!

  • For the website project, I actually do know what I’m supposed to be writing. However, there’s a level of uncertainty I am feeling because I’m not happy with the way the documentation is coming out. While I know that it will ultimately end up looking pretty good, this intellectual understanding is not very effective in motivating me. I think that this is because I already don’t WANT to do it, even though it is part of something I want in place because it does open up more possibilities.

One of the common factors between both projects a reluctance to defer my enjoyment in exchange for an uncertain future outcome. This looks like a bad deal: I am guaranteeing a lot of intense work and pain in the near future in exchange for something that I can’t see in the far future. If you came up to me and offered me the same terms–I put in the hard work now, and you’ll MAYBE deliver something cool at an unspecified time in the future…I wouldn’t be leaping to make that deal either. In this case, however, it’s my own brain* that doesn’t trust me to deliver the goods. I know that doing the work will yield positive results. I know this intellectually, but the uncertainty of the deal magnifies every small setback by many times. When alternative, more immediately-fun projects present themselves–cooking dinner, taking on some paying work, looking for “inspiration”–doing the hard work becomes even harder. I want to find some way to mitigate the resistance.

Evaluating the Grind

I think there is a certain amount of shut up and work that is required. This is about the body obeying the brain, which is smart enough to know that the deferred reward IS worth it. However, just because I’m committing to the work doesn’t mean that the work experience has to totally suck. Getting some of the suck out of the experience would be a good thing. Part of the difficult comes from the lack of a clear pattern to follow. When you’re trying to make something brand new, as I am with my bizarre career path, there are no shortcuts. That’s because no one has figured out how to do exactly what I am doing yet, which is to become my best possible self. I’m not talking about acquiring skills like learning how to use Illustrator or learning how to program in C++; there are plenty of well-marked paths to follow for that. Instead, I’m talking about the process of figuring out how to use all my skills and interests in the manner that brings me personal satisfaction. What is it that I can ultimately become? That is a unique challenge, and I suspect it isn’t all that common. Because it isn’t a common path, it’s also damned lonely work, and that’s important to remember. When you’re on the uncommon path, you need to maintain the energy to keep going. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, there is a certain amount of willpower that you have to expend to do unpleasant or difficult tasks. The energy I’m talking about is that feeling of “can-do”, of positivity and power. It is also replenished by your friends, family, and ongoing achievement in the context with your goals. It is drained by doing that hard, lonely work. When you run out of energy, you are in danger of stalling or burning out. One of the main resistances I’m facing, therefore, isn’t actually resistance. It’s more like a deficit of energy. The work, as it currently stands, requires more energy than I have. Partly this is due to a lack of work efficiency: I’m doing things that are new to me, so my efficiency is going to be low compared to someone who has already mastered the process. It feels like I’m getting about 3 miles to the gallon. I also am not helping myself by not having a regular sleep schedule, which means I don’t have a regular eating schedule, which means my body is constantly wondering what the hell is going on. My crazy sleeping schedule is also a symptom of a deeper depression I feel toward the work. I want to see results NOW, and I keep thinking that it should be easier because it’s something that I want to do. After all, the alternative is to work for someone else, but in the face of all this resistance it’s starting to sound appealing. So, I try to be good about doing the work by blocking out everything that isn’t related to it, but my heart just isn’t in it. As a result, my levels of willpower are at an all-time low. At some level, I’ve stopped believing. Only my brain, ensconced safely atop its tower of ivory bone, maintains some semblance of optimism about the plan: The plan can work! It makes sense! If only we were moving faster on the plan, we would be happier that much sooner!

Two Principles to Remember

First, remember that yes, the plan can work. The brain is right about that. The challenge is to get the work done. This is basically a morale and management problem. Also, remember that we’re not alone in our struggles. That’s one reason why I write all this personal stuff down in the first place; I figure there might be one or two people out there who would derive some sense of solidarity from my words. I certainly take solace from Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s podcast Back to Work. It’s a fast-moving and thought-provoking show about doing all that stuff that really matters. Check it out. I’ve also been buoyed by the Google Wave with Colleen™, the ongoing communications experiment–now essential part of life–that I’ve been running with the amazing Colleen Wainwright for over a year. The Wave is where we can reflect about the weird life we’re trying to build around our individual interests. There is no $39.95 kit we can buy to show us the ropes. The point of entry doesn’t yet exist, because it’s up to us to chisel one out of the raw stuffs of the Universe. Again, that’s the struggle, when you are not trying to climb someone else’s corporate ladder. I’ve also come to believe that productivity and mastery are driven by a single principle: paying attention. This is, in my view, being observant, asking questions, and applying knowledge within the context of our interests over a long period of time. I’ve been noticing this pattern recurring in different fields, and I think its the basic mindset of the successful student. I think I’m onto something here, but there’s something missing. It might be that I just like things to come in threes, but I think it’s more. There’s something awfully dry about these two principles, taken just by themselves.

Boyhood Epiphanies

A couple weeks ago, I was surprised to be asked to consider becoming an “activity mentor” for a very bright 12-yo boy who also happens to like space empires, science, and stories. I don’t have kids, nor have I spent much time with them, but after some thought I decided that it would not hurt to try this for a month. One thing I noticed right away was that twelve year olds are very easily distracted, and that if what I was demonstrating took any longer than 10 seconds, momentum was lost. What worked much better was actually playing along with the expressed interests of the boy, and then following up with questions that expanded his ideas. This created challenge and engagement, though I couldn’t really predict where any of it was going to go. We talked about submarine warfare tactics. We designed a power cable that could be disconnected using explosive charges. This somehow led to a discussion about his rotating catapult platform that could be powered by a single man through a system of weights, pulleys, and one-way gears. The boy seemed to enjoy the session, but I found myself wondering whether what I was doing was adequate in an educational sense. There’s a balance between perseverance and chasing one’s whims, after all, when it comes to learning how to do something bigger than requires perseverance. And I’m mindful of the topics I really would like to get into, which was the design and programming of a spaceship game, which requires discipline and commitment. How did I learn how to program and design, anyway? By sheerest chance, I happened upon a link to James Somers’ article How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning how to Code. Somers wanted to learn computer programming after watching a lot of TechTV on the G4 network, and so inspired went to buy a hefty “How to Program in C++” book at the local bookstore. He beat his head against the “dense and unsmiling” prose and gave up. The cycle of inspiration and defeat repeated many times, leading him to reflect:
For a while I thought I didn’t have the right kind of brain for programming. Maybe I needed to be better at math. Maybe I needed to be smarter. But it turns out that the people trying to teach me were just doing a bad job. Those books that dragged me through a series of structured principles were just bad books. I should have ignored them. I should have just played.
Somers’ muse is Colin Hughes, who as a child taught himself how to program on an ORIC-1 Microcomputer. As with many microcomputers at that time, the ORIC-1 had a built-in BASIC interpreter that was immediately available when you turned on the machine. Instead of waiting for Windows or MacOS to load, you would see a blinking prompt that was ready to receive your commands. By typing in commands from the manual, Hughes learned how to program through exploration. It’s how I learned how to program too. I was drawn to fancy animated text displays (big surprise there) and moving graphics. I started to dabble in 6502 assembly language and disk operating systems, wrote a simple word processor, and started learning how to draw computer graphics. And it was, thinking back, hard and frustrating work that took long hours to master. I didn’t know it was work at the time, as it was far more interesting than any homework I had, and the results of my explorations could be shared with my friends that truly appreciated it. At a certain point, my desire to do exceeded my ability to learn on my own, and I was excited to study computer engineering in college to fill-in the gaps. However, with the exception of a Computer Graphics programming course (which I had been also studying on my own), I can’t point to any particular class that actually taught me anything that I am use today. I am foggily aware of certain techniques that I could revisit, such as digital signal processing and amplifier design, but I’d have to learn it again. In fact, I don’t think I really learned it the first time around, as the classes I took were so dry and unsmiling in their approach that I never developed a comprehensive system view of how the stuff was really used. I had unknowingly done my real foundational learning in programming and microcomputer architecture, which is what made it possible to learn what I wanted to know selectively. Flashforward 20 years, and I’m still stuck in the same place, and I’m still relying on the learning I did when I was 18, putting in the long hours to understand what are now simple building blocks. Instead of it being frustrating, it was ultimately empowering. What is different now is my poor attitude and growing impatience. I’m like a terrible manager, with no sense of how long things take and how difficult it is. All that matters to a terrible manager is that the work is done by a certain time and that if it doesn’t work, he can blame his team for not being smart or fast enough to understand the importance of the deadline.

The Time to Learn and Play

If I want to learn how to achieve with excellence, which is where I am right now, then I need to give myself the time to do it while maintaining enough pressure to make it exciting. For example, I was looking through the High Level Shader Language (HLSL) reference materials, used to program real-time 3d hardware for video games, and wished that my grasp of matrix math and trigonometry were stronger. There’s an opportunity to do some learning! However, like Somers and his initial experiences learning C++, I was continually stymied by the material I could find on the subject. So much definition, and so little context. Even the books that specialize in the math from an HLSL perspective have problems, because they use exactly the same approach as the math texts, substituting their own jargon in recipe-like structures that make no intrinsic sense. I’ve suspected for a long time that it is sheer incompetence in the textbooks that were to blame, once postulating that learning math might be easier if I adopted a criminal investigator mindset. I thought this was rather clever, but Somers cites a wonderful essay by mathematician Paul Lockhart called A Mathematician’s Lament that just blows it away. Lockhart is the rare professional mathematician that can teach and write with passion, and his essay is brilliant. It uncannily describes the hazy and confusing experience of my formal math and engineering education. What I find so compelling about Lockhart’s essay is that the joy of mathematics bursts forth in a way I had never imagined possible. I had suspected that math might be more interesting if it were competently presented as clear concepts in unambiguous English, but I had NEVER thought of mathematics as exploratory art that can be explored just as freely. I had always thought of math being a kind of lifeless derivation of facts from other facts, but as Lockhart describes it this is far from the truth. This is a major epiphany, and it makes math suddenly seem more accessible. And not only does math seem more accessible, I now have a sense of what I have been missing in my own approach to doing the hard work; in Lockhart’s followup to criticism, he writes (emphasis mine):
Look. A child will have only one real teacher in her life: herself! I see my role as not to train, but to inspire and to expose my students to a wide range of ideas and possibilities; to open up new windows. It is up to each of us to be students – to have zeal and interest, to practice, and to set and reach our own personal artistic and scientific goals.
You know, it really IS up to me to make this more fun. While I can complain about not being in the place I want, I can still find the joy in the solving of the problems that will bring me there. Perhaps this is what they mean when they say the journey is the reward: the reward is the progress you make through the solving of those problems, one by one. In by going through that process, you are shaped into the person you become, much as I had been shaped by my early exposure to microcomputers. Furthermore, I think it’s possible to design the series of problems so that maximum fun results, as opposed to maximum efficiency. Somers (via Hughes) references “inductive chain reasoning”, which is the idea that your understanding of new problems develops from the solving of earlier ones. On other words, as each problem is solved, what you gain from the experience allows you to solve new problems that were previously out-of-reach. This is the same approach that a well-designed video game employs, introducing concepts and challenges at ever-higher levels to keep the player at the very edge of their ability. A good example of this is Valve Software’s well-regarded Portal video game for the first time, and it’s an outstanding example of inductive chain reasoning in gameplay and level progression. I suspect that if I focus on maximum fun, I will make faster progress anyway. Treating the work as a series of expressive experiments would go a long way to making the learning gap more fun. And fun would go a long way toward stabilizing my energy levels, especially if I can share what I’m doing as I’m doing it. Isn’t that the joy of solving problems? And this may be the missing third principle I alluded to earlier in “Two Principles”. Here’s an attempt to codify them:
  1. It’s hard work. There are no shortcuts on the journey to become your best self.
  2. Growth comes through paying attention: be observant of details and change, and try to answer the questions that arise from your interest.
  3. Share what you are doing and what you’ve found with the people who want to know.
There’s an interesting parallel between this and the Concrete Goals Tracker principles:
  • Make tangible stuff you can see or touch
  • Show people in person
  • Discover opportunity
There is a pleasing inner/outer symmetry that is developing here; perhaps it is the basis for a comprehensive philosophy of some kind…but I digress.

Conclusions

I had really been giving myself a hard time on not being more disciplined, harder working, and smarter for the past two months. Even the blog hasn’t been very fun, as it just reminded me of all the stuff I should be doing. But with these recent revelations, I think I’m starting to get over the hump.
  • Yes, it takes time, because I’m doing something new and novel. This is the path of the artist, which is like an unmarked goat path that occasionally (but unpredictably) intersects with opportunity.

  • Just because it takes time doesn’t mean it has to feel slow and unproductive. Rather than focus on the end results that are far into the future, I should be able to create a stepping stone series of smaller explorations that eventually bring me there. It will be like planning a cross-country trip of the United States and Europe, picking destinations and activities along the way.

  • Remember that a lot of the materials out there are not going to be well-written or completely informative. It’s up to me to pull some sense out of it to create my own understanding.

  • Ultimately, it’s about the connection with people that makes all this work worthwhile, and that does not have to be deferred. In fact, it’s a source of energy. I had been cutting out the social interaction because I thought this prevented me from focusing on the work. If I can combine the social interaction into the work, I think I will be in a much better state of mind.

  • In the context of doing the hard work, maximizing the fun factor over efficiency may perversely lead to faster progress. So what’s fun? Sharing what I’m trying, experimenting, and learning with people as I’m doing it. I think that’s one of the essential bits of my personality that always comes out. Suppressing it just makes me sad.

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p>So that’s what I’ve been up to. I’m hoping that this means I will feel more inclined to blog about what I’m doing more frequently.