I’ve been waiting for weeks to write about this.
I want to talk about my burnout.
I’ve been waiting because this absence of motivation is a weird, gauzy thing that defies packaging. I’ve been waiting because on some level, this felt like weakness. A thing not to be shared. A source of shame.
But we need some sharing because this happens to people.
You have to understand, I love creation. I was blessed to grow up in an environment where my imagination was celebrated and cultivated.
After we moved to Albuquerque, when I turned five, I got my hands on a great big wardrobe box. I started drawing the buttons and dials for a spaceship. That was what I wanted to exist.
By age eight, I discovered an entire genre of fiction that concerned itself largely with spaceships but also, to a surprising extent, their buttons and dials.
Star Trek: The Next Generation. Holy cats did I love that universe. You’re on a spaceship. In space. The blind see. Humanoid robots are substantive members of the community. And computers.
Computers are everywhere.
Everybody had a computer. They walked around with them in their pockets. Worked behind them, slept beside them.
They talked to their computers.
And the computers were these beautiful things of bright colors and black glass. You touched them and their software would reconfigure whatever controls you needed for the task at hand.
It was the future.
Every time you sat me down in front of a computer, my mind would inevitably wander to the unmistakable LCARS computer interfaces I saw on TV. I’d use my computer time to draw crude approximations of a world that would otherwise be so out of reach.
Burned into my memory is first contact with a Newton Message pad. This was alien technology – beyond anything I’d ever imagined. It was a real computer yet it it was self-contained. It fit in your hand.
I’d go and visit a Newton every chance I could. Any time my family ended up at the electronics store, I would go in search of this artifact and try to work out all you could do with it.
It took years of sustained lobbying, but by the time I was 10, we had a computer in the home. I’d spend hours downloading software just to see how it worked. I couldn’t believe how deep my computer went.
My portable computer fantasies were realized on my 16th birthday in the form of a Handspring Visor.
It was my constant companion. Loaded with eBooks and apps, lovingly synced each morning with the latest from the web via AvantGo, I looked after that device like a cherished pet. In time I added a fold-up keyboard. My english teacher at the time, Mr. Romero, indulged me by allowing these devices in place of the traditional pencil and paper.
I had, at last, a slice of the future.
I’d nurture a succession of Visor models and add-ons through the end of high school, sinking over a hundred hours of my Best Buy toils covering the cost.
I had no idea that any of this could be useful, one day, for a career.
When Apple opened the iPhone to third party developers, it woke up decades of dreams inside me. I risked everything I had to seize my chance for part of the wild, crazy boom of creativity and commerce that followed.
Since then I’ve gotten to work with incredibly talented people to build stuff I’m really proud of. Somehow, incredibly, it seems I have the career that that I spent my all my formative years preparing for.
But when I turn the key in my mind these days, the engine doesn’t always fire up the way it used to. I can’t string together interdependent systems as easily or readily. I can’t find the motivation to build the models in my mind.
So much of what I dreamed of as a kid is right within my grasp but it’s like my brain is out of gas. When I think of the people who helped make this possible for me, it’s even more frustrating.
I know how I got here. I didn’t take great care of myself. Shipping a big project a few years ago, against a tight deadline, 10+ hours a day, six or seven days a week, for a couple months, during the loneliest period of my adult life, left me pretty fried.
I didn’t take the sustained break I needed to get my mojo back. I limped along, never quite back at full strength. Somehow I shipped a whole new project in that state, but afterwards I was cooked.
I couldn’t make code come out anymore.
It felt like a failing of discipline. I castigated myself. After much searching, though, I remembered that the only reason I had my career was a self-imposed program of nightly study and work. What I needed was a break.
So I decided it was time to make a change.
I make money by freelancing now. The variety of faces and places keeps things fresh. I can specialize in the parts of my brain that are still in working order. I can give the tired parts a rest until they’re ready to get back in the game.
I can take breaks when I need to.
The part of me that wants to make buttons and dials, it seems, just cannot be killed. I still love dreaming up new interfaces. I love seeing my screen of black glass fill up with the colorful, moving shapes of my childhood dreams. It’s a good thing people find that useful.
I love the energy I get from teaching – and I’m fortunate to know a subject that a lot of people want to learn about.
But I do miss that incredible feeling of flow I only find while writing code. I miss feeling it pour out of me, working two or three hours at a stretch. The extra jolt of satisfaction when it all works on the first compile. The feeling of something being born before my eyes.
Take care of the people around you. Make sure they get the support and time they need to be their best. Do the same for yourself.
The mind is not an inexhaustible resource. It needs rest, play and new situations to be at its best. It’s not wrong to relax sometimes.
Let’s talk about the fact that in this crazy world of deadlines and competition, sometimes we get tired inside. Let’s be real that we’re not computing machines.
We’re fallible, squishy meat, just trying to make it.