re: playing at work, by sam wonders
Thank you for the open letter and the kind words — I'm touched, truly. I shall respond to your post now and your email later, mostly because that way I can count this as a day's wordvomit. (I'm also a little backed up on responding to emails at the moment, so thank you and others for your patience.)
It's comforting to know that even greats like Feynman struggled with enjoying their chosen fields of study. Looking back, I did try to find opportunities to play at work, even in the last job I despised so much. They were sad attempts to curb boredom, like writing AutoHotkey scripts to automate common tasks and trying (and failing) to learn Vim. They weren't exactly topical either, much to my boss's annoyance, but attempts to play they were.
I would love to find a job where play is encouraged. At the moment my bar is set far, far lower than that. I like to think of this sort of like an occupational version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs:
What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
According to Maslow (1943, 1954), human needs were arranged in a hierarchy, with physiological (survival) needs at the bottom, and the more creative and intellectually oriented ‘self-actualization’ needs at the top.
Maslow argued that survival needs must be satisfied before the individual can satisfy the higher needs. The higher up the hierarchy, the more difficult it is to satisfy the needs associated with that stage, because of the interpersonal and environmental barriers that inevitably frustrate us.
Higher needs become increasingly psychological and long-term rather than physiological and short-term, as in the lower survival-related needs.
To continue the analogy, being able to enjoy work and finding it intellectually stimulating lie at the very top. My last job was missing pretty much every layer of this pyramid. I didn't feel comfortable around my coworkers (no safety), I was clearly the odd one out (no belonging), and I could barely keep up with the work (no self-esteem). It wouldn't even have mattered if I could play at work. I need my basic needs met first — a healthy work-life balance, decent job stability, and work that I can reasonably do — before any of the things higher on the pyramid matter.
As you allude to with your coworkers that enjoy Code Archeology, the ability to play with certain topics is inherent to the individual. I can obsess for hours over nuances in grammar and sentence structure, but rarely get excited about fixing some obscure bug in code. Most software engineers I know are the other way around. Where am I going with this? I think it's important to note that a prerequisite for being able to enjoy the freedom to play at work is an inherent interest in that particular craft. If a hypothetical job let me choose between coding whatever I wanted and doing nothing with no repercussions, I'd probably opt to twiddle my thumbs. That's how I know I'm in the wrong field, and no amount of freedom or play at work is going to help me truly enjoy it.
I'm trying not to expect too much right now. I don't demand something terribly interesting; pretty much any work I'm capable of doing will do. Maybe I'm delusional, but I do believe there are still jobs out there in tech I could do reasonably well (though none of them involve writing code). The hard part is finding and landing them.
Sorry, I realize I rambled off topic. But I hope I gave you something to chew on (and maybe fodder for a future blog post).
P.S. Do you feel like the pay at your software engineering job was high because of how unpleasant it was? Like they had to pay that much money just to get someone to do it? My parents always remind me that nobody will pay me to have fun, and while I can see what they're getting at, I hope they're not right. I want to believe there are enjoyable well-paying jobs waiting for me out there, damn it!
P.P.S. Lovely photos of SF and Fillmore, by the way. Seeing your photos reminds me how much I miss that city. I can't wait to be back in a few months! And while I'm at it, I love the Made by Sam project too. Keep it up!