Reflecting on another year
I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last month thinking about what I wanted to post in the new year. I really don’t like New Year’s resolutions. In some ways, my brain likes the idea of having a rip-off-the-bandaid moment where you can jump into action and do stuff, but I’m not sure this ever really pays off except for very trivial things. My birthday is near the start of the year, so I thought I’d take some more time to reflect on crossing that threshold.
And then my birthday blew right past. I posted about podcasts, and what started as a little post turned into my most popular piece of writing to ever grace the public internet. So that was something.
Now I’ve found myself committed to refining a meta post about myself and my well-being when a significant chunk of y’all came here to read about my strong opinions. Sorry in advance to disappoint you if you came here expecting something more technical—these are only about engineering some of the time.
2022 (or my
2**5th year here), frankly sucked pretty hard. In the spring, I’d decided that I would try to focus on my diet and workouts and get lean1. After a great team offsite in Seattle, my appendix kicked the summer off with a bang. After a week in the hospital and a couple weeks of not moving very much, I flew to Chicago for another team offsite (with a different team) and caught covid on the way home. While I was recovering from covid, my dad’s leukemia took a turn for the worse and I spent a few months caring for him and managing his affairs after he passed.
Needless to say, I didn’t lean out very much. I didn’t take much time off beyond my appropriate sick leave and bereavement leave, either, instead turning to work and writing to get me through. Was that the healthiest thing to do? No. But I did think about it and I’m not sure what I’d have done if I did take some deliberate time off. Mow the lawn? Ride my motorcycle (more)?
Around the time I was wrapping up my bereavement leave, I realized that I just wasn’t all that happy doing my job. It was a great job. I love everyone that I worked with, and I had a lot of leverage to do the things that I thought were important. But despite reminding myself that this was an objectively good situation to be in, it didn’t stop me from waking up in the morning and not wanting to work.
The thing is, it wasn’t burnout. I’ve been burnt out. I’ve written a lot about burnout. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was dissatisfaction with the type of work I was doing. I was and remain proud of everything the team and I built, but the kind of business needs we were filling required us to work towards a goal that was 18 months out rather than a smaller goal (or series of smaller goals) that we could accomplish within a quarter or two. That just isn’t the sort of thing I’m interested in doing at this point in my life.
I didn’t see a way to turn that role into something that I wanted to do for another five years, and so I got another job. Runway has been cool and fun so far, and it feels a lot like Stripe felt back in 2017 where everything is fast-paced and we’re building stuff that’s important and fun. For the first time in a minute I have some flavor of professional fulfillment that I was previously missing. But outside of work, I’m finding myself wondering what the hell I’m doing.
A couple weeks ago, I was out in public and overheard someone ask something in earnest that made me stop what I was doing:
Do I turn everything into work?
It’s hard to overstate how much I relate to this. If you’ve read my notes at Stripe, you’ll know that I spend a lot of time writing code that I think is interesting or doing DIY projects on my house or doing stuff on my motorcycle. But really, many of the things that I consider to be “relaxing activities” are just me taking a thing that I enjoy and turning it into projects and tasks and planning and scheduling and getting materials ready and…treating literally all of my hobbies like a job.
In some ways, I think I recharge from doing these things. There’s a lot of fulfillment to be had from knocking out a bug or two in a personal project on a Saturday afternoon. But other times, I wonder whether my idea of “recharging” is really just “not feeling anxious that I have to do these things anymore.” Upon reflection, I can’t say with certainty that I’m the a maker who enjoys building or whether I just feel good about ticking things off my to-do list. The latter feels like it’s become an unhealthy dopamine hit: I’m not getting anything out of the task itself, I’m getting satisfaction from the task management process.
A couple weekends ago, I spent much of my spare time working on a project for Pinecast. It’s a really cool feature that I’m very excited for. And I’ve made a ton of progress. At the end of it, though, I spent my time writing for Substack because I haven’t actually accomplished anything. No terminal unit of work got done. Lots of small sub-tasks got done (I keep a tracker, I know they did), but no high-level “I released a feature” or “I wrote a blog post” or other goal-sized outcome was achieved. And that feels bad, and it somewhat supports my theory that I’m doing spare time wrong.
And then I think to myself, surely this is not why I enjoy moving fast and shipping things at work. Right? …right?
Do you have any weird superstitions? Or maybe not superstitions, but maybe ideas about metaphysical functions regarding your presence in the universe? I certainly do, even though I’m not the sort of person to think much of the metaphysical. It’s irrational, and I know I’m not a main character of the universe, but as with anything metaphysical, these sorts of stories we can tell ourselves offer answers to questions that we can’t possibly answer otherwise.
Humans have done this since at least when humans learned how to document this stuff in cave paintings or whatever. We decide that the stars are gods, or weather is punishment, or think that doing certain Bad things (sinning!) affect random chance or upset some deity and require rituals to un-fuck your fate.
This is going to sound super weird, and I’ve never talked about it before. Every now and then (maybe every few months), for maybe five to ten seconds, I see fireflies. Or at least that’s the best metaphor I can come up with for what it looks like. They’re tiny golden-colored specks that float around my vision (both in my direct line of sight and in my periphery). Not distracting enough to, say, affect my driving. Maybe the sort of visual artifact you get when you rub your eyes too hard and see colors (am I the only one who gets these)?
These little gold sparkles float around randomly in my vision for five to ten seconds, then disappear. I see them in the dark or when it’s light, and when I have my eyes closed. There’s no other effect to my consciousness, I don’t feel pain or discomfort or any other effect. What they are? A mystery! Why does it happen? Maybe I ate too much sodium or huffed too much gas stove emission or drank from a toxic water bottle. We may never know.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fireflies. The experience is so consistent. Maybe they are ethereal fireflies made of neutrinos or some other Star Trek-sounding particle, jiggling my eye goop around. They seem like they appear in quiet moments, and within about a week after something has happened in my life (important, traumatic, whatever) but this is almost certainly confirmation bias.
In my head, the irrational part of my brain that’s searching for a pattern or meaning takes these as a sign of a “new chapter” in my life—whatever that means. What better a way to indicate a new chapter has started than with a flutter of eerie lights while I’m laying in bed or shopping for groceries or waiting for my covid test results.
Sadly I have no warning about when they’ll happen. So if I was going to reflect on what I’m going to change about my life, after the new chapter has started feels like the wrong time to do it. To that end, I don’t have a lot to say about what this last year meant or what 2023 will hold.
The thing about chapters in a book is that if you look to them as a source of information, their location don’t tell you what’s going to happen next. But it does tell you that what happens next is going to be different somehow.
If we asked ourselves what we want the future to hold, you could probably bucket many of the answers into a few core categories:
Getting some unexpected money, your company IPOing, earning some kind of bonus
Health remaining good or some ailment diminishing
Having fun, or otherwise enjoying a good time
This one is a bit more abstract; if you’re not enjoying your time, that’s the same as having a bad time. Nobody really wants their time to be fine-but-not-good.
Schedules working out so you can enjoy time with friends and family, finding or enjoying a new hobby, taking pleasure in unexpected fun occasions
A bad thing that was anticipated didn’t come to pass, getting lucky and not being affected by an unexpected bad thing
Fulfillment of goals
Achieving some measure of success through work, reaching a milestone
I’m sure there’s probably more (and different folks probably have different sorts of things to want that I would not want), but all of the things that I can think of reduce down to one of those, give or take.
I think a lot of the things I want to do are constrained by money and time. I have goals I’d like to fulfill around my fitness and personal development, but that’s bounded by the time and energy I have to spare. I’d love to finish some big projects on the house and open a gym, but those things are bounded by me having a lot more money than I have now.
When I think about 2022 and take all of the things that were outside of my control out of the picture, I’m left with a pile things I want (goals to hit, things I want, experiences I’d like to have) and a pile of constraints (money, time, energy). And while 2022 was a particularly unfortunate year for me, budgeting for bad stuff happening left me with more wants than my constraints allowed.
A necessary dilemma that I’m faced with is that I don’t want decide to give up on any of my goals. But I also know that if I don’t make more room in my life (with my time, money, and energy) I won’t be able to meaningfully make progress. I like to think that if I hustle harder and suffer through a period of grind, I’ll get out the other side with some sleep debt and what I want, but that doesn’t work beyond a certain point. And that certain point has probably passed for me. What I cut is still TBD, but no matter what it ends up being, I don’t think I’ll end up feeling good about it. I hope, though, that freeing myself up to whole-ass other things will counterbalance that disappointment.
Maybe part of cutting things out also means treating fewer things like work. Not everything needs to be done for the sake of an outcome; I should be giving myself permission to build and tinker and screw around without some sort of productive outcome attached to it. The devilish feeling of doing something I’m not supposed to do when I commit sloppy code without tests to a private repo needs to be embraced sometimes. I can stream to Twitch without getting my fancy camera set up. I should write that
!imporant to get the thing done.
2023 does have some good stuff on the horizon. I’m looking forward to two weddings later in the year. Runway is hosting an AI film festival next month (if you’re in NYC, I’ll be around!). I’ll be visiting Phoenix for the first time in March. This fall, I’ll be attending the NJ Web Fest for their screenings and awards gala (Pinecast is a judging and scholarship sponsor!). I’m also hoping to visit Seattle to visit friends in the spring or summer.
Here in North Carolina, I’m planning to plant a garden in the back yard. This year we’ll work harder to make sure our strawberries don’t get absolutely decimated by the local wildlife, and I’m hoping to get a full crop of tomatoes and kohlrabi. I’m also excited to take on the biggest home improvement project since we moved in: renovating our garage with 240v outlets and fast chargers, pouring an epoxy floor, adding storage, installing security lights and camera, and a slick paint job.
Stripe is reported to IPO or something this year, too, which is also welcome news. As grandmama used to say, “More money, more good.” And who couldn’t use a few extra zeroes in their bank statements, amirite?
Oh, and this year, assuming all my organs are done exploding, I’m going to get lean.
For those of you that haven’t followed me elsewhere, I’m an aspiring bodybuilder when I’m not deleting other people’s code.