10-04-12 - Work and Life Patterns

Some random thoughts.

1. I'm pretty sure that people who have "work-life balance" are not actually working. Not by my standard of "work". I see these people sometimes who manage to exercise every day, take a nice relaxing lunch break, stop working to be sweet to their wife or play with their kids. No fucking way those guys are working, you can't put in a solid self-destructing day when you're doing that.

It seems like you should be able to stop and take 30 minutes off for stretching or whatever, but in fact you can't. For one thing, if you are really in deep "work mode", it takes at least an hour to get out of it. Then if you really were working hard, your body and mind are exhausted when you get out so you don't want to do anything. Then when you do go back to work, it takes hours to really get your mind back up to full speed.

The worst are the motivational speaker douchebags who will tell you can get more done if you only work 1 hour a day, or the dot-com-luckboxes who made millions over some trivial bullshit and now think they are business geniuses. I get more done in 5 minutes than you fuckers have done in your entire lives. I don't think you have any concept of what people do when they're actually working.

2. I've been in crazy crunch all summer long, and only in the last few weeks have kind of "hit the wall" where it's become a bit unpleasant. Not just in terms of job work, but also exercising, house work, etc. it's been a summer of work work work, take a break from one kind of work to do another kind of work.

(aside : actually taking a break from work to do other work is wonderful; I find that almost any day on which I do a variety of jobs I'm quite happy; like 6 hours of job work, then a few hours of wood working in the garage, then a few hours of gardening; that's a nice day. Any day that I spend doing all the same work all day is a sucky horrible day; obviously job work all day long is miserable, but so is home improving all day long. I've never been much for socializing or relaxing or whatever you're supposed to do when you're not working, so a lifestyle of hobbies and chores is okay with me.

Sometimes I see these old guys, generally 50-60 or so, wirey leather-hard old guys, who are just always doing something, they built their own house, they're overhauling an old engine, carrying bags of feed; you know they're really miserable inside their own brains which is why they never stop working to just sit and think or talk with the family, but they've found a way to live by just keeping themselves busy all the time. I look at those old guys and think yeah I could see myself getting through life that way.)

Anyhoo, now that fall is rolling in my body & mind want to quit. It occurred to me that this is the ancient Northern European life cycle; when spring rolls around you kick into high gear and take advantage of the long days and work your ass off for a while, then falls rolls around and you retreat into your dens. In the long ago, Northern Europeans actually almost hibernated in the winter; they would sleep for 16+ hours a day, and their heart rates and calorie consumption would drastically lower.

One of the problems with the modern world is that Northern Europeans won. With the advent of artificial light and heat, they can keep that Northern European summer work ethic going all year round. Back in the ancient days if you lived somewhere where you could work year round (eg. the tropics) then of course you took a slower pace. It's a real un-human situation we've gotten ourselves into. The Northern Europeans had to work their asses off in the summer because they didn't have much opportunity; and they had to be really careful uptight jerks, cache their food carefully and repair their shelters and such, because if they didn't they would die in the winter.

To be repetitive : in the ancient days you had the tropical peoples that lived a slower pace year round, and the northern peoples who lived very intensely, but only for the brief summer. What we've got now is basically that intense summer pace of life, but year round.

(as usual I have no idea if this is actually true; but a good parable is much better than factual accuracy).

3. Work life quality is obviously a race for the bottom. Basically capitalism is a pressure against life quality. I suppose the fundamental reason is that productivity is ever increasing (as knowledge increases, the value of each laborer goes down), and population is also increasing. But anyway, it's clear that the fundamental direction of capitalism is towards worse life quality (*). There are two factors I see that resist it : 1. unions , and 2. new fields of work. (or 3. get to the top of the hierarchy)

(* = this is clearly a half baked thought, as there are various ways in which capitalism is a pressure towards better life quality overall. I guess I'm specifically talking about the pressure of competition in a field where the number of people that want to be in it is greater than what's really needed. All fields go through a progression where at first the number of people trying to do it is very small, there are great opportunities in that phase, but at some point it becomes a well known thing to do and then the pressure is towards worse and worse life quality. I'm also normalizing out the general improvement in life quality for all, since human perception also normalizes that out and it doesn't affect our perception of our life quality)

The "race for the bottom" basically works like this : say you have some job that pays decently and gives you decent life quality; someone else sees that and says "hey I'll do the same job but for 90% of the pay" or more often "I'll take the same pay but work 120% of the hours". Because there is excess labor, the life quality for the worker goes down and down.

New areas of work, where there is a relatively small pool of competent labor, is one of the few ways to avoid this. Software has been new enough to be quite nice for some time, but for your standard low-level computer programmer is already no longer so, and it will only get worse as it becomes more mature.

The "race for the bottom" also occurs due to competition. Say you're an independent, maybe you make an archiver like WinPackStuffSmall, if your competition starts working crazy hours adding more and more features, suddenly you have to do the same to compete; then anybody else who wants to get into that business has to work even harder; over time the profit gets smaller and the work conditions get worse. This has certainly happened in games; it's almost impossible to make a competitive game with a small budget in a small amount of time without just killing the employees.

Anyway, I certainly feel it in data compression; there are so many smart guys putting in tons of work on compression for free because it's fun work, that you can't compete unless you really push hard. If you're going for the maximum compression prize and somebody else is putting in just killer work to do all the little things that get you a little more win, you can't compete unless you do it too. Being more efficient or having better ideas wins you a little bit of relaxation, but in the end some grindstone time is inevitable.

4. I really want my cabin in the woods to go off and work. It's too hard for me to try to work and live a normal life at the same time; I'd like to be able to just go out and be alone and eat gruel and code for a week straight.

For a while I was thinking about buying my own piece of land and building a little basic shack. But now that I own a house I'm not so sure. Owning property fucking sucks, it's a constant pain in the ass. (the only thing worse is renting in America, where the landlords have all the rights and are even worse pains in the ass). Sometimes I think that it would be nice to own a piece of mountain land, maybe an orchard, a beach house in the tropics, that that would be a legacy to pass on to my children, to stay in the family, but god damn it's a pain in the ass maintaining properties.

I wish I could find a rental, but I just cannot find anything decent, which is very odd, I know it must be out there. If I went out to my coding shack and I owned it, I would spend much of the time stressed out about the fixes I should be doing to it, at least with a rental I can go "yeah this place sucks but it's not my problem".

I sort of vaguely considered going backpacking-working, but I can't stand working on laptops, and carrying out the standing desk seems a bit difficult. (I said to James when we were backpacking that if I was rich it would be sweet to go backpacking and have a mule team or something carry in a nice bit of kit for you, way back into the inaccessible wilderness, so you could be out there all alone but with a nice supply of non-freeze-dried food (and a keyboard and standing desk) (like an old timey British explorer; have a coolie carry my oak desk into the woods on his back).

I do think the best way for a programmer to work (well, me anyway) is not the steady put in 8 hours every day and plod along. It's take a few weeks off and basically don't work at all, then go heavy crunch for a few months where you just dive in and every thought is about work. It's so much better if you can stay focused on the problem and not have to pop the stack and try to be relaxed and social and such. I'm not fucking relaxed, I can't chit chat with you, I have shit to get done! Unfortunately the periodic lifestyle doesn't work very well with other people in your life. (and mainstream employers expect you to do the crunch part but not the take a break part).

5. I've always thought that the ideal job would be a seasonal/periodic one. Something like being an F1 engineer, or an NFL coach. (NFL coach was my dream job in college; now I think F1 engineer looks mighty attractive; you get the fun of competition, and then you get to go back to your shed and study film and develop strategies and run computer models). There's some phase when you're "on" where you just work like crazy, and then you get a little bit of a break in the off season. (unfortunately, due to the "race to the bottom", the break in these kinds of jobs is disappearing; back in the ancient days they really were seasonal, in the off season everyone would just go relax, but then uptight assholes starting taking the jobs and working year round, and now that's more the norm).

The other awesome thing about F1 engineer or NFL coach is that you get a big feedback moment (eg. "I won" or "I lost") which is very cathartic either way and gives you nice resolution. For me the absolute worst kind of work is the never-ending maintenance; you do some work, and then you do some more; guess what, next year you do some more; there's no real end point. Working on games at least does have that end point (whew, we shipped!) but they're way too far apart to be a nice cyclical lifestyle; you want it once a year, not once every 3-4 years.

I also like the overt competition in those kind of jobs. Real intellectual competition is one of the most fun things in the world; it's what I loved about poker, about going after the most compression, the Netflix prize, etc. It's so cool to see someone else beat you, and you get motivated and try to figure out how they did it, or take the next step yourself and come back and top them. Love that. And you don't have to listen to any dumb fucker's opinion about what the best way is, you go out and prove it in the field of combat; if your ideas are right, you win.

(for quite a while I've been thinking about making my own indie game, solely for the competitive aspect of it; I want to prove I can make a game faster and better than my peers. I really have very little interest in games, for me the "game" is the programming; I want to win at programming. Good lord that is a childish bad reason to make a game. Anyway that part of me is slowly dieing as I get older so the chance of me actually making an indie game declines by the day.)

6. I can be quite happy with a simple lifestyle : work really hard, then exercise hard to release the stress and relax the body, then sleep a lot. It actually feels pretty great. The problem is it's an unstable equilibrium, like a pendulum on its tip. The slightest disturbance sends it toppling down.

Any day you don't get enough sleep, suddenly the work is agony and you don't feel like exercising, and then you carry the stress and it's a disaster. In this lifestyle I feel very productive and healthy, but I'm also very prickly; you have to be quite self-defensive to make it work, you can't let people sap your energy because you are so close to using all the energy you have. You will seem quite unreasonable to others; if someone asks you for a little favor or even just wants to socialize or something; no, sorry I can't do it; I have to work and then I have to go swim or everything is going to come crashing down.

I see a lot of the type A successful douchebag types living this lifestyle, and I've never quite put my finger on it about what makes it so douchey. I suppose part of it is jealousy; somebody who actually manages to put in a hard day of work and then exercise off the stress and have a good evening is something that I am rarely able to do, and I'm jealous of people who pull it off. But part of it is that it is a very self-centered lifestyle; you have to be very selfish to make it work.

7. I certainly am aware that I am using work to avoid life at the moment. I've got a bunch of home improving I need to do and other such shite that I really don't want to deal with, so every morning I wake up and just get straight on the computer to do RAD work so that I don't have to think about any of the other things I should be doing.

Of course that's not unusual. I have quite a few friends/acquaintances around here who very reliably use work to avoid life; they can't do this or that "because they have to work". Bullshit, of course you don't have to work right at that moment, you almost never do, you're just avoiding life. It's not really even a lie; if you think it's a lie it's just because you're listening too literally; they're really just saying "no I don't want to" or "my head is all fucked up right now and it's better if I don't spend time in the normal world".

A few months ago I had a fence put in, and on the day that the guys were doing the layout, I felt like I had to be at the office. Of course they did some kind of fucked up things because I wasn't there to supervise, and of course looking back now I can't even remember why it was I felt like I really had to go to work that day, of course I didn't.

8. The times that I really kill myself working are 1. when a team depends on me; like if I made a bug that's blocking the artists, of course I'll kill myself until it's fixed (and you're an asshole if you don't), 2. when I'm working on something that I kind of am not supposed to be; eg. back when I did VIPM at WildTangent or cube map lights at Oddworld or many things at RAD (LZNib the latest); even if it's sort of within the scope of what I should be doing, if it's not what I would have told myself to do if I was the producer, then I feel guilty about it and try to get it over with as quickly as possible and feel bad about it the whole time. 3. when I'm embarassed; that's maybe the biggest motivator. If I release a product that has bugs, that's embarassing, or if I claim something is the best and then find out it's not, I have to go and kill myself to make it right.

Right now I'm embarassed about how long Oodle has taken to get out, so I'm trying to fix that.

9. There's a kind of mania you can get into when you're working a lot where you stop seeing the forest for the trees. You can dive down a hole, and you just keep doing stuff, you're knocking items off the todo list, but you aren't seeing the big picture. It's like the more you work the more you only see the foreground, the details. You have to stop and take a break to take stock and realize you should move onto a different topic.

Sometimes when you are faced with a mountain of tasks and are kind of overwhelmed about where to start, the best thing is to just pick one and do it, then the next, and eventually you will be done. But that rarely works with code, because there are really an infinite number of tasks, doing each one creates two new ones, so "putting your head down" (as producers love to say) can be non-productive.


Anonymous said...

Anyhoo, now that fall is rolling in my body & mind want to quit.

I know you know this, but still:




cbloom said...

Yeah I know. (BTW nice job with the post finding). Back in June when the sun started I was like YEEHAW PARTY TIME and felt amazing for a while. It's always so weird when it happens and I'm like "wow life doesn't have to be so bad, this is what it's supposed to feel like!".

The weird thing this year is that it's still actually sunny now (which is unusual) but my body is going into collapse anyway. It's like I've gotten used to the fall timing, even though fall is late this year.

Ben135 said...

You may have already read it, but Guns, Germs, and Steel describes pretty much what you're thinking in terms of the effect of environment on culture and technology.

Derek Gerstmann said...

From my own desolate PhD viewpoint -- amen on #1. Completely agree on #4 and #6. I could totally go for a beach-side hut as a work-week getaway. Just avoiding the silly academic staff would save days of frustration. Six-daily tea breaks / lunches in between teaching courses (on topics they know next to nothing about), grant writing sessions (aka taking credit for other peoples work), and proof-reading their next paper drafts (with non-reproduceable results). Frak. Where's the "sharing knowledge and giving back to society" mantra gone? The world sucks.

Derek Gerstmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

old rants