Antoine Kalmbach's blog

Winding down

I find it curious I can get paid for programming and still practise programming in my spare time and it feels like fun. It doesn’t stress or tire me at all. Superficially, the line between what is work and what is fun is not that obvious. I’m at a computer, bashing its keys, programming it to do what I want. Of course, at work I program the computer to do different things, but you’d have to know what my job entails to know the difference.

I doubt it is possible to enjoy work so much that your work is relaxing, to the extent that it alone can guarantee a means for winding down. In that case, one’s work would be so fulfilling and relaxing that it one is calmed by it. This is not impossible. It is just unlikely.

How does one recognize when you enjoy work or when you enjoy nothing but work? Suppose one eats properly, sleeps properly, and then works all the rest of the time. To me, a common observation for which I offer no scientific basis, is that this is still too much. The brain can’t cope with continuous stimulation, and eventually such a person will either burn out, lose interest, or suffer from some other crash, and end their ability to perform in a job.

The crash comes sometimes from within, sometimes from outside. Families and friends – if you have any – will probably notice before too long that you might be working too much. But a person so engrossed in their passion can sometimes ignore their environment, and power on. Then at some point, their passion crashes. The stack overflows, and everything grinds to a halt.

I’ve been playing with computers for as long as I remember. I began programming at an early age or so, at the age of six, I think. Eventually what was just for fun became not just for fun, I turned my hobby into a profession. I doubt I am unique in this in our field, I know many have started their careers before they were — careers. Many also convert to our profession from other fields by learning the basics in their spare time.

I still program for fun. Occasionally, intermittently, whenever, I don’t keep a stable routine. And I don’t necessarily do anything meaningful. I play with new languages, new technologies, experiment with something vaguely work-related, but in general the striking difference between the programming-as-a-job and programming-as-a-hobby are that in hobby projects I don’t have

  • deadlines,
  • commitments,
  • schedules,
  • requirements, and
  • any pressure to achieve anything meaningful.

From that it is glaringly obvious what makes a hobby a hobby and a job a job. You might enjoy your job, but eventually come to realize that you’re obviously not there voluntarily, you have outside commitments, and you are bound to schedules and deadlines. Essentially, fun has fewer rules than work.

This is subjective, however. For some, the absence of such rules is stressful. They might enjoy a structured hobby: learning a new language with a predetermined schedule, follow a training routine to become a better runner, lift weights using a personalized program. So what work is for some is not work to others.

But for me it’s not just computers. I spend time with my wife and our baby daughter, I exercise, I read, cook, play music, whatever. There are many ways for me to wind down. But funnily enough, if someone asks me to list what I do for fun, I can include something that’s very close to my work. This is a common theme in creative professions. Musicians play music for fun, athletes also exercise for fun, graphic designers draw in their spare time, and so on.

A sport, although a hobby, can be stressful. Some years ago I was very into road cycling. I had a rigorous training schedule and was actively considering doing some competition. Before long, I realized I had only room for one rigorous schedule in my head. It was either work or something else. I chose work. Cycling had to be a hobby for me to enjoy it, not something serious. But before I could stop it, I crashed. I completely lost interest in road cycling because it felt too much like work. The distance I have cycled in road since can be counted with a three-digit number. This excludes commuting to work, naturally.

The weird part is that going I knew I didn’t enjoy having a strict structure in my spare time activities. I had figured this out a long time ago, when I was a teenager. Yet, I created a strict structure for a hobby. I lost interest. Perhaps I thought having grown older had given me the ability to manage this structure in such a way it didn’t feel overpowering. It hadn’t.

There is a sweet spot in this. I can find a hobby in which I have some structure but not too much. I’ve been going to the gym for a decade. For that, I’ve found going 2-3 times a week is the sweet spot in which I can keep myself in shape and see continuous improvement, with emphasis in the former. Any gains are just rewards, but not the ultimate objective. I suppose in weightlifting the ultimate objective for me is the physical health improvement. Whether I can add kilograms to my squat is not that interesting in the long run, though I strive to maintain an upward trend. Again, the same patterns emerge: I have no real schedule, no requirements, no commitments.

I guess, for me, personally, the absences of schedules, requirements and commitments is what defines fun for me. But this is just me. A colleague of mine trains in trail running rigorously, with strict schedules and diets. He said the structure helps him relax, because he has a fix point to follow in his spare time. Perhaps one of the strangest discoveries of myself was that a character trait like this ran very deeply. It is pervasive, it affects me in all areas. When travelling for fun, I ask my wife that we do not commit to a serious structure or schedule. We can visit that interesting cultural site, yes, and see that other place, but if you gave me a calendar with meticulously planned daily objectives and places to visit, I would rather stay home.

Some structure in non-work life is inevitable, and more often than not, necessary. Some hobbies require structure, things like choir practise, group sports, dinner with friends occur usually at fixed times. Family life and all it entails requires structure, and so do many aspects of one’s personal life. It’s not a bad thing. But the amount of structure is much smaller than in professional environments.

At the same time, my work is very structured. I organize my work into a to-do list and try to minimize ad-hoc work, instead knowing in advance what I should do the next day. That way I don’t have to think in the previous evening or night what I should do the next day. I get to work, open up the to-do list, and start from there. Of course, with meetings and collegial chats I can’t follow the list to the letter, and this to-do list is not the absolute authority, rather, it is a foundation. With this foundation, I never have to spend time wondering what I should do next. And this is just my work, my calendar is filled with meetings of various sorts. A big part of my job is figuring out the structure of other people’s work.

Knowing what is work and what isn’t makes it very easy for me to keep a good work and life balance. Maintaining that balance is extremely important to me. It is the single most important goal in my professional life to maintain this balance. That way, I can avoid stress and burning out, and enjoy being employed until I’m old. It’s not that I feel I have a duty to enjoy my job, or that enjoying working is somehow a goal in itself, it’s that I don’t want not to enjoy working.

I am incredibly privileged to have had turned my hobby into a profession. Sometimes work is so much fun it literally feels like I get paid to have fun. I am extremely aware that this is rare. Most of humanity considers work to be, well, work. We spend a significant portion of our days, of our lives, doing things we’d rather not do, in order to provide for ourselves.

I don’t think it’s possible for everyone everywhere to enjoy working, or rather, enjoy their job. It would be naive to think otherwise. Most of humanity is employed because they have to be. They are forced into jobs they had no choice in, they work in conditions they can’t control. Similarly, I don’t think it’s even possible for the majority to even enjoy being good at what they do, because for many even the ability to even enjoy a job is such an alien concept.

Even to those like me, who had a choice, I don’t think thoroughly enjoying one’s work is a worthy goal. To me, it’s not a measure of success whether you’re passionate about your job. You don’t need to enjoy your work to be a successful person. In fact, it is very common to be rather neutral about it. I think it is a good objective to not not enjoy your work, rather than to enjoy it. That is, being somewhat neutral, with a slight bias towards the positive, is probably the optimal position. You don’t hate what you do and you don’t love it too much in order to maintain a balance with your other life.

In fact, for me, a measurement of success is how healthy one’s relationship to work is. Fundamentally, work is service. You can serve whomever, even yourself, but should life be service? Maybe work is just some necessary evil we all do to survive? Work is what you do to fund the fun parts of your life. At the end of the day, we all go home, back to our families, friends, and hobbies. Work is transient like that.

Yet, I believe most of us would work even if not forced to. I think humans have an innate need to be useful, to have a purpose. That quest for purpose can be satisfied in many ways, work being one of them. I doubt many of us would work like we currently do, but it would be some sort of service to some entity. But it would be different. It wouldn’t be your average 40 hours a week five days a week. It could be more, it could be less, but I believe the terms on how we do it would be different.

So work is, well, work. It’s not always about what you do, it’s sometimes also the how. An artist could characterize work as the drawing they do primarily for someone else. Some other artist’s characterization might be different. There are most likely as many people as there are characterizations of work.

I’m happy that I have been able to understand what the difference is for me. What lets me enjoy programming in my spare time is that I keep it fun. I don’t do it rigorously, I don’t do it for someone else. Hobby programming is fun because it doesn’t feel like work. Yet, it’s sometimes very close to what I do at work. Most of the time it’s something completely different – embedded stuff, games, interpreters for toy programming languages, and so on. I suppose I could even pull off doing work-related stuff. It’s not the what, but the how.

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