Content from 2020-02

In Praise of Unfocus

posted on 2020-02-01 22:45:00

De-emphasizing output

I often tend to judge myself, at work and outside of it, on my output. Old habits are hard to escape. But there are a lot of reasons this is an instinct to be resisted. First of all, if you're tackling suitably interesting projects it may be hard to predict progress or even define good stopgap goals. Many people experience cultural pressure to measure themselves in terms of their output or to be efficient in all things they pursue. That distortion in what we value often leads to a lopsidedness in our goals and pursuits. There are two defenses that have stuck with me lately against such ideas. So I want to tell you about them in the context of last Sunday when I was unfocused and then anxious about having spent my time that way.

Breadth over Depth

In a single Sunday I got excited about: 90s techno (Tri Repetae, Hard Normal Daddy), new techno (Djrum, HVL, John Talabot), Smash Bros Melee both for its depth to competitors and my choice to be only a semi-serious player, a study group I started at work to go through Crafting Interpreters, making music with Modular synths, making music with Renoise instead, Open hardware efforts like Pine Phone and MNT Reform, Grammatech's open source SEL project for doing Binary Analysis and modification with Common Lisp, InterimOS, and a slew of other odds and ends.

Even if these cluster around nerdy themes, that's an awful lot to enjoy in a single day. It's easy to lament that nothing was produced, that there is no output to share, but that ignores the fact that being plugged in to so many things often means forgoing total immersion in a single piece of subject matter. And there are network externalities at work too. Discovering music means I can play it next time I co-host The Mobius on GA Tech radio with my buddy Matt. Being aware of software and hardware projects means I can share resources with other hackers.

People over Performance

But all that wasn't enough to keep me from worrying that I don't focus enough. Or I focus on the wrong things. I had a performance review coming up at work so that might have had something to do with it. Even though the company has a relaxed culture, I'm a worryer and a catastrophizer by nature. I was getting worked up over the fact that I don't ship as much as some other members of my team. I was trying to imagine exactly where the bar was and what objective, quantitative measures would be used to evaluate my performance. I was thinking about how I had never felt like I was the developer doing the most challenging or glamorous work at my past jobs and I still had a slower rate of shipping tickets than those taking on that challenging work.

After a little while, I thought especially about Emcien. Emcien was a great opportunity for me and a cool Ruby/Rails shop to work at. I was there from early 2013 to late 2014. More so than other jobs I've held, I think of things at Emcien as having gone sour even though I left in decent terms. I got into a negative headspace about the value of my work and its perception in early 2014 and that re-inforced until I was dragging my feet constantly. I wound up putting in my notice because I was unhappy, but the work environment didn't do it, I did it to myself. So, did it end in failure?

Here's the really interesting part. After I left that job, where I assumed I was a waste of money and possibly resented for not being a bigger contributor, I wound up becoming the best man of one of the engineers and a good friend and confidant of another. There were 5 devs total, including me. The 2 jobs I got immediately following Emcien were working with those two individuals and they both had positive things to say about me during the interview process.

Probing for Answers

How do we explain this? There are a few possibilities I can think of. One is that I actually was just as productive as everyone else. Another is that even if I was less productive I was working on things others were not excited to work on and that freed them to do what they were passionate about. But the explanation I like is that while I shipped less code than my peers, I made sure they felt great every day. As much as I was able, I shared energy with them and supported them in their efforts while still making progress on my own tasks, even if a bit slowly. I just loved on them.

It's easy in software to get fixated on people working on the most impressive or high profile projects. I can get tunnel vision thinking about career growth as only coming through huge expertise. But even as a software engineer you can be as valuable for how you support others as for your individual efforts. It could be more important to your career goal to be energizing and well liked than productive. Which isn't to say you should go be popular and ignore your work, just that focusing only on output distracts from a more realistic view of how people function as part of a team.

I sometimes struggle with my instinct to be unfocused, or am ashamed I'll be thought of as a dilettante or dabbler, as if the only respectable option is to be myopically focused on one area of knowledge. To have one project of grand scope. I need to remember, and I imagine I'm not alone, that embracing my varied interests both nourishes me and is a valid choice that can enrich the communities I particpate in.

And that's enough of my soapbox for one day. Happy Hacking.

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler