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Apathy: the programmer's enemy

The "Alternate jobs for programmers" thread hit a bit of a nerve for me, but rather than hijack that thread, I want to start a new one on a related topic: how to deal with apathy.

Maybe you know the feeling. You feel listless. Burned out. You are desperate to run screaming from your neon-lit open plan office that doesn't even have a window. Away from your work-mates that hide at their desks, seemingly in terror of being sociable. You begin to deeply fear that you'll be nothing but a glorified office supply company production line worker. A grey, grey man... with all the passion and joy sucked from your very soul.

That's me right now. I know on a concious level, what I need to do: I need to make a plan to get out, and then follow it, come hell or high water. I need drive, strength and absolute clarity of vision.

And I can deliver that - in spades. But not right now. For some inexpliciable reason I'm paralyzed - I can't find what I consider to be the right goal. My energy and passion just don't seem to be there when I need it.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? How did you get past it? What did you do? I would love to hear everyone's war stories.

Monday, July 21, 2003


Reginald Braithwaite-Lee
Monday, July 21, 2003

While those are related topics, they're not quite what I mean here. I have seen similar discussions in a previous thread a while back - at least one on here some time ago, and one on slashdot (yes, search engines are your friend).

I'm just interested to see what fresh perspectives and stories there might be out there.

Monday, July 21, 2003

It sounds like you would benefit from something completely different than what you're currently doing.

In the JoS thread Reginald links to above, Matt H gives the excellent advice to "Get a demanding, and/or challenging and/or 'meaningful' hobby."  I think this would help you.

Alternatively, consider a long vacation.  Just get *away*.  Do something completely different.  And I'd advise against packing your days; don't go on a cruise where you've got a full-page daily schedule of things to do.

For example, when I was laid off from my last job, I spent most of a week at a Bed and Breakfast in a tiny rural town.  I had *nothing* to do.  I brought a few books, and several pads of paper.  I just read, and wrote, and sketched, and walked around and visited places whenever I felt the urge to do so.  I (purposefully) didn't pay attention to how much I was spending, either.

It was a great relaxant and focuser.

The Pedant, Brent P. Newhall
Monday, July 21, 2003

Yes, what's the deal? Lately I think that as a software developer, I'm doing nothing more than manual labor.

Why do I care about writing awesome code when I can write crap that just works? Maybe it's harder for me to fix later, but who cares?

I mean, software is never finished. As soon as I finish one thing, I have to write another thing. There will just be more versions forever. Why do I want to continue working on this? There is no end, and no real motivation for me to work faster or better.

Maybe if I was a consultant I would be happier. At least consultants have projects that they get to "finish" and then move on to something else.

Monday, July 21, 2003

This thread makes me wonder. The topic of being burned out appears and reappears again and again. Is it that common to feel that way in the industry? Are others different?

Monday, July 21, 2003

Long time ago there was a movie "The Wonderful Land". The opening scene was in a bar on a cruise ship. The musicians (the british group Shadows) were playing classical music. They were sleepy and bored but they kept playing. They ran to their cabin after the bar closed for the night. They grabbed their guitars and begun to play a different kind of music for their own enjoyment.

The moral of this story is: pick an interesting project and start working on it for your own enjoyment to balance your boring job.

Monday, July 21, 2003

I never felt apathy for the first 7 years of programming but I do sometimes feel it now. I sometimes feel what I'm doing has no real purpose -- software will continue to get better and technology will continue to advance and in the end our civilization will die, just like all the other great civilizations before it. And each of us, however good we eventually become at our jobs, will wind up dead.
Now this kind of apathy is not a reason to change careers again. It would happen in any career, because it is the eternal dilemma of being human. After the extremely challenging beginning phase, when you don't know if you will ever succeed in the career, you get into a different phase, where you can no longer expect continual excitement.
I imagine that even people with the most glamorous careers -- famous entertainers, scientists working on new discoveries, innovative creative artists, etc. -- must tolerate a lot of boredom once they get over the initial thrill of beiing a novice in an exciting career. I mean, imagine being an actor and having to memorize your lines, or rehearse the same scene over and over and over. Even creative writers go through blocked phases where they have to force themselves to write.
When I'm having an apathetic day I can think I'm lucky to have a job doing something I like, even if I'm not excited by it at the moment.
Suppose you lived in ancient times, and your ancestors all were shepherds. You would never consider doing something else, and you would probably be happy to herd the same old sheep every day. Maybe you would cheer yourself up by playing a flute or a lyre or something.

The Real PC
Monday, July 21, 2003

Shadows - good point. I've jumped ship and taken different job because I thought if it was in an industry I liked, I'd enjoy it more... Nope. My most satisfying job to date was in banking, because I wasn't micro-managed... most of the time... and actually got stuff done.

I think self-determination rather than what you're doing is the most important thing. Read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or at least the first few chapters. He basically defines what an engaging activity is. Something you can raelly wrap your hands around and enjoy.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Work isn't natural. Human beings weren't designed for this kind of thing... toiling in the proverbial fields. We were designed for hunting & gathering - active participation in the things that keep us alive. This whole money / storage of wealth / class thing is a corruption, and I think makes most of us a little uneasy, even if we don't know why.

You're right to feel like grey grey man, because that's probably what "they" want you to be. You really are little different from the guy tilling the field. So what are you gonna do about it? Quit your job & find a new one? Strike out on your own and start your own business? Find a fulfilling hobby and realize that work is only what you do for money, it doesn't define who you are?

I think most people are lacking a good support system... Their work becomes their life, and when work fails on them, it's their whole life that fails. Other people have a lot of friends, a good "significant other" relationship, and when work fails on them... other parts of their life remain the same, and they're better able to cope.


In an earlier thread, someone asked what advice you would give yourself in college. The #1 piece of advice I saw: "Have more fun, because it's the last time you're gonna have it."

What was it you were doing in college that you're not doing now? Spending time with your friends... playing in a band... writing... coding for fun... chasing girls... going to bars & clubs... studying... How can you re-introduce that into your life now?

Another major aspect, I believe is hope. In college you had hope... you were on the cusp of a new life, and everyone told you that you were... you were full of potential. Somehow that potential seems to have left you. Where did it go? Did it dissipate when you chose your career? I doubt it, though you probably think it did. There's so much you can do with your life still... you just have to believe it.

//end rant
Monday, July 21, 2003

Real PC - if you have a chance, watch "Meeting People Is Easy" the documentary about Radiohead after their much much much loved OK Computer album it... It's a painful watch, and if you can't give it your full attention it will just annoy you and put you to sleep... If you can give it your full attention it will annoy and slieghtly disturb you.

You would think life on the road would be more interesting, but being a 'rock star' is work.
Monday, July 21, 2003

What we need are college dorms or frat houses for grown-ups, like Will Farrell's recent movie "Old School". After college, we lose a lot of that community connection and spirit.

Monday, July 21, 2003

"What was it you were doing in college that you're not doing now? Spending time with your friends... playing in a band... writing... coding for fun... chasing girls... "

Just want to suggest taking your marital status into account before persuing that last one, otherwise it could lead to a lot more trouble than you got right now :).  Although chasing your wife the same way you chased her before you were married would be a good thing, too.

Otherwise, I'm all for what marktaw said.

Jim Rankin
Monday, July 21, 2003

"What we need are college dorms or frat houses for grown-ups, like Will Farrell's recent movie "Old School". "

This ties back into Joel's comments on "third places".  The (Insert woodland creature here) Lodge, etc., served this function in the past, but there's no modern equivalent.

Maybe Old School will inspire a renaissance for this kind of organization (or its modern equivalent)?

Jim Rankin
Monday, July 21, 2003

There are still lodges, but only if you really like beer and NASCAR. Of course, given enough beer, NASCAR is fun. Maybe I should go buy a 1987 Monte Carlo!

Monday, July 21, 2003

We are living unnatural lives that we did not evolve for, as has been pointed out. We are supposed to be out hunting and gathering, living in small groups with close emotional ties. Instead we are doing approximately the opposite. If we were genuinely happy, that would be weird.
Instead of happiness we have a crazy world always on the brink of self-destruction -- but we have nothing to blame but human creativity and cleverness.
I think the best solution is to appreciate the insanely escalating creativity we are part of, and try to balance it somehow. Don't take it too seriously, it's only temporary.

The Real PC
Monday, July 21, 2003

> So what are you gonna do about it? Quit your job & find
> a new one?
> Strike out on your own and start your own business?
> Find a fulfilling hobby and realize that work is only what
> you do for money, it doesn't define who you are?,

Nice rant.  And much of what you say is well put and I agree with.  When it comes to life and work (aka. a job), I believe that if you're happy at work, you're most likely happy in life.  My employment over the past year and a half has been a rollercoaster and a great eye-opener.  And it has started a fire under my ass to push myself out of my comfort zone and pursue a venture (my own software company) with the intent to raise my status in the food chain and to further my philosophy on life that "nothing comes from nothing", and only *you* can bring to your life the happiness and content you crave.

While I cannot predict the future, I do have "hope" and motivation that life will and does continue.  And my goal is to experience as much of it as possible.  Work, keeps us more content then not.  And since so much of our lives are spent working, it is that much more important to experience the various opportunities of jobs that are offered.  To hopefully discover something about ourselves and how we want to live with such work.  Work is very personal.

A life without work, without contribution; is not much of a life.  And it does partly define who you are.  Just as much as you define the work itself.

I would recommend a good vacation (2+ weeks), somewhere off your continent.  Somewhere so much more exotic than your way of life.  And go listen to the song, "Everybody's free to wear Sunscreen", by Baz Luhrmann.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Here's the crux of the problem:  The 40 (50? 60?) hour week saps your soul.  The solution: work part time.  Now this isn't as easy as it sounds, but you can do it if you're willing to modify your definition of part-time.

Most single American programmers could save half their take-home pay if they wanted.  On an accrual basis, this is the same as working half-time.  i.e. do this for 5 years, and you have enough money to be idle for 5 years.  Or better yet, do whatever you feel like doing.

That $25,000 car you bought?  That's eight months travelling around Europe.  In ten years, which will you value more?

The high-speed internet access at home.  The home improvments that you won't net you a higher selling price.  The nice apartment with a view.  The risky investments.  Helping out loser friends all the time.  Starbucks every other day.  It adds up baby and it's your life you're draining by every swipe of the card.

The "is this all that there is" question is valid and the answer is NO.  Save money, buy less stuff, and take off extended blocks of time to find yourself.

One tip for people in the U.S.:  If you're going to take time off, try to split the time evenly between tax years.  For instance, don't take a year off starting in Janurary.  Start in July.  You'll save thousands by having a lower marginal tax rate in both years.  This is especially magnified if you're a homeowner.

Bill Carlson
Monday, July 21, 2003

wow Baz Luhrman writes songs too. What a talented guy... or a worthless hack depending on your point of view.

I agree with the "third place" thing. I first read about it in this book "Funky Towns" that talked about some of the nicer places to live in the nation.... nevermind the "quality of life" measurements, do they have third places, are things within walking distance? These are the important things, not the tax structure or quality of education.

I know I was happier living in Sheepshead Bay because there was so much to do in walking distance. Places like Williamsburg and Park Slope in NY also offer this kind of stuff. And if your work is walking distance, so much the better.

I believe environment has a major effect on your mood... Live some place nice and you'll feel better about yourself over all, it will help smooth out the rough spots, like apathy towards your work.
Monday, July 21, 2003

"I believe environment has a major effect on your mood..."

For thousands of years we lived in natural environment. Human nature evolved that way we need some protection behind our backs and a wide horizontal view front of us (savanna effect).

Now it changed. Our back points to the open area and three feet from our eyes is the cubicle wall, lighted by unnatural light.

Ten thousand years evolution cannot be changed by corporate policy. This environment takes a toll on our health. The final result: burnt out people, apathy, depression, etc.

Monday, July 21, 2003


1 Religion
2 Existentialism
3 Communism
4 Beer and sex

Rick Tang
Monday, July 21, 2003

4 please... thank you.
Monday, July 21, 2003

5. Eastern Philosophy?

Adrian Gilby
Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Thanks for all the ideas everyone. I think Mark especially hit the nail on the head.

I think step one is to take a break and go and learn to surf for a week. The real kind, not the web kind.

Step 2 - form some concrete, short-term goals to make this rat race work for me, or at least me more tolerable.

Step 3 - do it.

[insert obligatory slashdot "??? / profit" joke here]


Tuesday, July 22, 2003

>>>I can't find what I consider to be the right goal. My energy and passion just don't seem to be there when I need it.<<<

I recently went through some burnout that sounds similar to what you write.  I realized that my values and goals had changed.  The things that once brought tremendous satisfaction and happiness no longer did (largely work-related activities).

My answer was to think about what I /am/ passionate about.  What my reasons for living are, my goals.  And to start detaching from things that no longer held as much meaning for me and start reorienting my activities around things that did.

I still have the same job, doing the same things.  But I don't put myself into it the way I used to, and I don't get emotionally involved the way I used to.  Today, my job is mostly just a chore I have to do.  There are still rewards, but I don't get emotionally wrapped up in my work or the company or the products.  Today, I reserve most of my emotional energy for the things that do have meaning to me.

Hope this helps.  Regardless, good luck in dealing with your burnout.


Tuesday, July 22, 2003

> My answer was to think about what I /am/
> passionate about. What my reasons for living are,
> my goals.

Thomas, would you mind sharing some of these reasons and goals? I'm interested to compare with my own recent thinking along these lines.

Steven E. Harris
Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I agree working part time sounds awesome.  I would definitely do it, considering I have saved over half my salary this year.  However, I don't see a lot of part time programming positions.  That is, nothing stable.  It seems like you would have to be a contractor to be able to pull off a part time gig.  It doesn't seem like companies will really get their money's worth with someone worknig 20 hours a week.  Anyone have a part time programming job?  That has lasted for awhile?

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Bill Carson makes great points. Read "Your Money Or Your Life" (my review is on amazon). If you can live with less, you can do something more enjoyable for work. You'll probably be happier with less too... small town life is much more interesting than a plasma TV and much more rewarding as well.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003

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