I’ve been slipping gradually into a depression for the last couple of months and it’s beginning to degrade my ability to focus. I don’t like that, so I’m putting some analytical effort toward root cause analysis.
The basic problem is that, in most areas of my life, I’m stuck in a cycle of being graded on attendance and being frustrated at any attempt to do something constructive or meaningful. I actually track my time, so aside from basic life maintenance tasks (these take a lot more time than you’d expect, about 4 hours average per day) there are four areas where I spend most of my time:
- My day job (20 hrs/wk)
- School (15 hrs/wk)
- Exercise (10-15 hrs/wk)
- My side job (10 hrs/wk)
Three of those are frustrating in the extreme. I gave my three weeks’ notice for latter on Thursday (but I’ll also pick up twice that in classwork after that three-week period). So I spend the vast majority of my time watching the meager products of my effort get disassembled in front of me in exchange for money. According to this study we should expect this state of affairs to drain my sense of intrinsic motivation over time:
Now, I put myself in this situation on purpose in pursuit of a higher goal (software engineering career, financial independence) with the expectation that the process would be demoralizing and that I would have to fight it with psychological trickery. Such trickery is the prerogative of old men, among whom I’ve counted myself since 25 years of age. I think the problem is that I’ve slowed the sense of progress down too much by taking fewer classes to accommodate the extended internship and trying to turn it into a permanent position.
There’s also been an enormous acceleration of the sense that things are being disassembled around me, not just my work but the work of the good and great men of the past. Part of that is the fact that corporate is cannibalizing the infrastructure faster than academia, and part of it is the fact that everyone is accelerating their cannibalism. Failing a major goal this summer because of my part-time boss, not because of my own failings, was also a blow. I was spending maybe half an hour a week on it (nowhere near enough) and he seemed excited, so I thought “what’s the worst that can happen” and let him help, and he flew that plane nose-first into the ground. 100% failure, as in $0 out of a target of $3,000, which was already a piddling revenue target for a real business.
In the Ariely study the difference between the meaningful work group and the meaningless work group was 11 bionicle assemblies versus 7 bionicle assemblies. I’m an extreme outlier in terms of intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic*, hence the historical antipathy with higher education, but I’ve also developed unusually good coping skills, hence the 4.1 GPA in a STEM degree at a decent state school. Note: that’s not as impressive as it appears for someone with a 140 IQ, it’s pretty common for head girl types with 125 IQs to pull off similar grades even in hard science subjects. Most of my advantage over my classmates comes from applying ruthlessness to the foresight my intelligence affords. AKA I’m always looking for the easiest, fastest path from A to B and I’m a very good guesser with a lot of experience doing the college thing. All this is to justify the belief that I’m probably about average for how much impact demotivation has on my work output, i.e. 7 bionicles instead of 11, or running at 64% of normal capacity. Not ideal, supercharged capacity, just a normal, boring TPS reports job where you don’t see a mob of detached mouths from beyond eating away at the fabric of reality.
So the question is whether my current course is wiser than changing it. What if I can’t rebuild my sense of meaning, continue to deteriorate, and eventually lose my ability to show up and get paid for negative accomplishments while getting worse at coding? This is, after all, what k-selection looks like. You find an evolutionary niche in the politburo and hold on to it for dear life while the peasants sell each other their children’s limbs for meat. (That’s a Bible story too if you aren’t big on 20th century history.)
And of course, the worst part is I haven’t been doing anything creative lately. Now we get down to brass tacks. I’m basically an addict who only wants to be alive to get that next fix, and the fix is the feeling that I answered a big question that nobody else bothered to ask. The question that’s always in the back of my mind is whether to quit everything and die young in a flurry of brilliant but economically unsustainable work, or extend my life and make marginal gains a couple times a week over five decades. The deal was to pursue the career and make Blockheads comics later. But the frustration feeds the creative impulse and that’s pushing it to the front. I’m losing the ability to exist IRL not make Blockheads comics about the blockheads IRL. The career thing isn’t viable when you can’t read a job description without thinking up a comic about it and then you realize you’ve been looking out the window for half an hour.
I’m not sure what I’ll do but I’m glad to have framed the question properly.
*Ref: Drive by Daniel Pink and the subdivision ego strength by Paul Cooijmans.