Energy Drain – Choosing Opportunities

There are only 2 things that sap my energy quicker than the natural daily process: fight or flight and choosing a path of employment.

The most optimal exuberance of energy for me was probably 2 years ago when I was working out regularly, and I had a predictable, full-time job schedule. The technology industry was finally starting on the up and up, prospects were good, and new technology starting flowing back in again.

I’ve gotten seriously burnt out 4 times since then, and each was fixed by a vacation, camping trip, and spending time with friends online and off.

Burn out, however, is a state of mind, not an energy level. You can be mildly stressed, have tons of energy, and still be burnt out. It requires a longer period of rejuvenation to recoup your attitude. A mere 6 hours of sleep will have me up and kicking again as good as new, but it takes a 4 day weekend away from my normal environment to fully remove burn out and restore my passion to 100%.

I’ve been burnt out lately. While most spent their holiday season doing what they should, and rejuvenating themselves, I threw myself at learning more ActionScript 3, and more specifically digging into the new Flex 2 component framework. She started in Flash MX, matured to an actual framework, not just component set in Flash MX 2004, and was mildly seasoned in Flash 8. She was extremely improved in Flex 1, and again in Flex 1.5, and I’m here to say while not completed yet, it’s great in 2.

With the current opportunity to start building a component set for Flash Lite 2, I need all the frames of reference I can get if I’m going to be able to actually contribute in a positive way.

That combined with real-world work deadlines, the immense amount of work dealing with growing my business personally, and trying to keep up with the community has really charred my psyche. On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being not so bad and 5 being I quit the industry, I’d say I’m on a 2. I can work just fine all day, hit the blogs & mailing lists, but at night, I can just can’t really code very long after work.

I think, however, the catalyst to the burnout has been choosing opportunities. It started about February of last year, and hastened towards the end of summer. I was seriously fried by then, and my anniversary trip to Canada did wonders; I came back feeling awesome. However, the quick return to my present state of mind made me question as to why it happened so quickly.

Unlike most people, I don’t take breaks like I should. There are numerous reasons to do so, both hourly for re-focusing your eyes on far away objects, stretching your muscles and getting the blood flowing in your joints again, separating yourself from hard problems, etc. I get wrapped up in problems or challenges so much so that I refuse to relinquish my steady rhythm until I reach my goals. This can come at the cost of extended stretches of work lasting 3 hour no breaks to weeks at a time. Still, I’d say the shortest timeframe is about 4 months; almost seasonal and even then the effects are mild. A nightly XBox thrashing, watching some TV or movies with the wife usually cures even the mildest burnout symptoms pretty good.

I’ve been doing that, so again I attribute the quick return to choosing opportunities.

In the face of adversity, insane deadlines, or impossible odds, I rise to the challenge. If there is no way to change your current, pathetic predicament, I figure I might as well make the most of it. Those situations actually invigorate me. I work great under pressure, and like to be challenged.

I think, though, that’s because I believe I actually have a fighting chance. I know where I stand in my coding ability, am aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and know what I can and cannot accomplish in a given timeframe. That self-awareness empowers me, and allows me to be my best and get in the zone.

Choosing opportunities? No way man. On the Myers Briggs personality test I’m a low D, meaning I need little to no information to make decisions. Most programmers, the good ones, are high D’s, meaning they require an inordinate amount of information to make a decision… if ever. For example:

“Jesse, which way do we…”


“…go. Uh, ok. Did you even think about that or just guess?”

“Sure, I saw lights in that direction, it’s cold, so we need to start moving, and NOW, sucka!”

Whereas, you ask someone with a low D:

“Hey Dennis, which way do we go?”

“What are our options?”

“Well, north, south, east, and west.”

“What does each direction offer?”

“Um… well, Jesse said he saw lights in the north, none of us can confirm. East is blocked by a huge river with no visible ford. South looks just like the north, and west has a bunch of rocky terrain.”

“When do we need to go? Now? Why not later, or tomorrow? If you say now, I’d say to investigate the river, we should go east and confirm all reports. If you can vouch for Jesse’s claims, I’d say north, but…” blah blah blah.

In the meantime, I’m 50 miles north. Either A) I save us all, or B) I’m a bear’s lunch.

Case in point, if I ever have to make a decision, I trust my instincts and past experience. If that decision is challenged, I have no qualms about having an open mind and discussing the ramifications. Combining me with a high D for programming tasks makes for a good team as long as there is a moderator with accountability.

Choosing opportunities, however, is one of those big decisions. Like, should I get married? Should I have kids? Should I join the circus? Should I support that presidential candidate? I can still answer those questions pretty quickly, but actually making a true decision on them that I move forward with can take a little longer than usual. For those, I challenge my assumptions, and re-analyze, which takes time. This is exacerbated by the fact that I might not have all the facts, done little to no research on what I’m supposed to make a decision on, and know sometimes squat and diddly. Without even a shred of verifiable evidence, making an inference on what is the best alternative is nigh impossible. At that point, it’s “what feels right?”.

That stresses me out if I don’t even have a feeling on the subject. If I can’t trust myself, the very core element used in pretty much all daily, weekly, and lifetime decisions, then I suddenly get insecure about making a decision, and this continues long after I’ve made one. Her majesty has a philosophy that after you make a decision, you can’t regret it. The one you made at the time was the best decision that could of been made with the information you had, and you have to move on and learn from it. This of course assumes it was good in the moral/ethical sense.

And that keyword, stress from insecurity on decision making, is what drains me, and drains me quick. It’s crazy, because stress from deadlines feels like someone shoved a ton of coal in my stomach, doused it with kerosene, and lit the mofo. I get excited, pumped, and start typing the keyboard before my computer even boots at such times. Stress is a double-edged sword.

Should I continue my full-time gig? Should I start a company? Should I do full-time contracting? With who? Should I be their hired muscle? Should I re-negotiate a different type of position with them instead? Should I partner up with a smaller company?

4 years ago it was, “Can I survive in the technology industry using a modem in the woods?” which thankfully became a yes because of IBM. Now, it’s, “What opportunity do I choose? Can I choose them all? What if I don’t choose one? What if I screw one up?”.

I know this has nothing to do with my low D being a negative, because those same questions used to apply to programming. Back in 2000, I’d have the same, gut wrenching terror when I couldn’t answer the, now simple, questions like “how in the heck do I code this? How do I debug it? What if they want this changed? Is this the best way to do it?”. Nowadays, those programming questions are cake; extremely easy to answer, and only require minimal warm-up and information.

Which actually indicates a potential positive prospect. Heck… the accidental use of alliteration is a sign! I’m not superstitious, but also not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. They drool and while a sign of good health for the horse, it’s still gross.

I guess that means, if over the course of 6 years, I can reach a point of specific and easily identifiable transition, then that bodes well for any learnable skill. Meaning, making coding decisions now feels great whereas years ago, the very same questions gave me ulcers. That must mean that I have the potential to know what is the right career path to take if they are clearly laid out before me, right? I want to look out for me, do what’s best, and leave a trail of happy employers and clients. Right now, I feel like I “make my best guess” and even that takes like a week, sometimes months!

Maybe it doesn’t get any easier, but I believe it does, even a little. It’s hard when you parents and their parents come from a generation of “high school -> job with pension + guaranteed career path + guaranteed 40 year longevity with a loyal company -> retirement”. That is just not how things work these days. As David Samuel put it, companies have outsourced the 1’s and 2’s… all that’s left is the level 3’s and 4’s. He was illustrating how you need to utilize personal branding now that it’s harder to standout in an already talented crowd within your organization.

For example, my dad.

“Dude, you really shouldn’t leave those companies so quickly. People are going to wonder why you don’t stay so long.”

“Dude, you really should understand the context of each job. Some went out of business, some imploded on themselves, and some were run by crackheads. Not sure how you expect me to stay 40 years at a job that doesn’t exist. 40 years not actually coding, yet preventing said job from being outsourced when I have no viable value to the company, stockholders, or customer by warming a chair. 40 years going nowhere, not growing, becoming stagnant. Shall I continue?”

“Well… I’m just saying.”

“Well, I’m just saying too, dammit!”

In his frame of reference, yeah, he’s correct. In mine, however, I am too. If I were to hire a designer that had 10 companies on her resume and started in the industry in 1998, I’d assume either A, she was a contractor, or B she was just a normal participant in the dot-com bust. The context is the technology industry and the time period we are in.

Anyway, I guess what’s frustrating is my coding is leveling at a plateau to a point where if I venture off into another discipline or language, I could start from the bottom of the bell curve again, but still carry over a great deal of helpful experience and knowledge. That’s cool.

My career understanding currently is the equivalent of me and my elementary programming knowledge back in 1999, when I knew enough Lingo in Director to be dangerous, but didn’t know how to return a value in a function. Still, I got a job doing it fulltime because I refused to become a web designer like the rest of my peers. I guess if I apply the same gumption to do what I want, product development, eventually that dream will come true as well. Damn, at this rate, I’ll only be 30! I guess at that point, I’ll be asking maintenance questions. I hope so.

I dig what I do now, and where I’m going, it’s just not as clear cut and easy to see as my programming is in relation.

13 Replies to “Energy Drain – Choosing Opportunities”

  1. North! Lol, love it : ) I suspect you are just good at recognizing situations that in the end require a guess — nothing is a bigger waste of time than systematic analysis and intelligent debate to justify a guess. Ok the only worse thing is people who say ‘I told you so’ when you guess seven and roll eight. Yeah, you warned me it might not be seven, you genius…

    Besides, you basically saw lights — go man, and don’t let up until you are there, out of water, or change your mind!

  2. I think this is a big issue with globalization. Getting away from the employer-employee mindset to the more flexible freelancer like setup. We’ll all be freelancers and that’s why personal branding is required. The fact that workforce becomes more and more available it’s a fact especially in the programmnig field. You have to stand out in the global crowd.

  3. Being burned out is definately something that slows us all down and really kills the spirit that we all have inside that allows us to do what we do. Everything we do in life is a stepping stone to something else. Got to take those first steps and quick decision making is a sign of someone who is interested in moving and not justs plotting the route.

    I found out that a planes spend the majority of the time off course so you can’t just leave it on Auto Pilot. Plotting your route is fine, but the big thing is to get moving and don’t worry about going off course a bit. You can realign then, but if you never get off the ground because you are afraid of being off course then you’ll never reach your destination and those people who are afraid aren’t pilots.

    Dude you are a pilot and a lot of people who posts to this blog are pilots. We learn from experiences that give us the ability to make the best decisions quicker the next time and that gets us to each of our chosen desitnations.

    Think of burnout as a way of you being reborn like a phoenix. You burn up, become refreshed, and then you are at it again but this time with the knowledge of your former life. Destiny is a mix of good and bad decisions but how you realign yourself when off course do to bad decisions is what will determine if you reach it.

  4. Dude the burn out is a direct result of your monsterous posts that give scrolling a new name :)

    Burn out – been there. You get to the point where your brain can’t do the simple things and it takes you absolutely forever because all motivation is zapped. Usually a couple days straight away from the task at hand does wonders.
    YOur dad and my dad should meet. They can both complain about how spotty my resume looks because I jump at opportunities when I see them.

  5. Great post, not exactly sure where your ramblings went (read the whole thing anyways) but hey its a blog and this probably added some therapeutic value.

    I’m only a mere 36 and can tell you decisions never are clear cut. Your father was right to a degree, if you assume that a pure management position is your goal ( our parents came from a different time). After all how many dot-comers are CEO, CIO, VPs etc.. of large businesses (not many, though now growing).

    Most important thing is that your happy. I have done things that made me no money but thoroughly happy and would never give that up. Your young enough that you can make mistakes and stuff. Hell look at Darron Schall he actually has started to learn to NOT code all the time and is getting married ( Hi Darron :D ) .

    that my ramble.

  6. I believe we all have to take relaxation as seriously as work. I see ourselves as machinery that needs to be taken care of with the same dedication and effort we put into our work. I mean trying out all the weaponry we can think of to give our brains some rest. I thoughtfully recommend yoga, as it works wonders to your body and your mind. It’s got a lot of variations, some of them really effective. But there are many paths to the mountain top, we just have to find the one that suits us most.

  7. Re: Negative health effects of spending 3 hours without breaks.

    My great low-tech solution to this problem is to drink lots of fluids (good for you anyway). But this ensures that no matter how wrapped up you are in something you WILL get up for a short break and stretch.

    Just remember to tone back before you have a long meeting to attend. :)

  8. Most of my projects are services based and when I recently did a product based project there was a completely different feel. I’m sure for every stress eliminated there was another in its place.

    Regarding reaching a plateau… I don’t know: you’re probably a faster learning than me but I don’t think I’m anywhere near the top of my game. And even if you have a great handle on AS you’re real skill is’programming’ and problem solving at the core. The tool is of little importance.

    I sort of agree with the ‘stick to decisions philosophy’. My take is that you must always convince yourself that the current conditions are better than the past. I mean, if you’re in a bad situation your choice is to hate it; convince yourself it’s okay; or get out. The first choice is the only bad one that I see.

    Finally, while the most memorable part of this entry is the comment ‘new meaning to scrolling’ I can’t help pass on the advice that what you decide to do today can always be changed tomorrow.

  9. Just got around to really some blogs, and had to make a comment although be it nearly a month late.

    What a nice way of spelling out a specific life of a
    programmer, that is all to common to many of us.

    I just relate in so many ways its scary. At least my parents have a background of doing what they want. But still its crazy how you look back and your experiences reflect your future but in the same note doesn’t.

    My first job was something I new nothing about PHP3, did 150 hours in 8 days, 90% of it was in a unfinished bathroom of a basement closed in with black bed spreads. One night was 29hrs straight coding, lol. Come a long way since then.

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