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Feynman: I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything (ohio-state.edu)
495 points by 6ren on Apr 22, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

This is a very powerful message. I've been trying for three years now to recapture the feeling that sucked me into computer science. It was an introductory CS course, and the assignment was to draw a scene using Python's turtle graphics module. The idea I had was to draw cube structures in one-point perspective, as I had long done on graph paper. This was in ignorance of how the entire field of computer graphics worked, and so my method was laughable in its simplicity. Analogous to Feynman and the tap water curve, I suppose; I was immensely proud of the final result[0].

That very week I switched my major from physics to computer science. The code I wrote then was truly, truly awful[1], but the feeling it brought the first time a line of cubes was correctly drawn was incredible. I, and only I had made it do that.

I've not felt that way again. Programming contests bring only the feeling of excelling in competition. Algorithm textbooks bring only the short-lived satisfaction of having a magic trick explained to you. Now it seems any time I research a new project I'm drowned in best-practice recommendations and intense fear of writing my own extensive library when a tested, vetted, and fully functional copy exists elsewhere.

What to do? I would do anything to recapture that feeling.

[0] http://i.imgur.com/wih35.png (find the tetris pieces!)

[1]* https://github.com/ahelwer/UofC/blob/master/cpsc217/as3/grap...

* If you want to run the script, you'll need the modified turtle graphics module found in the same github directory.

My advice? Write personal projects where you can tell people to go to hell ;) Let me elaborate for a second though: when I work on a personal project, if I want to implement a functionality and there's a library that does it, I write it myself anyway. If I need functionality and I don't really want to write it, I look for a library that does it.

Personal projects give you freedoms that professional ones can't. If your personal project isn't quite as stable because you rolled your own middleware in Node instead of using something that's already built, you can tell people to go to hell. These are projects that exist first to let you explore, interact, and build. Perhaps they exist second to provide utility to you. Only as a distant third do they exist to provide utility to others.

Now, that isn't to say that such a project can't or won't evolve into a professional one, or that you won't decide to make utility to others a higher goal. At that point, you'll have to see about revisiting some of your early decisions. But to me, what keeps things fun in that context is exactly that: creating something for me and no one else. Because then there are no rules and no constraints: just a canvas, a paintbrush, and paint.

  when I work on a personal project, if I want to implement
  a functionality and there's a library that does it, I
  write it myself anyway.
That's a great idea, and I'm going to do that the next time I find a library for something I'd rather play with instead. Thanks!

Side projects... I hit ten years with my business and felt dragged down supporting boring issues and features I didn't feel like working on.

This year is different though. I've done a new project every month and amazingly the code seems to make its way back into the real product. This month I unintentionally worked on my main product for fun...but not features that customers have been asking for. Instead, the guilty pleasures like making the admin interface twice as fast. Long time customers were really excited to hear the change.

The most fun computer science related projects I've found are (1) learning new languages and (2) writing new languages.

For (1), I picked up the book Seven Languages in Seven Weeks[0] and learned to write (really basic) Ruby, Io, Erlang, Prolog, Scala, Clojure and Haskell. I didn't write anything great, but it was a lot of fun to play with new ideas.

For (2) I decided a couple of weeks ago to implement my own Lisp[1]. I know almost nothing about Lisp and so I'm making a lot of mistakes and re-inventing the wheel a lot, but having a language whose syntax or semantics is changeable on a whim is just so much fun. Want a syntax for function literals? You can add it. Always thought that hashmaps should be a special case of functions? You can add that too. I can't recommend this enough as a way to rekindle your interest in computer science. I'm going to work on the language in my spare time for a couple more weeks, and then try to write a compiler for it. I've never written a compiler before (I was a math major, not computer science). I have no idea how you do it. But I'm pretty certain it's going to be fun.

[0] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Seven-Languages-Weeks-Programming-Pr...


My advice would be to enroll in graduate school.

It is not a coincidence that the article was written by a Nobel price winning scientist. To be successful in science you to be in this creative mode of operation all the time. Even if you are solving a "real" problem (the kind you get funded to solve), your inspiration for doing so needs to come from all over the place.

I am most probably wrong, but maybe Computer Science, like Physics has gone past the fast growth phase, which is the most exciting period to work on any subject. Everyone is optimistic and excited, unexpected things happen that hold you pinned to your computer/equations/microscope.

Physics is still exciting. It's just different areas of physics than earlier.

Here's a good "play with turtles" chapter in an online textbook if anyone is interested: http://www.greenteapress.com/thinkpython/html/book005.html

Did porting your project to github mess up the formatting, or did you actually use 8-space tabs?! Because I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

Have you talked to any of your professors about research? (I'm assuming you're still an undergrad.)

Interesting. URL ends with "?repostindays=413". And it happens to be 413 days since the same page was submitted before: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2291773. What's going on here?

same user reposted the article 136 days ago:


Hm, that is interesting.

Several of the OPs submissions have ?repost on them, maybe just to get around the repost catching, maybe it's totally automated.

I can never forget that chapter and how well Feynman expressed his burnout. It's hard to imagine that even charming roguish nobel prizewinning physicists who play the bongos can feel useless sometimes. I think most likely everyone has, but it doesn't make for a very interesting blog post unless it's followed with "but I turned it all around with the Pomodoro technique!"

Nobody picks a date and says "from that point on, I'm going to grow up and lose my sense of wonder", but still it happens. I worry, sometimes, about how dangerous slow changes can be. The boiling frog thing turned out to be a myth, but the fact that it still persists as pseudo-fact tells you something about how well it aligns with our experiences. I saw a child today play for, honest to god, about half an hour with a low concrete wall. What if I'm just getting a little bit less playful every day?

With achievement I feel like you have an internal zero point that you measure from. But the zero has a dangerous tendency to climb. When I was a child I felt like the zero was at, well, zero. People got impressed if I just managed to fall over with gusto. Now I'm a proper software developer and aspiring startup guy, the zero is more like being well paid writing good code for successful projects that make an impact but are also somehow deeply meaningful, about which I make clever insights while blogging, tweeting, plussing and getting a million internet points on Hacker News.

Even if it's not quite that bad, expectations build up pretty quickly, and it's easy to end up worried about being in the negative. Why can't it all just be positive? Imagine if you could return to the days when just getting something to compile was a victory that would stay with you for days. I don't really know if it's possible, but I have been making some attempts to try.

I read a book on Stoicism that was referenced on Tim Ferriss's blog (that he writes from the deck of his jumbo yacht on the shores of lake always successful), and it actually had a lot of great stuff to say about how to stop expectations wrecking your happiness. But even armed with the ability to bring up Marcus Aurelius at dinner parties, it's tough going. I've cut down to one day a week of work (and pretty fun work with a low responsibility factor) on the theory that I should undersubscribe myself for a while and let myself naturally gravitate towards things I like without an expectation they'll be my life's work, or even very good at all.

That's meant I've spent a lot more time doing things, but I still feel a sense of residual nervousness that things I do will be bad. My website, for example, has been blank page for nigh unto half a decade now, just because I want to write something good on there and I'm not sure whatever I write will be good. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Having written this now I look back and it seems long and rambly without any particular point other than what goes through my head when I think about that part of Feynman's book. I feel an overwhelming urge to go back and tidy it up, try to tie it all into a nice conclusion or something. Maybe that's the point, though. Can't I just be proud of the fact that I wrote something without worrying that I should be able to do better? Maybe we're all standing around worried but nobody says anything because it would ruin our carefully tended never-fail image. Alright, I'm going to post it. Here goes...

From what you wrote I'm getting some feeling that you worry a quite bit about many things. I used to do that too. I was always afraid, what would other people think of me, if I said this or did that. But a while ago, while trying to find a way to become less shy, I ran into blog of person who works as charisma coach [1]. And when he was talking about starting conversations with people you don't know on the street, he said quite interesting thing about messing up: Either you will have a nice chat or you will have funny story. So in both cases it will go great. And while I still don't have courage to talk to people on street, I started applying this in the rest of my life. And my life started getting much better, since I stopped to worry so much. I made new friends and got closer with the ones I had and I became happier too. So, try to enjoy life more and worry less. (:

[1] http://www.yourcharismacoach.com/

Marcus, the guy behind Your Charisma Coach, is a very old friend of mine (I'm the one filming the bungee video!) - I've watched him overcome some of life's hardest worries and deepest funks with all the charm and charisma of Feynmann himself!

I was really pleased to see you referencing this site - the Feynmann piece reminded me of his attitude to interaction and life generally.

On that note, Dale Carnegie's classic "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" is always worth mentioning. He wrote this in 1948 and even today it is as relevant as ever.

(The most famous book of his - "How to Win Friends and Influence People" - I can really recommend too.)

Minor thing about starting conversations on the street: some folks just don't want to be bothered in the middle of their own thoughts as they're walking. If you feel weird approaching random folks - that's just being an empathetic normal person. Nothing wrong with being embarrassed - because it is weird.

That said, I do agree that practicing facing rejection is a good exercise. I just feel better about that exercise when it's done as part of something useful to others - e.g. handing out lunch coupons, etc.

A thought I have found inspiring is attributed to 19th-century Catholic minister John Henry Newman: "Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it."

I believe GK Chesterton cadged this into something like "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

For what it's worth; this was one of the best written, deeply true, comments I have read in a long time.

Nice story. Just to get this straight: you went down to only 1 paid day of work? Nice, how do you make things go around?

I don't know how the grandparent does it, but I had a period where I only billed 1 week a month. The key was to cut expenses. Dont buy a house, move somewhere small, ditch the cell for google voice, only one car, etc.

"zero point" is perfect. My guilty refrain is "if I could just just get laid off or fired, I could work on my fun ideas. " Maybe one day my subconscious will do it for me. My subconscious actually did get me out of school when it was time for me to leave, bombing easy classes by not handing in work, to get my non-math/computer-science grades low enough that the administration sent me on vacation.

People start to lose their sense of wonder as soon as they start developing memory¹:


¹ I just invented this fact.

I tried writing some software for fun and while it worked for a little while, I'm still burned out. Now what?

Find someone to teach. Instead of you writing the fun software guide them to develop the fun software.

Do something completely different. Don't code for a year.

If you loved it once, it will come back to you.

I can testify to this, actually. I had gotten burned out after years of hard grind, and left to go work on a ranch in central California.

It only took a few months being away before I couldn't contain it anymore, and would catch myself building solutions for things in my head, excited to get back to my apartment and code it all out.

It's not always practical, but a break from it all can be really healthy.

Just find another creative outlet. When I can't come up with a solution to a design I'm working on, I just pick up my guitar and play for a bit. Generally the excitement from that exercise gets me back in the mindset to work on the design I'd left. Of course your thing doesn't have to be music. Just explore different topics of interest and see what sticks.

I do the dishes. Since I can go into automatic mode, the hot water loosens me up and I get to daydream. More often than not these dreams can turn into future features for my project. Any chance I can take to daydream I take.

It's a lucid dream that you can get to work immediately after. Letting y imagination run has pushed me to build many things I wouldn't have rationally considered. The dishes are the most sure fire quotidian way to get there.

Have you seen the book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer? It explains how the above process works in a general way, and it's really interesting. It's a pop-science book, to be sure, but still a really good read.


I used to draw and paint for fun a few years ago but even that doesn't hold my interest anymore.

How's your physical health, weight, blood pressure, etc?

fine. I intentionally lost 90 pounds in the last year or so.

I think if you're burned out and try to force fun, it won't happen. The fun comes from following inspiration. Like recognizing a pattern in life and thinking 'I know how that works' and playing with some code as a reaction to that inspiration. Not because you think you should or associate yourself with being a programmer or whatever else, but because it just seems like the most natural way to carry on approaching the thing that sparked your interest.

That sounds like an impossible question to answer, without a deeper understanding of who you are, your life experiences and what you've noticed has driven you.

Doing something that will help a bit and then returning to what originally burnt you out will not work IMHO.

Fresh creative work is something that enables you to make a break with your history.

You have to move on.

The thing that excites me is when I come to something I don't know how to do, and don't think I could ever know how to do, and then I teach myself it.

I don't know what kind of software you write, but if it were me, and I got tired of writing software for the web, I'd try to pick up writing graphics, or writing native mobile.

Try shifting focus from programming to purpose. It's far easier to "burn out" on code than it is on the ends that programming serves: success of a company, entertainment of users/players, advancement of science, ...

see how other creative people do it.


from amazon "Twyla Tharp, one of America's greatest choreographers, began her career in 1965, and has created more than 130 dances for her company as well as for the Joffrey Ballet, The New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London's Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. "

Well, if you're approaching a senior age, and you've been recognized for your fundamental breakthrough scientific research in computer science - that you made while having fun writing software - maybe you should think also about writing a book, besides perhaps taking that academic position you rightly were offered.

Do you explore/holiday much? (Not a sit-by-the-pool holiday, but something a lot more involved.)

I think John Cleese does pretty good job corroborating the phenomenon in this speech:


That was a very interesting talk (that provided surprisingly concrete advice). Thank you

Takeaway: its nice to be tenured.

Did Feynman have tenure at Cornell?

I'm pretty confident that Feynman did not have tenure at Cornell at the time of this story. He didn't need it though - he had free reign to do whatever because Hans Bethe was there.

For pete's sake, he's Richard effing Feynman!

This is probably the only chapter of that book I really enjoyed. It mostly felt like an "I'm so awesome" series of events. But this was a really valuable chapter. If you feel burned out on something you loved it can be hard to figure out what made you love it. Hacking CRUD apps for 8 hours a day for weeks, months, years can be seriously depressing. CRUD just isn't that interesting, but it is what a lot of programming jobs involve.

I'm really rediscovering the joy of programming by teaching intro programming classes at the local community college. To some extent it's let me relive the first time I realized I could make the computer do what I wanted, not what someone else said I was allowed to.

There is actually a video of Feynman himself elaborating further: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzPfKI4b-dg&feature=relmf...

I would say that the death of his first wife Arlene and the aftermaths of the Trinity Project affected Feynman greatly, as exuberant as he is usually.

Feynman's magnificent exuberance and puzzle solving enthusiasm was also illustrated during his last days, where his coworker Christopher Sykes remarked "Look at this man. He faces the abyss. He doesn't know whether he is going to live through this week. But he was consumed by it, and he worked on it all day long...." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzg1CU8t9nw#t=1h11m46s

Feynman was the epitome of the "Doing things for the fun of it" philosophy. His last words to his artist friend Jirayr was "Don't worry about anything~! Go out and have a good time~!" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzg1CU8t9nw#t=1h32m10s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzg1CU8t9nw#t=1h32m10s

Apologies for the double URL at the end of my comment. I was rushing to class.

This reminds me of a Zen Buddhist text that goes like this - “The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in everything he does, leaving others to determine whether he is at work or at play. To him, he is always doing both.”

I would like to know the source, please.

Use the Google, Luke.

The first hit on searching for the quote explains its history: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/08/27/master/

Alright!! Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I think this also alludes to his talent more than simply his burnout. For him, physics came naturally and he enjoyed. He happened to get a Nobel Prize while doing what he did for fun.

We should all follow our natural tendencies in order to do what we want. Whenever you fight it, it creates a cognitive dissonance within you that makes you feel depressed and unworthy sometimes.

Great post.

I'm only 19 years old, so I can't speak for many. However, I've found that when I (or my friends) suffer from this "the excitement is gone" bug, I recommend learning how to program web applications. They let you make something big that can instantly be deployed to millions, and some frameworks like Ruby on Rails have a veyr low barrier of entry.

Also, with web applications you get to make websites, and experience the thrill of crazy traffic, ad revenue, and making sure people have a good time.

Web apps is what brought the excitement back to me. Again, I'm 19 so I'll most likely end up finding another vehicle for my excitement in the near future.

Interesting. As a professional web developer with ten years of experience behind me, my cure (well, one of my cures) is the opposite: getting re-acquainted with making desktop games. They let you make something fun that can instantly be played ;).

Also, desktop apps don't involve wearing a pager ;)

Was Feynman talking about precession (like in a top or a planet) ?

vs "If it isn't going in a text-book or you can't sell it, don't bother." --my thesis advisor

I've only gotten burned out when I was forced to work on projects I hated for long periods of time.

I guess I've been lucky in the fact that I've never truly been so burned out that I've stopped coding completely. I still get that feeling that I used to get when I first started writing software 16 years ago.

The key is to have interesting personal projects. Even if I'm working on a project I hate, I can always find some piece of it that I like (and I can use for future projects).

Having a personal project, or even something I'm just studying on the side, gives me a feeling of freedom and control over my life which I increasingly feel less of in other areas, with marriage, a mortgage, children, and especially a job with projects that I hate. Not that those things aren't all fine (well maybe not the bad job), but not being beholden to anyone else, having the pleasure to mess up or explore dead ends without worrying about the cost, are very nice in the face of all of life's other responsibilities. I think this goes back to Feynman's spirit of play, but there is more to it than just "having fun" in my opinion, at least it's a lot more complex than that for me personally.

Ditto for me. Or almost the same :-) I have been writing software for over 17 years now, and never got bored of writing code. In fact, in between years where I was sort of pushed into management were stressful.

I realized that (hopefully) I am going to be programming for a long period of time. And last 5 years on my own have been very fulfilling in that respect, and I am very thankful for it.

The bulk of my last big project is in Java/GWT. But off late I am back to loving C++. And I want to write more software in C++. Even considering moving something from Java to C++.

I got inspired by GIT being done in C. And wrote one fairly good piece of code in all three Java/C++ & C. Before finally adopting C++. The reason was memory usage wise there was very little difference between C & C++.

And as somebody above mentions about finding joy in getting things to compile. I am getting that too. C++ just feels fast after working in Java.

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