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Ask HN: I want to do exceptional work, but I'm in a rut
11 points by scottrb 1730 days ago | hide | past | web | 10 comments | favorite
I started programming when I was young and learned a lot in a very short time (qbasic -> client side web -> perl -> php) within a year. As I've continued learning my pace has slowed. I'm sure it's a function of age as well, but going from intermediate to advanced is a much longer journey than the initial part of the learning.

After losing my last job, my internal motivation train jumped off the tracks and now that I've secured employment elsewhere I can't seem to get back on the rails. There's a mental fog that is making it tough to connect my day to day actions to the long term plan. Maybe I'm just out of practice.

But whatever the case may be, I'm sure others have gotten into a similar spot before. I'd love to hear any stories and accompnyning advice.

I'm in a similar rut; I just don't feel like doing anything most of the time. When I do...it seems like there are so many barriers. Upon reflection, I know these setbacks are day-to-day things that everyone deals with, but they seem much more substantial to me at the time.

What seems to be working for me: Ramit Sethi's material. He always seemed scammy to me in the past, but when patio11 started mentioning him I had to take a look. He's quite motivational -- I haven't really made a lot of progress out of "meh" and into the zone yet, but I at least feel like I can.

(unaffiliated; throwaway account so people don't know about the rut :))

I would highly advise you to take a really long break (if its financially viable). Just decide that you will not do something until you really really can't help not doing it.

I think this whole process goes very similar to something else :).

From a Lincoln biography:

"Speed (Lincoln's friend) recorded the dramatic exchange that began when he came to Lincoln and told him he would die unless he rallied. Lincoln replied that he could kill himself, that he was not afraid to die. Yet, he said, he had an 'irrepressible desire' to accomplish something while he lived. He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and 'so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.'This was no mere wish, Lincoln said, but what he 'desired to live for.'”

Sometimes we just need to power through our struggles. Its OK to feel like you do. And you shouldnt feel bad about it. Maybe try something new? Or even try something old? I get my coding going by reading the code Ive written in the past and fixing it. Or visit github and read code and make annotations.

You are right that going from intermediate to advanced is a much longer journey. Its a tough ride if you are not in it for the long haul. Maybe you are judging yourself too hard? Realize that anything worth doing takes time.

Don't overthink it. Scratch your own itch and create something. Since you have some perl background, create a useful utility and get it up on github. Do it again tomorrow, and keep going.

No utility is too small. You want to get into the ecosystem of reusable code and just getting out there. At some point (soon), your learning will go exponential.

Learn another language and program for another platform. Why not order a Raspberry Pi or a similar device and get GAMBAS running on it? You could be developing cool Linux software in no time.


Exactly! If it's not worth playing, it's not worth doing on your free time. When you learned Perl and Php, wasn't that kind of play also? Maybe it's the Php rotting your brain.

Now, learn some new programming language (see some options at http://rosettacode.org/wiki/Language_Comparison_Table) and start playing again!

Also, write down ideas for projects that you would like to do. It might wind up longer than you excepted very fast... and as bonus, you'll get to learn new algorithms, programming paradigms and so on.

Hah. PHP brain rot. But alas, I do know many other languages. I'm a professional programmer. I was just using that as an example I felt meaningful at introducing myself to other programmers. Your suggestion is a good one though-I do need to start playing more with my coding time.

I know the feeling well. I was jobless for a while simply due to being in a rut. When my at-the-time job dissolved, I began applying for places and interviewing. I found one company that I really wanted to work for and interviewed there. Their business was based on open source software that I had a pretty big part in creating. I understood how both their front end and backend systems worked. It would be fun!

My phone interview went exceptionally well. I was sick before the in person interview and then flew out for the meeting. I had a terrible flight and didn't sleep well the night before (3 hour time zone difference.)

I showed up for the interview and did pretty well until it came time for some whiteboard coding. I knocked out the first problem pretty easily. The second one wasn't too bad. I completely choked on the third one. It was something that I had done at various other interviews -- I should know this! Unfortunately, I began panicing about the fact that it was taking me too long to get my brain moving and I did not even begin to complete the problem.

A week or so later I got the call that I didn't get the gig. A gig that was perfect for me -- I already knew a chunk of the code base! My self esteem bottomed out and I pretty much lost my sense of self worth. I don't know why I let it hit me as badly as I did.

After that, I spent two years not really looking for a job. I just floated around -- kind of depressed and in a fog. I did a few small consulting gigs when I could. I mostly just... existed.

At some point, I realized that I wasn't going to get anywhere if I just let my life go like that. Something finally shifted and I got my motivation back.

I picked up my consulting work to get myself to a sustainable point and then hopped from there to a pretty nice gig doing something that I feel is beneficial to society (developing software to bringe accessible educational materials to blind, deaf, hard of hearing, and visually impaired individuals.)

That's done a lot for my sense of self. I still wonder where I would be had I not let that failed interview get to me the way it did. I can't even explain why it hit me like that.

Now I'm mostly hopeful and wondering what path my life will take next. There's still that little nagging voice in the back of my head that tells me that I really screwed myself for those two years, but, that's pretty easy to drown out.

Now if I can just get the ADD under control.

I realize that I kind of got off topic. As I began responding to you I started to realize that this was feeling rather cathartic, so I decided to ramble on a bit.

As for my advice -- These ruts and fogs are natural and happen from time to time. What's your passion? What would make you feel good about yourself if you were able to do it as a job? It's okay if you don't know right now. In the meantime, think of some problem areas that you would like solved. Use some free time to solve those. The 'creative juices' will begin to flow again.

One more addition - I typically do web apps or various internal tools for companies. For a change of pace, I started working on a game in my spare time. I find that it causes me to think in different ways and has awoken my rabid desire for more knowledge.

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