This article is not about coding. It’s about not coding.
By the end of 2015, I was completely burned out. In fact, I had probably burned out months before. I had spent over two years devoted to building a project and trying to launch a startup, but took on too much of the responsibility. All the while I had been engaged in several large, time-sensitive projects at my workplace, for which I didn’t plan any vacation around. I had gone a very long time without a real, solid break.
To make things worse, my overexertion in coding had brought me to the point that I was losing interest in it. I used to have ideas for new projects bouncing around my head. I used to take time to learn and grow, experiment and play around. The worst thing a developer can do is cease learning. Especially in web development, where things can change rapidly. I had gotten into a routine of pumping out new product without appreciation for the process involved.
As 2016 neared, I was no longer directly involved in the startup, and projects at my work had come to a close. I finally set aside two solid weeks to rest and find what I needed to do to restore my love for coding — but even more than that, I needed to rediscover a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Two weeks. No responsibilities. Coding was on my list of things to do, but it was pretty low on my list, and I never actually got around to it. Instead, what I discovered during that time surprised me. Not coding wasn’t my problem. It was that I had lost my love of learning.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that learning new things is a large part of what makes software development such a fun occupation. There’s always something new: a new tool, a new technique, a new way of looking at things. It’s the key that makes something otherwise mundane become a never-ending hobby of enjoyment.
Being free of other obligations, I had one question on my mind: what did I want to learn? I began to explore. Ask questions. See what sparked my interest.
I first looked for books lying around that I had left unfinished. For years I had owned a German copy of Wilhelm Tell, the play, that I had never picked up, and was up for the challenge of brushing up on my German. Then I went on to read about the author. I read about romanticism, and all it entailed. This brought me into reading about the neoclassical era, preceded by the age of enlightenment. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource. It didn’t take long before I had at least a dozen new subjects I wanted to discover more about.
I also found that William Tell had been adapted as an opera. Opera. Now there’s a subject I had never touched, or had ever even desired to. With the help of some online resources I found my way around. Carmen, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Bohéme, Die Zauberflöte, Der Ring des Nibelungen — there was so much to discover. Some works I really enjoyed, others not so much, but that newness and excitement of learning was there. Something I hadn’t felt in a while.
The music in these operas reminded me of how I had wanted to learn the violin for many years, but had never acted on it. I pulled the trigger and bought myself a learner instrument with some books to get started, and I found a wealth of videos to help me advance. Violin turned out to be more difficult than I’d expected, but I have enjoyed it immensely. Plus it turns out that playing an instrument has positive effects on the brain. I was learning, and having fun while doing it.
This new appreciation for stringed instruments led me into yet another new area: classical music. From baroque to classical, classical to romantic, and romantic to modern, I discovered how music had evolved alongside literature, society, and politics. This inspired me to learn about the lives of the composers and the environments that led to the music and artwork of their time.
Even with all of that, there’s still much more I could go on about.
At this point you may be saying, this sounds like a whole lot that has nothing to do with coding. How does any of this translate into building better software?
So much of our traditional education is about reciting information, and one can easily fall into the trap of knowing without understanding. You can get straight A’s without ever questioning, discovering, or ever going any further. Even more, school can be a thing that hinders learning. Our learning must go beyond being a mere receptor of information. You need to actively seek out what you don’t understand.
Likewise there’s a point in any skill or occupation where in order to grow, you must be one who relentlessly asks questions. What are you curious about? What do you take for granted? Ask why. As a developer, don’t continue to just build software using what you know. Look for a deeper understanding of the tools you use, what you’re building, and who you’re building it for.
It’s about training yourself to think differently. This isn’t a quick transition. It takes time and effort, and may require developing new habits. But if you enjoy learning, you’ll have a lot of fun during the process. It has only been two months for me, and while I haven’t yet jumped headlong back into coding, I can certainly feel the mental energy coming back.
Wherever you find yourself in your profession, let me leave you with some practical tips to help keep things fresh:
- Get off Facebook. Get off Reddit. Whatever consumes so many minutes of your day each time you’re on a computer or pull out your phone — close it. Instead, find time to read. And don’t just read, but ask questions and make connections along the way. I recommend starting with The Well-Educated Mind.
- Keep a list of things that you’re curious about. Literally anything that crosses your mind, however small, make a note of it. Then go read about it on Wikipedia or find videos on YouTube, and see where it leads you.
- Do something you never thought you would. Find a new experience. You may like it, or you may not. The point is to see what’s out there. But whatever you do, be willing to be bad at it before ever becoming good.
- Exercise. It does wonders for the mind and reduces stress. Put down some money and commit yourself to a race. Even better, get some friends to do it with you so you can’t back out. Suddenly you’ll find you actually do have time to go work out.
- Take vacation. There’s rarely a perfect time to do it, so pick a date and plan ahead. Don’t wait until you feel burned out. At that point you’ve already gone too long. And using vacation to work on other things doesn’t count.
There’s no need to wait for the next New Year’s day to come along before making a change. Simply get curious, and stay curious. Your brain will thank you, and who knows what you’ll find or what skills you’ll develop along the way.