What is the most important problem in your field/your life and why aren’t you working on it?
Richard Hamming famously asked his colleagues this question. Hamming Questions were first introduced to me at a CFAR workshop I attended in October. Clearly the most important problem was “WTF am I doing with my life?” and going to this workshop was how I was working on it.
I was giving myself a year to work on my existential crisis. The first six months were great. I did a lot of things for myself physically, creatively, and spiritually, and learned a lot. The last six months, I slowly declined into depression.
My driving mantra for funemployment was to live by the words of Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Instead of embodying those words during my last six months, I became more insular. I started avoiding situations where someone might ask me “what do you do?” Or “what have you been up to?” I felt pressured to explain myself all the time, but I didn’t want to keep rehashing failures to address the lack of direction in my life.
After a particularly bad depressive episode, I hypothesized that a reason for my depression was that I didn’t feel necessary; I wasn’t an integral part of a community. Community comes from shared struggle toward a common goal. The quickest way to get that is either getting a job/volunteering or going to school.
I got a job. I packaged chocolate for Charles Chocolates full time. On paper that sounds pretty exciting. Who doesn’t like chocolate? The perks were nice: as much reject chocolate as my family history of diabetes could handle, and being able to listen to audiobooks while I worked.
On the other hand, the hours were long and the work was predictably menial and RSI-inducing. The job got in the way of my gym routine, it wasn’t serving my needs for connection, and it wasn’t a job I looked forward to going to.
I quit and got a different job. I smiled and made drinks for yuppies, schoolchildren, and moms at Boba Guys part time. It was my first foray in the service industry. I actually liked it. Talking to coworkers and customers kept me busy enough to stop thinking about the lack of meaning and just enjoy simple pleasures.
A friend warned me that working at Boba Guys is fine and great, but not to lose sight of why I was doing it. At a minimum, I needed to re-energize my life. Check. Was I less depressed? Giving excellent customer service is like smile therapy. Fake it ’til you make it. It worked for some time, but didn’t really fix my problems.
I get bored easily. There is nothing more painful to me than meaningless repetition. Boredom could mean something is truly uninteresting, but it could also be a sign of avoidance.
Being in the service industry was the first kind of boredom. It was interesting while it was new, but mostly the same kind of work making it boring.
Working as a software engineer was the second kind of boredom — a symptom of avoiding a bigger issue. That issue was insecurity and the feeling of incompetence. I was arguing with myself about my actual ability to do the work. On the one hand I had external validation in the form of a promotion and favorable performance reviews. On the other hand, that didn’t reflect my internal view of my abilities.
CFAR demonstrated a way to have a constructive argument is to state what you believe, and then figure out what it would take to change your mind. I believed that I was incompetent, and I realized that despite any amount of external validation, the only thing that would cause me to feel competent would be doing something I was uniquely capable of doing.
My friend, Misha Berger, re-framed the original Hamming question with my situation in mind: “Say your therapist told you that he’s seen hundreds of patients just like you. What would he say their patients graduated therapy doing or thinking?” The obvious answer was that someone in my position would end up going back to what they were doing before, but with a healthier attitude towards it.
I didn’t think I was ready to go back to engineering, but I’ve always had a soft spot for design. Software product design was my first job out of school, but I went back to doing engineering when I failed to make a portfolio I was proud of. On the edges of completing my year of funemployment, I decided I needed to go back to doing design. Avoidance is my primary shame reaction, and I had avoided working on my portfolio for so long that I thought signing up for classes would get me to work on it. I enrolled in CCSF to take classes and be on the tennis team.
Triggered by one of my depressive episodes, my boyfriend and I decided to take a break. That was a huge wake-up call to get my shit together. The break and eventual break-up allowed me to clearly see what I actually valued. It hit me that I had lost a lot of my confidence, independence and identity and now I needed to be true to myself.
Instead of being embarrassed by my scrappy portfolio that I only made to get into a class at CCSF, I ignored the self-criticism and let potential employers see it. Even though I didn’t feel I was good enough, myself, I found that friends and former coworkers were so enthusiastic and willing to stick up for me.
The year has given me perspective and set a bar for what I want. I want a community of playful deep-thinkers, to work on something that has real added human value, and a way to regain confidence in my skills.
After having multiple conversations with 9 different companies, I’m happy to announce that I’m now working on a part-time contract as a UX Designer & Engineer at Virta (conveniently helping to reverse that family history of diabetes).
I wrote last year that I quit my Lyft engineering position because I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do. At the start of 2017, I asked friends what they did that changed their lives. One of my friends said “face yourself.” Back then I would have said that that’s what I was doing when I quit my job. I was trying to face myself. In the context of Hamming Questions, another way to “face myself” would be to find a way to be comfortable in an engineering position again.
At times it seems like to go back to doing what I was doing before is taking a step back. I try to make meaning out of the last year. In Art & Fear, Bayles and Orland say:
…it’s that third question — Was it worth doing? — that truly opens the universe. What is worth doing? Are some artistic problems inherently more interesting than others? More relevant? More meaningful? More difficult? More provocative?”
This constant struggle of wondering “what’s worth doing?” isn’t just a question of art, it’s a question of life. What art is worth doing? What occupation is worth pursuing? How will I or the world be affected by anything I do? Bayles and Orland respond:
Provocative art challenges not only the viewer, but also its maker. Art that falls short often does so not because the artist failed to meet the challenge, but because there was never a challenge there in the first place. Think of it like Olympic diving: you don’t win high points for making even the perfect swan dive off the low board. There’s little reward in an easy perfection quickly reached by many.
In the end, the way I define the worth of my year of funemployment is how much it challenged me to look at my life unadorned. With a regular job, it’s too easy to give default answers about why we’re doing something. It’s a form of existential “I don’t know.” Taking a break forced me to take a look at my feelings of boredom and depression and use them as signals for understanding what my needs are and how they were or weren’t being met. With a renewed sense of what’s important, I’m finding what makes me come alive again.