Fun won't get it done

OK, published at 3:30 AM. That's a first!

So. Got something you want to do over the coarse of a year? Here's a motivation woefully insufficient to pull it off:

  • It's fun!

What could give you enough drive to finish the job? Anything with a reward in the future, once you're done:

  • Millions of fans will adore me.
  • It will be the ugliest thing on the planet.
  • I will finally understand quantum neural rockets.
  • We will see who the loser is, Todd!
  • I will help humanity.
  • I will destroy humanity.

It doesn't matter how noble or ignoble your goal is. What matters is delaying gratification. Because even your favorite thing in the world will have shitty bits if you chew on a big enough chunk of it. A few months or years worth of work are always a big enough chunk, so there will be shitty bits. Unfortunately, it's also the minimum-sized chunk to do anything of significance.

This is where many brilliant talents drown. Having known the joy of true inspiration, it's hard to settle for less, which you must to have any impact. Meanwhile, their thicker peers happily butcher task after task. Before you know it, these tasks add up to an impactful result.

In hindsight, I was really lucky in that I chose a profession for money instead of love. Why? Stamina. Money is a reward in the future that lets you ignore the shittier bits of the present.

Loving every moment of it, on the other hand, carries you until that moment which you hate, and then you need a new sort of fuel. Believe me, I know. I love drawing and animation, and you won't believe how many times I started and stopped doing it.

But the animation teacher who taught me 3D said he was happy to put textures on toilet seat models when he started out. That's the kind of appetite you need – and very few people naturally feel that sort of attraction to toilet seats. You need a big reward in the future, like "I'm going to become a pro," to pull it off.

But I don't want to become a pro. I don't want to work in the Israeli animation market where there's scarcely a feature film made. I don't even want to work for a big overseas animation studio. I want to make something, erm, something beautiful that I love, which is a piece of shit of a goal.

Because you know where I made most progress picking up actual skills? In an evening animation school, where I had a perfectly good goal: survive. It's good because it's a simple, binary thing which doesn't give a rat's ass about your mood. You either drop out or you don't. But "something I love" is fluid, and depends a lot on the mood. And when you hate this thing you're making, as you sometimes will, it's hard to imagine loving it later.

Conversely, imagining how I don't drop out is easy. This is what I was imagining when sculpting this bust, which 90% of the time I hated with a passion because it looked like crap. But I thought, "I'm not quitting, I'm not quitting, I'm not quitting, hey, I get the point of re-topology in Mudbox, I'm not quitting, I'm not quitting, hey, I guess I see what the specular map does, I'm not quitting… Guess I'm done!"

And now let's talk about beauty for a moment.

I'm a programmer. I like to think that I'm not the thickest, butcherest programmer, in that I understand the role of beauty in it. For the trained eye, programs can be beautiful as much as math, physics or chess, and a beautiful program is better for business than the needlessly uglier program. (Ever tried pitching the value of beauty to someone businessy? Loads of fun.)

But you know why beauty is your enemy? Because it sucks the fun out of things. How? Because you're making this thing and chances are, it's not beautiful according to your own standard. The trap is, your taste for beauty is usually ahead of your creative ability. In any area, and then in any sub-area of that area, ad infinitum, you can tell ugly from beautiful long before you can make something beautiful yourself. And even if you can satisfy your own taste, often the final thing is beautiful, but not the states it goes through.

So the passionate, sensitive soul is hit twice:

  1. You're driven by fun and inspiration because you've once experienced it and now you covet it.
  2. Your sense of beauty, frustrated by the state of your creation, kills all the fun – that very fun which you insist must be your only fuel.

Life is easier if you want a yacht. I think you can buy a decent one for $300K, and certainly for $1M. Now all you need to do is make that money, doing doesn't matter what – imagining that yacht will help you do anything well! If you want beauty, however, I do not envy you.

How do I cope with my desire for beauty? The first step is acknowledging the problem, which I do. The fact is that my worst failures in programming came when I insisted on beauty the most. The second step is shunning beauty as a goal, and making it into a means and a side-effect.

I need a program doing at least X, taking at most Y seconds, at a date not later than Z. I'll keep ugliness to a minimum because ugly programs work badly. And if it comes out particularly nicely, that's great. But beauty is not a goal, and enjoying the beauty of this program as I write it is not why I write it.

And if you think it's true for commercial work but not open source software, look at, I dunno, Linux. Read some Torvalds:

Realistically, every single release, most of it is just driver work. Which is kind of boring in the sense there is nothing fundamentally interesting in a driver, it's just support for yet another chipset or something, and at the same time that's kind of the bread and butter of the kernel. More than half of the kernel is just drivers, and so all the big exciting smart things we do, in the end it pales when compared to all the work we just do to support new hardware.

Boring bits. Boring bits that must be done to make something of value.

Does this transfer to art or poetry or any of those things whose whole point is beauty? Well, yeah, I think it does, because no, beauty is not the whole point:

  • The most important thing about a drawing is that it's done. Now it exists, and people can see it, and you can make another one. Practice. They will not come out very well if they don't come out.
  • Often people like your subject. There's a continuum between "it's beautiful in a way that words cannot convey" and "I love how this song expresses my favorite political philosophy." To the extent that a work of art tells a story, or even sets up a mood, its beauty does become a means to an end.
  • Just because the end result is beautiful to the observer, and even if that's the only point, doesn't mean every step making it was an orgy of beauty for whomever made it. Part of what goes into it is boring, technical work.

So here, too I'm trying to make beauty a non-goal. Instead my goals are "make a point" and "keep going," and you try to add beauty, or remove ugliness, as you go.

For example, I didn't do a graduation project in the evening school, but I animated a short on my own in the same timeframe, and I published it, even though it's not the beautiful thing I always dreamed about making. And I'm not sure anyone gets the joke except me. (I'm not sure I get it anymore, either.)

Now my goal is "make another one." It's a good goal, because it's easy to imagine making another one. It's proper delayed gratification.

And if you've enjoyed programming 20 years ago and are trying to reignite the passion, I suggest that you find a goal as worthy for you as "fun" or "beauty", but as clear and binary as a yacht. And you can settle for less worthy, but not for less clear and binary. Because everything they told you about "extrinsic motivation" being inferior to "intrinsic motivation" is one big lie. And this lie will fall apart the moment you sink your teeth into a bunch of shit, as will always happen if you're trying to accomplish anything.

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12 comments ↓

#1 Barry Kelly on 08.01.16 at 4:41 am

Fall in love with a process that includes iteration on complete things, and always stop before you've exhausted your inspiration.

I still think intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic (it doesn't pay as well though). But you're right, you must delay gratification. Either that, or will your gratification into the completion, rather than just the juicy bits.

#2 Yossi Kreinin on 08.01.16 at 10:34 am

I think there's a feedback loop between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. One feeds the other, and lack of one drains the other. Ultimately you need a combination to survive anything large. But if I have to pick a shortage of one or the other and I need something done, I guess I'd prefer strong extrinsic, weak intrinsic to the other way around.

#3 lackhoa on 08.06.16 at 3:43 pm

Nice article, but there's one point I don't agree:
"The trap is, your taste for beauty is usually ahead of your creative ability."

I don't feel that way at all. If I can imagine this awesome program but I can't describe it through code, I immediately realize that my "beautiful" program is illogical and cannot exist.
My opinion: "If your taste of beauty is ahead of your ability, then your taste of beauty is shit and you should fix it."

#4 Yossi Kreinin on 08.06.16 at 4:26 pm

I meant it a bit differently, along the lines of, your sense of taste appreciates the great masters but you feel that you don't paint as well and your sense of taste is offended. The same can happen in programming where you compare yourself to great programs by other people, not to a fuzzy idea that never found concrete expression as in your example.

#5 lackhoa on 08.06.16 at 6:33 pm

Oh, well. I never really followed your train of thought because you've never been a clear writer. But basically you meant "embarrassment", right? The feeling you have when you're full of confidence and then suddenly get struck by the reality of your incompetence. I know it too well.
However, I never get discouraged by that, really. Instead, it forces me to try harder. Which not only doesn't kill the fun, but it also does the exact opposite.

#6 Evgeny on 08.09.16 at 4:48 pm

> 90% of the time I hated with a passion because it looked like crap
I thought that 3D face thingy looks pretty good actually

#7 Yossi Kreinin on 08.09.16 at 5:16 pm

Thanks!

My point was that it might look better now, but it certainly looked bad to me during the stages of its making.

#8 angry hamster on 08.15.16 at 12:21 pm

What about a state of flow? When you are doing something and the joy arises not because of a goal or because you love what you're doing or sense of beauty etc., but because of the process itself? I mean, extrinsic motivation is great, but you have to keep your goal in mind while simultaneously doing things, isn't it too hard?

Also this 3D (which is great!) looks exactly like a facial expression of a person who has to do something unpleasant to reach the distant goal)).

#9 angry hamster on 08.15.16 at 12:25 pm

By flow I mean this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) . Is it possible that a taste of beauty just works like a distraction?

#10 Yossi Kreinin on 08.15.16 at 1:31 pm

Flow is great when you get into it. In my experience though, you ought to be fairly good at something to get into it (otherwise every time you struggle with something, it's effectively an interruption). In general, flow is fun, and fun is great, I just claim that you can't count on an uninterrupted state of flow for completing something biggish. But of course being in a state of flow is great.

Maurice Minnifield whom I sculpted is just a kind of person who's in a perpetual state of slight dysphoria, on the verge of getting pissed off…

#11 Victor René on 01.03.17 at 10:39 am

@YossiKreinin First off, since it's the first time I post here, I would like to say that I like your blog a lot. Very interesting topics. On this subject however, I don't understand you at all.

I think it depends on your mindset, and how much you value other people opinions. I am strongly-willed and I hate to work for money. I left a very good job in 2013, fearing my skills as a programmer would cap for the next 10 years (or more) if I didn't move on.

Then I did some startup job after diving into python (Kivy framework), took a mission for a big company which I left because of abusive management. All the while, trying different tools to be able to do game design quickly (love2d).

Needless to say I was frustrated. I have a big admiration for ZUN (Touhou), Chris Sawyer (Transport Tycoon), Charles H. Moore (Forth), etc… Those people are true masters of their craft.

As a matter of fact, after 3 years and a half of self-study (the so called 10 000 hours), I can build my own toolset instead of being bothered with bloated frameworks that don't fit in one's mind and are not flexible, interoperable and performant enough to get the job done easily.

People don't even realise the price we are paying for sticking with C as a standard to do almost everything. There are other execution models out there. People will tell you it's hard to build a useful compiler/interpreter, and it's not. It depends on your *raw skill* and *comprehension* of the puzzle you are trying to solve.

Doing work for love, leads to mastery. Doing work for money, leads to success. I think it's just a choice wether you want to be masterful or successful (or both ?).

Lastly, I must add the 6 thinking hats (http://wiki.c2.com/?SixThinkingHats) as a tool to get a wider picture of whatever you are trying to accomplish. Your mood/flow is a result of whatever thought you acknowledge in your soul/mind. Constantly adjusting your thinking will help you climb new mountains forever.

#12 Yossi Kreinin on 01.07.17 at 7:07 pm

Different people approach these things differently, and so I assume that my writing can be irrelevant to you even if you care about the subject just because you think about the subject very differently and have your own insights into it and my writing does not fit the way you think about this.

That said, I disagree with the "money=>success, love=>mastery" theory, for 2 reasons:

1. Work leads to mastery, regardless of the motive – what matters is doing the kind of work that leads to mastery. You can say that if money is your motive, then there exist economic reasons A, B and C (I don't know what they are, I'm making a hypothetical argument for you :-) which cause you to not do some of the kinds of work that are needed to reach mastery in your field. But I can reply that if love is your motive, then you will also avoid some of the kinds of work needed to reach mastery – the kinds of work that you don't intrinsically love. If however your motive is "reaching mastery" – IMO wholly different from loving every moment of work – then we're fully in agreement, because yes, this will motivate you to do all the bits including the irksome ones.

2. Money is paid by other people (so is attention), and often they're pretty smart in that they notice defects in our work that we ourselves do not. To me pleasing others is a safer path to mastering a field than pleasing oneself and oneself only. Incidentally, I'm respectful but skeptical of Forth which is one thing you cited, see My History with Forth and Stack Machines on this blog.

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