Fun won't get it done

August 1st, 2016

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:

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

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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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:

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.