usable in any place a human can be used


spinning wheels

[caption id="attachment_295" align="alignleft" width="251" caption="keep pushing that boulder"]keep pushing that boulder[/caption]

Back from Thanksgiving, nice break, hope everyone had a good holiday. With the long weekend came some time to eat turkey, spend time with my family, and reflect on life. I've been thinking about what I want to ultimately accomplish in life and how to get there. The end goal is to work on complex technical problems and produce something useful for humanity.

I spend a good amount of time on Hacker News which is a great place to find out about new technology. It's a fantastic community where entrepreneurs and programming geeks get together and talk about technology and startups. It's the kind of place that incubates ideas that become the next twitter or youtube. Spending time there has made me think that I can do more, do better, it was part of the drive to make prosper.

The problem is that life doesn't happen in a bubble. You have to buy groceries, pay the rent, and keep the lights on. So I've found myself at an odd cross road, I'd rather not continue doing business programming, but I can't stop. What is a person to do? How does one pursue their dreams while maintaining financial security, is it even possible?

For a long while I've believed that you can work a 9-5 to keep the lights on and then work on a side project in the evening. The problem that I'm now finding is that any project that you can hang your hat on and make a living with is going to require more work than what you can give it in the 4 or 5 hours after you get home from work and before you go to sleep to get up for work the next day. Once you throw in trying to have some semblance of a life, it becomes nearly impossible to give a side project enough love and attention to make it work.

I've still been working full bore on prosper and its sister project that has yet to be released. The problem that I face now is this ever creeping feeling that I am merely spinning my wheels, and the encroaching danger of professional burnout. Prosper has yet to see any real adoption, which is not surprising its not ready for anything concrete yet, it is unproven, and it is still in a huge state of flux. The 0.5 release and the current bleeding edge on GitHub are fairly different, with the bleeding edge being a fair bit better.

There is no use moping about all this, so I need a plan to move forward with. Can I quit my day job to focus on the side projects, no. Should I give up on my dreams, no. What is the way forward then? Normally I would double down, work harder and push through. The problem is that I think I slipped from the first stage of professional burnout (Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion) to the second stage (Shame and Doubt), and pushing harder, doubling down, may only accelerate this process.

I still believe that I can change the face of PHP database access, that my library can provide a hugely needed service to hundreds or thousands of PHP developers. I still believe in my ability to create useful technologies and solve difficult problems. So I'm creating a list of things to accomplish in the hopes of defeating my professional burnout.

  • Re-institute a workout and diet regimen - Long hours at work and on projects have caused me to spend too many hours sitting around and running to McDonald's or Wendy's for a quick bite to eat.

  • Create concrete project goals for prosper - So far development on prosper has been haphazard, I'll get some idea and then work implementing it. The problem being that this leads to an almost manic-depressive like development schedule. When there is a new feature to implement I could spend 6 hours working on it, then have days and days of nothing until a new idea springs up.

  • Make time to relax - I find that I spend most of my off-time working on prosper or its sister project. The other "down-time" that I have is spent reading technical articles and ebooks about programming. This stems from my deep love of programming, I do enjoy reading about lisp for hours, but I need to rekindle some of my love for other subject matters, too much of anything is a bad thing.

  • Reflect on the good - Too often I spend time thinking about the negative. There are many great things that I take for granted.

Like GI Joe said, knowing is half the battle. This post is more about coming to terms with the difficulty that I'm currently facing, but I hope that it can help others in a similar position. No one is going to hand you your dreams, you have to fight and scrape and kick and scream to make it. It is difficult grueling often thankless work. It's not easy, but if you want more out of life than a paycheck and a cold grave you must fight for it. The struggle takes it toll on everyone, but by being cognizant of the dangers, and recognizing that you are not impervious to the grind, you can make it through, and hopefully make something unique and beautiful.


  1. I've been building out new products/solutions/services for three years now. I've always been ambitious, biting off more than I could chew, and learning a great deal.

    Within the last year my development practices have sky rocketed with TDD and DDD.

    Unfortunately I now have some older products I built three years ago hanging around my neck as well as trying to make progress on all the new products I'm building, as well as trying to get a side project off the ground.

    It's exhausting to try and keep everything moving forward. I take heart in the fact that my newer products have zero issues and I wrote twice as much test code as production code. Unfortunately, it still doesn't take the sting out of dreading going to work every day.

    I just want to cut loose and work on my side project but for the same reasons you outlined, I'm stuck. I think deep down I like my 9 to 5, just ended up in a rut lately.

  2. Another thought might be: get someone interested to the point where they'd like to help out a little with the project. I find that having someone to bounce ideas off, etc, helps me more than anything maximize my time and not feel the echo chamber effect quite so acutely.

  3. Thanks for the "professional burnout" link. Without exaggeration, I think it's the most important thing I've read in a long time.

  4. I've been in a similar situation and, to some extent, still am. I've figured out what things I want to work on and how I will make my living doing so. And that last part IMHO is key.

    If you ever want to make a living doing what you love you'll have to match up what you love doing with what's economically viable. Working a 9to5 and trying to get something to fly on the side is possible, but you need to be working towards a goal where you have a fair chance of actually making money off of any side project(s).

    Admittedly, that's not an easy task. It's taken me three years to figure it out for myself and I still have loose ends. To some extent there will probably always be some work I don't enjoy that I need to do anyway. That's just life. I just try to keep that kind of stuff to a minimum.

    The best advice I can give is to look at your talents, what you're good at, what you love doing (stuff you'd do for free) and what you think you might be able to base a business on. Anything that meets all above criteria might be the way to do.

  5. Jamie Kirkpatrick11/30/2009 12:37 PM

    You sound *exactly* like me my friend :) I'm in just the same boat, just the same place. Good words to read and I totally agree with your action points. I should do the same.

  6. you need to go to a country of your choice that has much lower living costs compared to what you earn - then work remotely from abroad (you can program everywhere, no). and to avoid burnouts, simply give yourself a short break - do sth different, preferably physical workout, i.e. go surfing (this will also help if you lost track of reality, at least it did in my case, and is useful to distinguish between projects that make sense and those that do not).

  7. My only advice is to know that risking it all on a dream oftentimes (usually ?) means just that. After getting laid off I went forward with a project and figured I could do some side work (websites, sysadmin, etc.) to bring in some money. Bad idea for me. Without having an existing customer base, and with the economy in bad shape, the only side work I got paid pathetically. And every minute doing side work took away development time on my project.

    It spiraled down from there. My wife pleaded for me to look for a day job, which just made me work harder -- spending even less time with her. Now two years after starting down my path I am broke, broken, facing divorce and living with a family member. Oh, and my project? While I was just about open up to my first users, a couple competitors popped up with nearly the identical concept -- in full production.

  8. Great post. You have to remember that you are young and that burning out will do nothing for your goal to help humanity. Take a break. Not from your job but from your aggressive goals. Establish a good physical and mental baseline for health. Your physiological / productivity balance is very important. I remember a day not too long ago when I was in a hurry to get things done as fast as possible. I used phrases like "It would be so easy if everyone would just put a little more effort into XYZ" and "There's no reason for this to take so long. I need to work harder to get it done"

    With that mentality, it's easy to let your mental and physiological strength disapear. When that happens, you are not able to reach the full potential of your being. People are significantly more creative, productive, enjoyable, and satisfied with the mental/physical/professional balance. Find that balance and the burnout will disapear. Hold on to that balance and you'll experience improved productivity, increased enjoyment from your work and life.

  9. Try to work less time at your day job. If you work 5 days/week, cut that down to 4 (or even 3 if you can get away with it). Can't afford it? Figure out what to cut. If you have obligations that keep you from affording less work right now, prioritize retiring or modifying those obligations.

    Distribute the extra time among your side projects and family as you see fit.

  10. [...] Yesterday’s post seemed to strike a nerve within the programming community, it was encouraging to see that I was not alone. I want to thank everyone that provided great commentary both here and in the Hacker News entry. I will probably touch upon the topic again, unlike a sitcom the issue of professional burnout isn’t solved in a half-hour, but not today. Today I want to talk about Google Wave! [...]

  11. Awesome feedback from fellow commenters here Matt.

    My quick background so you know where I'm coming from. I worked for 13 years (now 14) and decided to switch gears. I was burnt out at my day job (systems engineering/software/aglorithm development). I wanted to build something that people actually valued and have more than one or two customers.

    I took time off (quitting turned into a leave of absence, thanks to my boss Ralph for that suggestion). In the first month I found Squidoo. I started writing, and then really enjoying writing. Forty lenses later I found blogging.

    I began blogging a few times a week in February (and loving it). I went back to work part time in May (pay the bills!) and while writing I came across an interesting project concept. I wrote about it. Then I began to struggle with setting up web programming environments (php). I met a few folks that were also interested. The idea is connecting social web information to personal search (two-way) and advertising (the monetization plan). I hit a wall late in the summer and took a break with the project.

    Then a month or two back I bumped into another friend Tyler Gillies and he was much more comfortable with coding in web environments. He loved the idea and ran with it in Ruby/Rails. Since then I've been playing catchup (struggled with setting up Linux rails servers within my windows system (go go virtualbox), now I'm just using windows rails).

    My day job needs me 40hours a week for a most of December which is going to cut into my project time, but it's only short term. My goal is definitely to help found a startup, and work on creating novel data analysis tools for social search. I've got plenty of ideas, but need to fine tune and improve them.

    If you want to see where we're at, check at The server is being finicky with the last push but we'll have that settled shortly. Once it's back up the search software is at

  12. Oh, here's the old_site I coded up over the summer (php):

  13. Nice post. Thanksgiving to New Years Eve is a great time to take inventory and put plans in place.

    As we all get a year older the old adage is so true - we work smarter not harder.

    As I plan my 2010 I integrate the notion of trying to be smarter in my activities leveraging relationships, knowledge, and life in general.

    Being smarter is knowing when the wheels are spinnging and whether they are moving or not.


  14. [...] [...]

  15. [...] have to make at some point, and frankly I was just putting it off. I’ve written before about burnout before and I’m no stranger to pushing myself harder than I should. But I like to think that [...]

  16. [...] In my personal life I feel like I’m running full steam ahead. It might be the last week or so of 14 hour days working on getting my new house ready to move into. (After years of snacking and typing my body isn’t as suited to the tasks of tearing up carpets and fixing walls as it once was). I’ve set real goals in terms of building skills, building relationships, and creating code I can be proud of, and I’m exceeding my expectations. I finally feel like my wheels have caught solid ground and aren’t just spinning anymore. [...]

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