January 16, 2012

In late September I took a three-month sabbatical from Google. (This post was written both during and after the sabbatical; sorry for the mixed tense in some of the wording.)

I told my managers: in the old days my officemates would make fun of me for being excessively optimistic and happy but more recently I had grown a reputation at work for being grumpy. I wanted to figure out whether it was my work or something else in my life that had caused this change. And thinking back, even through college I always took classes through the summer; I think my last real break from work of some sort was maybe my first year of high school, before I started working in the summers.

I've read about experiments where people stay in a place without the sun or a clock to guide their sleeping behavior, and how they fall into a 25-hour schedule of sleeping and waking. I was curious how my life would similarly arrange itself without constraints.

So I made nearly no plans for my new free time. My wife works and I didn't want to leave her behind on some trip around the world. Instead, I had the vague idea to relax, work on projects, and catch up on video games. (I went cold turkey on games early on in college in an attempt to focus; in retrospect, putting Linux on my primary computer to help enforce that was likely a valuable career decision.)

Here's what I found.

Work vs play. Even when I was working, I spent a lot of my free time hacking on software. It's something I enjoy; it's something I'd do even if it weren't something I could be employed for, so it's great people are willing to pay me to do it too. Without a job structuring my hacking time, I found that I fell into a pattern of hacking from morning to mid-day, then I goofed off for the brain downtime that frequently accompanies lunchtime through 3pm or so, and often returned to hacking in the evening.

When I was working I think I got my most productive time in after lunch. I think the reason mornings worked for me now is that there is nothing extraneous between me and my goals. At work there was always side tasks like email and keeping up with daily churn to occupy my mornings. With my new perspective, I wonder how much of that was self-inflicted; I'm considering strategies like "don't open mail until after noon" when I return to work.

Video games. The parallels to addiction are obvious to me, especially the modern horrible stuff like Zynga products. I think the way they hook is interesting to reflect on for a moment.

The joy of a good video game is the feeling of achievement you get. That is, I think, why they often hook the same personality type as a programmer's: making a WoW character and writing code have the same reward feedback loop.

But since a game is synthetic, the achievement is also ultimately synthetic ("I pushed the buttons at the right times so that the reward light turned on"). The cynical craft of modern video games is tricking the gamer into feeling accomplishment without actually making them work for it. I read a review of one recent game (perhaps God of War?) where the reviewer discovered you could beat the entire game just by pressing the single attack button repeatedly — your character doing amazing leaps and smashes throughout — and it's interesting to contrast that with the reviewers trying to find the words to describe the sense of "real" accomplishment found in a truly hard game like Dark Souls. (I haven't played either.)

With all that in mind, I think there is room in my life for video games just as there is room for alcohol. I'm not sure which, though; Skyrim is really pretty but I was let down by how every problem was solved by entering a dungeon and killing everything. Starcraft II is pretty amazing, though.

Getting things done. A few days into my leave I got out a piece of paper and made a list of all the sorts of menial life tasks I've been intending to do but putting off, stuff like "figure out to do with that cardboard box full of CDs". I worked through some of that.

Most stuff I own that lives in a closest is trash, almost by definition: I haven't used it. Much of it is in fact difficult-to-dispose-of trash, like old hard drives where I was afraid of leaking data. Or those CDs: given that I've re-ripped them, what is the ethical thing to do with them?

Living your dreams. When I was planning my leave I had wild dreams about getting fit or learning Arabic or whatever. Once I no longer had my job to blame for it I was confronted by what I already subconsciously knew: my own motivation is at fault. I was using "no free time" as an excuse.

Daisy asked me recently: "Should I take a sabbatical too? Will it give me a chance to finally do all those things I've wanted to?" And my response was, "No, if you really wanted to do those things you would've found time for them already."

Money is a means to an end, not a goal. I have been very lucky in life, to have been born white in this country to a middle class family, so that I can be in a position to afford to not work. But I'm not some tech startup lottery millionaire; I'm paid like an engineer and I live well within that.

Do I enjoy the nicer things in life? Yeah, sorta, but not enough to strive for them. (Or, to use the "Your Money or Your Life" computation, it rarely seems worth it to spend another hour in a cubicle to have a more tender piece of meat for dinner.) It always felt so natural to work all day because that's just what people do, but seeing my wife leave in the early morning and return as the sun is setting really drives home for me how unnatural it is.

What now? I'm back at Google, still a little unsure of myself. I get no shortage of job offers but it's not clear to me that anyone provides a opportunity with as much freedom and the opportunity to work on free software as Google does. If you are also a Googler and have the opportunity to take a sabbatical, I highly recommend it.