When did I become such a tool?
April 28, 2007
“When did I stop being creative?”
The words stumbled out of my mouth leaving behind an aftertaste of shame and contempt. It wasn’t that long ago that I still wrote and drew and played music for fun. It wasn’t that long ago that I always had a pet project going on. Helping on an open source project or helping a non-profit get setup on repurposed systems. But sometime in the recent past, and I really couldn’t put my finger on when, that stopped.
Lately that has been bothering me. Quite a bit, actually. Keeping me up at night wondering at what point these things that had been so meaningful to me just a few short years earlier were suddenly out of my life entirely.
The last time I played the piano was to prove the movers did not break it. The last time before that was almost 2 years earlier. I can’t even tell you the last time I drew anything that was not on a whiteboard, or wrote something that did not contain the word “specification.”
When did my life become so devoid of passion that my only pet projects involved lawn care and programming the DVR?
My wife paused. Lifting her head she stared at me from across the table and in a sympathetic tone, without a trace of condensation or sarcasm, she said “About six years ago.”
My gut reaction was to ask what happened six years ago? What emotional trauma had been inflicted upon my psyche that I abandoned those things that made life special and settled into this tomb of stagnation?
But to even ask would be an obvious defensive mechanism. Denial.
It must have been a slow bleed because I did not notice until about 6 months ago. I was unpacking a box and found a collection of old stories and drawings. Hundreds of pages of stories and poorly drawn pictures. Scores of decidedly amateurish music. Stacks of demo tapes recorded before I realized that my lack of raw talent really would prevent me from going big time. Code snippets from a diku patch I had done for a friend’s mud. Folded print outs of man pages and DNS configuration information for a local church whose token ting network I helped deploy just because they needed the help. Stacks of books I had once treasured. K&R. Stevens. Aho. Stroustrup.
How had I gone from being a hyper-prolific creator of mediocre compositions and altruistic deeds to this? This life where the thought of writing code after hours sounds like punishment and where personal time not spent producing product for my employer seemed wasted.
What was able to drain the marrow of life from my body and leave only hollowed-out shell of the man who once occupied this space?
Six years ago I began working for Microsoft.
The ways I thought about my time changed. How I thought about my career changed. How I thought about my place in the world changed.
Not all for the worse. Microsoft truly is a great place to work if you find the right people and projects. Contrary to popular belief – my day is not filled with meetings where we brainstorm the various new ways to thwart open source development or scare customers. It’s filled with thousands of people who truly believe that they are doing the right thing for the customer and who want nothing more than to deliver the absolute best they can (within the limits of time, resources and politics). Good pay. Great benefits. Smart people.
But there is another side to Microsoft. The side that has held my hand, shielded my eyes and who I allowed to slowly lead me down this path.
The side where you aren’t given time to be creative or perform research that does not address an immediate work item on your schedule. Where you are discouraged from thinking about things other than what is right in front of you at that moment. Where you have 6 weeks to do 16 weeks of work. Where months of hard work can be thrown away because the lawyers won’t let you ship it even though the customers are screaming for it (talk about getting punched in the gut).
The good must outweigh the bad. I don’t want to quit. I want to fix my little corner of the world and teach others to do the same. But I need to start with myself.
Today I am reclaiming a small part of who I once was.
Today I’m starting a pet project. The first of what I hope is many to come.
Moving my family computer from Windows XP to some form of Linux. A symbolic gesture more than anything – but one that will force me to do those things I so sorely miss.
Enjoy the results.
[I have added a few additional thoughts on this post]