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Why are you doing this?
Remote work, touching grass and the need to be recognized.
As of June 1, I am one month into my sabbatical, and I am surprised at how little I feel compelled to… do stuff. My initial goals were to:
I’m also a little tired from all the thinking, so I hope to play more with my daughter, swim, ride my bike, and maybe catch up on reading. I had the same plans for the parental leave, but I have vain hopes to hurry a little less this time around.
So far, I’m NAILING it. Yay me!
My wife (and almost everybody who knows me) suspected I would pick up a side project (or five). This has happened a lot in the past, as partly documented on my blog. So why haven’t I?
Why all the side projects?
This has led to some soul-searching. I usually have a variety of intellectual pursuits going on, but for the past month I seem to be winning with intellectualism. Why was I working on so many side-projects before?
There are so many exciting developments, tools, and technologies to explore, currently around AI. Using them in your side projects lets you play with them without forcing them into your “work“ project.
Every position I have held at Automattic was engaging, enjoyable, and fulfilling, but not to the same degree. Sometimes, I would be blocked or frustrated by the higher-level strategy, which led to the feeling of “I can do this better. Why wouldn’t they let me?“
Side projects were a creative outlet to feel like I was accomplishing things.
I also noticed some of my side projects were primarily fueled by the need to be recognized: by my peers, strangers on the Internet, and other like-minded folk. It feels good to see your work trending on Hacker News or Twitter. It feels good to be recognized.
In all those modes, my side projects were fulfilling a need that wasn’t met at work.
The incentives of showing off
When you dig deep enough, we do quite a lot for recognition: I see people spending their entire vacation curating their Instagram (or TikTok? I don’t know, I’m old), or working hard to buy that car that will impress neighbours.
It’s easy to criticize these status games, and in fact - some people are showing off how much they don’t participate and how above-it-all they are.
I think we mostly seek the recognition for newly acquired things:
The diet we just started out
That 2 week vacation to a place we never been
That newly acquired wealth
Once we are comfortable with any sort of achievement, skill level or status - we become accustomed to it and don’t feel the need to celebrate and/or be recognized for it.
And it’s all a good thing:
People who just started travelling should be proud of posting that amazing Instagram photo
People getting in shape should be celebrated for their progress
People getting a raise should feel recognized.
People who are already accomplished, in shape, rich should make space for others.
No, I am not above it all. I will post an occasional humblebrag and I have tried to run an active Instagram account, but it’s just so much work. I’m too lazy for that.
The consequences of touching grass
Engaging with the real world, and particularly nature (aka “touching grass“) puts things into perspective. City life, following industry news (or news in general) and spending most of your time in front of a computer normalizes that world. Even when not in front of a computer, you are sitting in coffee shops discussing other people, and engaging with man-made things and entertainment. Touching grass normalizes spending time in nature, and just being.
Which leads me to a couple of obvious conclusions:
I need to touch grass more often, but…
It’s hard during Polish winter, therefore…
Winters are for thinking, summers are for touching grass. At least in central Europe.
Can you touch grass so much that you never want to go back to being terminally online? I’m eager to find out.
Touching grass and remote work
The whole reason I’m excited about Remote work is that I can both touch grass and be happily employed. I am very much pro Remote Work and anti Work From Home.
As I wrote before, my absolute favorite place to work from are National Parks and I stand by this endorsement. If you want a small tutorial how to travel around Alps while working and babysitting, here it is.
The unexpected benefits of side-projects
Finally, I’m gonna close these meandering reflections about side-projects with my reasons why I think they are absolutely crucial both for you and your company:
You are getting hands-on experience with technology X and tool Y that you can instantly use in your “day job“
You get to play the part you don’t usually have a chance to - marketer, project manager, designer. It makes you appreciate these perspectives.
You are satisfying that itch to implement the new shiny tech/tool. Implementing it in the “work project“ just because you are excited about it is absolutely the wrong reason. None of it is as good as the hype, and old and boring stuff is still around for a reason. But you can play with the hype on the side. In 6 months you will see why pros use the boring stuff.