Step Away From the Code

As a professional software engineer I had to work hard to master my craft and get to where I am now. It takes a lot of passion to make it to the top (where “the top” is always subjective and subject to change). I have that passion for programming but in recent years it took me over and turned me into a one dimensional being. My identity was wrapped up in my work. It was a boring, fragile existence. I lost sight of who I was as a whole person. I recently turned 30, took a trip to Seattle, and came back with some perspective. So today instead of my usual programming tips or tutorials I want to talk about something equally important and that’s learning to step away from the code, disconnect, and remember who you are. Here’s how I went from a one dimensional person to living a fuller, healthier, more satisfying life.

How to live in one dimension

To understand how to live a fuller life I needed to understand how I landed where I was.

It all started with ambition. I went from a freelance web developer to a full time employee of a growing startup. I wanted power and money. I worked my way up from doing grunt work like HTML emails and landing pages to being the manager of sales and marketing technology for an entire arm of the company. I was happy with the position but not with the pay. I had gotten the lead role and autonomy I wanted but it was clear that the company couldn’t support the lifestyle I wanted to live so I left to run my own company.

My second time out as my own boss was an exciting time in my life. It was a year of 16 hour days, lawsuits, investments, demos, and managing a business on top of being its CTO and lead software engineer. The company failed and when it closed I found work as a web development immersive instructor at a leading code school for the next year as I regrouped. Coming off a huge stressful venture, this was sort of a gap year where things were easier than usual and I got to relax. At the same time I was feeling unfulfilled and my inner voice kept calling on me to get back into the game. I wanted to get back to building software again.

This state of mind consumed me toward the end of my tenure as a teacher and I stopped connecting with loved ones, stopped indulging in my other hobbies, and even quit programming for fun. I always had a side project in the works, and coding was what I did when I wasn’t coding. My work and play had merged into one and it just wasn’t fun anymore.

When you’re in an interview for a tech job and the interviewer asks “What do you do for fun?” and your answer is “I write code” that may seem like you’re super passionate but it could also be a sign of someone who is one sided and doesn’t have much else going on in their life beyond their work. Believe me, I love my work but I’ve learned that to be your best you need to be well rounded.

When it changed

On the day of my 30th birthday my fiancé and I took a trip out to Seattle. It was beautiful. It made me forget my problems and the whole trip reset me on every level. What’s more, when I got home my fiancé had the best birthday gift I could ask for waiting for me: a new Fender Telecaster. I’d wanted that guitar since I first played one in person when I was 10 years old at my best friend’s house. This reignited my passion for songwriting.

I always considered myself more of an artist than a scientist even in my work as a software engineer. Even my Twitter profile said it for years.

Living in other dimensions

When I graduated 8th grade my parents threw me a graduation party. I made a few hundred dollars in gifts from it and I desperately wanted a guitar. My first guitar was a cheap Harmony my grandparents bought me when I was 9. I was frustrated that I couldn’t learn to play (hell, I didn’t even know guitars needed tuning let alone how to tune them). Now, some years later, inspired by my musical heroes I wanted to learn to play guitar. Turns out guitars are expensive. Luckily for me I had just enough money to buy a Washburn electric guitar, a cable, and an amp. My parents were livid that I blew all that money on an instrument they thought I’d never play. I had to prove to them that I’d practice and learn the instrument before they let me keep it. (My proof was playing the intro to “Today” by The Smashing Pumpkins).

I now had a new dimension to me. I was an honor roll student, “artist” (I could draw well), and as a young kid had a group of friends I’d hang out with. As I got older things changed.

Multidimensional being to single-minded

Years later I became an adult. As I began my career as a web developer (programmer, software engineer, etc.) my musical experiments had gone from a daily hobby to something I would play once in a little while. From 2002 to 2008 I had played in at least 3 bands, many open mic nights, recorded 5 “albums”, and even headlined my own show at a local venue we had in town. It was a great time in my life! Then I got a big boy job and my singular focus was making money and working to someday support myself and a family. I grew up and my one means of personal expression had been thrown out the window.

Getting back my mojo

Now in a new role at a great company and after that inspiring trip and gift for my birthday, I realized what I’d been missing this whole time. I needed to express myself through music.It always calmed me at the end of a stressful day.

From there forward it wasn’t like magic. I didn’t just start indulging in my old passion for writing music again. The new guitar was just the spark that gave me perspective. I played the guitar for a couple of days before I was the victim of mass layoffs where I worked as a teacher. Next thing I know I forgot about my passion for playing and was filled with anxiety about the future.

Luckily it only took a few weeks to find a new job and in that time I realized that since I was a kid, playing music was the one thing that always calmed me and made me happy no matter what else was going on. So I made it my mission to get back to where I was back then (yes, I lost a lot of my skill since I last played).

So now every single day, without fail, I practice guitar for 15 minutes whether that means practicing scales, writing new songs, or playing old ones, I always make time at the end of the day for a guitar session.

Why dimensions matter

When people asked me what I did for fun in interviews my answer was “programming”. That’s not really fun or healthy. I mean, sure I enjoyed programming when I wasn’t programming but there was definitely more to me than that. Now I can say I write code and I write music. I can say I’m planning a wedding with my beautiful, loving finance. I have a full and fulfilling life and an escape from everything through playing music.

Now I have 3 guitars (an Epiphone acoustic and two electrics – a Fender Standard Strat and Telecaster), a cool collection of 5 pedals, 10+ song ideas in the works and I plan to start performing at open mic nights and recording new music for the first time in 8 years.

Be more than your work

Step away from the code sometimes. No one is just one thing. Sometimes your job is your passion but it’s rare to be so one sided. When I started to explore my other interests I found I had a new outlet. Or to be more accurate, I rediscovered a part of myself I’d been missing and it feels so good.

Now I go to work, code my ass off, learn something new, go home and let it all go when I pick up my guitar.

So paint a picture. Plant a tree. Take photos. Do something. So when people ask “what do you do for fun” you’re not awkwardly reaching for answers. You’ll find a nice side effect of this is the perspective on life you’ll gain, the fun you’ll have, and the outlet will help you unwind when you’re wound up. And you never know, sometimes your work and passion meet up in unexpected ways to create a nice little side income. How? Well that’s a topic for another post. Until then, enjoy your life and make sure you’re living it because you only get one shot.


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