I went to a liberal arts college where students wore commitments like badges of honor; the more things you did (things being clubs or periodicals or social affiliations or whatever), the more adjectives and bullet points with which you could laurel yourselves, the greater the accomplishment.
Nowhere did the threat of overcommitment loom more heavily than the annual Student Activities and Organizations Fair, a capstone event at the end of orientation. You’ve spent the past two weeks mingling and moshing with people deemed by (presumably impartial) arbiters of judgment to be your peers: now find the subcultures and characteristics to redeem and distinguish yourself!
I was, of course, catnip to this. My freshman year I signed up for, if memory serves:
- film club
- two newspapers (thankfully, one rejected me)
- honor council
- Greek life (I know, I know)
- frisbee club
- a creative writing “society” (of course it was a society)
I spent most of high school coasting by virtue of being smart enough to breeze through standardized tests and various Honors classes shibboleths; I assumed, mistakenly, that college would be more of the same, and it wasn’t until I emerged from my first semester with a 2.6 that I realized my strategy of spending more time in the freshman dorm common room than the library had some fatal flaws. 1
I have only recently accrued enough hindsight to realize I ran into a similar thing after graduation. I landed a cushy job at a reputable tech company that demanded exactly forty hours of my life a week. I was faced with a surplus of time/energy and a lack of obvious ways to spend it. I tried, for starts and spurts, almost everything to fit the time:
- freelance consulting. This was fairly profitable and very stressful! I learned a lot about how to value software development (if you are reading this: don’t charge less than $150/hour.)
- mobile development. This was not particularly profitable but a lot of fun, minus living in the App Store / XCode ecosystem! I learned a lot; I met great folks; I got to write off all my liquor for two years as an expense.
- blogging. Blogging is the best bad idea you’ll ever have.
(Notably absent from this list are the things you can safely assume I was doing, like having a semblance of a social life and working out and eating well and spending too much on Nike joggers.)
My office is skewing younger and younger (or, I should say, I at the ripe age of 27 am approaching the ‘state elder’ status amongst the new grad set) and I’m having more conversations with people new to industry about how to spend their time.
One thing I try not to be is hypocritical. I cringe whenever I catch myself telling someone not to do work things outside of work; it’s advice that I didn’t and wouldn’t follow, and my madcap Puritan work ethic is the second-most attributable source of being where I am, a dude with a cute Craftsman and a stable side project at the company of his dreams. 2
Instead, I try to be concrete with my recommendations. They generally boil down to the following four things:
- Don’t worry about the zeitgeist.. I cannot emphasize enough how little Hacker News matters. If you want to consume it for social or epicurean reasons, be my guest: but don’t fool yourself into thinking it is Important! (A good yardstick for this sort of thing: take a look at the top of HN from a year ago and evaluate how much of it survived the winter.)
- Submit at least one code change a day. This is good advice disguised as cynical advice. Any organization that actually evaluates you based on the volume (or rapidity) of code change is one which you should leave immediately, but forcing yourself to at least do one thing (ideally work that you need to do, but even janitorial/tech-debt work is good) will build a habit of high shipping cadence.
- Become the go-to person for something. It is very easy to, with literally no experience, become the definitive person on your team/organization/company. Deciding what you want to be the definitive person on is more or less up to you: I’d recommend choosing a neglected part of your stack that you are interested in, or an oft-neglected and high-visibility concept like ‘documentation’ or ‘accessibility’.
- Make most of your friends outside of the tech industry.. Trust me, you’ll be dying for the fresh air. Having people whom stare at you blankly when you mention caching is a blessing.