It can always be better

George Bernard Shaw put it best when he remarked that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.  Progress in just about any area requires that you not be content with the status quo, since otherwise you wouldn’t bother trying to make it better.  But at the same time, constant discontent with the world is a rough way to live; if nothing is ever good enough, you’ll always be unhappy, and if you’re always going to be unhappy what exactly is the point of working so hard to make things better?  On a pretty fundamental level, isn’t that drive to make progress and improve things the result of a desire to turn some discontentment with the current state of affairs into contentment?  But once you reach that contented state, how do you keep going?  Shaw could just as easily have said that all progress depends on the discontented man, but who wants to spend their live discontented?

Dealing with that requires finding a balance between contentment and complacency on one hand and discontentment and action on the other hand.  Logically, they’re kind of two ends of one scale; they’re P and not-P.  You can only have one, right?  Thankfully (or not, depending on your perspective), the human brain isn’t actually constrained by the rules of logic.  Logic tells us “P or not-P” but your brain says, “Why can’t I have both again?”  Paradoxes are a part of life, and they’re not just the result of lazy thinking; as much as the analytic philosopher/computer scientist in me wants the world to be a rational, P or not-P sort of place, it’s not, and we can find ways to use that to our advantage.  

My solution is to take that one single axis of “am I happy with X” and treat it as if it’s actually two independent axes; I call them “contentment” and “satisfaction” for lack of better terms, such that I can be content while still not being satisfied with things.  If I’m running, I can simultaneously be contented that I ran what for me is a good time while still being dissatisfied that I didn’t set a new personal best.  And if I’m working, I can simultaneously be extremely happy with how much I’ve been able to do while being appalled that I haven’t done more, and I can be content with the state of our code and our tools and how advanced they are compared to what our competitors try to work with while still feeling like I won’t actually be happy until they’ve come miles further than where they are now.

This is just my opinion, of course, but I think a lot of people tend to fall into just one sort of thinking or the other:  either they’re happy enough with things that it reduces their drive to improve them, or they’re driven to improve things but they’re unhappy (and in many cases, that can lead to feelings of futility, which eventually just kills motivation altogether).  I’m not sure I really have the balance mastered myself, but I’m pretty convinced that it’s critical to doing the best work that I can do and avoiding complacency on one hand and burnout on the other.

There’s a more sinister form of the discontentment that afflicts software engineers as well, and that’s the gold-plating/no shipping afflication that leads to never deciding something is good enough to move on.  So if you’re an engineer, that’s yet another potential affliction to master; you need to find a way to be content and enjoy your work while not getting burned out, and to constantly improve everything while still being able to ship code and move on to new projects.

If there’s one thing I look for in engineering candidates these days, it’s probably that constant drive to improve things, and that recognition that things can always be better.  Because they can.  There’s no end-point in the game we’re playing (yes, even if you’re a Lisp guy, the answer is still out there); the language, the tools, the libraries, the techniques, the tests, the code, the process . . . no part of the stack is ever truly done.  To me one of the joys and truly unique things about software development is the fact that there is always progress to be made, and that every engineer has the opportunity to make that kind of progress.  I think that constant drive is something that all truly great engineers share.  Be unreasonable.

But even better than that constant drive to make things better is the ability to keep that drive alive over months and years and decades while staying happy, enjoying the work, avoiding burnout, and being able to priortize that against the need to ship and the need to move on to other projects.

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