dburrows/ blog/ entry/ The power of self-delusion

Groklaw has a link up to an interesting interview regarding behavioral economics. I haven't listened to the podcast, but the posted text is quite interesting. This line, in particular, struck a chord with me:

Feeling that your work is useful, even if you know it's an illusion, has motivational power with respect to that work.

This resonates with some thoughts I've been turning over in my head lately. Back when I was in college, I thought my work in Debian was useful and I was really excited to work on it. I'd sit around thinking up new ways to improve the system and spend all my spare time hacking code to implement my ideas.

Then I graduated, and went into the real world, and got a job, and suddenly I discovered that working on Debian was not so much useful as it was worthless self-indulgence with no value to anyone but a small and marginal group of individuals. This sent me into a funk for a good year or so, during which time I released a few bugfix uploads for aptitude but didn't do much else free-software-related. I spent my time on the bus reading science fiction novels and computer science textbooks.

However, at some point last year I realized a couple things:

  1. In the grand scheme of things, the work I do for pay is no more important than the work I do for free. It might be more important to the people who pay for it, but to most of the world I simply don't matter no matter what hat I'm wearing, and I need to learn to live with it.
  2. At the end of your life, you're dead and no-one asks you whether you made yourself miserable enough by doing useful stuff, so you might as well do things you enjoy instead.
  3. The only practical effect of my delusions regarding Debian was that I spent my spare time hacking code and enjoying it, instead of playing video games and feeling like a loser.
  4. If there's any chance that I might ever have a kid, I certainly want to write free software now, while I don't have one. Based on observing my coworkers who have kids, it's pretty much impossible to be both a free software hacker and a parent: after the paid job and the kid, there isn't much time left over for writing code.

So, I decided to try deliberately believing a false thing: namely that my Debian work is valuable and worthwhile. And hey, it worked! I still know that what I'm doing is worthless, but I can convince myself otherwise for stretches of time, and I have enough fun while I'm working on the project that I consider it worth a small amount of unreality. It sure beats the heck out of computer games (which I still spend a distressingly large amount of time on). The doublethink aspect of it creeps me out, but I can't argue with the results.

The one problem is that this state of deluded motivation seems to be a bit fragile and is vulnerable to being popped by rude shocks. In December, I found myself mentally composing a letter in which I resigned from Debian to go spend my free time on stuff that was more gratifying, or at least where the expectations and (more importantly) level of abuse were commensurate with the pay and hours. As usual, I had enough sense to not follow through, and everything seemed less dire in the morning, but it was still weeks before I could bring myself to begin to think about spending my free time working on Debian.

Presumably the only way to avoid this is to find something to do in my spare time that I enjoy and that is actually meaningful to the world. But since I don't know of any activity that meets these criteria, I'll keep my self-delusion for the time being, thank you very much. At least I know I'm doing it -- I suspect that most people don't.