Know Thyself

For the past several years, I’ve been trying to design and write a very ambitious programming project (referred to here as Project X). But even though I find the project fascinating and intellectually stimulating, recently I’ve found that I’ve had less and less drive to actually work on it.

Last week, I saw another Ford commercial. This one harps on the safety of Ford vehicles, and tries very hard to make you afraid, even going so far as to imply that if you don’t purchase a Ford vehicle, your children are going to die. Nothing new there; although it’s seldom invoked so baldly, it’s well-known in advertising circles that if you can position your product as something that makes people safe from something that they feel afraid of, you’ll sell a lot of whatever it is. And if people aren’t afraid yet, you can always persuade them to fear by exaggerating the threat in their minds.

But the ad got me thinking about why people do things, and specifically why I was having so much trouble working on Project X. Looking back over my life, I suddenly realized why I originally felt drawn to programming, and why that drive no longer applies.

As a child, I was taught that I had to fear everything. I had to get good grades in school or I’d never be accepted into a college, so I’d be a complete failure in life. Strangers were out to kidnap me as soon as I talked to them or got out of sight of my own home, so the few times that I was allowed outside, I couldn’t go more than a few hundred feet away. I had to do whatever my parents said, when they said it, without a word of complaint, or I wouldn’t be allowed to leave my room (I spent a lot of time confined to my room). I had to do what the teachers said or I’d be paddled. I had to do what the preacher said or I’d go to hell.

And it didn’t stop after childhood, either. I had to get a job or I’d be homeless and starving. I had to continue going to school or I’d be stuck barely making enough to live on. I had to do what my boss said or I’d get fired.

I essentially spent my entire life trying to run from one fear or another.

The only things that made life bearable were fiction and, later, programming. Fantasy and adventure stories let me pretend that I might someday be like the heroes in them, powerful enough to do what I wanted, instead of what someone else dictated. And when I was programming, I was the only one pulling the strings — the computer would do anything I told it to, limited only by my own ever-increasing ability to tell it how.

Fast forward a decade or so. I’m forced by circumstances to quit my job with the Post Office, but the Internet has made it possible for someone with programming skills and the right idea to make a good living doing nothing but programming work, and I’m already making enough to live on even without the job. Within a year I’m making more with my programming than I’d ever made at a job, and the amount just kept going up. I still couldn’t do whatever I wanted, because I had to work twelve- to sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, to keep up with what my customers demanded — but I was my own boss, and at least nominally in control of my own life.

Jump forward another five years. I’ve sold my Internet business and started another one. Now I have both the money and the free time. I’ve achieved my childhood dream; I’m finally free! I can do anything I want! And I know what I want: Project X has been beckoning me for years.

Hop forward another couple years to the present, and I see a commercial that makes me realize why programming isn’t as appealing to me as it used to be. I have control of my life now. And I’ve quelled all of the fears that I could effect any control over.

I have nothing left to run from.

I feel like I should have picked up on the problem years ago. Have you ever had a lucid dream? I’ve done it a few times, completely by accident. I’ve suddenly realized that whatever was happening wasn’t possible in the physical world, so I had to be dreaming. And once you realize that you’re dreaming, you can do anything you want. But each time I’ve realized that I was dreaming, the whole thing has just fallen apart. Once I can do literally anything I want, I find that there’s nothing that I want anymore. There are no fears to run from.

It might sound great — there’s nothing to fear anymore, nothing to run from, no one standing over me telling me what I have to do. And it is great, to a point. But what do I do now? With nothing to run from, I feel that I’ve got no reason to move at all. I’m too easily bored to just sit around doing nothing, but I’ve seldom been able to force myself to do anything difficult or tedious without something to drive me, and Project X is both difficult and tedious. I want to do it, but I don’t know how to drive myself to move toward something I want, instead of away from something I fear. And I don’t know how I could make myself feel powerless or afraid again now that I’ve progressed beyond that, even if I were willing to do so.

That’s where I am today. I’ve explored lots of things in the last year to try to get me moving — various mental and productivity tricks, promises of rewards for progress, different philosophies and ways of looking at things — but most of them have had no appreciable effect. But now that I see the root cause of it, it’s obvious why they failed, and I’m much better equipped to tackle the problem.

I’ll continue to write about my experiences in this blog, in the hope that they’ll help others facing similar problems. And though it may sound odd, I hope that lots of other people do have this problem, because it’s very liberating to graduate from a life of fear… even if you don’t yet know what you’re graduating to.


  1. If I had my way, my only neighbors would have four feet or wings, and the closest thing to terrorists within a thousand miles would be the raccoons that raided my trash can. 🙂

  2. Actually, you’d be likely to have satellite internet, who’s latency is so bad that it’s not good for anything but FTP. (Even web means you ask for the page, wait a couple of minutes, then get it at light-speed. It’s fast, but latency is such because it goes back and forth to geocentric orbit – making it near-useless for anything but file transfers. Forget about Skype or other stuff of course…)

  3. Satellite Internet isn’t that bad. My sister and her husband have it, and I used it for the week we were down there earlier this year. I’d rather not make it my only Internet connection, but if I could live where I wanted, it would be acceptable. But it’s not going to happen anyway, GoddessJ needs to live in the city.

    Not sure why your comment got http-ified, it must be a bug in the Markdown plugin that I’m using.

  4. Well, if you literally lived a thousand miles away from civilization, you’d soon learn how dependent you are on there being other people around. 😉 I’m not sure if you really want to hunt and grow all your food, try to make your own electricity, make your own clothes, etc. Not to mention keep up a high-tech lifestyle. And no matter how anti-social you are, you might start to hope for more human company.

  5. Ah, but I never said I wanted to be a thousand miles from civilization — just a thousand miles from terrorists. 😉

  6. I think I agree with that, though sometimes I think of living in Israel. (Though technically speaking Israel has a much lower crime rate than Brooklyn – so I’d actually probably be safer from bodily harm or death than in Brooklyn, considering how many people die from terror attacks vs. say car accidents there. Unless Iran develops nukes and decides to use them, but let’s not think about that… (Of course, if they did, Israel has about 80 nukes reportedly already; and the delivery vehicles and air force to deliver them with anywhere in the Middle East, as a deterrent, so you’d have to be suicidal to launch a nuclear attack at Israel. Of course, Iran does sponsor suicide bombing, but I’m not sure if even they would be willing to do that on a national level.)

  7. You’re never going to be “safe.” At best, you can be safe from specific threats — such as, if you live in Missouri, you’re not likely to die from a tsunami any time soon, but that doesn’t make you any safer from being hit by a beer truck. 🙂

    What’s your purpose in life? Discover that, and most of your major life decisions will have obvious answers. And there may be things that you’d sacrifice safety for once you’ve found it.

  8. Well, obviously if safety was my only concern, I wouldn’t live in Brooklyn. 🙂 I’ve been searching for my purpose in life, that’s been one of my main concerns the last 15 years or so.

  9. At that rate, by the time you find it, you’ll be too old to do anything more than say “oh, so that’s what I should have been doing all those years.” 🙂

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