I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m a challenge addict, always seeking out new technology or platforms that has new problems which I can solve. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed it as diving deep into an unknown area is something that always gives me a thrill and is arguably what keeps me coming back. This addiction to challenge however is its own worst enemy as whilst I might have dabbled in nearly every piece of technology imaginable I really only know them to a certain point before they bore me after which I’ll dump them for the next intriguing challenge. For someone who’s spent the better part of 2 years dreaming about starting his own technology based company this addiction to challenge is highly counter productive, something which I need to work on.
Like many of my ilk I’ve been trained in the art of pattern recognition, mostly for identifying when something can be automated or a process solidified in order to make it more efficient or reliable. My addiction to challenge hadn’t managed to slip past this process and after thinking about it for a while I realised that I had a kind of response curve to challenges. Initially there’s an overwhelming sense of progress as problems are overcome at a rapid pace, you’ve got momentum and you feel like the idea you’re working on has a lot of merit. Then, after a while, the challenges start to become routine and you start question your motives. It’s at this point where I find myself looking for something new and exciting, usually finding it without too much hassle.
I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone in this kind of response, it’s called the dip:
The idea comes from a book by Seth Godin, a serial entrepreneur and author who penned a whole book about this idea 5 years ago. I’d love to say that I’ve read it but I haven’t and all the credit goes to Matt Aimonetti’s post about how us engineers typically suck at choosing jobs (which I totally agree with, if I don’t wholly agree with the reasons why we suck) for introducing me to the concept from that book. I’d been thinking about writing a post about my challenge response curve for a while now but I hadn’t really figured out how to visualize the idea and the graph above is pretty much exactly what I was picturing in my head, even if I didn’t have the axis labelled (I had no idea what they were, honestly).
This is not to say that putting endless amounts of effort behind something will always yield results though. One of the tricks I’ve learnt since discovering my addiction to challenge is that once you’re in that dip area it’s all too easy to doing “work” on something and really not get anywhere, which adds to the frustration. Typically I found this was when I would just stare at bits of code for ages, thinking about how best to optimize them. Routinely this ended with me being stuck in a loop just thinking about the same ideas over and over again without taking the dive and trying them out for fear of wasting the effort. At that point you either need to break away from that task or simply slug through and try it out. Sure you might waste some time or effort by doing something that wasn’t worth doing or not spending time on the project but that’s far better than wasting time that ultimately results in nothing.
I’m currently working yet another idea (yeah I know, I’m terrible) where I was implementing a search function so that users could discover information without having to trudge through pages of stuff they weren’t interested in. Now for small scale data sets, like the one I have for development, this is pretty easy however for larger sets, like the one I have in production, they simply take too long to run. I had mulled over the idea of how to solve this for quite a while and implemented a solution over the weekend. This solution, whilst better than the original, was still performing unacceptably and forced me to rethink my approach to the issue. That time I spent on the current solution is now technically wasted but had I not spent that effort I would still be sitting here now thinking that it was the best course of action. I guess that realisation that even “wasted” effort has value was something I hadn’t really come to grips with and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that.
Thankfully this is one of those things that once you’re aware of the issue there’s many things you can do about it in order to overcome it. I’m not saying that my particular coping strategy will work for everyone, I know it won’t, but I do feel that the dip applies almost universally even if the curve varies from person to person. How you recognize that you’re in the dip and how you get out of it is something that I’m not sure that I can help with but I know that simply being aware of it has helped me immensely and it’s for that exact reason that I’m pretty excited about my most recent projects.