I think, at some point or another, pretty much everyone realizes that. Sometimes it's fairly early on. Other times, it's late in life - maybe even painfully late. It's certainly no new, deep, meaningful insight. Plato has not rolled over in his tomb.
It may not be news, but it sure is easy to forget. We may forget for any number of reasons. Young people getting their first taste of independence and life feel like they've got forever - those ancient fogeys in their late 20's are old, man. College graduates dive into the wide world of career employment, and look forward to the endless expanse of time they have to make their mark on the world. Then the 30's happen, and the weight of "being old" starts to hit in force. But that doesn't last long; the people who really are old quickly remind us that we've still got plenty of time.
And we go right on having plenty of time, until the late 40's or so, when everything turns into a slog. We count down towards retirement, and look forward to finally breaking free of the chains of corporate life and moving on to enjoy our declining years. Once we hit retirement, we get one more sweet taste of having all the time in the world.
From the looks of things, we tend to enjoy that for a couple of years, and then the utter boredom of being retired sets in. We struggle for a bit, take a couple of cruises, and then resign ourselves to playing golf until we're packed up in an afghan and sent to the rest home. And now, for the last time, we have all the time we could want - probably too much time, because it's so damn boring sitting in this chair and napping all day.
Sometimes, in the midst of having all that time, we get sharp reminders of just how little time we really have. Human history is piddlingly short, and yet it's so huge that any one person's slice of the timeline is just a few stray droplets of paint on the canvas. Human life is, despite all our technological faffing about, shockingly fragile. Sometimes it takes a pretty big jolt to remind us of that.
Maybe being aware of it is too overwhelming to sustain, and we supress the knowledge so we can enjoy the time we do have. Maybe that's why we have to be reminded sometimes. Maybe that's why those reminders are so impactful on our lives.
Fortunately, sometimes our subconscious decides to pull its fingers out of its ears and quit singing loudly, just long enough to remind us of that all-important fact. Sometimes we even get lucky enough for that reminder to come just when we really need it.
The last couple of days have been a bit tough for me. Yesterday, I went in to my old job for what I thought was a short contract - something on the order of a few hours. I was just going to duck in, help them get some bugs fixed, collect my check, and be on my way. It was just a little gesture of courtesy to help them out while they continue to try to find a replacement to take over my position there.
I was in for a pretty major surprise. Apparently things have been going quite well lately, and a lot of clients are expressing a lot of interest - i.e. there's some hefty mounds of cash at stake. The catch is, most of them are interested on the condition that the company's product be tailored slightly to suit each individual client's needs. Lacking a full-time programmer, the company simply isn't capable of doing those customizations at a reasonable pace.
The upshot is that I was basically offered my old job back. Or maybe just part time. Or twice a month. Or whatever. There would be a very, very substantial increase in compensation involved. I would have complete and utter control of when I worked, how long I worked, even where I worked. In short, they'd addressed basically every single issue I had with the job in the first place. They didn't just fix the issues, they blasted them into oblivion. Then they rebuilt them, molecule by molecule, and blasted them again, just to be spiteful.
In case it isn't clear, the offer was very, very tempting. I wasn't really ever interested in going back full-time; I enjoy game development far too much for that (not to mention the unfairness of pulling out on Egosoft after spending three years telling them I wanted to work there). But I did think about a part-time arrangement... after all, how bad could a day or two a week be, right?
I spent the rest of the day there, working on what I'd originally come to do. I got back into playing with some of the technology they have there, and got to work on diagnosing and fixing some problems that were quite different from the kind of fiddly little crap I squandered my weekend working on. I had lunch with a couple of friends of mine from the company who, for geographical reasons, I virtually never see anymore. We reinstated the old tradition of throwing random objects at each other over the cubicle walls - bonus points for getting the other guy to chuckle or yelp during a phone call.
After the draining experience of last week - especially Saturday - I was dangerously close to burnout. I knew it. I've burned out before, badly, and I know the warning signs. I take it seriously enough that I deliberately did almost nothing but play games and read all day Monday, just to get away from work for a bit and recharge. It costs less to spend a day not-working than it does to burn out and spend weeks doing subpar and half-hearted work.
By Tuesday, though, I still wasn't entirely over the burnt feeling. It was such a refreshing change of pace to work on something totally different that, for a few short hours, I convinced myself I really wanted to work on something totally different. I thought maybe I wanted it enough that I'd take up a part-time position again, just to get some variety, and to get a bit of the social interaction that is (sadly) pretty lacking in my current job situation.
I spent all of Tuesday night and pretty much all of today agonizing over the decision, trying to figure out what I really wanted to do, and come to terms with my situation. Towards the late end of today, I made a few realizations that really clarified things.
For one, I'm still not un-burnt yet. I haven't totally recharged, and although I need to do a few things just to stay on top of my obligations, going back into things full-bore at this point would be a mistake. I've already committed to going back in to the other job for tomorrow to wrap a few things up; that break will be important, and I'll probably keep the rest of the week light as well.
The other thing that really struck me was how devious burnout can be. Last fall, in the aftermath of the X3 project, I was so utterly burnt out that I did very little for three months besides stumble in to work, and then crawl home and sleep. In the process of recovering from that, I swore that I would never again take on two full-time jobs, especially not with one of them being a game in the middle of a highly time-critical crunch period. The burnout was so severe because I never really felt close to burning out; switching between two totally different jobs was enough to keep things feeling fresh, even while I "inexplicably" became increasingly drained of energy and motivation. It wasn't until well after the fact that I recognized it for a genuine burnout, and not merely routine tiredness.
Lately I've really had some problems balancing time spent on work, and time spent on everything else, like life. I realized that I really don't have a good sense for when I've done "enough work" - for some dumb reason I tend to feel obligated (or something) to do as much work as I can until I can't do any more. That's a hand-crafted recipe for burnout. To make matters worse, I've lately found quite a few interests that I'd like to pursue, but don't feel like I have the time.
And then it all finally clicked, and I realized how close I was to making a bad mistake. One of my big reasons for taking this job was the flexibility in schedule - namely, that I would finally have the time to pursue all those other things. Yeah, there's a lot of work to be done, but it'll still be there tomorrow - if I don't have time to do things outside of work, it's my own damn fault.
Surprisingly, it was really hard to see (for a while) just how much worse I would have made things had I gone ahead with taking back on a second job. Sure, it would be part-time... and I'd have total control over it... but I know that eventually that wouldn't be enough. I tend to be an obsessive perfectionist in my work, and I know that no matter how much I denied it yesterday, eventually I'd give in to the temptation to (effectively) be doing two full-time jobs again. What's worse, I probably wouldn't have realized I was even doing it until it was far too late.
At that point, the burnout would have been devastating. In all honesty and seriousness, it probably would have been the end of my career in software. And I don't want that.
So tomorrow I'm going to go in one last time, finish what I came for, collect my check, and move on. Life is just too darn short.