Zen and The Art of Software Engineering

4 min read

Originally posted on my newsletter.

One of the great ironies of life is that when you achieve something you’ve been working towards (e.g. get from point A to point B), you often feel empty and restless afterwards. It’s partially because of a post-dopamine release of prolactin, and partially because of an assumption that getting to B will solve your problems. The reality is that you ought to find a new B soon, or the lack of self-imposed structure will eat away at you.

It doesn’t have to always be like this. In an awakened person, the loss of structure and responsibility can be freeing β€” more time & energy spent towards a higher purpose. However in this case, B is permanently defined as the infinite game of spiritual equanimity.

I’m not there yet, and I don’t know if I ever will be. After finally getting the promotion that I’d been working at for months, I felt hollow. Well, not completely β€” I was elated for a day and got plenty of accolades from friends & family. I didn’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t the lasting sense of fulfillment that I’d hoped for.

β€œIf you’re doing something for an imagined reward you might achieve it eventually , but you’ll probably always be disappointed.”

β€” On Sticking With It by Ava

This is the problem that I’ve always had with goals. In the case of my job, the joyful hours spent clacking away at technical problems became secondary to the gravitational pull of promotion β€” the present moment was sacrificed to the altar of the goal. The obvious solution to the emptiness would be to orient myself towards the next promotion and get back in the game. I could rush to find myself a new B to minimize time spent in the purgatory. However, what does that say about my feelings towards my job?

β€œWhen you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.”

β€” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

When the job itself ceases being meaningful and I find myself in the clout-chasing limbo of corporate advancement, it’s time to re-evaluate. I think about things that I do more-so for the sheer enjoyment of the activity like writing or working on fun projects. I’m happy putting in the hours and letting the process unfold by itself rather than expecting or forcing an outcome. It’s far more enjoyable and meaningful than scrambling up the career ladder.

I eventually landed back on my motivations for taking this job in the first place. There were a few: (1) it was the most logical option I had at the time if I had to pick one, (2) it afforded me the opportunity to live in an amazing city with close friends, (3) gave me quality experience, skills, and ‘career capital’, and more importantly (4) I didn’t know what I wanted to spend my life doing. This role was a great stopgap while I figured that out.

I still don’t think I’ve figured what I want to devote my life towards yet, but my mind is more aware of the possibilities. I have far greater financial and emotional stability since graduating college, and am thus better positioned to taking risks. The more I consider it, the more I’m drawn towards a less stable role as a founder or early employee of a startup. But maybe I’m romanticizing it.

As for now, I have no immediate plans to jump ship. I am however much less bound by my desire to advance the career ladder. Rather, I’m striving to pay more attention and get as close to the process as possible. I’m confident that when the time is right and the sands begin to shift, I’ll make my next move.