How did you not unlearn how to play?


Imagine a dog. Joyfully sniffing around while strolling through a new environment, following any new scent in great excitement — wouldn’t you love to be alike? Unfortunately, I’ve become quite the opposite of that.

For several years now, I have had the unowned luxury of endless leisure time without having to worry about my livelihood. But please don’t envy me: The delusive convenience of not having anything to do is actually a huge burden that one probably only can imagine if one has been there, too. I’m suffering greatly because my time has been spent almost completely useless and my creative output has been literally nothing.

Programming is my passion, at least I like to think that. Evidence is that I’m still feeling a very strong urge to create something (anything!) in code. To craft something small and beautiful or to construct something huge and complex feels immensely compelling. Simply put, being an architect in the broadest sense has always been a thing for me. The only problem is, I can’t seem to convince myself to do it anymore because I completely lack any fresh idea that could keep me interested strongly enough to actually sit down and code. Or write a story. Or make music. Or take a photo. Or really do anything expressive.

Take, for example, Augmented Reality or Machine Learning where all the excitement seems to be going right now. I can clearly see how those things are ‘cool’ and acknowledge that they are truly interesting and maybe even world changing. I even manage to keep some excitement for it when reading or talking about it for a few minutes. But that’s it, unfortunately. In the end, it’s just computers following rules. So how do you talk yourself into actually toying around with some demo code? How do you build up the wish to actually use YOUR phone as, say, a neat 3D ruler? All too soon my interest is gone, even turned into disgust sometimes, and I wonder how others are doing it. How do you grow an initial excitement into enthusiasm that drags you along all by itself? Yes, I know: “Relax, don’t try too hard. Be playful. Or just turn to something else!”. Well, I already am carefully trying to be gentle to myself and avoid forcing myself into being interested in things that I just don’t really care about — AR and ML merely served as an example here. But it’s the same with virtually everything: Heck, I cannot even read a book anymore! I open it, read a few lines, imagine how the story will develop and how I’m going to feel after having read it — and then close the book in frustration (although strangely enough, audio books sometimes still are enjoyable. Why?). Or I think about trying out a new recipe: In great detail, I imagine cooking it and how it is going to taste in order to convince me to do it. But that’s enough for me then — why still bother and actually execute the idea? There’s the very true proverb “appetite comes with eating”, and I know that once I’m in the state of actually exploring an idea, I often may be drawn further down the rabbit hole automatically, which is all I need to be happy. But how do I manage to be even able and willing to take the first bite?

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It feels like I’m stuffed. Flooded with meaningless, repetitive input coming from people I don’t even know when all I want is decompression, quietness and space for my own, original output. So I’ve tried several times to retract and cut myself off of the net and any other media and means of communication. And very much like straws of grass slowly re-erect after a long, pouring shower of rain every time my curiosity and ability of being truly interested into my surroundings seemingly began to recover as soon as I was closer to (my) nature, in the literal and figurative sense! Could it be true that I wasn’t fed up at all, but in the opposite not even hungry enough, just not for the right things?
Unfortunately, living like in the 19th century of course isn’t a viable solution regarding the demands of our modern world that you can’t just deny are existing. Sooner or later and, we get caught again in extrinsic motivation and expectation, fed by peers and unnoticed in the beginning. Also, I’m no exception to the rule that prolonged periods of isolation aren’t healthy for human beings. But I do still wonder: If I moved to a cottage in the countryside, would my joy for programming (and excitement in general) return as soon as I realised that I needed to code “sheep manager v1.0” there? Is there such a thing maybe like “mindful playfulness” that combines fun with value, that is recreational and challenging at the same time?

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I just don’t get how grown-up people are still mentally healthy enough to tinker around with anything. How they, just like the inner child that one seems bound to lose contact to while growing up, manage to get ignited by the slightest spark that sprang in their direction. How they proudly write blog posts about what they have achieved and happily complain that they have going on too many side projects and lost the ability to finish them. I gloomily envy them for their ability to get excited and actually execute their manifold ideas instead of surrendering to all of the commitments and thoughts tainted by the realism (or even pessimism) that life as an adult brings with it. And so I’m turning to you, dear reader, in order to get some advice. Now, before you diagnose that I’m suffering from burn-out / depression and suggest that I really should take some time out and see a therapist: Rest assured I’m already doing that. The question that I’m asking you still remains: How do you keep up your curiosity? How do you come up with ideas that are compelling enough to be carried out yet are not too big in order to feel intimidating? In other words: How did you — in a tech community that is obsessed with efficiency, global competition and keeping-up-to-speed — keep your ability to PLAY?

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Thank you for any hints!

How did you not unlearn how to play? was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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