Let us all sit in a circle and let me be the first to stand up and say, “My name is Neil and I’m going through a mid-life crisis.”
A frequently mocked term, but a life-phase that all of us are likely to experience at some point, apparently. For me, however, my actual crisis stems not from the typical feelings of dissatisfaction with life—I have worn that hoodie for most of my life—but the sudden realisation that, in experiencing this phase, I must accept that I am just like everyone else.
My own “mid-life crisis” has manifested itself not in the sudden purchase of a large motorbike, but in the need to turn away from the virtual and embrace the physical.
The secret to my contentment is simple: I am happiest when I am making useful things. That was what attracted me toward building online content systems: I can build something that makes your life, in some small way, easier/better/smoother. But having nurtured my personal technical capability alongside the accelerating computer age, I find the current future far less appetising than I once did. Exciting? Anything but.
Gone are the days of endless horizons, of new technology opening new doors, offering greater freedom, control, and creative scope. As technology accelerates, we must shift from mastering a technology to learning barely enough to get by because the next new, sparkly technology that will keep us in our jobs is already bearing down on us.
Creative solutions are far more concerned with some new arrangement of existing items than they are about pure creation from nothing. It seems an age since I had the glorious opportunity of creating something from scratch, the proverbial (and literal) blank sheet of paper.
It’s like gardening
I have never been one for gardening. I love gardens, I love the green, flowery, allergy-inducing spaces. That pseudo natural reality of tamed wilderness. It is the equivalent of a subdued roller-coaster where the physical and spiritual experience is tempered by the knowledge of almost complete safety (not absolute safety; you know how easy it is to step on a rake).
The problem with gardening as an activity, is its “never-endedness”. Gardens are never finished. At no point can you say that your work is complete. You stand back and admire the latest bloom, then spot another weed, or another dead stem in need of cutting, or the grass is a little too long, the edging a tad crooked, the clematis withered over the winter, and next door’s cat pooped in the rockery again. Your work is never done.
Technology has become my garden. My greatest work frustration in the past two or three years has been the constant designing, building, testing, redesigning, retesting, rinse-and-repeat. No end product, just pulling weeds, fertilising, tending (all with barely a word of documentation—ahem).
This environment is destructive to my natural sense of creativity. Having started my career as an illustrator, the work was frequently intense, sleepless, headache-inducing, but every job had a deadline, every job had an absolute end. There! It’s done! Send to client. This absoluteness is also an important aspect of why I loved flying gliders some years ago: you absolutely will hit the ground soon, nothing can stop it, no second chances, no opting out at the last moment and accelerating away for another try, you just have to make your inevitable contact with the ground as comfortable and safe as possible.
Development deadlines have become meaningless. The general acceptance that a development project will likely take longer than initially planned means it will certainly take longer than initially planned. Engineers (who differ from “developers” in my opinion) appear disinterested in achieving a finished product: they work for the ongoing problem-solving process of development. Give engineers the control—and increasingly complex technology does just that— and their very nature—that which is essential to have them do what they do—leads the rest of us (I am not an engineer, by nature) to work to spectral deadlines that mean nothing, drive nothing, and produce no result beyond the next iteration of an endless tide of iterations.
I hope you’re getting a sense of my personal struggle.
Rediscovering a solid reality
I have recently taken on some far more fulfilling projects. Amongst others, the directing of the local amateur dramatic group’s pantomime in February (an absolute deadline to work to, and once done, is done) and some craft projects, particularly working with leather (see the image above—again: plan, prep, produce, finish, done).
These in particular have given me a sense of working a project to completion—in contrast to working to maintain—and I find myself longing to return to a working environment that allows me to do just that. That is the illustrator/artist in me forcing itself to the surface once again. As the past few years have taught me, denying that aspect of my core nature simply to “pay the rent” leads inevitably to deep unhappiness.
It is time to get ruthless. There will be casualties, there will be change, but there will be the physical results of effort.
This post started off as a simple comment on my personal realisation about “mid-life crisis”, but ended up expressing what I have have struggled to realise and express for the past 18 months or more. Yes, it has taken me that long to fully understand the psychology fuelling my non-work activities. Sometimes, reality and understanding the obvious escape us.