swirl swirl

Burning out. Or not.

Hello, world! It's been a few years since I've blogged regularly. What's up with that?! This post is about burning out. And then un-burning out.

Blog → Book

I started my old blog fresh out of college, back when I knew nothing about anything1. I liked to use it to explore topics I was interested in. "Explore" here means dumping an idea onto the internet and seeing what happens. Sometimes I'd write something useful for people at the same stage of exploration as myself, which was a great feeling. Just as often, I'd write something super-wrong and hordes of people would show up to tell me so.

I consider both outcomes positive. My goal is learning and self-improvement. Being wrong is OK, it's how you learn. And I feel like I did learn a lot by blogging. Sometimes just the act of writing something down and explaining it to others has a miraculous way of making it clear in your own mind.

I've always tried to make the tone of my blog a bit silly, so that people don't show up thinking they're getting good solid info out of this. Rather, they're getting some guy wandering around in public who occasionally bumps into something useful.

My blog brought all kinds of positive things into my life. For example, people would read it and email me and say "Hey, wanna write a book?". So yeah, I helped2 write a book. And then things went a bit downhill.

Book → Burnout

Writing a book about a programming language is a lot different than writing a blog about random crap. With a book, the readers are exploring, and the authors have to draw the map. You have to put correct information in the book. Compared to blogging, that's difficult and awfully stressful!

To be clear, the publisher was fine, and my co-authors were great. I'm glad I went through with it, and the book turned out well. But the stress was undeniable.

While working on the book, a series of other unfortunate events took place, which is the last thing I needed. I ran into some serious health problems, ending up in the hospital with a camera in my lungs, wondering for a few months if I had lung cancer, and if I was going to leave the world with a new 20-something widow. (I didn't and I didn't.) A family member died and I couldn't travel to the funeral because I was busy coughing up blood. This while buying my first house etc. etc.

After the book was done, I realized that I didn't really want to think about programming any more. This was a huge change for me. I've always loved programming. I felt like being paid to do it was some kind of silly trick I was playing on the world, because I'd be doing it anyways if I wasn't being paid. Programming was pretty much all I did. Blogging about it was a huge joy. I wanted to talk about it with everyone non-stop.

But now, I discovered that the desire to keep doing all of that was dead. I didn't want to read programming books and mailing lists and twitters. I didn't want to answer questions on Stack Overflow. I didn't want to work on my side projects. When something that was such a big part of your life starts to become painful, it leaves you feeling rather lost.

Soon, my old friend Depression paid me a kindly visit.

Burnout → Depression

I've had issues with depression for a long time. I overcame it in my early twenties, but I guess it never really goes away, and the right sequence of events can bring it right back. Oops!

Did I get burned out on coding because I'm predisposed to depression? Did I become depressed because I was burned out? Would I have gotten burned out without all the other crap going on at the time? Beats me. All I know is after the book was done, I still had to program eight hours every day for my day job, and I could mostly handle that, but I sure didn't want to do it as an extra-curricular activity any more.

Another terrible thing happened: I started to be really afraid of being wrong on the internet. Working on the book changed my mindset. Before I was some random guy on the internet; now I was Brian Carper, Published Author™! I had to start living up to higher expectations for myself. I felt like if I wrote something on my blog, I'd better be darn sure it was right, because people might be looking at it expecting it to be right. You'd think publishing a book would increase your self-confidence; in my case it drastically decreased it. I'd write something for my blog, look at it for a week, doubt myself and delete it.

Then I'd start feeling guilty for feeling that way. Why couldn't I enjoy this thing I used to enjoy? This is the giant spiraling whirlpool of crap that is depression. The end result is that I basically went into hibernation for a year or two.

Depression → Recovery

Rock bottom is an OK place to land, as long as you bounce hard enough. Long story short, with the help of some doctor visits, lifestyle changes, and support from wonderful people around me, I clawed my way out of it again.

Then I tried to figure out the kinds of things that make me happy again.

One thing hadn't changed: I'm really only happy when I'm up to my eyeballs in something new. I love learning how things work. I love the feeling of being bad at something and slowly becoming less bad at it over time, until I'm good at it. Solving problems and building things is satisfying.

I really wasn't ready to go into full programmer mode again though. So I decided to try to think of things I wanted to learn that aren't related to computers. Crazy! Thus began the Grand Recovery Plan of 2015. I dove into new areas of study and revisited some old ones.

  1. Piano lessons! This ranked among the best decisions I've ever made. I played piano as a child and didn't like it, because I was dumb, but getting back into it as an adult is amazing. The detriments of advancing age (deteriorating dexterity, memory, free time etc.) are more than made up for by the benefits (patience, discipline, knowing how to study more effectively, a good dose of humility3).

  2. Japanese lessons! I studied Japanese in college, but fast forward a decade and I'd forgotten most of it. I've tried and failed to motivate myself to continue studying Japanese on my own. This time my spouse and I signed up with a tutor, and that went really well. There's nothing like having a meeting with a teacher once a week to motivate you to study.

  3. Go! Not the programming language, the game. I love gaming, and Go scratches an itch that I need to be scratched, while not being a computer game. No flashing lights and explosions, just a hunk of wood you put rocks on. Yet it's a very deep and analytical game that's also peaceful and calm and social, and it's exactly what I needed.

  4. Weight loss! I got fat while I was depressed. Undoing the damage is both simple and difficult. Simple: Eat fewer calories than you expend daily. Difficult: Humans are irrational animals and food is tasty. But I managed to drop 25 lbs. and felt pretty good doing it.

  5. Programming! Wait, what?

I like programming again!

Yes. Once I dug out of that hole, and my mental state improved, and I surrounded myself with things that aren't programming, I have the energy and motivation to start programming again.

It turns out I still love programming. I just need to approach it the right way. I need to free myself up to go exploring again, with no pressure and no grand expectations. I need to feel OK at being bad and being wrong, as long as I'm constantly improving.

Last spring I started working on the video game I've been wanting to make for most of my life. I didn't set a deadline, I didn't make any lofty expectations, I just started reading and playing around. I learned about pixel art and chiptunes. I read about level design. I built a little prototype physics engine in Unity3D. Then I did it over again in LÖVE. It was a blast! And it's still ongoing.

A couple weeks ago I started cobbling together this blog. I caught up on some number of years of CSS and web design practices that I've been missing out on. I wrote a WordPress theme from scratch, and again, it was loads of fun.4 A new domain and a fresh start feels nice.

It's taken me a few weeks to write this, re-write it and get it to a place where I'm happy hitting Publish. Clearly getting the old mindset back isn't going to be easy, but here's to trying!


  1. Unlike today, right? Eh? Eh? 

  2. I say "helped write" because the book was largely the Chas and Christophe Show (with special guest star Brian). Those guys are in another league, and did most of the heavy lifting. 

  3. After listening 10-year-olds play the piano a hundred times better than you can, humility is your only option. 

  4. Even though CSS and PHP still make me want to claw my eyes out. 

5 comments

  1. Interesting post, good to hear things are going well though. I find it incredibly difficult to program outside of work myself, I still read alot about the field and learn new things but sitting down to start a project seems so intimidating and difficult to manage.

    Perhaps taking a more exploratory approach would be beneficial for my productivity. The UE4 stuff I have been working with is pretty fun, and I have been thinking about doing something with it outside of work.

  2. I was wondering randomly what you were up to and found you had a new blog. Glad to hear you're doing well. I'm a few years behind you in my career, but I recognize a lot of the beats you've mentioned - health problems, burn out, trying to figure out things to bring joy not involving a computer. (funnily enough, this blog post happened right around the time I started my recovery from a pretty bad spot)

    I'm glad to see something so relatable written about this subject, since it's so easy to lose sight of what the real toll of burn out is when you're in the middle of it.

    Anyways, again it's good to see you doing well - I still see you as a big influence on my journey into programming from back in the EoFF days. Looks like I'll have to actually sign in to Twitter to try and keep up a bit better.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. Hope you're doing well. Being a programmer takes a special kind of crazy to keep doing, but it also scratches an itch that nothing else quite does in the same way. As you probably know firsthand.

  4. Hi Brian!

    Glad to see you are back. I had the suspicion that you had burnt out after publishing the book. I enjoyed your former blog, among others for it's rather humane self-presentation. It is so many extremely hard-working people on GitHub, etc. it's easy to compare yourself to others and feel like a loser. Well, at least that is my feeling. The book The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It's Making Us Anxious details some of the effects of comparison in social media.

    I'm learning Clojure these days (for work), one of the reasons of which I thought of you and your blog. My path has crossed with spacemacs (Emacs AND Vim). Are you familiar with it?

    All the best

  5. I've heard of Spacemacs but haven't tried it yet. It took me so long to get a comfortable Emacs configuration that I'm afraid to breathe on it too hard, lest it collapse. Moving to another Emacs variant and maybe having to start all over is a scary thought. Good luck with Clojure! If you get to use it at work, you're one of the lucky ones.

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