Finding Joy in the Work Again

Eight months ago, I told you I was switching gears from writing a novel to building an artificial intelligence.

That was a monumental decision at the time. Switching gears meant switching dreams. It meant putting on hold – perhaps indefinitely – the goal that had driven me for almost a decade. It felt something like freedom and something like giving up. But most importantly, it wasn’t just the loss of novel-writing, it was the start of a new and exciting project – something I hoped desperately would last.

It has.

That big decision eight months ago seems even bigger now, because building an AI feels more and more like my life’s work, the project I was born to pursue.

How do I know? Because the work is joyful.

Not just the end goal, not just the finished project you can point to proudly and say, “Yes, that was me, I made that.” I mean the day-to-day, minute-to-minute act of building a thinking machine simply makes me happy. That’s what was missing with novel-writing, and that’s what I’ve finally gotten back.

For a while, I was working on the AI half an hour every day. A few weeks ago I upped that to an hour, and then an hour and a half. With each increase I loved the work more, spent more time in “the zone,” saw more progress by day’s end. Remarkably, I’m still reluctant to start the work; every day I have to convince myself fresh. But once I get over that first hurdle, I love what I’m doing.

What does AI give me that novel-writing didn’t? A lot of things:

  • AI is functional. Meaning, it doesn’t exist to create emotional reactions in others. It does something in itself. To be clear, I’m not saying functional pursuits are better or more important. Far from it. I am saying that, for me personally, it’s much easier to tell when the AI is working than when the novel is “working,” because the AI is, you know, doing things.
  • With AI, I know when I’m doing well. Closely related to the point above. One of the most frustrating things about writing a novel was that after five years of work, I still had no idea whether it was any good. With an AI, it’s much easier to measure the progress – and the quality. If the robot be gettin’ smarter, you be gettin’ better. (You can quote me on that.)
  • You can write an AI without being a great programmer. How? Because being a great programmer requires many different skills: reading unfamiliar code, using the full potential of a language, finding the most efficient algorithms, obeying customer requirements, finishing before deadline, following best practices, and a thousand other things. Sitting down by yourself to write an AI requires exactly none of those skills. With an AI, it’s the design that has to be exquisite. The code itself doesn’t have to be great, it only has to be good enough. Compared to the stress of writing a novel, where every word has to be just right, it’s a great relief.
  • AI-building uses a wider range of my skills than novel-writing. Designing an AI engages me in philosophy, psychology, language, math, and complex logic. Those last two didn’t get a lot of play when I was writing the novel. Yes, there’s certainly a kind of logic that goes on as you’re crafting a plot, and it certainly can get complex. But the specifications are less…precise. It’s hard to explain, but it feels different as I do it. It feels better.

I could go on, but if you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ll thank me to wrap it up. So I’ll simply say that I’ve found joy in my work again, and it’s a good place to be.

Do you like what you’re doing right now?

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9 responses to “Finding Joy in the Work Again

  1. What a fantastic question Brian. Unfortunately for me, my answer depends on the hour… Since February, I’ve had more weeks of 60+ hours at work than not. While I enjoy what I’m doing for my employment a great deal, I have a lot of frustration with some things going on. Between the hours and stress of work, I haven’t been able to do any personal projects since last fall.

    My last personal project was to rewire the lights in my Xterra since I didn’t like how they worked. The fog lights would only come on while the low beams were on. I couldn’t have them on with just the parking lights (or the high beams, but that was less important). The roof mounted off road lights would only come on with the high beams which discounted the ability to have near and far lighting at the same time for some unknown reason. It also happens that with most modern cars, things as simple as fog lights aren’t controlled by simple relays anymore so I had neat project to work on. I spent two weeks reading wiring diagrams, electronic control schematics and breadboarding various solutions. It was a hell of a lot of fun… Wish I had time for more of that right now.

  2. I totally agree with you that for me there is something intrinsically better about doing something that you can see and feel progress being made on than something that is abstract. I think that comes from having a job where much of the work done is abstract.
    I am working on finding projects that I enjoy doing. This has been a long road for me but I think I am finally in a place where I have some ‘hobbies’ that I really enjoy.

  3. It’s awesome that you’re enjoying that- how many people enjoy their hobbies that much? Not many, I’d think. Certainly not me, as much as I’m pouring all my energy into what I’m doing.

    I’m at school (yay) and I’m doing a ton of fun extracurriculars, but it’s getting to be a bit much. Getting up early to be at band, and having 1-2 hours of field hockey, cross-country running, or piano lessons after school every day is tiring. Plus there’s the insane amounts of homework they’re giving us. About an hour’s worth a day. Oh, and tournaments, races, and other related stuff almost every weekend.

    Normally things I enjoy… but not in these quantities. Oh well. *shoulders backpack* Off to school for me!

  4. Not really. Most of the outside-of-school things costed money, and music is… music. It’s my thing. But the sports season’s fairly short- and I’ll be more sensible next time sign-ups come around.

    …I hope.

  5. I still love the art of writing, although I do share your frustration at not knowing whether or not my novel is any good. However, I think the answer just lies in practice and work, and thinking outside the box. I do enjoy the work. As for school . . . well, I wish I only got an hour of homework a day. Instead, It’s more like 3. Guess that’s what I get for taking I.B. (Short for I be crazy for doing this), one of the most advanced programs in the country. Oh well. I do find finishing math problems oddly satisfying, and most of the other homework I can usually find some joy in. So things work out all right, I guess. Still, I am incessantly irritated by my video game habit-it seems to repeatedly irritate me.

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