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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

eternal dissatisfaction by CJ Q. '23

wish i could write more, care less

one

here is one of my tiny struggles over the past few weeks, and it mostly centers on feeling good about my output. i’ve talked about my attitude with work in the past, see e.g. there is no such thing as a typical day, where i deconstruct a little the notion of being productive. it is, of course, one thing to know and another to believe.

it is the unfortunate case that i, like many other people i know, overcommit myself. last summer i hit my ceiling of the amount of things i can work on at once that i care about, and i think i am very near that limit this summer. i am doing promys again, this time as a head counselor, i’m helping run programs with esp again, i’m on the gph writing team, i’m trying to keep a regular schedule blogging, i’m working on personal projects, i’m trying to learn math and other things on the side. fortunately, i am much less burnt out, largely due to a stronger social support system, because god i love being in macgregor and living with other people again.

that doesn’t change the fact that there is only so much effort i can pour into the things i am doing. i’m forced to partition myself, to choose how much soul i can put into each commitment. and as much as i want everything i do to be great, or perfect, as much as i want to help make promys an excellent online summer camp, as much as i want to help out with esp’s programs this summer, as much as i want to make my part of gph great, as much as i want to create beautiful blog posts, as much as i want to write math and learn math and write websites and learn stuff, i can’t do it. i can’t do it all.

what ends up happening is that i end up doing mediocre-ish on a bunch of things rather than really well on one thing. and this is weird. it feels counter to all of the things i’ve heard about in the past, where it’s like, focus on a few things that are important to you, aggressively cut things that you don’t like. the thing is, i like all of these things, it’s just hard to enjoy them all at once.

two

here’s an example. one of my recent personal projects is cfish, a web app for playing the game canadian fish, also known as literature. the reason that drove me to make it wasn’t that there weren’t any existing fish websites, because there were several, it’s that i wasn’t satisfied with any of them. and so i put upon myself the task of writing a website i liked.

at first i thought it wouldn’t be that hard. i’ve made lots of webapps before, with complexity, i thought, comparable to this. just1, for example, was my first experience working with sockets, and yet i finished it over just a few days. qboard, probably the project i’m proudest of, had its core built over a weekend. yet something about cfish just felt off. it’s been a month since i started working on cfish, and only last week did i finish the minimum viable product. i spent four weeks working on something that, in the end, i’m still deeply dissatisfied with. why? what gives? what’s changed?

maybe you can argue that cfish was a more complicated project than anything i’ve worked on in the past. the logic for cfish is certainly more complicated than just1. maybe you can argue that i just had less time working on it, which may be true, but that doesn’t feel like th real reason. maybe it’s because i’ve been battling depression as of late? no, that’s not it either.

when i think about cfish, and how i worked on it, i think i was deeply concerned with the quality of the result. i kept thinking, wow, this is bad code. this is not the right way to do this. i should be splitting this into several files. this is horrible ui. i’d battle it with things like, i’ll refactor it later, i’ll fix the ui later. my mind retorts with, do you ever really do that? will it ever really get fixed, or just end up on the bottom of your todos for the project?

i ended up obsessing over polish and tiny details, when i could’ve finished the broad strokes of the work much faster, i think. and i knew, of course, that this was a trap to avoid. done is better than perfect, after all! my goal wasn’t to produce a perfect fish website, it was to simply resolve my complaints about the current ones, like a lack of rules customization. yet it feels like i spent so much more time working on things that were outside this goal.

sure, maybe it produced a better website in the end, working on all those quality of life things. but was it worth it? i’m okay with the result, sure. i learned things. i produced something i’d use, even if it’s not something i’m really proud of. and yet i’m still dissatisfied. always dissatisfied.

three

i’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about this ira glass quote:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. […] We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have.

something something dissatisfaction with your work isn’t a bad thing, it’s a sign you have good taste. every once in a while i’ve made something that almost makes it up to these standards that i set for myself, and yet it always feels like it falls short, and yet i do it anyway. why? what’s the point?

i’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about this kill six billion demons quote:

YISUN was questioned once by their disciples at their speaking house. The questions were the following:
“What is the ultimate reason for existence?”
To which YISUN replied, “Self-deception.”
“How can a man live in perfect harmony?”
To which YISUN replied, “Non-existence.”
“What is the ultimate result of all action?”
To which YISUN replied, “Futility.”
“How best can we serve your will?”
To which YISUN replied, “Kindly ignore my first three answers.”

strong nihilism, in a sense. the recognition that existence is ultimately meaningless, truly absurd, that the only way we can go through it is deceiving ourselves, and yet we trudge on anyway, because the only meaning we can make of it is whatever we put onto it. keep making things, keep making things, keep making things, maybe there doesn’t have to be a goal. maybe it doesn’t have to be prefect.

i’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about this nate soares blog post:

If you’re trying to pass the class, then pass it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you’re trying to ace the class, then ace it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you’re trying to learn the material to the fullest, then mine the assignment for all its knowledge, and don’t fret about your grade. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you’re trying to do achieve some combination of good grades (for signalling purposes), respect (for social reasons), and knowledge (for various effects), then pinpoint the minimum quality target that gets a good grade, impresses the teacher, and allows you to learn the material, and hit that as efficiently as you can. Anything more is wasted motion.

often it feels like i’ve been doing things without really having a strong will for why i’m doing them. i get the sense that i “should” work on personal projects, or that i “should” study more math, or that i “should” write a blog post. why? i’m sure at some point in my life i must’ve had reasons why, goals like amassing an impressive span of work or feeling good about being competent in things. in the day-to-day, it’s easy to lose sight of that bigger goal, and so easy to focus on the details, that my brain discards the importance of the goal and leaves a vague feeling of “should”.

four

okay i was gonna write more and i spent five minutes without thinking of anything else to write so tl;dr this song