My boss put two questions in front of me recently, during the half-yearly review meeting. “What is the aspect of the job that gives you joy” – a nice, ego-boosting leading question that lead to a delightful conversation.
Her next question stumped me: “What is going to be your pet-project?”. “The one activity you could do on your own, during free time. Something you could come home to, when you have had an especially bad day”.
I drew a blank.
This question is significant today, as we perceive time, work and life very differently than just a few months ago. During the pre-COVID era(?), a knowledge worker like me would have separated work and life – at least physically, straddling across office and home each day. We used to talk about work-life balance. These days, there is not much of a discussion about balance. It’s all a blur at the moment.
A good blur, at least for me. I no longer need to get up worrying about ironing the shirt or to drive to work to be in time for the first meeting of the day. Time is aplenty. (My wife isn’t too excited though – having to come home each day only to see unwashed stained tea cups – one on the table, two lying on the floor and one missing).
Sorry, I digress. The point is, a different sort of homecoming is necessary to keep our sanity.
But, a pet-project ? You see, this phrase has two words that sound dangerous to the lazy-me: a pet needs maintenance, while a project needs diligent work towards completion.
Spend, Manage or Invest ?
On a serious note, what would i do with a bit of extra time ? Time = Money, they say. There was this crude poster i saw recently that compared how the poor, middle-class and rich deal with money:
– the ones who have less, SPEND.
– the ones who have moderate amount, MANAGE.
– the ones who have excess, INVEST.
How do i invest this little excess time? Typically i am bored, i look for interesting things in twitter (will write a blog one day, about the gems i discovered by following a few interesting people in twitter during this year), read a bit of philosophy/self-help books, watch movies (these days i’m into Turkish rom-coms). I also play a bit of amateur sports. However, i’m not serious about any of these things. I dabble.
To be serious about a pet-project, i have to generate a list of options, make a choice, invest time and energy, report on its progress, and show some result.
Choice! If i have a, b, c, and d as choices, it is mainly a question of what appeals to me the most. What if there is something outside this list that suits me better? How do i know what i don’t know ?
One would argue, it is not easy to make decisions even with clearly defined, discrete choices. The red or the blue pill, as Morpheus asks Neo in The Matrix.
When my daughter and my nephew were toddlers, they used to fight for the best toy. Once, faced with a red and a green plastic trumpet, the kids couldn’t come to an agreement who gets what. It ended like this: my girl grabbed both the trumpets and offered the guy to choose one of those. As soon as he decided on the green one, she knew exactly what she liked. She snatched that very green trumpet from the hands of the baffled boy, and threw the red one to him.
What to look for ?
Life is easier as a child. I am more indecisive than ever before and struggling to answer a simple question, with no clear list of options, nor a play-mate to try out a decision tree.
Perhaps this question should be framed as: what would you “work” on, given unlimited time & resources without any constraint whatsoever?
I looked around for some quick inspiration – maybe mentors could help? Or the so-called thought leaders – like Paul Graham – who says in his blog, What Doesn’t Seem Like Work, “The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence they probably are of what you should do.” He ends by asking, “What seems like work to other people that doesn’t seem like work to you?”
Unbounded and Unflattened
When i look back at my life so far, someone or something has always driven me somewhere. A rank to achieve, a course to finish, a job to get, a project to complete, a step to climb in the corporate ladder, a problem to solve for a customer, etc. Even when i indulged in creative pursuits, there had always been constraints or a boundary.
I am not sure how to wrest myself out of the set path – even if it is just for a hobby. Something different and random but not trivial; a pursuit that delivers pleasure but no expectation (i certainly don’t want additional responsibility and having to justify to anyone – including my nice and well-meaning manager, who surely will be reading this blog with a chuckle).
Anything, that amounts to something in the end.
This reminded me of a story about Compaq computers: In the 1980s, their customer support team had to spend a lot of time explaining first-time computer users, who called up to ask “Where is the Any key in my keyboard?”. The users were confused by the message in the computer monitor that instructed them to “Press Any Key to Continue”.
Where is my “any” key ?