What Keeps You Busy?

My friend Alice wrote a post some time ago about the question “what do you do?” and how it usually really means “what do you do for money?”.  But I don’t see the question in that light — really what I’m interested in is “what do you do with the bulk of your time?”.  For most people, that is full-time traditional employment, but I find it more interesting when it isn’t.  As a result, I try to avoid the question “what do you do?” these days in favor of “what keeps you busy?”.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but a meaningful one.  If something other than pursuing income keeps you busy, good for you!  I’d like to hear about it.

I have been kept busy by four different employment statuses in my adult life, and each has its pros and its cons.  Each has a different feel to it.  Sometimes the specific activities which keep me busy are different from one status to the next, and sometimes they’re the same but take on different meanings, but these statuses definitely all have distinctly different flavors.  I’ve been employed, unemployed, self-employed, and most recently, self-unemployed.

To discuss the pros and cons of the these statuses, first I need to explore what I want out of the activities that keep me busy.

What I Want From What Keeps Me Busy

  • Self-Determination. I want to be the master of my time, choosing what I do, when I do it, and how long I do it for.
  • Activities I Care About. I want my activities to make a difference in a way that has significance for me.
  • Project Ownership. I want to have a significant stake in and responsibility for the outcome of what I do.
  • Community. I want to have other people to interact with who are on the same or a similar path, people who want what I want and who can help me when I need it and accept my help when they need it.
  • Adequate Compensation. I want to be able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle indefinitely.

Now that I have some criteria to work with, I can start evaluating the employment statuses.  This is all highly subjective, of course, based on my own life experiences — I’m sure others have different opinions stemming from different experiences.


Employment has been a mixed bag for me.

Self-Determination: Very little.  Projects and schedules are determined by the employer, often without regard for your skills, interests, wishes, or well-being.  Rigid 5×8 workweeks with more than 40 hours’ worth of work to be done per week.  No telecommuting, despite working almost exclusively in the software industry.  -1

Activities I Care About: Not yet.  Business change management software, real estate database software, adult internet dating and porn sites — unfulfilling, all.  Perhaps I just haven’t worked for the right company yet.  +0

Project Ownership: Varies from company to company.  I’ve found that it’s easier to come by in a small company than in a large, which contributes to my preference for working for small companies.  +0

Community: This is where traditional employment shines.  Everyone who’s hired is brought on to be part of the team, and everywhere I’ve worked, there have been good people, even in amongst the bad.  There are always people to talk to, work with, and learn from, and that has been a significant factor in employee retention at more than one place I’ve worked.  +1

Adequate Compensation: Although I have been underpaid for my skills for most of my career, I have almost always made enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, and usually enough to squirrel away a significant percentage as savings as well.  +1

How I Kept Myself Busy: Doing what I was told, when I was told, for as long as I was told.  Trying to make positive change in an organization which was invariably too rigid and inflexible to accept it.  Waiting out the clock because I was obligated to be there for a fixed amount of time every day no matter what.

Total Score: 1


Unemployment was an unmitigated disaster for me.  I think I was already beginning to suffer from depression before I became unemployed in 2001, and being unemployed contributed tremendously.

Self-determination: Up the wazoo.  TOO MUCH self-determination, in fact.  Able to do anything I wanted any time I wanted, I did nothing all the time.  Directionlessness.  -1

Activities I Care About: I wasn’t doing things I cared about so much as doing things to try to fill the time.  -1

Project Ownership: I didn’t recognize that I had a project, so although I certainly had a stake in and responsibility for the outcome, that outcome was inactivity and depression.  Directionlessness meant that there wasn’t anything for me to feel like I had a stake in or responsibility for.  -1

Community: I was pretty isolated during this time, too.  -1

Adequate Compensation: Take it from me, the pay SUCKS.  -1

How I Kept Myself Busy: Staring at a flashing light box (either computer or TV) all day long as an escape.  Sleeping a lot.  Being miserable.

Total score: -5


Self-employment felt little better than unemployment when I experienced it before, but I do believe that I was doing it wrong.  The directionlessness of unemployment and depression carried over into my freelance web design days, and I found myself unhappily doing the least I could to get by — or not even that.

Self-determination: Moderate.  You can pick and choose your clients, right?  Well, I had only one client, and worked for them doing whatever they wanted.  I was freer than at any regular job, but still bound by the client’s wishes (and hadn’t found any other clients to provide me with choices), so this worked out kind of neutral.  +0

Activities I Care About: I was building things on the web, and that was good.  I was able to expand my mind and improve my skills, which is important to me.  But ultimately the business of selling shoes on the web is not one that I am passionate about, so the projects themselves weren’t inspiring.  Another neutral, I think.  +0

Project Ownership: I had a LOT of latitude in what I could do, subject to approval by the business owner and his management staff.  I had a great deal of influence over their web site and their internet marketing activities, and took the web site from doing $500/month in business to about six figures a month in my time there.  It’s just a pity that the increasing business had no effect on my bottom line.  Still, I’ll call this a positive.  +1

Community: Very small, since it was a small business I was working for, and none of them were particularly high tech.  I was mostly on my own as the internet guy.  Again, though, I think I was doing it wrong.  More clients, more networking, etc., could have helped with this.  Another neutral.  +0

Adequate Compensation: It would have been, had I worked the hours I’d planned to, or negotiated better.  Yet another neutral.  +0

How I Kept Myself Busy: Mostly the same as during unemployment, but with an additional 5-20 hours a week of web design.

Total score: +1


Self-unemployment has been FANTASTIC for my mental health and my mood.  I’m so glad I quit my job in January.  It’s been like a mini-retirement (allusion to The 4-Hour Workweek intended).

Self-determination: Extreme.  I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, and I am usually taking full advantage of that to work on my projects.  +1

Activities I Care About: Speaking of my projects, I have time to read, write, code, do web design, blog, study game design, play video games for fun and research (instead of escape), etc.  Things I haven’t had time and/or energy for in year.  +1

Project Ownership: Yes.  No one else is working on my projects, so the stake and responsibility are all mine.  +1

Community: This has come to my attention as something that is currently lacking in my life.  I don’t have enough community, and need to reach out and make some connections with people and groups whose goals and interests are in line with mine.  0 for now, but I believe I can improve this to +1 soon.

Adequate Compensation: This is the one true drawback to self-unemployment.  I’m burning through my savings — and really, if I were receiving adequate compensation, it would be self-employment (doing it right), not self-unemployment.  -1

How I Kept Myself Busy: Like I said in the Activities I Care About section, reading, writing, coding,  web designing, blogging, studying game design, and playing video games.  I’m very happy with how I am keeping myself busy lately, though it defies labeling.

Total score: +2


Self-unemployment is the most fulfilling lifestyle I’ve experienced so far, and I am loathe to leave it behind, but my dwindling savings tell me I must start thinking about it.  I would like to transition into self-employment in a manner that results in a score of +5.  Pretty much doing what I’m doing now but with more project-related social interaction and selling it to people (or otherwise being compensated, e.g. through advertising).  Failing that, I think a job at a small company (perhaps an independent game company, blog network, or web design firm) would be a good fit.  Part-time or temporary work would be good if the money was good enough to keep me in food and clothing.  But really, I’d just like to keep on doing what I’m doing.

What about you?  What keeps you busy?  And what do you want from the activities that keep you busy?

Restaurant Review: Lee’s Sandwiches

Lee’s Sandwiches is a Vietnamese sandwich restaurant locatef on the El Camino Real in Sunnyvale just east of Mary Avenue.  I decided to drop in for lunch today to check it out, as I’ve often been curious about it.  I was in the mood for a deli-style ham and cheese sandwich, so I went in to see what they’ve got.

The restaurant has a few small round tables as well as a bar-like counter along the window overlooking the parking lot and the street.  It has a tile floor, and although it’s small and fairly utilitarian, it has a comfortable feel to it.  They have a large, colorful menu on the wall behind the counter, with each sandwich illustrated on a large square panel.  They have a number of Vietnamese sandwiches as well as a good selection of what their web site refers to as “Euro Sandwiches”.  Chips are located on shelves under the counter, the top of which is covered with various food items on styrofoam trays, mostly the sort of meat-and-rice or meat-and-noodles dishes you’d expect to find at a roach coach.  To the left is a drink refrigerator which mostly contains Asian beverages (both packaged and fresh) which I found unidentifiable.  Fortunately they have a small selection of American drinks for ignorant Americans like me, such as Arizona iced tea, Snapple, and Vitamin Water.

I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette (#21) and picked up an Arizona iced tea and a bag of “Dirty” potato chips to go with it.  I paid and then found a seat at a small round table with two wooden chairs, and set up my laptop to do some reading and chatting while I waited for my sandwich.  A few minutes later it arrived in a cardboard tray with a hot pepper and a couple of pickle wedges.  The pickles looked very seedy, so I skipped them in deference to my dietary restrictions.  The sandwich was a pretty basic ham and cheddar with lettuce and tomato on it (I lucked out on one half and got a slice of tomato with no seeds, so I was able to eat it, but the other slice was very seedy, so I removed it).  There were two packets of mustard with it, but I didn’t feel it needed any.  The sandwich was surprisingly moist and flavorful without it.

I enjoyed my meal, but found that when it was gone, I was still hungry.  So I returned to the counter and selected a tray of chow mein and a bottle of Snapple.  The chow mein noodles were thin and there were a lot of bean sprouts and green onions in it, so that it was only about half noodles.  It was well-prepared and tasted good, but it wasn’t to my taste (I prefer thicker noodles and fewer vegetables).

Overall, Lee’s is a decent place to get a sandwich, especially if (like me) you like to have a few different places to go so that you don’t always have sandwiches made the same way.  I get tired of always having Togo’s or always having Subway, so it’s nice that Lee’s is nearby so that I have another choice of sandwich style.  I give it four stars out of five.  Check it out if you’re in the area and looking for a sandwich, but don’t feel like going to the Subway across the street.

The Crucible: Developing Expertise

Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours

I recently read a blog post on The Writer’s Coin which discussed some concepts from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I haven’t read the book (yet) myself, but it sounds fascinating, and the post got me thinking about expertise.

Gladwell claims that to be a world-class expert in any given subject requires 10,000 hours of practice.


That’s a lot of time.

Let’s say you work full time on a skill you want to be a world-class expert on. 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year (with two weeks of vacation) comes out to 2000 hours a year. So you would need to work full-time for five years. And we’re talking undivided attention here — time spent taking a break or working while distracted doesn’t count. 10,000 hours of real dedication, moving forward, challenging yourself, working at your edge and pushing beyond it constantly.

I say again: DAMN!

Even with enough free time, how do you find the motivation to do something like that?

Expertise and Me

Not everyone wants to be a world-class expert, and perhaps those who do usually have the dedication to work single-mindedly on their craft like this. I enjoy being good at things, but I’m less fond of the hard work required to get there. I guess that means I’m unlikely to ever be a world-class expert at anything, unless I discover something that I enjoy so much that it doesn’t feel like work to do it full-time.

I love the feeling of being the expert (a situation I have encountered a couple of times in my professional career), but the idea that true expertise requires that much time and effort is daunting at best. And yet the end result is so alluring that it might be worth it. Then it becomes a question of figuring out what to become an expert on, and that’s where things get really tricky. There are just so many choices!

I’ve been thinking lately about returning to the workforce (though likely in a limited capacity). For the first time in my career, I am thinking hard about what I want from an employer in terms of working conditions, company culture, and values. Expertise is one of the thoughts that keeps crossing my mind as I explore these ideas. “The expert” is my favorite role I’ve ever held in the workplace. Working in software quality assurance, I was often required to become an expert on how the product was supposed to work (and how it actually did work). This put me in a position to serve as a resource for other departments (technical writers, customer service folks, trainers, and even sometimes programmers). Being valued for my knowledge is extremely rewarding to me, whereas being valued for doing real work is almost annoying. I guess I like to be appreciated for my strengths rather than my weaknesses. 😉

I’m keeping this in mind as I think about employment — I will be much happier with a job if it offers me the opportunity to be the expert.

Cultivating Expertise in the Workplace

Now that I’ve worked a few different places, I have some perspective on what factors allow for the development of expertise. This is slanted toward a job in software QA, but I’m sure many of these factors are of general applicability.

  • Small team size. The fewer ways the work is divided, the more each person has to know. Large teams dilute expertise. For large and complex projects, it can be valuable to have each person develop expertise on one or more areas of the project, however.
  • Broad project scope. If an individual’s assignments are in too narrow an area of the product, it can be difficult for them to develop a good understanding of the big picture. Knowledge should be deep enough to qualify as expertise, but also broad enough to be useful often.
  • Quick turn-around. Repetition helps a lot with retaining what you’ve learned. If you learn something once and never need it again, odds are the details will fade. On the other hand, if you use that information again every day of the week, it will soon become second nature.
  • Good availability of information. Having an oracle of your own to turn to is invaluable in developing expertise, whether that oracle be another expert, printed documentation, a well-maintained wiki, or even just the application source code.
  • Customer input. Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that the customer WILL abuse your product in ways that no one ever could have anticipated. The customer is both your best friend and your worst enemy in terms of uncovering information about your product. They will help you discover new things, but you may well wish they hadn’t!
  • Long-term attachment to one product/project. Switching from one project to another means that you’re no longer using and reinforcing the knowledge that’s unique to the first one, and you’re starting from scratch learning something new. That’s not an efficient way to leverage (or even maintain) your expertise. Working on one project for a long period of time allows you to maintain, develop, and deepen your expertise and put it to good use on a regular basis.

These elements will help you get closer to that ideal of 10,000 hours.

The blog post I mentioned above included this quote about the Beatles from Outliers:

All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

Do your best to find or create a crucible for yourself, and expertise will follow.