Going Solo and the Loss of Bullshit

March 15th 2022

As a full-time employee, I used to loathe "bullshit". Any time I had to do something that didn't directly help move my project along, it just made me antsy. And unfortunately, as I saw it, bullshit was everywhere. There were the company meetings, and the HR training courses, and the checkpoints with the manager, and the "volunteer" work on corporate initiatives, and on and on and on. (*) In a given week, bullshit could easily eat up 20-40% of my time. It used to drive me nuts.

Then I went independent, and all the bullshit just vanished. Poof. Now, my work hours are totally optimized. Everything I do, whether it's coding, or collaborating, or researching, is all "productive", in the sense that it contributes in some practical way to the project I'm working on. And so without a doubt, I get way more done now.

In addition, I find that I also enjoy the work more, because I thrash less. As a full-time employee, bullshit would be just randomly scattered across my calendar, and so every day would be a non-stop context-switch between bullshit and productive work. I'd come out of some useless meeting and then frantically try to squeeze in an hour of real work before I had to get to my next bullshit activity. Now, I have longer blocks of focus time where I can sink into the "zone" and do deep work, and it is nice.

So for someone who generally enjoys their work, all this is pretty freaking great.

But I've come to realize there is also a flip-side. Although bullshit is, well, bullshit from a productivity standpoint, it can sometimes be kind of nice from a personal perspective. Like a pressure release valve. After a few straight hours of coding, for instance, when I had effectively depleted my mental reservoir, sitting in on the quarterly meeting and listening to some exec talk about corporate financials could actually be a relaxing switch-up. A chance for my brain to take a break, and focus on something different. Or to just generally space out.

Bullshit could also be a forcing function to do something that benefited me in the long term - like networking or learning some other part of the business. Although in the moment it seemed like a distraction to my immediate goal, in hindsight, I can see that there was a little bit of value there for me.

And so some days, I have to admit, I lament my loss of bullshit.

Now of course at this point you might want to shout back: "you're an independent for god's sake, you can do whatever bullshit you want, whenever you goddamn want to!" And technically that's true! The big difference, though, is that bullshit is now on my dime. Because, by definition, bullshit is not tangibly productive, it's not something I can bill a client for. And so there's now an opportunity-cost to bullshit. Every hour of it that I do is an hour I'm not making money.

And so given this financial reality, combined with my original antipathy toward bullshit, it made it so, at least in the beginning, I would hardly ever opt for it. Eventually though a bit of productivity fatigue set in, and I realized some level of bullshit was actually healthy. So I came up with a few guiding principles to balance things out.

First, since I no longer get paid for it, I realize that I should at least get to choose what type of bullshit I want to do. So if what I actually need is a mental break, I just go mountain biking, which is way more rejuvenating than a company meeting, in my humble opinion. (And of course I realize mountain biking is a hobby and not bullshit per se, but that's kind of the point.)

Second, I try to frame it differently, and less rigidly. Some of those things I considered bullshit before, I now see as a type of investment in myself or my business (maybe even a bit like Extra). So for example, while an hour of browsing tech blogs or a random zoom connect with a former colleague might not immediately help my project, it can be a good way or to learn, to network, or just to be a human being, and so I deliberately try to make a little time for it, and not stress that I billed 7 hours instead of 8 that day.

In the end, I found that even bullshit has tradeoffs. While I do enjoy my current lack of it, that doesn't mean I don't sometimes miss an informal one-on-one with my boss or a random celebration. I will say though, I have not once missed those HR training courses.

* I realize that the things I'm calling "bullshit" are often valuable activities from the organization's perspective. Regulations that stipulate employees take certain trainings are real. Meetings that inform all employees of the state of the business are important. And so on. But from the perspective of the person who just wants to build quality software (or whatever their immediate job is), these things can end up feeling like a distraction. Like bullshit.

I'm an "old" programmer who has been blogging for almost 20 years now. In 2017, I started Highline Solutions, a consulting company that helps with software architecture and full-stack development. I have two degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, one practical (Information and Decision Systems) and one not so much (Philosophy - thesis here). Pittsburgh, PA is my home where I live with my wife and 3 energetic boys.
We're hiring! Looking for a full-stack developer (React, NodeJS or Java, AWS) open to contract work. Fully remote. The model at Highline is a little different - we're more of a co-op than a traditional consultancy. Our goal is to reward the person doing the work, and keep everything else streamlined. If you're interested, hit me up at ben@highlinesolutions.io to find out more. Send along a resume, or better yet a TechRez!
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Comments (1)
April 03, 2022
Bullshit was also one of the reasons why I went independent and I'm really happy I made that step and I don't miss it at all. Agree, now it's on my dime, but I get to pick how I want to distract myself from work. In the past the company forced the distraction with random meetings, compliance trainings, health and safety trainings, town halls, etc. and I don't think any of these distractions actually helped my brain to find distance from tech problems. Now it's my choice just to go for a walk or play xbox for half an hour and then get back to solving tech problems maybe from a different perspective.
Thanks. Yeah...agreed. Sometimes a company meeting was like a brain break...but not a very good one. Much better ways to to replenish the battery than bullshit.