It all started with video games
When I was younger I LOVED playing computer games. From the minute we got our first Macintosh I was obsessed. I’d sit in front of that 9″ black and white screen for hours and hours and play games like “The Ancient Art of War”, “Pirates”, and “Where in the World is Carmen Santiago”. I MUCH preferred playing video games (which I was good at) to playing sports (which I was terrible at). I liked playing video games, reading about video games, and talking about them with my friends. I was obsessed.
By the time I was in high school I had decided that being a video game programmer would be the most awesome job in the world.
The idea of getting paid to actually create and then test video games seemed like a dream come true. Every day would be like Christmas! Of course, I didn’t actually know anything about computer programming or software development, so I had only a vague idea of what would be involved in creating a video game.
I assumed that video game programming started by sitting on a bean bag with a video game controller in one hand and a bowl of Doritos in the other hand. You’d play your favorite video game for inspiration. After each level you jot down notes on things you liked and didn’t like then slam back a Mountain Dew to ensure you were operating at peak efficiency. Occasionally you’d have an important meeting to discuss if the fountain of blood resulting from a headshot on a monster should be 5x bigger than a chest wound or 4x bigger.
Maybe you’d discuss the finer points of a certain plot point (should BOTH troglodyte princesses fall in love with you, or was that too much?) Perhaps you’d provide input into the graphics (“the nuclear waste dripping from the vampiric centaur should be green, not red!”). And, at the end of the day, I’d hop in my Porsche, drive home to my mansion, kiss my supermodel wife, and sit down to the gourmet dinner she’d prepared.
I knew that was the kind of life I wanted, so I started learning more about software development. I quickly learned that the life of a software engineer was not quite what I imagined. Yes, it’s true that software engineers are all popular, good-looking, have amazing social skills, are snappy dressers, and date supermodels, but surprisingly, the actual software development isn’t quite as sexy as you’d think it would be. In fact, it can kind of suck.
Software development is long hours, lonely spent in computer labs. It’s walking through code, line by line, trying to figure out why something isn’t working the way you want it to. It’s frustration. It’s realizing your design sucks and you need to rewrite an entire component of your program.
By the time I was a senior year in I knew that actual software development wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be, but I was still convinced that developing video games would be different.
As a result, a few friends and I decided that our senior project to be to develop a program to create video games. This system would allow anybody to create simple video games by creating little objects and then allowing them to interact. If you wanted to create the game Pac-man you’d start with Pac-man himself. He’d respond to certain keys on the keyboard (pressing the “up” key made him move up, etc.). If he touched a regular pellet it would disappear and the player would get 10 point. If Pac-man touched a power pellet the power pellet would disappear, Pac-man would become invincible, and the player would get 50 points.
To create the ghosts you’d start with the rules for their movement – they would continue in whatever direction they were going until they hit an intersection, then they’d turn towards Pac-man. If they died they would reappear in the middle of board. They could pass through each other. The walls were indestructible
You created the list of rules for each item and then watch everything move around the board. If the game wasn’t quite right you’d tweak the rules again.
We proudly called our system HUGE (Hypothetical Universal Game Engine). Using this system you could create ANY game. We created Pac-man, Centipede, and a few others.
HUGE would be easy for anybody to use. No programming experience was necessary. The game objects could easily be moved from one game to the other. You could drop the ghosts from Pac-man into Centipede and shoot them instead of the centipede.
I thought this was going to be the most fun senior project in the history of mankind. After all, it wouldn’t feel like work if I was developing video games, right?
It was drudgery. The worst thing about the project was that I HAD to do it. I had to sit down and hammer out code even when I didn’t want to. It didn’t matter if I was tired or uninspired. The project was due by a certain date and we had to have it done by then.
To say that I was disillusioned was an understatement. After all, if I didn’t like software development for video games, what WOULD I like?
Can you love something you’re forced to do?
Is the problem that it’s impossible to do something you HAVE to do? Does getting paid to do something suck the fun out of it?
After all, I’ve had personal programming projects I LOVED doing. For example, one day I was sitting in an airport and passing time by working on a Sudoku puzzle. I had been working on one in particular for just over an hour and I was getting frustrated. Suddenly, I had an idea – could I write a program to solve any Sudoku puzzle in less time than it took me to actually solve this Sudoku puzzle? I spent about 30 minutes designing the algorithm and another 30 minutes actually writing and testing it, and it worked! I remember the immense feeling of satisfaction I had after finishing my Sudoku solving system. I knew that I wasn’t the first person to write a Sudoku solving program. I knew nobody else would ever see or use my program. But that wasn’t the point.
The key was that my Sudoku challenge was something I had selected for myself. It was interesting. It was a challenge. I knew I could work on it for as long as I wanted to, but the second it wasn’t interesting any more I could stop.
After college I decided that a job working as a video game programmer would probably be like developing HUGE. I’d have deadlines. There would be requirements I didn’t create and didn’t necessarily agree with. I’d play the same level over and over and over again trying to find bugs.
And if I hated the job or the project I was working on I couldn’t just quit. After all, I had student loan payments, rent, food, and a host of other monthly expenses. I would be forced to keep toiling away, even if I was miserable.
I then realized that forced to do anything, even something you love, sucks.
Financial independence increases your enjoyment of life
What does any of this have to do with investing, early retirement, or any of the other things this site is focused on?
It’s my strong belief that achieving financial independence allows you to extract far more happiness out of everyday life. Look, I know there are people out there who do, in fact, love their jobs. My dad always said that he’d continue doing his job even if he won the lottery. Warren Buffett has more money than he could ever spend in 100 lifetimes, but at 86 years old he says he still “tap dances to work”.
But even people who like their jobs don’t love everything about their jobs. Maybe you have to deal with angry customers. There are assignments you don’t like or decisions you don’t agree with. TPS forms needs to be filled out every week and office politics need to be navigated.
But once you don’t need the money the power dynamic shifts. Your employer knows that if you’re not happy you can leave at any time. This allows you to renegotiate the terms of your existing job to exclude the parts you don’t like, and you can approach these discussions from a position of strength. If you employer won’t agree to the changes then you can simply quit and find something else that interests you.
It’s only once you’re no longer forced to do something than you can truly enjoy it.
Readers – Do you love your job? Would you continue doing your current job if you were completely financially independent? Do you think it’s possible to love something you’re forced to do?