Getting Out and Building Things

May 5, 2018

Retirement is a trickier thing than you might expect. The adage “constraints liberate and liberties constrain” is as true in life as it is in software development. The freedom to not have to spend eight hours a day giving your best energy to someone else is pretty cool, but comes with it the existential question of “what should I do instead with that time?”

Unsurprisingly, modern western society has not equipped us with the tools to tackle such problems headfirst. And this is no accident. Working is an important cultural institution to us. You can see it in getting-to-know-one-another small talk — one of the first questions out of people’s mouths is inevitably “what do you do?” The institution is more insidious than this however; what we do is often how we think of ourselves. As a result, retirement carries with it not only the burden of free time, but also of unanchored identity.

I want to talk about both today.

Having lots of free time doesn’t sound like it would be a burden. People generally have go-to answers when asked what they would do with unlimited time — “travel the world” or “write a novel” or “scuba dive at the great barrier reef” — things like this. Indeed, those were the things on my list.

What I think most people don’t realize is just how much time they spend working. I suspect most people could easily accomplish everything on their bucket-list if they dedicated a year or two to it. If you wanted to visit every country in the world, you could spend three days in each one if you spent two years doing it. But you’d get tired of traveling long before you made it. Spending two hours a day for a month is enough to write a novel; add a few extra months if you want to write a good novel. Taking a scuba class is maybe ten hours, and unless you really really like it, you’re not going to spend another twenty actually diving.

Most people work roughly 2000 hours a year. It’s an unfathomably huge chunk of life, and when it stops, egads man, it’s a hard thing to deal with.

My natural energy levels come in about three-hour cycles, which means this is about the amount of time I can dedicate to something in one sitting. But not all cycles have the same character; if I’m feeling inspired to write I can usually hammer out the ideas in a three-hour block, but at that point I lose the inspiration. I find most activities feel like this; it’s surprisingly hard to work full-steam on one thing all day.

All of this cashes out to needing at least five on-going projects if I want to fill my day. But they can’t just be any projects, they need to be varied in nature so I can match them with by energy level and mood. The wealth of experiences this engenders is staggering; since retiring four months ago I’ve done standup comedy, taken up building electronics, been to dance classes, regularly write for two blogs, taken up improvisation on guitar, started writing two books, read 17 books, dated five women, learned a huge amount of math, met 162 people, written a compiler, started building a few video games, learned enough Lithuanian to survive on a day-to-day-basis, implemented a GHC plugin, hiked up to the highest point in Lithuania a few times, learned to cook, gotten into doing skateboard tricks, and I’m still having problems figuring out how to spend my day.

Frankly, It’s exhausting.

It’s no wonder all of humanities great early achievements were done by the nobility; with sufficient curiosity and enough free time you’re sure to stumble upon something cool.

None of this is to say that I’d trade it and go back to working for the man. It’s a marvelous feeling to be able to follow through to wherever whimsy may take you. But there is more self-control required than I’d like to admit in order to not just throw up your hands, say “fuck it”, and see just how much TV you can watch in one go. I’ve set some truly disgusting records on this front lately too.

I think this is where the identity aspect ties into everything. I’ve been struggling with a good answer to “so, what do you do?” As best I can tell, there is no pithy, representative label for how I spend my time. “Retirement” evokes images of relaxing on the beach in Florida wearing white pants and, for the most part, haven given up on creating anything. “Just living” sounds too hedonistic, and “all sorts of things” seems to evade the question.

Recently I’ve been trying “I get out and I build things.” It hits the important markers: creating things is important to me, even if I’m not entirely sure what it is I’m building. It’s an eccentric answer, which in itself signals something. And, the “getting out” part is important too: just because I’m weird doesn’t mean I’m antisocial.

In fact, I think the “getting out” bit is the most important. Not for other people, but for my personal sense of identity. It’s too easy too hide out in your apartment when you’re living in a new city without any external responsibilities. And that’s what I was doing for my first two months here; being productive from the confines of my own space. While it’s a good way to get things done, it’s a great way to become a reclusive shut-in. This is not a thing I mind for a few months at a time, but when it starts to become lonely I’m going to wish I had put in the legwork beforehand.

Mantras are powerful things. I’m always surprised by how drastically I can shift my behavior by having a mantra behind it. It’s sort of like brainwashing yourself, but you know, any mask that stays on long enough is indistinguishable from your real face.

Getting out and building things is my mantra. What’s yours?