My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to purchase season-long passes for us and our kids to our local water park. Since we live in a desert and our summer lasts half the year, this park is a perfect place for all of us to go and cool off for a little while. The kids love it, we get out of the house (which can be hard to do when it's 110F/43C outside), and we all get some quality time away from TV and video games, the trade off being the occasional sunburn. It's been a win-win for everyone involved.
Tornado water slide at Darien Lake by Zotdragon, used under license. The same slide exists at our local water park.
On our first trip of the season, I realized that there were a fair number of slides (more than half) I've never been on. Well, I can fix that, I thought, and quickly made up my mind that I would be going on every single one of them, including different slides that were part of the same ride. It would be easy enough, I reasoned; there's only about fifty slides total in the park, I can go on all of them. That way, when I was done, I could say I "completed" the water park. This would be fun!
And so my happy quest began. I first got in line for the Tornado slide pictured above, then the race slides (four times!), then the water coaster. They were all a blast, and I started to feel like this would be worthwhile. I made it my purpose, my reason for going to the park, to complete this goal.
Lines, though, lines were my enemy. Several of the lines for the more popular rides were multiple-hours long, and I stood in two of them before the day was over. Just as I felt like I was making progress toward my imaginary goal, the sun began to set, the kids were exhausted, and we had to head home.
No big deal, I told myself without entirely believing it, I'll just pick up the quest the next time we go to the park. Being the completionist that I am, this is exactly what I started doing on our next trip. When we arrived I immediately jetted off with my sons in tow to the mammoth falls, then the second coaster track, then the racers again to grab the purple and yellow tubes I'd missed the first time round. It was a blast, and the kids were having a lot of fun, but once again the long lines were my undoing, and by the time we had to leave I had only completed about a third of the total rides in the park.
Dammit, I thought, another setback? I'm never gonna catch up at this rate. I was annoyed, and surprised at myself because of it. This was supposed to be fun, wasn't it? So why was I so frustrated?
Two weeks later was the third trip, and now I had to get in line for the tube sliders, then the river rapids. I ended up standing in line for the latter ride for two hours, despite the fact that it was one of the few rides that I'd been on before. At some point, without my notice or consent, this happy quest transformed into a hungry need, a void into which I was pouring my time. I had to ride all the rides, needed to finish this self-imposed mission. The completionist mindset that I often find myself troubled by had totally taken over, and now what was once a silly, mindless little game had mutated to become an unnecessary necessity.
This isn't fun anymore. This little thought, this harbinger of the quest's doom, occurred to me while standing in line for the dark tube ride. This was supposed to be fun, wasn't it? So why wasn't I having any fun? Why was I doing this? There was no goal to this "quest" other than "bragging rights", and even then, who would I brag to? What was the bloody point? They're just slides!
Cyclone WWW Interaction by Saberwyn, used under license
After the third trip I gave up the quest. It wasn't fun, wasn't fulfilling, and once I let go of the stupid desire to "complete" the park I felt relieved. I was unburdened from my own flights of fancy, and now I could just go out and have fun with my family. The whole idea started out as something that sounded fun, a goal to accomplish, but it just ended up stressing me out for no good reason.
All of this nicely illustrates how I feel about constantly trying to keep up with current trends in the software industry. I sometimes feel like I have to ride every ride, see every place, talk to everyone, just to keep up with what everyone else in my field seems to be doing. I feel like I'm being left behind, and so I have to try to do everything. Problem is, while "everything" at a water park may be fifty slides, "everything" in software development is a limitless pool of information and innovation and knowledge and it is simply impossible to keep up with it all.
The solution for my self-imposed stress was remarkably simple. I stopped trying to keep up with everything. There's just too much that I could choose to learn.
Instead, I'm forcing myself to pick which things I really need or want to know. Sometimes I choose to learn something because it will help me get better at my job, sometimes because it just sounds fun. Sometimes I learn something just in the nick of time, because it will help me solve a bug I'm tracking. Sometimes I choose to learn nothing at all and go outside. Anything I choose to learn or improve on will occupy some of my precious time, time which I'll never get back, and so it had better be worth the trade. To be frank, I'm not very good at this yet (as my batch of half-completed projects will attest to) but I'm getting better. Slowly, deliberately, I'm figuring out how to make the most of my time and still keep up.
The point is that I am now back in control of my time. I choose what line to get in, which ride I really want (or need) to go on. I choose what I want to learn (or choose how to learn it if it is something I must do). I am in the driver's seat for my own professional life, and now I just have to find the wherewithal to stay there.
For me, at least, what I choose to spend time learning needs to have a purpose, and that purpose should be more than "because I need to keep up." I don't need to keep up with every little change. I don't need to get in every line, to ride every ride in the park. I just need to ride the ones that make me a better developer, the ones that I decide are worth the time invested, the ones that I think look like fun. Whether that's many of them or just a few of them doesn't matter. I choose how to spend my time, and I want to spend it wisely. After all, the time I spend standing in line or learning a new technology is time I'm never going to get back. I want to make the trade worth it.
In the meantime, I'm gonna go get in line for those racer tubes. What will you get in line for?