Thanks to a cruel editorial by Alex St. John and a rebuttal by Rami Ismail, the conversation about crunch is making the rounds again.
St. John’s editorial gains extra overtones if you also look at his amazing guidance about hiring, which is all about how to leverage people’s personalities, relationships, and neuro-atypical conditions in order to maximize profit. If you’re prone to making obscene gestures at the screen when you read something bogglingly sexist, you might want to limber up your fingers before you click through to those slides.
I was already thinking about this topic because of my own recent attempt to evaluate time use, and because one of the comments about that basically said “hey, you’re incredibly lucky that get to do what you care about!” with an implication that I shouldn’t be looking into how I’m doing it, or whether I’m doing it in the most efficient possible way, because that would be questioning this god-sent gift.
I am incredibly lucky that I get to do things I care about. I said so in that post and I’m happy to say so again. But that’s not the only thing to consider.
So let’s talk about time commitment and “passion.”
I’ve been writing interactive stories for about 17 years now, the first decade of which was mostly unpaid. A few times in the early years I tried to give up IF because I felt it was interfering with my academic career. I failed. Disengaging from interactive fiction didn’t make me more productive elsewhere, it just made me sadder. So I have it pretty bad.
At the same time, I’ve usually been in a position to manage my own engagement level. While I was working on Versu, I put in really long hours to meet internal goals, but no one was telling me what hours to work; just what the deadlines were. At a couple of other points, I was actually the employee of a game studio but was working pretty normal, non-crunch hours.
Other than those stints, I’ve spent most of my industry time freelancing. That means that I sometimes do work long hours, but generally not at other people’s bidding. Again, someone might give me a deliverable deadline that requires a lot of hard work, especially if client calendars overlap in a way I didn’t expect, but no one is saying “you need to be in this office for 80 hours a week.”
I’ve also written a couple dozen games completely on my own time, including some where I forced myself to crunch because I’d promised the community I was going to finish the project, and some where I did not because I never made any hard promises about when it would be released.
Here’s my take, from that perspective.
Sometimes working really long hours is good: good creatively, good emotionally, good for the project. Sometimes I’m on a roll and I don’t want to be dragged away from my laptop. If I could skip eating and sleeping during these periods, I would. There are kinds of inventiveness that only come about because I’ve focused deeply on a problem for a long time and I’ve got every minute detail of implementation loaded into active memory, with nothing else intruding or distracting me.
For me, both writing and inventive coding can happen in this state. It’s especially common when I need to make a major change to the core of a project: there was one white-hot week when I made huge changes to how Versu implemented actions that could occur within multiple social practices. The transition needed to be a singular event, a rapid across-the-board change with minimum downtime. But I was also just too fascinated with the design implications of the change to want to put it down for a moment. So I don’t think it’s necessary (or in some cases desirable) to set up an arrangement whereby people are only “allowed” to work between 9 and 6.
A lot of creative people probably know what I’m talking about, and this may be where some of the “if you have passion, then you’ll want to crunch!” nonsense comes from.
However, equally obviously, putting in long hours because you’re enjoying yourself and engaged and voluntarily connected with your work is completely different from putting in long hours because someone isn’t letting you go home until your bug list has been resolved. One feels like flying; the other feels more like being crushed.
For distinction, I will refer to the latter as crunch, but the former as a Work Singularity, because those days and nights typically fuse in my memory into a white-hot event. I come out with vastly more code/text than I had going in, and pages and pages and pages of notes on what I did and what I want to do next.
In my experience, a healthy Work Singularity needs to be short, it needs to be supported, and it needs to be followed by downtime. The resulting work also needs to be checked later.
Short: two or three weeks of this is about the maximum I can do before the mental and physical effects lower my productivity again; one week is usually enough to get quite a lot accomplished. Other people may have different boundaries. I have worked under much crunchier conditions than that and I’ve been in situations where I worked 24+ hours straight through, but it is not good. Staying up all night leaves me sicker and less capable for days afterwards.
Supported: if I’m doing a high-intensity work stint, it works best if other unrelated tasks — meetings, bureaucratic overhead, meal preparation, even minor interruptions from other nearby humans — are kept to a minimum. It also helps if I’m still eating well enough to feel healthy. Takeout is not a good fuel for this (for me). Working from home helps a lot. So does having a sympathetic spouse who cooks, and who has his own experience of the Work Singularity, so that he doesn’t take it personally when this happens.
I can work in an office if I really need to, but sitting in an open plan office makes it much harder for me to enter the required mental zone.
Followed by downtime: if I work an 80-100 hour week coding and filling notebooks with a fast multicolor scrawl, afterwards I need to sleep and then do something completely else for a few days. Sometimes in practice, in my life, that means “work on a different client’s project” or “deal with community requests.” Part of what makes my freelance life productive is that I take a mix of project types and typically have a fair amount of scheduling freedom, which means I can balance the workload in a way that I think gives best results across the board.
However, if I’m an employee and there’s only one kind of project for me to work on, then I just straight-up need time off for a day or two after The Work Singularity. Or I could come into the office and stare blankly at the screen and accomplish not-that-much, but that’s less restorative and generally is a worse solution in the long run.
It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine. — Herodotus on the habits of the Persians
Being in the middle of a Work Singularity is a little like being drunk. Some constraints that used to hold you back are gone. But you’ve lost perspective; you wouldn’t be there if you hadn’t lost perspective.
I can sometimes write a lot of narrative content during Work Singularity conditions, but it’s then a good idea if I go away and take time doing something else before revising what I wrote. Someone with a fresh mind needs to make sure that the results of the Work Singularity are good.
I write a good percentage of my blog content under Work Singularity conditions as well: I often have a string of connected ideas, or a bunch of reviews for a competition, and write them all up, but schedule them to come out over the following month or two. When one is about to appear, I go back and double-check the draft to make sure it’s not too embarrassing.
Naturally, there are some problems that cannot be solved in Work Singularity. Bug-fixing is in my experience best handled if one is fully awake and detail-oriented; since there are lots of different little tasks (often), one isn’t getting a cognitive gain from having a big system all loaded in working memory.
And some kinds of writing work the other way: slow, unbearably slow. Sometimes even if you sit yourself in front of the screen and tell yourself to write a thing, there are decisions you can’t make until the problem has had days or weeks of percolating. This comes up mainly on my own personal projects rather than on work projects, and it tends to happen because I’ve taken up some topic that I have mixed feelings about. I’m doing the writing because I’m trying to figure out what I think.
Passion is not a cannon that can be aimed by a third party. It is also not the same thing as willingness or ability to enter the Work Singularity.
If the challenge in front of me is something I consider a solved problem or something I’m not all that interested in, then what I can produce is a workmanlike value-for-money. I have enough experience in general that I think my version of workmanlike can still be a pretty solid deal for the buyer, but I take those kinds of jobs less when I have more freedom to choose my opportunities.
But the thing where I stay up all night trying to see through walls? That thing happens when I have a good tasty problem in one of my favorite problem domains. In those circumstances, and only those circumstances, I’m a happy 80-100 hour worker.
If you’re passionate about your work and you have a certain temperament, you may be inclined towards your own Work Singularities. But I know people who don’t ever work that way and still produce amazing outcomes. I don’t want to over-romanticize this kind of scheduling just because it happens to be a thing that I do. There are other ways to get a lot done.
St. John’s editorial speaks like Work Singularity and Crunch are the same thing, and as though capacity for that thing is the same as passion. But what he actually means — and this becomes increasingly obvious when you look at his hiring suggestions — is that he wants the old-school meaning of passion. Our word passion comes from patior, the Latin deponent verb meaning suffer and permit. (Deponent verbs are those that are passive in form but active in meaning, and nowhere is that probably more grammatically appropriate than when it comes to patior, a thing that you do and that is done to you at the same time.)
In that sense, passion is the willingness to submit and the ability to endure.
As it happens, I admire endurance too, and I think there are places for submission — but with judgment. With perspective. With understanding of why you’re doing it, and for whom, and to what ends. “For survival” is a reason lots of us have to live with at some point in our lives; similarly “to support my family” or like reasons. If that’s your reason for what you do, strength to your arm, and may you find an employer who does not abuse your need.
“For art”? Yeah, maybe, if it’s your own artistic vision. If you’re offering that reason as an employer, you’d better have a heck of a compelling creative vision, and you can’t expect to hold people any longer than they happen to share it. And even there, what’s the point of “art”? It’s contextualized in a culture; it’s a mode of communication; it derives its value ultimately from its place between and among people. Ideally it’s for the good of the person creating it or the person receiving it or both. I call shenanigans on any argument for Art that seeks to justify grinding other people up on the way.
The best kind of passion comes from having stood back and seen human value in what you do. That way, you can endure a lot, and you have a sense of when to submit to someone else’s rules without compromising yourself.
It’s hard to get that kind of perspective unless you have some tranquil spaces in your life, though. It’s sober long-term thinking, not Crunch thinking or even Work Singularity thinking.
(Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have spent the time to write this article either. But I typed fast. Call it a Pissed Off Singularity this time. I’m sure Alex St. John is not the devil, but he happens to have unselfconsciously, overtly expressed a bunch of terrible views that are present in the system and that most people know better than to say out loud in so many words. This kind of thinking is working active harm in the world. Your personal value does not depend on your ability to pretend that you devoutly share exactly the same goals that your employer has, and employers who insist on that are looking to be lied to.)
10 thoughts on “Passion”
I haven’t had what you call a Work Singularity in probably about eight years, but I remember them well (and fondly). I’ve become reflexively protective of my work/life balance after a couple periods of burnout, and it’s going to take some trust and structure before I’m willing to approach that again.
Thanks for writing about this. The St. John slideshow made me similarly angry, especially the matter-of-fact sexism and “hot tip! exploit people on the autism spectrum” bits. But possibly the worst of it is that that dogma, once you adopt it, becomes pervasive and infectious – I had to buy into it to survive my own crunch time on a “AAA” game, which caused me to become upset with co-workers who didn’t show up on Saturday mornings to burn down the bug list with me, and try to cajole them into believing the same. As someone in the same position, I really should have understood, but I couldn’t allow myself to. I’m in a much better place now, but the fact that there are still people out there peddling this poison, after the EA lawsuits and all the studies since, and trying to infect newcomers makes me livid.
“If you’re prone to making obscene gestures at the screen when you read something bogglingly sexist, you might want to limber up your fingers before you click through to those slides.”
*clicks through to slides*
*gets to slide two (after title slide)*
*sprains several muscles*
Never have I wished so devoutly for the ability to Force-choke someone through the internet.
I am also angry, but I generally warn and then moderate out any expressions of desire for violence against third parties. This is kind of borderline because fantasy, perhaps? But please don’t.
While my situation is certainly different in many critical respects, I found so much of this comfortably familiar and true.
Your talk about Work Singularities reminded me of this comic, which I fished up from somewhere on the internet:
Yeees. I recognize this.
I think Alex St. John’s appeal to art here is extremely cynical. His rhetoric is not so subtly Nietzschean in its deployment of conceits such as “wage-slave attitude” (his version of “herd mentality”) and the valorization of a 110%, 80-hour a week “Übermensch”. It’s an ideological argument which attempts to rationalize what is basically an exploitative state of affairs. Those who genuinely deserve success, according to his article, are those who are prepared make personal and financial sacrifices in the pursuit of their great, and ultimately artistic, vision. One could get the impression reading his article that games are made by individual geniuses working alone; whereas the reality is that most things of commercial value, including games, are collaborative enterprises. Given this reality, it makes no sense to put forward the solitary, suffering artist as an aspirational ideal for game developers. That’s not to deny the artistic dimension of games. It’s to point out that there is inevitably a social dimension to the labour of producing games.
By ignoring this social dimension of game development, and substituting instead the fantasy of an individual who derives his self-worth through his own heroic efforts, Alex St. John can casually dismiss the question of fairness; or more specifically, the question of one’s contribution being recognised by others in the form of a fair wage. And indeed that is the most important issue for anyone who isn’t a solitary genius working away in the basement – to be recognised by others. Alex St. John and his ilk can call it a “wage-slave attitude”, but for most human beings, social recognition (whether in the form of love, respect or adequate compensation for one’s labour) is the real basis for individual self-esteem.