A few days ago, on the way home from school, my nine year old son
told me he couldn’t wait to get home to write more of the story he
was working on. This made me as happy as anything I’ve heard him
say — not just because he was excited about his story, but because
he’d discovered this way of working. Working on a project of your
own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking.
It’s more fun, but also much more productive.
What proportion of great work has been done by people who were
skating in this sense? If not all of it, certainly a lot.
There is something special about working on a project of your own.
I wouldn’t say exactly that you’re happier. A better word would be
excited, or engaged. You’re happy when things are going well, but
often they aren’t. When I’m writing an essay, most of the time I’m
worried and puzzled: worried that the essay will turn out badly,
and puzzled because I’m groping for some idea that I can’t see
clearly enough. Will I be able to pin it down with words? In the
end I usually can, if I take long enough, but I’m never sure; the
first few attempts often fail.
You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don’t
last long, because then you’re on to the next problem. So why do
it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way,
nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you’re an animal in its
natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always
happy, maybe, but awake and alive.
Many kids experience the excitement of working on projects of their
own. The hard part is making this converge with the work you do as
an adult. And our customs make it harder. We treat “playing” and
“hobbies” as qualitatively different from “work”. It’s not clear
to a kid building a treehouse that there’s a direct (though long)
route from that to architecture or engineering. And instead of
pointing out the route, we conceal it, by implicitly treating the
stuff kids do as different from real work.
Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path
to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through
school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from
working on projects of one’s own. It’s usually neither a project,
nor one’s own. So as school gets more serious, working on projects
of one’s own is something that survives, if at all, as a thin thread
off to the side.
It’s a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their
backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning
about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made
Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building
treehouses than studying for exams.
If I had to choose between my kids getting good grades and
working on ambitious projects of their own, I’d pick
the projects. And not because I’m an indulgent parent, but because
I’ve been on the other end and I know which has more predictive
value. When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn’t care
about applicants’ grades. But if they’d worked on projects of their
own, I wanted to hear all about those.
It may be inevitable that school is the way it is. I’m not saying
we have to redesign it (though I’m not saying we don’t), just that
we should understand what it does to our attitudes to work — that
it steers us toward the dutiful plodding kind of work, often using
competition as bait, and away from skating.
There are occasionally times when schoolwork becomes a project of
one’s own. Whenever I had to write a paper, that would become a
project of my own — except in English classes, ironically, because
the things one has to write in English classes are so
when I got to college and started taking CS classes, the programs
I had to write became projects of my own. Whenever I was writing
or programming, I was usually skating, and that has been true ever
So where exactly is the edge of projects of one’s own? That’s an
interesting question, partly because the answer is so complicated,
and partly because there’s so much at stake. There turn out to be
two senses in which work can be one’s own: 1) that you’re doing it
voluntarily, rather than merely because someone told you to, and
2) that you’re doing it by yourself.
The edge of the former is quite sharp. People who care a lot about
their work are usually very sensitive to the difference between
pulling, and being pushed, and work tends to fall into one category
or the other. But the test isn’t simply whether you’re told to do
something. You can choose to do something you’re told to do. Indeed,
you can own it far more thoroughly than the person who told you to
For example, math homework is for most people something they’re
told to do. But for my father, who was a mathematician, it wasn’t.
Most of us think of the problems in a math book as a way to test
or develop our knowledge of the material explained in each section.
But to my father the problems were the part that mattered, and the
text was merely a sort of annotation. Whenever he got a new math
book it was to him like being given a puzzle: here was a new set
of problems to solve, and he’d immediately set about solving all
The other sense of a project being one’s own — working on it by
oneself — has a much softer edge. It shades gradually into
collaboration. And interestingly, it shades into collaboration in
two different ways. One way to collaborate is to share a single
project. For example, when two mathematicians collaborate on a proof
that takes shape in the course of a conversation between them. The
other way is when multiple people work on separate projects of their
own that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. For example, when one
person writes the text of a book and another does the graphic design.
These two paths into collaboration can of course be combined. But
under the right conditions, the excitement of working on a project
of one’s own can be preserved for quite a while before disintegrating
into the turbulent flow of work in a large organization. Indeed,
the history of successful organizations is partly the history of
techniques for preserving that excitement.
The team that made the original Macintosh were a great example of
this phenomenon. People like Burrell Smith and Andy Hertzfeld and
Bill Atkinson and Susan Kare were not just following orders. They
were not tennis balls hit by Steve Jobs, but rockets let loose by
Steve Jobs. There was a lot of collaboration between them, but
they all seem to have individually felt the excitement of
working on a project of one’s own.
In Andy Hertzfeld’s book on the Macintosh, he describes how they’d
come back into the office after dinner and work late into the night.
People who’ve never experienced the thrill of working on a project
they’re excited about can’t distinguish this kind of working long
hours from the kind that happens in sweatshops and boiler rooms,
but they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s why it’s a
mistake to insist dogmatically on “work/life balance.” Indeed, the
mere expression “work/life” embodies a mistake: it assumes work and
life are distinct. For those to whom the word “work” automatically
implies the dutiful plodding kind, they are. But for the skaters,
the relationship between work and life would be better represented
by a dash than a slash. I wouldn’t want to work on anything I didn’t
want to take over my life.
Of course, it’s easier to achieve this level of motivation when
you’re making something like the Macintosh. It’s easy for something
new to feel like a project of your own. That’s one of the reasons
for the tendency programmers have to rewrite things that don’t need
rewriting, and to write their own versions of things that already
exist. This sometimes alarms managers, and measured by total number
of characters typed, it’s rarely the optimal solution. But it’s not
always driven simply by arrogance or cluelessness.
Writing code from scratch is also much more rewarding — so much
more rewarding that a good programmer can end up net ahead, despite
the shocking waste of characters. Indeed, it may be one of the
advantages of capitalism that it encourages such rewriting. A company
that needs software to do something can’t use the software already
written to do it at another company, and thus has to write their
own, which often turns out better.
The natural alignment between skating and solving new problems is
one of the reasons the payoffs from startups are so high. Not only
is the market price of unsolved problems higher, you also get a
discount on productivity when you work on them. In fact, you get a
double increase in productivity: when you’re doing a clean-sheet
design, it’s easier to recruit skaters, and they get to spend all
their time skating.
Steve Jobs knew a thing or two about skaters from having watched
Steve Wozniak. If you can find the right people, you only have to
tell them what to do at the highest level. They’ll handle the
details. Indeed, they insist on it. For a project to feel like your
own, you must have sufficient autonomy. You can’t be working to
order, or slowed down
One way to ensure autonomy is not to have a boss at all. There are
two ways to do that: to be the boss yourself, and to work on projects
outside of work. Though they’re at opposite ends of the scale
financially, startups and open source projects have a lot in common,
including the fact that they’re often run by skaters. And indeed,
there’s a wormhole from one end of the scale to the other: one of
the best ways to discover
startup ideas is to work on a project
just for fun.
If your projects are the kind that make money, it’s easy to work
on them. It’s harder when they’re not. And the hardest part, usually,
is morale. That’s where adults have it harder than kids. Kids just
plunge in and build their treehouse without worrying about whether
they’re wasting their time, or how it compares to other treehouses.
And frankly we could learn a lot from kids here. The high standards
most grownups have for “real” work do not always serve us well.
The most important phase in a project of one’s own is at the
beginning: when you go from thinking it might be cool to do x to
actually doing x. And at that point high standards are not merely
useless but positively harmful. There are a few people who start
too many new projects, but far more, I suspect, who are deterred
by fear of failure from starting projects that would have succeeded
if they had.
But if we couldn’t benefit as kids from the knowledge that our
treehouses were on the path to grownup projects, we can at least
benefit as grownups from knowing that our projects are on a path
that stretches back to treehouses. Remember that careless confidence
you had as a kid when starting something new? That would be a
powerful thing to recapture.
If it’s harder as adults to retain that kind of confidence, we at
least tend to be more aware of what we’re doing. Kids bounce, or
are herded, from one kind of work to the next, barely realizing
what’s happening to them. Whereas we know more about different types
of work and have more control over which we do. Ideally we can have
the best of both worlds: to be deliberate in choosing to work on
projects of our own, and carelessly confident in starting new ones.
“Hobby” is a curious word. Now it means work that isn’t real
work — work that one is not to be judged by — but originally it just
meant an obsession in a fairly general sense (even a political
opinion, for example) that one metaphorically rode as a child rides
a hobby-horse. It’s hard to say if its recent, narrower meaning is
a change for the better or the worse. For sure there are lots of
false positives — lots of projects that end up being important but
are dismissed initially as mere hobbies. But on the other hand, the
concept provides valuable cover for projects in the early, ugly
Tiger parents, as parents so often do, are fighting the last
war. Grades mattered more in the old days when the route to success
was to acquire
while ascending some predefined ladder.
But it’s just as well that their tactics are focused on grades. How
awful it would be if they invaded the territory of projects, and
thereby gave their kids a distaste for this kind of work by forcing
them to do it. Grades are already a grim, fake world, and aren’t
harmed much by parental interference, but working on one’s own
projects is a more delicate, private thing that could be damaged
The complicated, gradual edge between working on one’s own
projects and collaborating with others is one reason there is so
much disagreement about the idea of the “lone genius.” In practice
people collaborate (or not) in all kinds of different ways, but the
idea of the lone genius is definitely not a myth. There’s a core
of truth to it that goes with a certain way of working.
Collaboration is powerful too. The optimal organization would
combine collaboration and ownership in such a way as to do the least
damage to each. Interestingly, companies and university departments
approach this ideal from opposite directions: companies insist on
collaboration, and occasionally also manage both to recruit skaters
and allow them to skate, and university departments insist on the
ability to do independent research (which is by custom treated as
skating, whether it is or not), and the people they hire collaborate
as much as they choose.
If a company could design its software in such a way that the
best newly arrived programmers always got a clean sheet, it could
have a kind of eternal youth. That might not be impossible. If you
had a software backbone defining a game with sufficiently clear
rules, individual programmers could write their own players.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, Andy Hertzfeld, Jessica
Livingston, and Peter Norvig for reading drafts of this.