Playing like a kid again

June 30, 2024

For the last 13 years, I’ve done the same thing almost every Monday night. At 9pm, I head out to a small sports club on the outskirts of Munich to play 5-a-side soccer. Many players have left, and new people have joined, but there’s a core group of us who’ve stayed the same.

When you’ve been doing the same thing, with the same guys, for more than 13 years, it’s easy to get a little attached to that structure. So, a few weeks ago, I was a little annoyed when only four of us showed up.

If you’re not familiar with 5-a-side: the game is pretty flexible. Ten players is obviously ideal, but up to 14 is ok — one or two players on each side can take a short break to catch their breath. 4-on-4 works, and even 3-on-3 is alright in a pinch. But 2-on-2? Nah.

At least, that was my first reaction. The four of us bummed around for five or ten minutes while we discussed what we should do. Maybe just head home, and go to bed early?

In the end, we decided to set up a small playing field with some water bottles marking the goals. Then somebody suggested that we should make it a bit more challenging: instead of shooting the ball between the bottles, what if the goal was to knock the bottles over? Another idea: “…and maybe you get two points if you knock them both over.”

The four of us played this game for over an hour, until our legs gave out. And, you know what? It was the most fun I’ve had playing soccer in a long time. I was convinced that anything other than proper 5-a-side, the way I was used to, just wouldn’t be worth it. And I was totally wrong.

Sometime last year, I noticed that I was hardly doing any work on side projects anymore. And when I thought about why that I was, I realized it was because all my side projects felt like work.

I wrote about this in my last post, Taking Learning Seriously:

One of the best decisions I’ve made in the past few years is to stop treating side projects like work projects.

Previously, I tended to work on things that were either useful, novel, or valuable (i.e., could possibly be turned into some kind of business). It’s almost as if I was trying to satisfy a hypothetical Hacker News commenter.

I also felt compelled to make defensible engineering choices on my projects. Like using the appropriate language for the problem, and reusing existing code whenever I could, rather than reinventing the wheel.

It was another instance of unconsciously adopting a restrictive set of assumptions, telling myself that if I wasn’t done “right”, it wasn’t worth doing at all.

And guess what — when I decided to let go of those assumptions, I started having fun on my side projects again.

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