Refactoring plays an important role in the software development lifecycle — an opportunity to incorporate lessons learned, improve code quality, and lay down a solid framework going forward. The entropy decay of code over time that necessitates refactoring plays a role in other places as well, such as our minds. We can apply the principles of science and engineering to ourselves, allowing us to control who we are with rigorous analysis and study. This rather long essay won’t be appealing to those who came here looking for code snippets, but I want to share some refactorings I have recently undergone in the hope that they can help others who are suck as I was.
If we accept as a primary goal the maximization of happiness, we can thus analyze our actions, state of mind, and thoughts to determine what causes us to be unhappy. For me, this was simple: people were out doing cool stuff and I wasn’t out doing it. It would have been simple to just go out and do these things, except for some reason, it didn’t feel right. There were times when I would go out and be social, usually at a friends request, but the urge to enjoy society declined when these friends weren’t around. I enjoyed these outings, so I didn’t see myself as someone who fundamentally doesn’t like the company of others. It was time for some root cause analysis.
This yielded some fruit: from the basic human need to feel love and appreciation, to matter, I was able to obtain this from an early age by being smart — I was rewarded in school and at home for being the smart kid, the A student, the one who worked hard and always went the extra mile. Because of this, I was also the special kid — as a nerd from an early age, I was never popular, never had a large group of friends, never really obtained appreciation from social interactions. This special-status became a drug: at first I was pleased to receive, then I was used to it, expectant, demanding.
“Of course I’m special” became the mantra; being smart became my identity.
Excelling on a project was no longer an action, it was who I was. I begin to enter situations with the expectation that I would be treated specially, assuming the regular rules didn’t apply to me, that there was always an exception. Through high school, this was mostly correct — I received a steady supply of alternate assignments, privileges, and modifications to my courses. This has ultimately lead to a very successful career track, which I’m ultimately grateful for, but at the expense of social development.
In college, I hit a wall right away. I was no longer the smart kid. No one knew me, I was a stranger in a town on the other side of the country with a bunch of other strangers who had better educational backgrounds. Right away I began to receive assignments that were actually hard! I could no longer just breeze through them, or demonstrate to the instructor that I required something more interesting — I was to do just the regular assignment with no possibility of praise for an exceptional effort. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to ask for help, or where to find resources should I have needed them, but asking for help just wasn’t something I did. I was supposed to know how to do it, and if not, certainly wasn’t supposed to be seen showing weakness by asking for help.
I wasn’t that I couldn’t fail because someone would express disapproval, I couldn’t fail because success was my identity — without it, who was I?
My system broke. I could no longer attain the steady flow of appreciation I had become addicted to by working hard. I flipped back and forth between different temporary explanations — maybe stress due to new environment, maybe that class was just hard, maybe I need a break — but none really stuck. One of the major side effects of the appreciation addiction was coming to bear — without the steady reward trail, the path forward was no longer there. I didn’t know what to do. With each failed assignment returned to me (<A was failure), I decayed further. Was I stupid? How come others weren’t having these problems? Why didn’t I know how to do this? What the fuck is wrong with me? I began to blame myself and started a cycle of negative reinforcement, adding more stress to what I had from complete lack of financial stability.
There was enough logic left in me to know that dropping out of college was a terrible plan, so I pulled through it somehow and managed to graduate and get a job that I enjoyed. I had more direction at this point certainly, and the job offered the effort/reward cycle that I excelled at easily. Outside of work, however, little progress had been made. With a fresh start in a new city, a car (didn’t have one during most of college), and no more financial worries, I should have been set free. But instead of abundant social interaction, I stayed inside. Part of the internal expectation that I was to know all things was causing a block on learning new things necessary to increasing social interaction — finding things to do, places to go, etc. This was accentuated by living with a roommate who actually did know all things (a lot of things, at least) and was quite adept at pointing out failures in a way that made me feel pretty shitty for not being right. I began to dread pronouncing any discovery of knowledge, for fear that I would get shot down for not knowing the critical flaw or a better way. I also became hypersensative to critical remarks and stressed during situations when I wasn’t performing on a high level. to It became easier to restrict myself to activities I already did or just do nothing.
But as the months went by, this became increasingly unacceptable. My friends were out living their dreams (or at least doing what they wanted) and I was stuck inside, barricaded by my fears. I went through several bouts of depression (I guess, never clinically diagnosed/treated) and began to waste large amounts of time browsing the internet, anything to get away from this problem I couldn’t solve. I was searching for a solution that would grant sudden clarity to my situation — I was expecting something to happen to me that would make it all make sense. After all, I was special — whoever was in charge of special people like needed to get on over here and fix it.
That was seriously the attitude I had — I certainly wasn’t wrong, I couldn’t possibly have wasted all these years with this flawed understanding of myself, there had to be something I was missing, some wormhole through which people like myself could jump and get ahead of everyone else, be recognized for our superiority.
Perhaps I was supposed to meet someone randomly (that was my strategy for meeting girls…) perhaps I would go to some place on a whim, receive some correspondance that would save me from my plight.
Looking back now, that attitude seems ridiculous. The world doesn’t give a fat fuck how “special” you think you are. There is no magical system that guides you, the entire effort/reward cycle is a technique used for training pets for obedience. To think of that as anything approaching a replacement for love is flawed. My whole world view was wrong — it had to go. Of course I had heard the saying “you can be anything you want to be” as a kid, but it didn’t really sink in what that meant. I had gotten so used to the appreciation drug that I had forgotten what it meant to do something just because I liked doing it. This world view had to go.
And in its place is this magnificent nothingness — the sudden knowledge that I have no more artificial barriers blocking me from what I want to do. The understanding that I can start a new activity without internal or external expectation that I’m anything but a beginner. That I can follow a proper training cycle because I don’t have a preexisting requirement to be good — I can focus on training to maximize happiness. That I am defined by more than just my successes or failures. There’s still a journey ahead — I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve figured it out, that the problem is solved, that I’m no longer bound by my old limits, but at last it finally makes sense. With this logical foundation solid, future progression will be limited only by how much happiness I can handle.