Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Losing Direction

personal 5 min read

Almost 2 weeks ago now, I turned 27. I had a pretty good day, as you might imagine given that Lauren got me New Super Mario Bros for the DS and Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA, and she also made me a very cool birthday card (it’s Wolfgang, my favourite Animal Crossing: Wild World character).

Two days later, we went on holiday to Cyprus for a week, getting back on the evening of Wednesday the 14th. Since then I’m not been doing too much, and I return to work tomorrow morning.

One thing I have been doing, though, is thinking a lot about the passage of time and about where I am in my life. 27 isn’t old in the least, but it’s still just 3 years until I’m 30. Given my recent birthday and the amount of time I’ve had to reflect on things lately, I’ve (naturally enough, I think) been weighing up how I feel I’m doing in terms of my life plan (whatever the hell that is).

Professionally speaking, I had an odd start to my career, working for Adobe for a few years before I even had a degree, and then coming back in my early 20s to get that degree. Four years later I got the degree, though not quite the class I’d have wanted (through nothing but my own ultimate lack of interest and motivation to study towards the end, I came out with a 2/2, which I wasn’t very satisfied with).

After an extended second summer scholarship to work at the university for a few months, I more or less stumbled into my current job, which as I’ve periodically mentioned involves mostly web site and online applications development - almost always the usual combination of PHP and MySQL. Is that what I saw myself doing for a living? Not at all, no. Like several others I know, I see those skills as hobbyist - I was doing PHP/MySQL development entirely independent of my degree course, and indeed I very rarely use specific learning from my degree. Granted, you can’t complete an Honours degree in Computing Science without your design and development skills becoming refined and polished, so no doubt I draw upon the experience of the degree course regularly; but nonetheless I can’t recall ever using anything which I couldn’t equally well have learned from an O’Reilly book. I’m not sure that’s an ideal state of affairs, particularly so relatively near the beginning (I hope) of my working life.

Not that it’s not good to be able to make some sort of living doing something which I don’t see as particularly challenging; I do appreciate the good fortune inherent in that state of affairs. It’s just that any challenge which does come along comes almost exclusively from deadlines; never from technical complexity or a requirement for innovation. This is, of course, very much a double-edged sword.

Within the field of computing science, I know that what really drives me is good user experience, but from a development perspective. I have little interest in running lab usability tests, collating results and running statistical analyses - to my mind, that’s incredibly dull and tedious. What I most enjoy is conceiving of, designing, prototyping and developing new types of controls and other interface elements to provide better ways to interact with devices; everything from simple things like new types of windows and dialogs, to entirely new control types and interaction mechanisms. That’s what it’s all about for me. That’s what I know I could do professionally for most of my life.

One of my dreams is of course to do the shareware thing; start a little software company and get some well-focused, beautiful little apps out there, targeting niche markets and filling those needs as perfectly as I can engineer them to. Not hacking away at the dreary foliage of another website or CMS. There are people out there who do the same work but have more internal passion for it; at my Comp Sci core, I’m just not a web developer.

Up to this point I’ve been careful to qualify these statements as pertaining to my particular field; that’s because I have a dream which is older and more fundamental than even my own interest in computing (trivia: I was initially signed up to go to university as an Electronics Engineering major, and only switched to Comp Sci once I’d already been accepted unconditionally at Glasgow; I’d always been interested in computers, but I didn’t realise I wanted to go into the field professionally until after my final year of high school). That dream is by no means an original one: to be a writer. I’ve even talked about it previously on this blog, and having the chance to really think about where I am in my life lately (and also the chance to once again read many books per week, as I would naturally do if not for other constraints on my time) have only brought it into sharper focus.

I want to write, and nothing particularly highbrow, either - I mean good old horror/supernatural/weird fiction. King, Koontz, Straub, Laymon, and so forth - that’s the market I’d like a piece of. But then, to hell with the market; writing is more about compulsion than profession (or it bloody well should be, at least). I need to write. I do it all the time, but I’ve shied away from really getting stuck back into a project because I get a feeling of it mortgaging my free time. And that’s really been getting to me lately.

I was talking to some friends in the pub the other night, and remarking on how often I’d imagined receiving a package in the post, containing the first author’s copy of a book I’d written which was being published. The feel of the cover (embossed) bearing my name, the smell of the paper, the quiet solidity of the book in my hands. That’s one of my brightest dreams, and one thing which struck me is how many of those I was speaking to (all current/recent university graduates) had a similar passionate dream, unrelated to their degree subject. It’s telling indeed how much their faces lit up and how much more animated they became as they told of their dream, clearly describing images as vivid to them as the real location we were in at the time.

I wonder how much art we’ve collectively lost due to the fear-driven choice to follow the road more travelled, and get a regular job related to our degree, no matter whether the work really speaks to that inner drive to create which we all have in our various individual flavours. I wonder also at what point it’s too late to try to follow those dreams. Have I passed that point, for example? I don’t feel that I have, but I’m increasingly aware that a quarter of a century can all too easily vanish overnight, and I think that the pace only increases throughout our lives.

I don’t have a course of action decided upon, but I’m troubled by all this. I feel adrift; that I’ve lost direction, And the years continue to tick by with a perfect disregard for my concerns. I need to figure out where to go from here, and how to feel more fulfilled in what I’m doing with my life.

Is it just arrogance to want personal fulfilment in what I devote my time to at the age of 27? Past generations would undoubtedly say so, but I hope the world is a little different now. All I know is that, currently, such fulfilment; a sense of doing the right thing; continues to elude me.