The Price of Excellence

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I vaguely remember the time when I didn’t know how to write code. I had killer abs, potential in different crafts, like writing, and I was going out more often than not.
But then, I figured out how to turn my addictive personality into something more productive: software development. Long story short, at the time of writing these lines, if I’d have 1000 GitHub followers, I’d score 16th on the most active GitHub contributors worldwide list.
But I am paying the price of it: I don’t know how to write anymore. Killer abs? Maybe it was only my imagination. And, right now, I’m wrapping up a two weeks holiday in the capital of an exotic Asian country and even though I tried, the farthest I could get myself to go out was the closest pub for a couple of beers, once. I spent my entire holiday… writing code. And the worst thing is: I enjoyed it.

Dopamine

Yesterday I watched a random guy talking about how he was able to spend 12 hours playing a video game and what’s the science behind it: he was constantly looking for the next dopamine hit. This made him able to focus on something for 12 hours. Then he said that willpower is a finite resource and it may be more effective to tunnel your dopamine addiction into something useful than trying to deplete your willpower every time.
“Hey, I can power through 12 hours of coding with no problem!” — Thought to myself. I also realized my dopamine hits are resolving my GitHub notifications. No better feeling than answering to a question or resolving an issue. Yes, I’m sitting on the other side of his idea. On the other side of that life hack. It works. It works like charm. But there is a price for that.

Willpower

You’ll start to build more willpower muscle overall. Those small decisions to resist something mean you’ll build up your willpower over time. There isn’t a limit to how much willpower a human can have. But there is a limit to how much willpower a human can exert at one time. [source]

When I was an obsessive athlete I built up some extraordinary willpower. And probably this is how I suffered through the first few years of my software development career. I definitely didn’t get the dopamine hits when my code sucked. Now, it’s time for a reevaluation, and I think I lost it. I can barely get myself to do anything remotely uncomfortable anymore and whenever I feel the urge to do something, I just do it. But how did I lose it?

It all comes back to a simple habit I formed: should I start resisting or giving in to a temptation? “I should definitely give in. I should not deplete my willpower on less important things, I should only apply it to software development.” But over time the dopamine hit chasing took over my coding sessions, and I barely have to apply willpower there anymore. As a consequence, I did not practice willpower for a long time, thus I barely have any capacity anymore. I paid the price.

Closing Thoughts

It is hard to get good at something. You need all your willpower to push through the initial obstacles. But once you get into a constant state of flow, and keep getting continuous enjoyment out of it, once you become proficient and able to spend long hours on chasing an endless stream of dopamine hits, you will not exercise willpower anymore, as a consequence, your ability will deteriorate.

Can you recognize this in time and apply willpower in other parts of your life to not neglect this important skill? Or, are you doomed anyway, because, what if that last bit of willpower is what you needed to push through a difficult problem in the activity you are valuing the most?

Is willpower the price of excellence?

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