benjamin alexander smith

Hacking the Hacker Lifecycle

Hackers, designers, students, wantrepreneurs and a myriad of other kindred spirits wrote a ton of comments, emails and tweets in response to my article a few weeks ago describing the hacker lifecycle. It took me by surprise. Until then, I’d thought that perhaps I was the only nerd stuck in this recurring loop.

Everybody else seems make things happen, ship code, and get things done. But somehow my self-centred lament turned into something more interesting – a sort of manifesto for people like us who strive to build something better but often lose focus after a few months.

So far, so good: I identified a pattern that many of us can identify with. I learned that there are a lot of people out there who want to change their current cycle to get as much benefit out of their efforts as possible. But what good is all the self-reflection unless we know how to hack the hacker lifecycle?

The answer came from one of those time-honoured and well-respected sources of wisdom that we too often overlook: a chat with my mum.

Like father, like son

I called my mum earlier this week to catch up, and she said she’d seen my blog post. Her first reaction had been “like father, like son”.

This took me completely by surprise. When I sit in front of the laptop coding, learning or messing around online he’ll be working, doing some of his DIY projects around the house, or enjoying himself outside.

But of course, that’s exactly it. “His DIY projects.”

My dad has been an avid fan of home improvement since he and my mum bought their first house together. Over the years my dad has wallpapered or painted hundreds of walls, hung doors, fitted windows, landscaped gardens, installed a swimming pool in the back garden, filled it back in again, constructed extensions, laid patio decking, built summer houses, converted garages, knocked down walls, and… Well, you get the idea.

His DIY projects are the equivalent of my coding projects, only more impressive (and way more labour intensive). But my mum had immediately spotted that that just like us, my dad goes through a cycle:

  1. He starts a project and throws himself into it.
  2. He gets bored after a while and stops working on it even though it’s not quite finished.
  3. He gets distracted by a ton of other projects, all of which he immediately wants to do instead.
  4. He eventually gets fed up and doesn’t touch any of them for months.

Sounds familiar.

So I got thinking: what can I learn from my dad’s behaviour? How can I use his experiences to hack my own lifecycle?

Recognise success

Initially, I worried. If my dad hasn’t managed to break the cycle after all these years, how can I?

But thinking back to my original article, breaking the cycle wasn’t the point. Getting the most benefit from the cycle and improving my outcomes – that was what I had in mind. So what do my dad’s outcomes look like, how do his cycles compare to mine, and what can he teach me?

My mum will often joke that my dad “never finishes anything”. But really she is doing just that – joking. When I think about all the things my dad has done, the list is astonishing. He’s built so much, and virtually every project I can think of was finished in the end.

For a DIY enthusiast, a good measure of this might be how people react to your home. And for my parents, the reaction is universal acclaim. They have a wonderful home with some great interior design and some really fantastic decoration. Everyone who visits their house compliments it.

It turns out my dad’s project completion rate is really high, and I think I know why.

You see, his projects aren’t solo. He does a lot of work, but there’s another half to the dynamic DIY duo that transform my childhood home on an almost yearly basis: my mum.

My mum handles the design and aesthetics. When a room is being transformed, my mum will know how she wants it to look. And once the heavy lifting has been completed, she’ll be the one adding finishing touches to the room that really complete the feel of the place.

In many ways, most of my dad’s DIY projects are kick-started or conceived by my mum, and many of them aren’t finished until my mum has lovingly added her contributions at the end. And throughout it all, my dad has the support (and pressure) of my mum to spur him on.

And actually, that tells us everything we need to know.

Co-founder required?

For those caught in the hacker lifecycle, it’s not enough to embark on projects alone. You’ll get off-track too easily. Instead, you need a partner. You need somebody who:

  • will hold on to that long-term vision over a longer-term than you.
  • will rely on you to complete your hard work so they can start on theirs.
  • will keep you focused on the task at hand.
  • will bring their own skills to the table (and learn new ones as required).
  • will provide critical feedback and input to reinforce the value of what you’re doing.
  • will care about the project just as much as you do.

You need a patient, skilled (or quick learning), passionate buddy with a common set of interests, a similar amount of free time, and with whom you get on with like a house of fire. You need a new best friend.

In startup parlance, you need a co-founder. Somebody to help you make something greater than the sum of its parts. And in turn, you will provide many of the same benefits to them.

Harder said than done, perhaps.

Are you out there?

The right person does exist, of course. Have you been on the Internet? If so many hundreds of people can identify with a self-centred blog post about my motiviational ebb and flow, you can be damn sure that your perfect co-founder exists too.

Consider this a call to action. Every one of us should start looking for co-founders. Here’s my pitch:

I’m looking for technical, fast-learning, enthusiastic hackers in Oxfordshire or London to buddy up with me and make something happen. To begin with, I’d just like to buy you an overpriced pint. If we get along, let’s build something small in our spare time over a few weeks. And if we work well together, perhaps we can make something bigger.

I don’t want to limit my audience, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a drop-out, a student, a full-time office worker, one of my co-workers, or you’re already one of my best friends. If you’re ready to hack the hacker lifecycle, get in touch. Let’s make something.

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