Carmack and Burnout


I’ve touched upon the topic of burnout previously, but I never really explored it a lot. I’m not planning to do so today, but I did see a tweet by John Carmack last year that caught my attention. I feel there’s a little more to this tweet that deserves exploring a little more, but I suspect this will be much more of a “rhetorical musings” type of post. On to Carmack’s tweet:

Before continuing, I’d recommend reading the original article, the related Hacker News threads and the Twitter threads Carmack posted. Form your own opinions and let your mind go on what you perceive as sustainable and effective work habits. I’m skipping over the points the original article makes and delving right into some of the thoughts Carmack has.

The Carmack Interpretation

Carmack highlights how various studies have findings that end up being in contention with one another and how he can’t argue that more than 40 hours of work leads to a less effective output. I feel it’s vital to highlight his work habits, which will help better understand his point of view:

  • Carmack co-founded id Software at the age of 21.
  • He was responsible for creating the engines that spawned Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.
  • He was CTO at Oculus VR from 2013 and stepped down in 2019 to become “Consulting CTO”.

Why am I mentioning these? It frames Carmack’s work ethic and ability. People credit Carmack as the mind that spawned the technology to support first-person shooter games, and while being as humble as he can, he’s most likely one of the most innovative people on the planet. He’s been in some form of a leadership position most of his career, which also influences his view.

Carmack the Workaholic

The book Masters of Doom goes into great detail, showing just how much of a workaholic Carmack is. I’m not trying to discredit his view by this but instead trying to highlight that it’s a tool he’s used in his work to significant effect. They were a handful of youngsters at id Software following a passion dream with almost no regard for what the future holds. He just wanted to sit in the corner and code, gladly working what one would call “significant overtime”.

The key thing I’d like to highlight here was that this was meaningful work to him. id Software was at the forefront of technology and continued to push the boundaries for many years after. He spent a lot of time reading research papers on computer graphics to incorporate that into the engines he was developing, which ultimately drove the innovation on the game design side with John Ramero. I can only imagine the excitement that this type of work brings. I get glimpses of it while doing game development myself, but I can’t say that I’ve experienced this same level of dedication to my work.

Carmack the CTO

I’m relatively sure that Carmack’s later time at id Software post Quake would’ve had him working in a leadership position, albeit still being a core code contributor to the games they were developing. I see this impacting his opinion on what level an employer needs to be responsible for their employees' mental health. I expect this to be in contention with his experience pouring a lot of his time into projects he believes in.

I believe there are undertones in his views highlighting that employers shouldn’t be held responsible for burning out employees, but I can’t say that with certainty. I can stress that he does make it clear the conflicting pieces of research he’s read on the topic don’t provide conclusive evidence that a shorter workweek is necessarily more effective.

An Interesting Comparison

Let me get things straight here, Carmack is explicitly referring to knowledge workers where communication between parties become pretty important. He’s not arguing that you can’t optimise output for your manual labour workforce, but rather that in the knowledge worker space, priorities can end up having a significant impact on what’s considered “effective” work. In his tweets, he uses the example of the COVID-19 pandemic. People arguing that working more than 40 hour work weeks lead to less effective output aren’t necessarily considering the impact of not doing so.

What would the impact be on vaccine development if labs were closed to employees after they’ve worked 40 hours for the week? I understand that the monetary implications of developing these vaccines are muddying the waters of how “noble” it would be to pour extra time into its development, but that’s precisely the point. Society does a lot of knowledge work these days, and these priorities, be they noble or sinister, will make it very unclear what employees and employers should be prioritising. Add to that the impact that government has on labour laws, and it is not as clear cut as some of the articles make it out to be.

My Own Experience

Now I mentioned back in November 2019 that I had experienced burnout. Unfortunately, I didn’t clarify that it was a self-diagnosis, but I did end up reaching out to a counselling service provided by my company. I’m still not sure if it was burnout, but I know that everything wasn’t 100% with my mental health at the time. I keep feeling I should merely “harden the fuck up”, but I know better than to try and sweep mental health issues under the rug.

The critical difference in my own experience isn’t that I was working copious amounts of overtime. Still, I can confirm that I did end up working overtime during the first two years of my career that might be considered “out of the norm”, although it wasn’t for prolonged periods. I do remember having two very different experiences with both:

  • On the one side, the project I was working on had me very invested, so there was a lot of joy in my work.
  • On the other hand, we were on a bit of a death march halfway through a five-month project because we ended up running significantly behind schedule, and I’m still not very happy that we ended up working so much only to deliver so little.

Both these experiences had highlighted the importance of feeling like you’re doing meaningful work, and I’ve noticed that the last three years of my career doesn’t share the same level of enjoyment as the first three years of my career. There’s probably a myriad of things that have influenced this. I’ve noticed it has a relatively significant impact on my motivation at work. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to this problem yet, and I’m feeling very pessimistic about this changing any time soon. I’m trying to highlight that it wasn’t the amount of overtime worked that had my brush with what I perceive to be burnout, but something a lot deeper and complex to digest other than the number of hours worked vs efficiency.

Quick Aside on Work Motivation

The current project I’m on has recently left me feeling very conflicted. I wrote earlier in this post about how my motivation is hugely lacking, but it’s not entirely missing. I’ve been feeling very conflicted about “caring so little for the project while also caring so much”.

It’s difficult to put this into words, but I’ve found that there are elements of the project I care deeply about, so much so that I end up putting more stress on myself than is needed, especially when it’s things outside of my control. In contrast with the project elements, I could almost not give a damn about, and I’ve gone out of my way to avoid getting involved with it. Let me be clear and say I haven’t gone out of my way to sabotage it. I try to go “above and beyond” what is expected from me when I feel passionate about something. I merely avoided doing so with elements on this project where I usually would’ve gotten very involved.

Conclusion

I mentioned this is merely a rhetorical musing on the concept of burnout, and initially, I was very opposed to Carmack’s standing on the topic of burnout. I wish I could better understand what makes an individual like him tick, but I’m also trying to make peace with my demons. I used to put a lot of stress on myself, trying to live up to the dream of becoming a game developer. I’m not convinced it’ll be as magical as I would’ve expected, but I’m not ready to completely abandon it. What I have found solace in is having other things where I can “let loose” creatively.

Finding a creative outlet that I can enjoy without the pressure of turning it into a side-hustle is what’s helped me for the better. I’ve been doing regular race commentary, and I’m involved with admin for the Sim Race South Africa. It has been such a joy to be involved with this, and while we strive to be as professional as we can be, it doesn’t have the pressure of ever being anything more than something I can enjoy doing for the sake of doing. Here’s to hoping that I can keep finding things in life that help stave off burnout.