Contracting Job at Mercury

In February I was contacted by Mercury, a company that I worked for five years ago, about helping them with a project. The contract would last three months and offered good pay. They caught me at a good time and I agreed to take the job, starting right after we got back from PAX East.

Beyond saying that it was not a government contract and involved writing a distributed message processing system in Java, I don’t really have anything interesting to say about the job itself. It was better than many jobs that I have had (except for the commute).

I was surprised by how easily I switched back into the work routine. It made me notice some of the things that are “hard” about being retired. Not that I am complaining about being retired – it is truly a luxury.

One thing that makes working easier than being retired is having a weekly schedule where someone else decides how I fill my time. It takes more energy to sit down and write this blog entry than it did to go into work every morning and do the tasks assigned by my boss. Part of the difference is that I don’t have to make a decision about whether to go into work each day, and another part is that I didn’t have to resist the desire to browse the internet or otherwise waste time.

It is also much easier to explain my “job” to people when I am employed. Having a job is easy to understand, and when I say that I am a software engineer it lets people make a bunch of (generally correct) assumptions about me. When I try to explain early retirement and game development, it takes a lot more time to reach the same level of understanding about what I am doing. It is also kind of interesting that it generally takes a lot longer for people to wonder if I am happy with a job, than with not working.

Finally, and most importantly, work provides me with a sense of self worth and accomplishment that is much harder to achieve when I am not working. Even if the job isn’t producing something that I would consider worthwhile, the fact that I am getting paid is enough of an accomplishment for the day to feel like a success. The bar is much higher when I am working on my own projects; just putting in time isn’t enough. I need to make real progress on something that I think is worth doing.

I have a feeling this sounds like I am complaining about being retired (the ultimate first world problem), so I want to say again that I love being retired and only took this job to buy some luxuries that I couldn’t afford on my retirement budget. But I was surprised by some of the advantages of working and wanted to share that experience.

2 thoughts on “Contracting Job at Mercury”

  1. Great post. I think you captured the mental conveniences and rewards of working for someone else really well. I often struggle with the same set of difficulties when deciding between taking on another freelance contract vs. working on my own business ideas (or hobby projects, etc.).

    For me, I think a lot of that mental model comes from the education system, where the learning process is generally very structured and the rewards are clearly defined. I was always really “good” at school, and I think that success has to do with always having a clear direction to move towards (at least in undergrad and below), understanding the definition of success (A, B, C, etc.), and always having someone who celebrates your successes and guides you along the way (the teacher). Work hard, do your homework, ace your tests => Academic Success!

    However, achieving “success” with your own time in the real world is always trickier, especially when you have the opportunity (or curse) of defining your own version of successful outcomes vs time invested.

    For me, I’ve been thinking that one of the keys to overcoming this for your own projects is to measure progress and success in aggregate (over weeks and months), rather than at the end of each day. It’s so easy to spend a whole day falling down a rabbit hole of debugging, or to spend hours and hours on a feature only to later abandon it. This process is always at least a little bit demoralizing (on your own or working for someone else), but at least when you work for someone else you get paid for it (success! as you so eloquently put it).

    I also think it’s important to learn to celebrate yourself and your own achievements however grand or meager. Having the camraderie of coworkers, a boss, or others to approve of your work, give you a pat on the back, or otherwise give you positive feedback and direction is nice, but it’s definitely not always achieveable when working for yourself.

    Alternately, measuring success in working on your own projects in terms of time committed rather than progress can also be helpful – similar to your Don’t Break the Chain / committment to practicing violin. Any one day might not yield much progress, but committment to the practice yields great progress over the long haul.

    At any rates, just some traits I’d like to better internalize and break my habits of needing external structure to be successful.

  2. Thanks for the feedback.

    I think that your point about the education system is very accurate. People spend 12 to 16 of their formative years with clear direction and immediate feedback. I remember noticing a lack of immediate feedback at my first job out of college. But a 9-5 job much more closely emulates the education environment than working for yourself.

    I think that you are right that it takes conscious effort to find better ways to measure progress and success for self-directed projects. The “standard” measure for success of a business or project is how much money it makes. While making extra money would be nice, it is never the primary reason that I start a project; so it is not really how I measure success. I have yet to find a method that works well for me. I should probably try Bill’s tracking spreadsheet as a way to measure and reward time committed toward goals.

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