The Gap Between Work and Play is Narrower Than You Think

Beenish Khan | April 19, 2016

I am a DevOps Engineer at Help Scout and a fiction writer. I craft software code at work, but most mornings, for an hour, I write stories simply for the pleasure of it.

In the past, spending time on writing despite the lack of tangible returns has made me feel guilty. I have struggled deciding where I should invest my personal time: studying English grammar and punctuation to improve my storytelling? Or learning iOS programming to improve my engineering resume?

I am not the only one who has struggled to make choices between passions and livelihood. Woodworkers, calligraphers, nail artists, bassists and creatives of all kinds want to keep practicing their art alongside their day jobs, but have limited personal time and energy. What do we hobbyists do? Is there any advantage, any argument to be made, for practicing our passions quietly, day after day?

Being at the intersection of multiple fields can lead to leaps of innovation

In How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson insists that due to cross-pollination of ideas across multiple fields, hobbyists are more positioned to make leaps of innovation.

Most innovation occurs via incremental improvements, but every now and then an individual thinks ahead of his or her time by decades, or even centuries. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, designed a helicopter in the fifteenth century. These individuals, Johnson observes, “tend, as a group, to have a lot of hobbies.”

Johnson points to Ada Lovelace, a nineteenth-century Victorian mathematician and the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Lovelace wrote the first set of instructions to be executed by a machine and also prophesied that Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” would, in the future, be used not only for crunching numbers but for creating higher arts such as “elaborate and scientific pieces of music.” Johnson claims that in addition to Lovelace’s intelligence, her unique background in both poetry and mathematics helped her take this conceptual leap, while many of her contemporaries were still struggling to understand the concept of a programmable computer itself.

‘There is no science without fancy and no art without fact.’ —Nabokov

On the surface, engineering and fiction writing may seem irreconcilable, belonging to the separate worlds of the sciences and the arts. But historically, these two worlds have cross-pollinated and combined ideas frequently. J.A.R. Newlands’ “law of octaves” in chemistry likens the repeating properties of every eighth element in the periodic table to a musical scale; Albert Einstein experienced major breakthroughs during his violin breaks; Steve Jobs famously studied calligraphy, which impacted technology from Mac to Windows.

As a software engineer, I’ve solved problems ranging from fixing broken UI in the website to coding processes for faster code deployments to production. Regardless of the technologies, I use critical thinking and apply problem-solving techniques such as defining the problem statement and listing the conditions, breaking the problem or the solution into smaller parts and then recombining into a whole, or deciding to use suitable design patterns and computer algorithms. These same problem-solving skills are of equal importance within narrative and character arcs. Questions like, “How do I build the next generation search?” and “How do I redeem this character?” are answered by the same techniques, though the execution and toolsets are different.

Before writing a story, I raise questions such as: “Who is the protagonist? What is the sequence of events? How do I state the character’s background story without boring the reader? What information should I give and what should I hold back? Is there anything about the story or characters that I don’t know?”

The skill of writing a compelling narrative impacts how I collect, analyze, and write software requirements.

For software, I ask mostly the same questions: “Who will use this solution? What is the sequence of events? What information will add value to this conversation or document? What structure will work best? Is there anything about the requirements that I don’t know?”

Help Scout’s Mo McKibbin, who also acts and writes screenplays, identifies with these parallels. “When writing or acting, you need to know every character backwards and forwards,” she says. “You need to know what their favorite color, food, or band is—even if these details never come up in the script, they still slightly shift the way the character experiences the world.” Turns out, Mo’s practice in fleshing out imaginary humans translated well to her role in writing copy and creative assets for Help Scout’s customer personas. “When I write for these personas I try to adopt that character and speak in his or her voice,” Mo says.

Our pastimes enhance and influence our work

I cross-pollinate by writing both code and prose, but the benefits are there for anyone who practices something creative in addition to their day job. Those hobbies could be painting, pottery, woodworking, or anything else that brings joy.

The Greek philosopher Pythagoras heard the hammering of four blacksmiths and discovered a connection between music and math. And just like that, the universe is interconnected. So don’t box in your job and hobbies; don’t give up your passions out of guilt. An unconventional road to learning can lead to a work of genius—or at least to a unique story to tell.


About the author: Beenish Khan is on the Engineering team at Help Scout. She loves creating delightful experience for other Engineers, and finding stories in daily life.