003 — The Builder's High

003 — The Builder's High
Journals and notes — some from the Burnout Years. At least three abandoned projects are present.

If you’ve forgotten who I am then I don’t blame you, as it’s been a couple of weeks. I broke the cardinal rule of this newsletter — consistency. I’m Jamie Dumont and you probably signed up to this newsletter on madebyjamie.com where I write about Makers.

Today I want to tell you about someone important. Someone that is partly, and but directly responsible for everything that I will ever publish here.

I started this newsletter wanting to talk about more than just photography. Picking up a camera is just the most recent act of making for me, but there have been — and still are — so many more.

This attraction to creating things has been an almost ever-present feature in my life. As a child I built a tree house, driving my Dad nuts by raiding his tools and leaving them out in the rain. The garden got covered in sawdust when I made myself a wooden ramp for my mountain bike or a skimboard for hot summer days down at the beach. Music, design, photos, bikes, cars — there was always a project. When I moved to London I lost the space to make physical things, but fell in love with writing software and cooking. There has always been an activity in my life that allowed me to bring something into the world that didn't exist before.

Often these creations weren't great — I distinctly remember the ramp being hair-raising on account of the radius being far too aggressive — but whatever the result I loved the process.

Discovering Michael Lopp's article "The Builder’s High" (a whole-heartedly recommended read) crystallised a behaviour that I had unconsciously become reliant on. Most of my teenage and adult life I've used Making to stave off malaise and foul moods. That was, until I hit complete burnout.

It's hard to pinpoint when this started, but I had been working as a software developer for about eight years and had become disillusioned with what I was producing. The results of my efforts still weren't at the standard I wanted them to be. Whether it was solo-endeavours falling short under the astonishing volume of work required to build quality software, or collaborative projects marred by bureaucracy and lack of cohesive vision. Hours at my computer, my face illuminated a corpse-like shade of blue in front of the screen, had drained the high that once came with building.

I tried to pull myself out of the spiral numerous times with side projects that I had lofty ambitions for. But the burnout was strong and I faltered at even the slightest hurdle. I lost the ability to quickly build anything and in doing so course-correct. Every project seemed too large, too slow and too intimidating; and suddenly the lifebelt I had always relied on stopped pulling to the surface and became a weight that dragged to the depths.

At my lowest I turned to YouTube for distraction which predictably only made the situation worse. Any friction with my work would prompt me to seek solace in a video. By this point, photography had become flotsam to cling to as I let my last professional software work slide below the waves, but (again, predictably) YouTube's photography content made my situation worse.

True YouTube addiction — where minutes, hours, days, and eventually years are ceded to a rabbit hole of content and dopamine surges — is a different beast to what I experienced. No mistake, I've wasted thousands of hours on the site over the past six years, but I don't believe I was ever in the grip of true addiction.

Algorithms are widely cited as the source of this problem, and are undoubtedly exceptionally good at what they are designed to do — maximise time watched by any given set of eyeballs. But I feel the more insidious issue lies with the brain connected to those eyeballs.

I have found — and it’s been echoed by others — that extended time on YouTube fosters a passivity and malaise that’s near-impossible to shake. It not only replaces the Builder's High, but breaks the whole reward mechanism. You aren’t enjoying yourself whilst watching videos, but you’ll almost certainly enjoy anything else less. Not watching suddenly feels like work. Watching feels like switching off.

Throughout, I knew this issue needed handling, but any efforts were all rather ineffectual in hindsight. Actions like trimming my “Watch Later” list of bookmarks — that represented about 100 hours of unwatched content — and later deleting my account altogether felt like big steps; but didn't change the hours spent switched-off or how I was feeling.

Ironically, the full-stop came about because of a YouTuber — he'll hate that I've called him that! When going down the photography rabbit hole I stumbled upon Dan Milnor; previously a photojournalist, now a straight talking, no bullshit portal into the world of photography before it became Content. He talked common sense, dispensed hard-won wisdom through funny anecdotes and went on the most glorious rants about the industry. I immediately liked him.

Over time you could sense that his frustration with Instagram and what passes for photography today was bleeding into YouTube. More shots were fired at unnamed YouTube-famous photographers taking pictures of gas stations or old cars, more references to creator burnout and even the odd threat to “run this ship aground and set it alight!”

Turns out he was serious, and in a fairly understated video announced that it would be his last on the platform and that he’d only be posting to his site Shifter. And that was that. He was gone.

After watching his departure video I decided to join him, and kick the YouTube habit for good. He did it as a creator. I did it as a viewer.

We had sent each other a handful of emails prior, but I let him know that I was joining him.

What followed was deafening silence. Having to listen, undistracted, to my own thoughts was excruciating. Why were my thoughts so scattered, why couldn’t I focus?

Dan had immediately picked up books and began reading voraciously. I wanted to do that too, but only after I worked out what had happened in my brain and how I could unscramble it. I hadn’t finished a book in years — started many — but not finished them. There was no way I could manage one in this state.

The struggle for a peaceful and quiet internal monologue was real, but just understanding that this problem ran deeper than hours spent watching was invaluable. I could pick up on where my past decisions had been externally influenced — monkey see, monkey do — and it allowed me to re-evaluate with independent thought.

With this new found clarity I've rediscovered the simple joy of building. I still feel an abundance of friction but writing here and in my journal, taking pictures and later making sense of them, cooking, and recently building a fence (that will outlast me) all build on that sense of clarity. The Builder's High is back, and every success fuels the next.

Despite all our talk about support networks and help with issues, past a certain point every struggle is personal. It's been a lot of work to get back to where I am today, and it's taken time and timing. I may have gotten here eventually, but I stumbled upon Dan at the right moment. I was ready to hear what he was saying, and he made — and sold me on — the exact manoeuvre that would let me break the vicious cycle I had been stuck in for years. So when you read this Dan — thank you.