I feel like a lot of what people do is as much art as science or engineering and all artists need a studio or creative space where they can really express themselves without The inhibitions or structure of everyday life. Yet, many people do not have that kind of space for doing their craft.
Consider for a moment that a lot of the most highly valued activities don’t really happen in the experience of doing your craft. Instead, some of the most valuable things you can do are the things that make you grow - experimenting, learning, breaking things, have no real good outlet in the everyday process of your craft.
Imagine you are doing work for your employer or client. They don’t want to pay you to break something on the off chance of the fix being slightly better. They are paying you to deliver some kind of known deliverable, not some unknown quantity science project. Innovation is not in the job description of most people.
Yet, while nobody wants to pay for you to experiment and break things, they will pay a premium to those who have already done the experiments and come out the other side better, smarter, faster, etc. It makes a kind of sense for them to do that because it is cheaper and less risky for them to pay for the positive outcome than it is to bet on an unsure experiment. Also, most people are terrible at bargaining and businesses are at least better at it, so they tend to get amazing innovation for pennies on the dollar.
I think this is sad, but rational.
So, if nobody else is going to fit the bill for your science projects, you are going to have to do it yourself. Sorry pal.
That is why you need your own mad science lab.
When I say mad science lab, I mean a place where you can practice your craft freely and without resistance from outside influences. A place with few or no boundaries.
For software developers, this mad science lab could exist anywhere really and for almost no up front cost. Setup a 512 mb droplet on Digital Ocean and you’ve got a little playground to do what you want with for as little as $5 a month. Or just run vagrant on your own machine. Or work on an open source project. Or build an app. It doesn’t matter really, the point is the cost and the friction required to have your own little space to play is such a small money investment that you have almost no excuse not to have your own little playground where you are building your own digital sandcastles as it were.
For other crafts, well, a lot of people have their own garages or shop buildings that they do more physical crafts inside. Things like restoring cars or woodworking or painting or scrapbooking. I don’t know. There are a lot of artistic endeavors that can happen in a garage or basement with minimal investment. The purpose is not how expensive they can be, but rather the need to have that creative space in your life to practice your craft.
The reason this is so critical to your development is simply because to be great at something, you need to practice it. However, to grow in skill you can’t practice the same three moves forever. For example, pick a martial art like say karate, at first if you just practice a simple straight ahead punch, kick, and horse stance you would be well served as a beginner mastering those basic skills, but if you never move on to the more complex forms you will never truly master the art of karate.
The same applies to most things. At first, you need to just develop the habit of practice and basic skill progression, but once you gain a mastery of the basics you must learn the intermediate and advanced skills to truly grow. All along the way you must still practice to sharpen those skills.
In a career, businesses don’t want to pay for you to sharpen your skills unless there is a visible and measurable increase in their ROI on you. Or at the very least, there should be a belief that they will see a visible and measurable ROI on you by investing in your development. This is why people get sent to overpriced conferences, they are marketed as a safe way to invest in your teams development, even if many are just thinly veiled sales opportunities for vendors.
So, to get practice using the skills that you already have, and to play with and master new skills, you need a science lab.
If you want to be remarkable, you need a science lab. It is not optional.
Some of the most interesting people I know have some kind of shop or some place where they do their interesting little projects. Almost every great developer I’ve ever met had side projects.
In programming, I don’t think it’s just a small edge either, it can be a very dramatic edge, like years of experience different kind of edge.
Here’s an example, a couple years ago I was researching API first development and node.js for the team I was working with. I did a super deep dive into node.js, coffeescript (which was fairly new at the time), and some tools to clean up the evented mess that is node.js (TameJS and then Iced Coffeescript). Interestingly, that year at code camp someone did an intro presentation on node.js. Last year I believe someone gave a presentation on Iced Coffeescript and people were starting to really use node.js for various things.
Compared to the average developer, that deep dive into node.js and coffeescript and everything that went with it put me at least a year or two ahead of the game. That is not a small thing.
If someone cared to be, just being a year or two ahead of the game on something popular can be incredibly valuable. It could make you a top paid consultant, a popular author, or even just a really remarkable person to know.
Without doing my own projects in my own little mad science lab, none of that learning would have happened. My job wouldn’t have paid me to take a month or two of paid time to really dig into those technologies, especially since we didn’t end up using them.
Almost every company I know would not want to pay for that sort of thing, even if they reap the benefit of that learning.
So, if you want to be great, you want to be the best, you want to be remarkable, you need to create that space in your life where you can practice and experiment on your craft.
Otherwise, get comfortable with being average.
There is no premium paid for being average.
P.S. I unpack more ideas in Creative Genius