A new software solution

Submitted by a software engineer

As a software engineer, I spend my working hours developing formal technical solutions to meet business needs. The processes involved in doing so vary, but as a general rule, all require concentration, focus and attention to detail. A lot of my time at work is actually spent sitting still with my eyes either staring ahead or closed, thinking hard about the systems I am trying to build. While this thinking process can be highly creative and include insights and intuitions that appear ‘ready-made’ in your head without you understanding the ‘recipe’ of thoughts and associations that led up to said insights, as a whole this type of activity is focused, intentional and driven. You are there, concentrated on the problem at hand, trying hard to crack it open.

I have been smoking marijuana recreationally more or less continuously since my teens and have learned early on, that being stoned and trying to concentrate on something were (at least for me) mutually exclusive. In the few occasions that I had tried to work while stoned, I found the experience daunting and tiring. It was like trying to read fine print on a sail boat in rough seas. Everything kept moving. Sideways.

A few years ago, I was struggling to complete the design of a particularly challenging software system. I had been working hard on the project for about 4 or 5 months and had finished most of it apart from a specific (and critical) feature at the heart of the system that I just couldn’t get right. I was both behind schedule and (for the first time in my career) unsure I would actually be able to deliver at all. I’ve been working under tight schedules and challenging expectations for my entire career but this was the first time I really felt like I wasn’t not going to make it. The technical challenge I was facing was considerable and I just could not see a way to solve it. Days and weeks went by and while I was able to keep both my clients and my colleagues at bay, the internal pressure rose steadily until I started to feel desperate and depressed. My ability to concentrate decreased considerably and my mind felt slow and clumsy. I was starting to panic. Even more scary than failing this project was the creeping feeling that I had ’lost it’. Had my smarts deserted me? Was I still apt for this profession?

Things got steadily worse. I started to feel (privately) ashamed about my ‘handicap’ and dreaded going to work every morning. My nightly spliffs did not offer relief from the pending sense of doom, and I’ve even had a few nights were it made things much worse – the pressure became physical and I experienced nausea and disorientation.

Then, one night, I was sitting at home lighting a joint and bracing myself for yet another bout of self-pity and despair (isn’t it amazing how fast these feelings can take root?) and found my mind wandering to the (naively assumed) source of all my problems in life – the technical problem I was struggling with. I had arrived at this place many times before and was well trained at steering my mind away from ‘work’ when stoned having long ago convinced myself there is only frustration to be found there (at best, it’ll just ruin my ‘stoned’ pleasure). This time however, it seemed like a benign alternative to the dark seas of self-pity and I simply surrendered. Thoughts and feelings both related and unrelated swam in and out without order, context or any apparent meaning. I made no attempt to focus or direct my thoughts but for the first time did have a wish to dedicate this journey to the specific problem that was bothering me. This was quite a new experience for me, as I believed it was important that I keep my mind away from the things that bothered me whilst under the effect.

So there I was, just observing my mind go through it all when suddenly I got it! This was very different than the kinds of eureka moments I was used to as part of a typical ‘thinking hard about it’ session. It wasn’t as if I found a solution but I suddenly knew what the solution was ‘like’ and where it was at. It’s hard to explain. Like overhearing an answer to someone else’s unrelated question that somehow sheds light on something meaningful to you. I became very excited and got up to sit at my keyboard and see if I could translate my insight into something tangible straight away. It didn’t take long to see that it wasn’t going to work out. I couldn’t just switch focus and concentration back on, and sober up just because I wanted to. Back to the sofa then with a notebook and a pen, where I took a few minutes to write down my thoughts – nothing organized or clear, just a bunch of ideas and possibilities.

The next morning I discovered there was no need to read the piece of paper. I woke up with much more clarity then I went to bed with. It was as if my mind had had the entire night to play with my stoned insights and was waiting proudly to show me the results as soon as I woke up. By the end of that day I had it nailed, and a few weeks after that I was able to finally finish the project. My clients were very happy with the result, my colleagues impressed with the technical prowess and both my professional confidence and cache where buzzing.
That stoned float through the ‘problem space’ brought me to a place I could never have reached when thinking hard. I learned that some problems require you to do some hard ‘not-thinking’. This does not mean forget about the problem and clear your head. It means immerse yourself in the problem and just…. be!... It’s easier to do with a Joint.

In the years since, I have occasionally used this technique to try and see things I was struggling with, in a different way. It is not always so enlightening or effective but it is always educational when you let yourself observe something you have difficulty with while under an influence. When stoned, the patterns of our ‘normal’ thinking melt a little and the perceptions and ideas that float in through the cracks can sometimes bring amazing gifts, and if they don’t……….well….then it’s just fun!