adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Open Source, Open Heart

23 March 2012

I've decided to open source my project Open Hercules. If you're one of the nearly seven billion people unaware of this project, it's a little Rails app I've been tinkering with off and on for a year and a half. It's meant to be a very fast, social, keyboard-friendly checklist app.

So why should you care about the fact that some dude somewhere is open sourcing some obscure web app? Here are a couple reasons:

  • You might enjoy looking at the code. The javascript involved (actually, coffeescript) is a little complex. I've been trying out different ideas for both the physical and logical organization of my coffeescript, especially when it comes to handling keyboard shortcuts. It might be fun to examine a non-trivial coffeescript application. In the future, I will write an article or two explaining the coffeescript.
  • You might find my rationale for open sourcing the app interesting. I've put a lot of hours into the project, and I was hoping to start charging for it. I was considering trying to sell an enterprise version of the app for a good amount of money. You might be curious about why I gave up on that idea. That's what the rest of this article is about.

More Money, More Problems

In one way, my reason for open sourcing Open Hercules is completely boring: I think it will make me happy. Whoopdee-doo! But for me, it was hard to come to that conclusion. Once I came to that conclusion, it was hard for me to actually accept it.

The thing is, I grew up poor. I don't know if people who grew up in comfortably middle-class homes always scheme about money, but I know that I saw that kind of scheming all the time. "Scheme" is a somewhat degrading word, but it's appropriate for degrading circumstances. My mother constantly worried about money. This drove her to get a night job that paid better than anything she had done before, but which prevented her from spending hardly any time with my brother and me. And when she wasn't working, she was trying to do more and learn more in order to make more money, allowing her even less time with us.

This is not to say that I don't appreciate what she did. My mother worked hard for my brother and me. She took shit jobs at McDonald's and at a gas station and underwent the humiliation of receiving welfare while she went to college to finish her degree. (Funny thing - when you're four you think it's awesome that your mom works at a fast food place because it means you get lots of chicken nuggets.) She did what she did because she loved us, and I'm grateful for it. What's more, her sacrifice has paid off for my brother and me. We both get to do work we actually enjoy and are compensated handsomely.

But at the same time, I know that she deeply regrets some of her choices. She still feels bad that she didn't spend more time with me and my brother when we were going up. And I know that those years working the night job were unhappy for her. One of my most heart-breaking memories is of my mother telling me, "I'm so lonely. I can't see you or Matt. When I get home it's just me and the damn hamster running in her wheel."

My mother was deeply afraid of not having enough money, to the point that that fear became one of the primary motivating forces of her life. And I inherited that fear.

But... I Already Have Enough

Much of my life has revolved around trying to get more money. I've run my own little schemes, including creating web sites and an iphone app. Open Hercules was another scheme - finally! A web app that I can probably make a ton of money on!

Except... I'm making a lot of money already. More than anyone in my family. More than most people I know. I have more than enough money to meet my basic needs and do anything I want to do. I mean, if I can't learn to be satisfied with this much money, I'm pretty much fucked.

No, I'm not a millionaire - that's not important anyway. What's important is that I've realized is that my desire for more money is insatiable. No amount of money will ever quench my desire for more, ever. There's no amount that will make me feel "Ah! I've finally done it! This is enough, and I can focus on doing something else now." I can imagine making more, and I think myself capable of it, therefore some part of me wants to try to make more money. It's how I've operated my entire life.

And it's insane. The fact is, if I tried to make Open Hercules into an actual product, I would bring more stress into my life. More! Dealing with customers, having to work on it in addition to my day job - why would I bring that upon myself? For what reason?

You Get Better at Whatever You Do

Ironically enough, what finally convinced me to abandon my plans to turn my app into a product was another fear. One idea that has made a big impression on me is the idea that you get better at whatever you do.

Do I want to get better at being driven by a desire for money? At being driven by irrational compulsions? At bringing stress upon myself for no reason? Do I want to end up regretting that I didn't spend more time with the people I love? Nope, I don't.

For a few years now, I've used two mental images to help guide my actions: a closed fist, and an open hand. The closed fist represents a mistrustful spirit dominated by fear, by the need to closely protect oneself. The open hand represents a spirit of generosity, of being self-confident and self-sufficient enough to be able to give to others.

And that's what I want to get better at. I want to get better at being satisfied with what I have. I want to cultivate a spirit of generosity. I want to spend my time learning fun stuff for no good reason, like lisp programming and playing the violin, free of the nagging feeling that I should really be working on some new way to make money.

In addition, the idea of giving away my work so that other people can actually use it when they perhaps wouldn't have been able to (even at the company where I work, we'd only be able to use it if it were hosted behind our firewall) is very gratifying to me. The idea of working together with other people to improve the project and create something great is very gratifying to me.

That's why I decided to give away Open Hercules.