I Woke Up This Morning

Masters of Doom

Dec 31, 2014 3 minute read

John Carmack was the lead programmer on video games such as Doom and Quake, and is now CTO at virtual reality company Oculus VR. As argued by the book Masters of Doom, he and John Romero were of tremendous influence on today’s gaming landscape (Carmack’s engine was licensed for Half-Life, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor).

Besides being an excellent story of 2 kindred spirits building a successful company and then drifting apart, what caught my attention is some of Carmack’s attitudes to working and learning.

To start with, let’s look at Carmack’s experiences at university 1:

It was a miserable time. He couldn't relate to the students, didn't care about keg parties and frat houses. Worse were the classes, based on memorizing information from textbooks. There was no challenge, no creativity. The tests weren’t just dull, they were insulting. “Why can’t you just give us a project and let us perform it?” Carmack scrawled on the back of one of his exams. "I can perform anything you want me to!" After enduring two semesters, he dropped out.

It’s an understatement to say that he did not seem to appreciate institutionalized education. Instead, we get a hint on how he tackles learning something new on his own:

Carmack began the project as he often did, by reading as much research material as he could gather. He paid thousands of dollars for textbooks and papers...

Or for example when heading for Las Vegas to play blackjack:

To refine his skills before the trip, Carmack applied his usual learning approach: consuming a few books on the subject and composing a computer program, in this case one that simulated the statistics of blackjack dealt cards.

Combine this approach to learning with a work ethic that is all-consuming, and you get a glimpse at what made Carmack so successful:

Carmack could feel that he was drifting off into space, further and further away from things that he could talk about with normal people. He couldn’t connect with anything that was stirring around him: the office politics, happy hours, MTV. His world was Quake. His days were Quake. His nights, his life. He was working eighty-hour weeks easily, fully immersed in his nocturnal schedule. People would see him walk in, grab a Diet Coke from the fridge, then make a beeline to his office. The only action they’d see would be the occasional pizza delivery person knocking on his door.

We can take some guidelines for our own goals and approaches to reach them:

And then: work like a monk/crazy.

With that being said, I wish you and your loved ones a great 2015.

  1. All quotes come from the book Masters of Doom by David Kushner.