Garrett (garote) wrote,

I have no idea where this will go...

Recently I saw a question on quora about failure: "What's it like to have attended an elite school, and be an utter failure afterward?" Some people responded to the question by passionately rejecting the act of comparing oneself to others. Different respondents gave vivid descriptions of their mid-life crises, and how they did - or didn't - turn themselves around. One common theme that emerged was this: If you're doing something you love - something that makes you happy - you are not failing, whatever other people think.

It's a great way to describe success. It's not materialistic, it's not based on social status or power, and it doesn't move it permanently out of anyone's reach, because there's a temporal quality to it: A person can fail over and over, and still eventually find success.

But that temporal quality also has a downside: Success can be just as temporary as failure.

I spent my 20's seeking "quality of life", often down the path of least resistance, attempting to burn off all the angst that teenagerhood gave me. I was fighting against deeply embedded feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness about my future, and I needed to find satisfaction in basic, everyday things, and be at peace. I arranged my life to pursue that, taking quiet walks, having long, thoughtful discussions, savoring good food and the fireplace and my routine. I let the scope of my obsessions narrow to individual days, and easily accomplished tasks.

Relative to what I could have been doing, it would be fair to call me a lazy bum. An unambitious hedonist doing the minimum required of me to stay comfortable and nothing more. But I was happy, doing what I loved, with my little garden and my low-stakes job. So it was success, by this metric.

At some point my angst actually dissolved, and my lifestyle stopped serving its purpose, so a natural consequence of my "success" was to grow restless. I entered my 30's by switching into a high-demand, high-pressure work environment, splitting my time between passionate debates in meeting rooms with fellow engineers and shutting myself in a dark office, assembling and dismantling castles of logic in my mind to a rhythmic industrial soundtrack. It was a different pace, a different set of priorities, and a new way to justify my existence. It was work I loved to do, so it was my new version of success.

It was also toxic, and unsustainable. It destroyed my romantic and social life. I entered another phase of burn-out, recovering from damage even worse than I'd felt before. "Do what you love" seemed like empty advice, because the only career I could remember loving had apparently poisoned me, so what chance was there now?

I eventually managed to parlay a set of present interests and past skills into a new version of my career - one that allows a much better work-life balance. That balance has given me the time and energy to explore other things - like travel, and home ownership, and a different approach to my romantic life. But the job itself mainly consists of writing code, quietly, alone at a desk, even more than my previous job. I have to acknowledge the fact that the thing I do for money, the main thing I've done for money for my entire adult life, is a cramped, socially isolating activity. In order to do it well I must confine myself to a certain state of mind, and that state of mind is starting to lose its appeal.

(It's like meditation, so in a way, inner peace is starting to become the enemy of my happiness. Weird, huh?)

So what's the next version of success going to look like? The next version of "doing what I love"? I might have stumbled upon an answer to that.

I'm currently finishing up a a fast-paced entrepreneurship course. It's a class full of people very excited about doing something they love, and trying to find a way to make it fit in a marketplace. The product my group is working on probably won't change the world, but it stands a good chance of contributing to the science that will.

The course is intense. For four days during the kickoff there was no time in the day for me to do anything but work and get inadequate amounts of sleep. Zero socialization or downtime, barely any time to eat, no time to do laundry or clean the house. My small team would conduct back-to-back interviews for hours, crunch through our notes, then argue passionately about what we learned and how to arrange it on slides for the rest of the class. It was a relentless campaign of extroversion for me, with barely a moment where I wasn't talking, listening, composing feedback, or making a case. And you know what? It felt great. Amazing, actually. I felt like I could just do that for months at a time and watch as a whole different version of myself emerged and sprang to life, like an origami boat unfolding, turning itself inside-out, and reforming into an airplane.

Then, after the fourth day, when I had a gap in the schedule again with a few days to relax and unwind, I spent almost all that time alone, at home, happily mixing music and petting the cat. The pendulum swung back just as hard in the other direction and suddenly all I wanted to do was rummage around in my own head and make something artistic from the pieces I found there. Three days later, after focusing just as relentlessly on my inner universe, I had a nearly complete draft of a music mix that was loud and angry, shot through with vocal samples about regret, failure, and mental disease. It was an obvious sequel to the "Problems With Reality" mix I made a few years ago, so I gave it that name, and began the slower, more relaxed process of editing it down.

Then I went back to work - my normal work, with the entrepreneurial stuff scheduled around and within it - and encountered a feeling of dissonance.

My entrepreneurial group consists of two busy scientists and me, a busy programmer. The product my group is evaluating only exists in a demonstrable form because I wrote it, spending months and months patiently churning out all the code, sitting alone at a desk. My normal work is the same socially isolated process I've been exercising and developing for 30+ years.

So, I'm in a Catch-22 situation where my only qualification for doing something I really enjoy, is my dedication to keep doing something I don't.

One day I was in office-hours with the lead instructor, and I confessed to him that my group was probably not going to spin off into a startup company because none of us had the bandwidth for it. We needed someone who was willing to dedicate themselves completely to the task of making connections, chasing funding, hiring employees, pitching to industry partners, et cetera. A real entrepreneurial lead. The instructor nodded to show that he understood my concerns, then looked me in the eye and said, "why not you?"

"Well," I said, "I actually like the idea. I could see myself digging into this process and having a great time with it, maybe even being pretty good at it, if I can get enough advice and support. But the problem is, the product we're developing needs a lead programmer, and I'm already very good at that job. If I took on this new role, my team would be effectively swapping a veteran programmer for an amateur entrepreneur. We'd be on even weaker footing than we already are."

The instructor shrugged and said, "I see your point, but I don't think it's a very relevant one. If you think you've got a chance - and the motivation - to take this role, your team would be going from zero entrepreneurial leads to one dedicated one. Your past work doesn't have to match your present work to still inform it. Think of how useful it is to have an entrepreneurial lead who needs to hire good programmers, and who also happens to know how to tell a good programmer from a lousy one in fifteen minutes without even making a phone call or calling a meeting."

Our team came away from the class with a six-month battle plan, designed to get us into a good position to score additional funding and test the viability of a potential spinoff. But it requires that we get a good prototype deployed into the world, with a minimum feature set, so we can hand it to potential clients and say, "This is what we're making. It's obviously the future. So join up with us."

Guess who has to write all the code for that prototype? Yes. Doubling-down, on another six months of intense cogitating, mostly alone at my desk, while the thing the instructor said keeps rattling around in my brain, asking, "Even if it meant almost certain failure, would you do it? What would it be like to try? What would it be like to permanently change into the origami plane, from the origami boat you've been creased into for decades? Is that your new version of happiness?"

In four weeks I'm giving a live presentation about my project to a couple hundred industry people. This is happening at a conference over a weekend, bookended by these weekdays of intense coding. Wherever this all goes, I'm going to be part of it somehow...
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