9573 words

Goodbye, Jaeger

This past Saturday, a vet came to our home and ended the life on our cat by humane euthanasia. She had been struggling to breathe for three weeks, some days better than others, but on the morning she died, she was struggling so much that she could do little more than follow us into the living room after we got up and lie back down in her bed, pumping her sides quietly.

Her passing was, we believe, painless, and was a welcome cessation of the suffering she was enduring as she fought to get enough oxygen. She didn't struggle or flinch when the vet administered the first sedative, and she zoned out with her eyes open as it took effect. We whispered to her that everything would be okay, that we loved her, and that we were so sorry we could not save her from this disease that was slowly suffocating her from the inside. Sobbing painfully, we stepped back to let the vet administer the euthanizing drug, and cried as our cat left her body and all that remained was the body of a cat, no longer our cat, just her form. We tucked her into a blanket, and my wife carried her to the vet's car and placed her in a circle of pillows.

How unfair it was, that this beautiful, sweet, quiet cat, whom we had wanted to adopt since we first met her years ago, should contract a terminal disease after a single year with us. We threw everything we could at the disease. Money was no object, and we defied the advice of family to save her, but the prognosis was never very good. When her heart nearly failed under anesthesia for a diagnostic scan, we realized surgery was not a viable option. We elected to stop the merry-go-round of emergency and specialty vet visits, stressing her out in ways I cannot fathom as a human who always knew on some level that doctors were healers. We brought her home, to be around people and things she loved for a few days, praying that the previous good week has given her the chance to say goodbye to the things she couldn't experience in her last days: sunning herself on the window ledge, climbing her cat tree, hopping into our laps, eating her crunchy kibble, swatting at her toys, chattering at birds. She did all of these things the week before it all fell apart, but not after we brought her home for the last time.

She said goodbye to her friends, even pulling herself together enough to walk and nuzzle them when they came by. She heard the voice of her first mom, who adopted her as a kitten and has kept in touch after we adopted her. She slept in our bed, snuggling with us under the blankets, just enjoying our heat and our scent. And she managed to put down three of her favorite treats before the effort sent her back to her hiding place under the bed.

And on the morning she died, she gave us no doubt that death would be a mercy. Even then, we worried we had waited too long, and maybe we had, out of a selfish desire to get just a few more minutes or hours with her. I hope she understood. One year was just not enough. No amount of hours or minutes would make up for that, but...we were heartbroken to let her go.

But we did let her go. Our little trilling cat, who would show her love by bonking things with her head, who spoke in quiet imitation of birdsong. And when she went, we did everything we could to ensure she felt surrounded by love and compassion.

Her ghost haunts the apartment. An unexplained shuffle turns our heads as we look for her. Her trill catches our ear before we realize it was something else. I still check around the bed before stepping down in the morning to make sure I don't step on her. I say goodnight to her shadow, snoozing in her favorite chair. She was herself a shadow at times, so it doesn't always feel that different, saying goodnight to the darkest patch of the room.

She was only here a year, but it feels like she was always a part of our lives here. I almost feel like I remember her with us in our previous homes.

But she is gone. I imagine she has found something to attract her attention wherever it is that cats go after they leave their people. She could always make friends, could always find a comfortable spot and make herself at home. I believe that she isn't afraid or lonely, because in life she knew how to make a connection with whomever was nearby. She had three families after all.

But before she went after her new adventures following new friends, maybe she looked back at us to give us one last trill in acknowledgment, the way she did when you would look at her across the room: I am here. I see you there.

Slow blink. Head bonk.

Decisions and Choices

Our cat has been diagnosed with a rare and complicated disease. The usual prognosis is one of lifelong management through medication, diet, and possibly frequent medical intervention, unless we are very lucky and she responds well to initial treatment. We have gone from having a very relaxed and inconsequential life to having to make life-or-death decisions for our cat every day for the last few weeks.

At one point, at the height of our worry and her pain, there was no choice that seemed like the right one. We were struggling with taking her to the ER, because it would cause her pain after a week of near constant stress, but we were afraid to stay home for fear of her health.

One of the people we asked for advice said that there were no wrong choices, because we didn't know what the outcome would have been, but some ways of making certain choices did feel wrong. I realized we weren't struggling with which choice to make; we were strugglying with making sure that we could live with whatever choice we did make.

a choice is not a decision

I realized that our advisor was right: there were no wrong choices. Whatever action we chose to undertake might work out well or poorly and since we couldn't know which, we wouldn't really be responsible for the outcome. But even in the worst case, as long as we felt that we had made the choice in the right way, we could have lived with ourselves.

On the other hand, taking an action that had a positive outcome, if we did it out of selfish fear, might leave us feeling like we had taken advantage of our cat.

So, I came up with this model of choices and decisions: a choice is the action you take and can be good or poor; a decision is the process of how you got there, and can actually be right or wrong. A choice is the outcome of a decision.

Decisions are motivated by inputs and answer the question, "how do I want to respond to this situation?" Choices answer the question, "What do I want to get out of this situation?"

It's not perfect, and it doesn't really mesh with how we use the terms in everyday life, but it works for me because it allows me to understand what is happening psychologically when I am struggling with making a decision and confusing it with making a good choice.

gather information to make your choice, know yourself and those you are responsible for to make your decision

This helped me come up with a rough framework for making decisions. Before starting the decision-making process, gather as much information as possible on the different choices available to me. What do I need to have in order to make each choice? What will the probable outcomes of the choice be? What will their costs be?

I think there is also an art to knowing when I have enough information to form a decision. Maybe it doesn't matter that much, and I can decide either way without much impact on my values. But sometimes I will need to know more to know how a choice will interact with my values. And sometimes seeking more information is just avoiding the decision.

Once that process is complete to whatever extent possible, and only then, I can commit to making the decision. Know what I want to get out of a situation. Do I want to keep my cat alive at all costs, or do I want to ensure a good quality of life for her? Do I want to feel that I am taking good care of her, or do I just need her to be alive, regardless of our relationship after all is said and done? How much money am I willing to spend on treating her, and how do I feel about the answer to that question?

These are values-based questions, and are entirely subjective, but they allow me to take a stance on the actions and choices I need to make. If I know my values, and my wife's values, in respect to the situation, I can formulate a position with her that will inform my choices. If we are clear on our values, we can be assured of picking the choice that is most in accord with our values (making the right decision). The more information, the better we can be certain that the choice accords with our values, but even with little information, we can go with what we do know.

Then, we are staying aligned with our values, not just waffling between one choice and another.

decisions framing choices

Once I figured out how I wanted to respond to my cat's sickness, it became a bit easier to know what choices to make. I wanted to approach the situation with compassion, to support her well-being, with an understanding that she may have to suffer a bit to get better, but always being aware of my own selfish desire to quell my fears with certainty instead of taking care of her. We also realized we didn't mind taking on a fairly heavy financial burden if she could live a full life at the end of the treatment process.

In deciding whether to proceed with the more extreme medical interventions, we have recognized that our need to have certainty and a quick resolution is not necessarily in her best interest. Letting her recover at her own pace between visits to the doctors, or even ride out the disease for a week or two as she builds up her strength, and using less intensive diagnostics to keep on top of maintanence, felt like a much more compassionate plan. It respected her need for a slower pace, and it recognized that our desire for quick, dramatic progress was more for us than for her. It also gives her a chance to manage the disease in her own way, whic accords with the way we wanted to relate to our cat as a member of the family rather then a pet with no agency (whether others agree with that or not).

While the choices are still high stakes (and it's possible we are endangering her by dragging out treatment), the decision feels right. We consulted with her doctors, and they agreed, though I thought it was interesting that their attitude seemed to be based on our own. Instead of telling us what was the better choice, they seemed to be focusing on how we expressed our ideas and where we sounded more or less confident.

the hardest choices

During a military-style group event, I was assigned to lead the group, which mostly just meant walking in front, but at one point where the trail narrowed, I had to decide whether to go ahead or wait for another group to pass us coming the other direction. I wavered, calling for a stop, then half-heartedly starting up again when the other group seemed to be giving way, then called another stop when they started walking anyway. It was awkward and since my group was carrying sandbags, they were righly annoyed. I was afraid they wouldn't respect me or follow me if I made a poor choice, but by trying so hard to make the right choice without enough information about the other group, I made no decision (which was the wrong decision).

There was a former army infantryman in my group, and afterwards he told me, "Just make a decision. It doesn't have to be the right one, but they will follow you anyway. You're the leader."

I could have called for a stop, and waved the other group through. It might have been the wrong choice, because my group would be standing there with sandbags, but they would have respected the decision because it would have been made in the right way.

I imagine that infantryman had had some experience with much harder decisions, both making them and following them, and I imagine he'd been on the receiving end of some bad decisions, and some good decisions that led to poor choices. But what I got from what he was saying is that making a decision is more important than figuring out the right choice. In that situation, any decision would have been the right one, except the non-decision I chose.

I imagine surgeons and generals have to make those sorts of decisions a lot, often without knowing whether the action they choose to take will lead to death or salvation. So what makes a good decisionmaker? Probably the better decisionmakers can connect their values to their choices, by making the right decision.

Why None of my Past Successes Felt Like Successes; or Annoying Google Interview Questions

So here we are. A decade after college, I realized I wasn't getting any closer to anything. I had given up on several big, sustained projects that were actually very successful by traditional standards:

  • My musical aspirations that has taken me from self-teaching guitar to playing shows in two college bands in 3 years
  • The blog I had been posting to daily from 2009 to 2013 which culminated in an ebook launch
  • Learning the contractor-gig lifestyle well enough to become a 50% owner of a web marketing agency
  • Teaching myself to code and two years later landing a senior developer job at a billion-dollar startup

None of these made me happy. They all felt like distractions from what I really wanted to do, which was...never figured out. I think by the time I left the startup, I had become fairly obsessed with space and mathematics, so I thought maybe that would make me happy. I figured I was picking goals that were too small, and that if I just picked bigger goals, attaining them might be more fulfilling. Astronaut seemed like an appropriately unreasonable goal, though I guess becoming a genre fiction author might be similarly unreasonable, at least by my dad's reckoning. Ha...ha...ha.

I realize now that bigger goals are probably not the solution. The right goals might be more fulfilling.

Large and Hollow

I used to want the biggest and the best of everything. I wanted tons of money, like, historically significant sums of money. I wanted the most exclusive cars. I wanted to be the best of all fantasy AND sci-fi authors. I also wanted to win the CrossFit games, while also becoming a master traceur and a blackbelt in everything. Not surprisingly, I never accomplished any of those things, and eventually was so wrapped up in only doing the best that I didn't even try, because I realized how unattainable all of it was.

In retrospect, I realize that most of those things are out of my control. I can probably make a lot of money if I really wanted to, but that amount of money relies on a lot of luck and other factors out of my control. Some of the others are less out of my control, but to be the best of the best requires some luck. Especially if I'm not even doing the basics.

But even the big goals that I did attain didn't make me feel fulfilled. I just felt like it had been a waste of time. The taste of success was bitter, so why would I even want to pursue the even higher levels of success that I was aiming for?

Happy in the Doing

The things that make me happy in the doing are not particularly fancy or ground-breaking. I love flying. I keep coming back to that. Adventuring, spending time in nature and feeling exposed and tired and exultant in my physical endurance feels good. Spending time with my family. Writing feels good in the doing. Just putting the words down on the page/screen is lovely. I don't know why. But I don't think I'm supposed to question that.

I also enjoy coding and constructing math proofs actually. Not just understanding math, but building a math thing to solve a problem in my head. Ah, now that is true bliss! Haha, I never realized that I liked that about math. That's why I feel like some math is like learning .NET, with all its hidden and arbitrary methods that I didn't know existed, why they exist and what they do (oh, well how was I supposed to know that was the right way to do that thing?). While other math is more like my familiar JavaScript: I know it well enough that I can build anything I want. Though of course, it too has its own foundational building blocks...though they feel much less arbitrary and black-boxy than .NET. On the other hand, .NET allows you to spin up a much more complex tool from the get go, without needing to write everything yourself.

Building a thing to solve a problem. Building a solution. Designing and executing a plan to make a thing a reality.

The Level of Performance

I don't know why I never really felt challenged in these various endeavors. I felt frustated, sure, but they all felt like small time gigs. Nothing felt big, or matterful. But I don't think anything really would ever be, especially in 2-5 years, which is the timeframe we're talking about here.

I wanted something that would challenge me, something that I might fail at a few times before I finally succeeded. But if I look back on these things, I failed plenty of times. I was rejected from several job interviews before I landed the coding job that really got things rolling. I bombed so many public performances on guitar before I had any sort of success in a college band. I published plenty of flops, and a few real bad articles, before I saw any success with my blog. How many pitches did I make as a contractor that I didn't land? How many clients did I have that went nowhere?

I don't know why I only tell the stories of the easy-success. Maybe that's the one that is consistent with my image of myself as naturally gifted. But oddly, that's really hurting me, because it causes me to devalue the struggle I went through in order to attain the successes that I did. They don't feel worthwhile because in my memory, I didn't have to pay anything to attain them.

I was once asked at a big-time coding interview (Google) to recount a time in my life when I had failed. I couldn't come up with anything. I have certainly failed at big goals and projects, but I don't frame setbacks as failures, and if it's something I really want to do, which I try to make everything I pursue, then I just come back and try again. I can't really imagine a situation in which I would just walk away from a failure and leave it at that. Unless I didn't really want to succeed, in which case, why would I even bother in the attempt?

That's just me. I don't know if that's what they meant. I am still not sure the question makes a lot of sense, because I don't think I had the same definition of failure as they did. Even in analysis, I can't really pin down what they were talking about.

Someone said, if you're not making mistakes, you're not working on something hard enough. I don't feel like I ever really make big mistakes, and I wanted to be in a situation where I wouldn't find things so easy to learn. This sounds very arrogant, and I don't want to present false modesty about my abilities; I know I am a fast learner of skills and have an adaptable mindset that I have found able to take on a variety of persepctives and mental models. But I also want to recognize that I have always played things safe, and avoided risks. I have always been careful to weigh my current abilities against a proposed challenge, considered whether I would grow fast enough to master it, and thought about the resources being provided. If it was too much, I waited until I felt I was ready. But since I've never overreached, I don't actually know what that looks like. Where is the limit of my ability? I have never been able to answer that question to my satisfaction.

I would say that most of my math classes in the last year have been beyond my ability, from my personal standards of understanding. I have earned A's, but if you asked me today what I learned, I wouldn't be able to give you much. By my standards, that's not really success. On the other hand, that is exactly the question the interview at Google found so inadaquate. I gave a story in which I had failed by my own standards, but had apparently succeeded by his. Thus, I didn't answer the question.

Follow Up Questions from Statistically Depressing, but Probably True, Mediocrity

Based on my last article on never being anything other than mediocre, I came up with a bunch of follow up questions, which I will now endeavor to answer.

What problems do I want to deal with everyday?

I enjoy variety in the problems I am solving. Any problem that I haven't seen before is interesting, but more so if I can see the opportunity for a puzzle aspect to it. I enjoy solving coding problems that I haven't seen before (as long as there isn't too much pressure, like a coding interview or something artificial like that), and figuring out how to apply what I do know to novel situations.

I really enjoy figuring out how to create systems to solve problems, both concretely (as in mechanical and electronic systems, as well as programs) and abstractly (as in routines, processes, standards of behavior, etc). If the system can be refined and perpetuated, all the better. I think that is why I enjoy strategy games with resource management so much: you can establish an economy and manufacturing pipeline that you refine over time until it is an unstoppable machine of production and industry! And as it gets more polished, there is less hands-on that I have to do, so I can move on to other problems.

I enjoy skill acquisition and progression. I like the process of getting certifications, classes, checkrides, etc. as I build my qualifications. I don't mind being incompetent or a beginner. I actually enjoy it because it lets me see the world in new ways. As long as I am permitted to actually learn things when I'm ready, rather than having to wait or truly master something before moving on, I can be happy. For example, I like SCUBA diving, because I can learn the basics, then go on to do more advanced skills (at an entry level), and get more experience as I want.

Do I like working with people? I think yes. I actually really enjoy helping people solve problems that they are interested in solving, and which I can assist them with. That's why I like tutoring: I get the chance to diagnose problems in how students are approaching their studies and provide alternatives. That's basically debugging, which I've actually come to enjoy.

So, I enjoy defining, isolating, and solving problems, both with people and other things.

What problems don't I want to deal with everyday?

Well, I don't really like convincing other people of things. I don't enjoy sales, nor do I really understand the connection between my actions and the outcomes. If I framed it as a problem to solve and a skill to acquire, I might be better off, but I've never really been able to see much connection between my effort and when/if people are convinced of a thing.

Though now that I've articulated all that, I kind of want to tackle the problem and work on it.

I DO NOT enjoy repetitious labor. I lasted 10 days in a job as a deli customer assistant at a local supermarket, and about the same amount of time working as a line chef at an Italian restaurant. I managed maybe a month as a waiter and a bartender at a fancy Italian place. Those sort of jobs don't involve learning anything new, once you have the basic job down, nor do they involve actually solving problems as far as I can tell. You just get what the customer wants, in the way that the owner has decided you can do it.

Going through the motions bothers me. Eg, academic busy-work gets to me. I guess this gets confused with problem solving, because stuff like math HW often feels like busy work because it's not really connected to solving any sort of problem, just...do this because I assigned it. That's something I'm struggling with a bit in my own research, but that might because I've never really sorted out how to define my own problems to solve.

What are the problems I would be dealing with in all these various dreams and ideas of my life?

As an astronaut, I would be constantly involved in skill acquisitions, certification, and maintenance. I think the maintenance part would be sort of tedious, but I also do a lot of that and don't mind as long as it's part of the overall process of improving what I already know and solidifying it. I imagine I would also be doing a lot of paperwork and PR work. I don't know to what extent I would be doing repetitious stuff, but I get the impression that is not really the case.

In the military, I think I would be doing a lot more boring, repetitious work. I guess I don't know to what extent that would be the case. I would enjoy the process of making decisions (gathering information, researching, etc. to make a decision) but I'm really not sure how much of that I would be doing vs just going through the motions on stuff.

As a graduate student, I would...be in school...again. So, plenty of busy work, just checking boxes, going through the brutally difficult motions that I'm used to. I don't know. That doesn't really sound so great, but again, I don't know exactly how it differs from undergraduate work. I don't think I would enjoy TA-ing very much. Not because I don't like working with students but because it would be a routine thing that I would be required to take on, and having worked with some TA's, it doesn't seem like anyone wants to be in those rooms: not the TA's, not the students, nobody.

In the business world...well, I enjoyed the freedom and the fact that there were always new problems to solve. Everyday, I got to wear a different hat. But sometimes, I had to stick with one hat for longer than I would have liked, and I had trouble with that. But I also have the freedom to improve my systems to suit my preferences, whereas when I worked for other people, I had to stick with their systems, even if they were inefficient and pointless.

How do I find out what problems people in these lifestyles face?

I could ask...I actually know some astronauts. I have some connections with people in the Air Force. I know plenty of graduate students, and lots of them in the mathematics field, as well as some in other fields I might be interested in exploring.

What problems am I dealing with today that I enjoy?

Building and maintaining my software for NASA has been really rewarding in general. There have been days when I didn't really want to dig into stuff, in which case I could always learn new related skills, or I could just work on parts that didn't require much critical thinking, but in general, I have and continue to look forward to the work. I don't really like finding bugs (aka, testing manually), but I don't mind fixing them. And I would like to learn to incorporate testing into my framework from the beginning and just offload that problem.

Apparently, I love refining my desk setup. That problem of the awkward corner in the study, Anna's lack of a space to call her own, has been tons of fun to solve, from designing and building the desk, to outfitting the area, to organizing it and perfecting my organizational scheme, and then leveraging it to become more productive. I also am enjoying the process of thinking about other storage solutions, like the retractable ceiling desk in the garage, the entire reorganization of the apartment, picking new furniture to better use the space, keeping everything tidy and clear, etc. (I don't enjoy the repetitiveness, but getting systems in place to sustain order is rewarding).

Improving fitness has been a long-term and ongoing process. There are definitely days when I don't really want to deal with it, but in general, I like the progression and the consistency I've developed.

I really like camping and hiking. I don't like the planning process that much, but I am hoping that with easier to access prepping tools and spaces, that friction will diminish. I guess the same is true of flying: I enjoy the flying, and executing the plan, but making the plan is a bit tedious because I tend to think of it as repetitious. On the other hand, it actually isn't: every trip, both camping and flying, is unique, and ultimately, crafting a flight plan or an adventure plan is about applying what I know to solve novel problems.

What problems am I dealing with that I don't enjoy?

Classwork. As John Stewart said during the 2020 Spring Zoom graduation party hosted by John Krazinksi, "stop completing things and start living them." Classwork just feels like completing things for the sake of completing them. Add to that the looming threat of assessments, the fact that you can't explore the topic to the point of actually understanding it (you just learn enough for the class and move on), and it sucks. I really, really hate classwork.

If it were part of a class on, say, a SCUBA certification or my pilot's license, that would be tolerable, and in fact I've done those things and been fine. But the academics, while I'm apparently really good at them, are not my favorite. If I could drop one thing from my life right now, it would be the classwork.

Mind you, I don't hate the classes themselves, or the material we're covering. I just want to have the opportunity to learn the subject, instead of just getting through the HW and studying for the tests. It's not the same thing. My current class is just busy work: read a bunch of articles, then vomit out a response. I'm even enjoying my honors thesis research much more than my class work because I am learning at my pace, to the level of mastery I want.

Fighting the constant degradation of the apartment into chaos.

Okay, now that I have tied the apartment a bit...

Small errands that never seem to end.

What has pursuing astronaut candidacy introduced into my life that I want to keep, regardless of the result?

It has introduced a relationship with NASA and space exploration that I really enjoy. My familiarity with the space program is fulfilling.

It introduced me to the study of orbital mechanics, barely, which I would really love to delve into further. An exploration of applied math and physics, engineering and mechanical/technical problem-solving, robotics. I was sort of peripherally interested in these things before, but space had me actually start to explore these things, whereas before, I considered them a curiosity but not something I would actually touch.

I have also been more community-conscious and participated in ways to give back to my communities a little bit more (the white blood cell donation comes to mind).

I think in general, it has introduced to me the idea of getting in the game, not sitting on the sidelines so much.

Actually, the Air Force as a possible goal is itself motivating me to do similar things: physical challenges, technical operational challenges, and other similar things.

What has it pushed me to begin valuing again that I had devalued in the past?

Taking astronaut candidacy seriously has gotten me back into the pilot's seat and back in a SCUBA, so I'm revaluing my practice of these skills. It has had me camping and planning trips, and spending time in the wilderness as well, again reasserting the value of these activities.

It has also encouraged me to take more challenging classes, to apply for various scholarships and memberships, and to see the value in these honors and prestigious awards.

It has also put a military career back in the spotlight, though that one is a little tricky. I am simultaneously excited and anxious about that. There's a part of me that wants to be written off, so I can let it go. Maybe that's a sign. It would also be difficult to get my advanced degree quickly if I do go the Air Force route, unless I do ops research, which honestly doesn't seem like a terribly exciting job.

What has it encouraged me to let go of that I don't miss?

Martial arts actually. As much as I enjoyed them at the time, I don't really miss them at all. I think I would enjoy rolling or sparring, but not with the same passion or longing that I feel towards flying or being in the woods.

A concern with making money as the only or most important measure of my success.

What has it led me to let go of that I do miss or resent letting go of?

Nothing really. The only thing that might come close is my work as a developer, but even now, thinking to where I might be if I had stayed in that job, I am not thrilled. Even if I did return to that life, I would do so now with a much stronger sense of what sort of company and career I wanted to be in, which I owe to this journey I'm on now.

I think the only thing that leaves a hole in me is the turning away from writing and forming my thoughts to share with others. Not that this particular path did that: I stopped writing long before I decided to go back to school or try to become an astronaut, but it hasn't helped me redo that either.

If I never get to be exceptional, what sort of day would I like to be living anyway?

I think I would like to be living an adventurous life. Being able to fly and SCUBA dive would be nice, because they let me go places and do things that are a little out of the ordinary, off the beaten path at least a little bit. I think that's really what I'm looking for: off the beaten path. I like having to be careful, having to pay attention, having to execute a plan. Planning something, then executing it and refining the technique, like a mission. Those things feel really good.

I'd like to see things, to go places, to push myself and not always be comfortable and relaxed honestly. I would ideally like to be doing these things for some purpose, like helping people, not just for my own entertainment. And I do think I would like to be writing more.

Do I have it in my ability to start living those days right now?

I think I do. I could join the Civil Air Patrol, maybe at least attend meetings of the Boulder SAR, work towards getting my rescue diver certification (which will be much cheaper than flying certs), and those sorts of things. Continue planning trips and hikes, maybe with some goal in mind.

Ironically, the looming Air Force career is sort of holding me back from doing those things because it means I can't really commit to anything at the moment.

Of course, I can start writing again, as I am.

There is also the fact that I can take on projects and studies on my own, if I don't really like the way classwork is going. But then, I still have to do the classwork if I want to get the masters degree. Though, I wonder to what extent I have to jump through the hoops to accomplish that. Maybe there is a program somewhere that is more open to self-directed learning.

Follow Up

  • Get a better idea of the sorts of problems that people in my possible futures deal with everyday
  • Investigate alternatives for graduate school programs (ask Ken)
  • Look into more detail what would be involved in joining SAR, Civil Air Patrol, or something like that.
  • Commit to a mountaineering course, and a new SCUBA certification

On Statistically Depressing, but Probably True, Mediocrity

I have always believed that I was special. Not out loud, but secretly. Like, I will live an essentially normal life, but somewhere waiting for me is something special.

I recognized that statistically speaking, this was unlikely, but perhaps this interchange with my dad when I was a kid will illustrate.

In response to me saying I wanted to be an author, my dad said, "It's really hard to become an author. Many, many people write many books, and very few of them get published."

I responded, "Yeah, but I already write really well in high school. I write better than average. I will get published because I will be a better author."

I thought I'd be able to beat the odds by being good enough, practiced enough, determined enough, or even sometimes, just lucky enough.

Classic.

But of course, I did none of those things. I believed I was destined for something special, so I took no real steps to attaining it.

Now, I've turned my back on all my previous successes, and I still get out of bed everyday on faith that "my day" is yet to come and I better be prepared for it. I'm 33. I'm pretty close to the middle of the average American life expectancy. It's time to stop kidding myself. If I've been mediocre all this time, there is very little evidence that this will change.

My acceptance of my own mediocrity

I need to accept that I will probably never accomplish anything truly noteworthy. Mostly because I don't think I can continue to justify my existence on the premise that I will. I am living a lie, if that's the reason I use to motivate myself. At what point does it become undeniable and do I just kill myself then? Can I make my happiness and will to live dependent on a statistical improbability? Or will I become truly depressed and see my entire life as a waste because I could have been enjoying my days? Or will I attempt to delude myself and frame my life as full of promise until the last breath?

My life will probably never be anything significantly different than what it is. We don't even want kids, so that rock in the pond will never be thrown either. I had exciting plans for next year, but those will probably not pan out because they require me to qualify for a job it is statistically unlikely I can qualify for. Instead, I will probably just go on to graduate school, another round of applications, class registrations, semi-teaching positions, completing tasks set by teachers and administrators. The same rythym that has defined my adult life. And if I'm honest, I'm okay with that. Which I never thought I would be.

It's funny because even as I write this, I feel a flicker of hope crying out against it. No, there's still a chance. Don't give up! Even if you fail, the trying itself will be much more fulfilling than not.

That is true, but that's not even what I'm talking about. It's one thing to undertake a goal that's statistically implausible, to recognize this, and to enjoy the journey without being tied to the outcome. It's another thing to define a life worth living by the attainment of that outcome. Can I enjoy the journey knowing that it may, will probably, end nowhere significant or even interesting? The best I can hope for is standard meaning-making. I'm tired of making up stories about my value and worth.

Statistically speaking, I will never do anything newsworthy. I will likely never do anything that will make a unique impact on anyone's life outside of my family circle, and even there, it is unlikely that my presence will make a significant difference on the long-term fortunes of my family. I won't raise kids, so I won't leave any sort of parental legacy. I'm not inclined towards activism, and even if I was, there's almost zero chance I would contribute anything more than numbers to any movement I joined.

I will probably not be any wealthier than my father, if that, certainly not significantly wealthy or wealthy enough to have any number of truly exclusive experiences. I will probably never become fluent in Arabic, my mother's language. I will probably never become able to read music.

I will probably never write any one of the books I've been dreaming of my whole life, and if I do, it will probably never be published, as my dad pointed out.

So how do I think we achieve exceptional goals?

To believe anyone can accomplish anything is to believe that some combination of determination and skill is enough to achieve these unlikely goals, which in turn seems to me to be placing the blame of failure on the ranks of unpublished authors, unselected astronauts, washed out fighter pilots, burned out ex-medical students, disqualified spec ops candidates, unpicked actors, enelected political leaders and everyone else who tried for something out of the ordinary. And that to me seems like the height of arrogance.

But people do accomplish exceptional goals. They are often lucky. Survivorship bias is a thing. Maybe persistence plays a role, and by being persistent and refining their craft, they eventually manage to be appropriately qualified, noticed, and present when they are needed. This assumes that they have the time and resources to put in all that practice and the patience to keep trying over and over, or the love of what they are doing.

But I imagine there are plenty of people who tried and failed, and kept trying and kept failing, and the best they can do is develop a hobby or host YouTube channels talking about this topic they love so much because they are no longer qualified to pursue it.

I don't know if that's admirable, that these people can find a way to be close to their passion and recognize that the whole point is to do what they love, not to attain a particular outcome, or sad that they will never get to do what they dreamed of doing. I don't know if I can live like that. I don't know if I have the patience to put in that much practice, or to get up over and over again after many failures.

I don't even know if this model of success is a real one. I just sort of made it up right now in my head based on anecdotal ideas about authors and astronauts.

Even now the voice cries out not to publish, lest these become self-fulfilling prophesies. But I think that's missing the point.

I'm not actually complaining mind you. I live a life of relative privilege. My days are characterized by leisure, and my main anxieties are about how to fill my days, and whether I've made the most productive or fulfilling choices. I won't call this a blessing, because it feels like a curse, but it is a privilege and a luxury. But let's be honest, I also lack the ambition to make anything of my situation. I tried drive and ambition and all that, started to see success, and got bored/frustrated/tired/disilllusioned. Again, this all screams privilege, that I had the luxury to give up on a job millions of people are striving to get. I recognize that. I also tried developing my character as if that were just another skill to master. I just don't care anymore, and I won't care, and I don't really care to care.

So where does that leave me?

Because I just have to fix things...

If these are things that bother me so much...why don't I try? The more I work on this the less I believe it is an authentic idea, or that I'm expressing it correctly. It reads like nihilism but that's not how I feel about it.

Eating shit and choosing problems

Mark Manson writes in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck about this idea of choosing what problems you want to deal with everyday. He asserts that everyone has problems, but happy people are working with problems that they enjoy solving, versus the rest of us who aren't.

He also talks on his blog about what our favorite shit sandwich is, and how this gives us an intrinsic advantage over other people competing for the same work but who maybe aren't willing to tolerate that particular flavor of shit.

Of course, this presupposes that determination and persistence do contribute to success, while we certainly see examples of people in work that is exclusive who were not determined (I think...movie stars whose parents were movie stars come to mind).

But choosing our problems seems very helpful.

Goals, routines, journeys, destinations

Since I have to contribute something to my own life to feel like a worthwhile human being, I want to add my own take. When I adopted at the age of 29 the goal of becoming an astronaut (🤣😅😀😐🤔😥😰) I recognized that it was an unreasonable goal. I didn't have a STEM degree, and by the time I gain the minimum amount of experience, I'd be well on my way to middle age. The military route is seeming less likely every month.

But let's take a look at what I have done in the pursuit of that goal:

  • Went back to school first for computer science, then mathematics
  • Attended a NASA LEGO robotics competition, which my team won, at Kennedy Space Center, with my wife
  • Interned at NASA JSC for a full year at the request of my manager during which time I built one of the most complex pieces of software I've ever worked on
  • Started flying again
  • Started SCUBA diving again
  • Started camping and hiking again
  • Pushed myself to go for honors, prestigious jobs and positions, the math honors society, and a scholarship, which I got
  • Applied to become a US Air Force officer, one of my lifelong dreams
  • Started learning about and practicing mountaineering
  • Saw Jupiter and Saturn with my own eyes because we bought a telescope. This is now routine! I learned how to align and use a telescope.
  • Taught robotics at a summer camp
  • Sustainably pushed my level of fitness to new heights
  • Made aquaintences with several astronauts who have offered me advice and references
  • Taken my academics more seriously than ever before, leading to a perfect GPA (so far, knock on wood)
  • Learned to appreciate my relationship in ways I had never before because I was forced to consider what I was asking my wife to shoulder, and that I was proposing a lifestyle in which I would be absent for long periods of time

Even if I never become an astronaut, or an Air Force Officer, all of these things are valuble (to me) in their own right. And they are things I wanted to do anyway. Having the reason gave me a justification, and I'm afraid that if I lose the reason, I will lose the justification.

But, I love what my life has become, and I can simply ask myself what I want my energy and time to be filled with and try to fill it with those things, rather than necessarily focusing on the implausible end goal.

Follow up questions

Answers can be found here

  • What problems do I want to deal with everyday?
  • What are the problems I would be dealing with in all these various dreams and ideas of my life?
  • How do I find out what problems people in these lifestyles face?
  • What problems am I dealing with today that I enjoy?
  • What problems am I dealing with that I don't enjoy?
  • What has pursuing astronaut canidacy introduced into my life that I want to keep, regardless of the end result?
  • What has it pushed me to begin valuing again that I had devauled in the past?
  • What has it encouraged me to let go of that I don't miss?
  • What has it led me to let go of that I do miss or resent letting go of?
  • If I never get to be exceptional, what sort of day would I like to be living anyway? Do I have it in my ability to start living those days right now?

A new framing:

I am not special, in any meaningful sense of the word. There is no promise to fulfill nor to squander.

What a freeing thought.

On Silence

In 2013, I decided to stop writing my blog, which I had been posting to daily since 2009 when I graduated college. I dreamed of being a writer, so I would write every day. And I did. I wrote when I didn't want to write, when I wasn't inspired. I got in trouble for my writing, upset people, embarassed myself (and probably others). But mostly, I wrote about stuff I wanted to write about and others found interesting, and occasionally helpful and inspiring.

I developed my audience, built a following, wrote a book over the course of a year compiling everything I knew about fitness, started ebook collabs with fitness and wellness authors. I guest posted on big name fitness blogs, made about $1000 on my book when I launched it, and even started making YouTube videos.

Then, in 2013 I stopped abruptly. The reason I gave was that the blog was taking my attention away from my relationship with my now-wife. In the years following, I wrote an occasional essay, toying with getting back into writing regularly, but eventually it petered out. Not for lack of a desire to write, nor a lack of an audience or even a lack of things to write about. I had as many opinions as ever. But, I suddenly found the act of expressing my opinions offensive, like using the toilet: everyone does it, but it's not something you should do in public. At the height of my writing, I felt like I had a lot to share. I was mostly a self-esteem author, which bled over into fitness, but I was combatting the tendencey of people to see themselves as weak or ineffectual. I wanted to help people feel good about themselves, authentically and honestly, so that they could pursue their dreams and goals with confidence. I am not very activist-minded, but the one injustice I cannot tolerate is that of depriving people of an education and indoctrinating kids in their own weakness.

And I had a lot of good ideas on the topic. I had struggled with depression and a general feeling of self-oppression in high school and got myself out of it by studying Buddhism and psychology, taking up meditation and self-analysis as a way of life. I studied psychology in college, then tackled my social ineffectiveness and physical weakness, which all contributed to my self-image as basically useless. As I took up teaching and coaching, I learned how to motivate others, and more importantly, how to give them actual tools for overcoming their self-imposed shortcomings, as well as a few for helping them deal with (if not overcome) externally-imposed ones.

But nobody was asking me for this. I was writing because I wanted to write. Even my readers mostly expressed "thank you for sharing," comments, but nobody asked me for help or specific topics. The one person who had directly asked me for advice on fitness, inspiring me to write my book, never followed up. I never felt like there was really any audience engagement: nothing I wrote led to any interesting conversations, online or offline. It was, as my high school philosophy teacher called his subject, intellectual masturbation. At best, I was mostly just externally processing my emotions and doing self-therapy in public.

Despite the energy I was putting into sharing, it felt like a mostly selfish endeavor. In the end, I began to feel like sharing all these ideas unsolicited was presumptuous. Not that it was bothering anyone, because I wasn't taking up that much space on the internet, but it was cultivating an attitude in me that my ideas were worth sharing, regardless of whether anyone wanted to hear them or not. And THAT was influencing my life and relationships in ways I didn't like.

So I stopped. Nobody cared except my mom.

On reading this, yeah it almost sounds sad, but saying nobody cared is actually quite liberating. I can stop trying to be successful. I always loved the feeling of being "in-between" I would experience on airplanes. Nobody could reach me, and I was totally anonymous, lost in the airline system, just another ticket in a seat in a random metal cylinder hurtling through the empty sky. I didn't have to do anything or be anything at all.

So, being unmissed wasn't actually a bad thing. It made me feel unburdened, the sort of inhuman beauty of a mountain range that doesn't have any space or concern for the meanings we attach to our lives. That was liberating for me. And in a way, it still is. I always wanted to be useful or to help, but not because it was fulfilling to me. I wanted to be useful because I thought I should be useful, so that I wouldn't be forgotten, like while I had the responsibility of being alive, I ought to do something with it by improving the world and "leaving my mark." Whether that meant doing something noteworthy or just doing something that improved the lives of others without reference to myself didn't really matter.

But when I was already forgotten, it didn't matter. I could let go of that struggle and just rest. And that is what I've sought all along: the freedom to die, or maybe the freedom of having already died. Not literally, though sometimes I wonder. Mostly die in the sense of "not matter," not be in memory or in people's thoughts. I love being unmissed and forgotten, more than I like being noticed. The middle of a journey or a road trip, when others are waiting and you can't really do anything, and you've sort of fallen through the cracks of life for a while is my favorite time.

Maybe it's because I've always felt that I needed to be important to live a good life, which I owed to my parents and my loved ones. But you know, I don't really want to live at all. I never asked to be alive or have all the expectations thrust upon me. I promised I wouldn't kill myself because I felt I owed it to my parents and my family, not because I actually wanted to live. Now that I'm not suicidal, I still feel like I owe my respectable life to those who love me.

My life is not, nor has it ever been, my own. I don't know if I believe a life ought to be someone's own life, which to me feels specifically Western-individualism. I'm not saying it's bad, just not that I am willing to concede it is definitely a good thing.

On the other hand, I don't actually have to live that way.