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

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