Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Serendipitous conversations and an awakening.

It all began with an email from StartX, a startup accelerator for Stanford affiliates. Browsing their site, I was struck by the number of projects that involve some degree of programming -- even the ones that produce physical objects. Programming is a valuable skill in the startup world. It's a valuable skill anywhere. 

I once aspired to be a software engineer. I learned how to code HTML on my own in middle school, took summer classes in Visual Basic, and daydreamed about being a game designer. I was looking at a trade school up in Seattle called DigiPen, a top notch school for game design (schools like Full Sail are (were?) of equivalent caliber). 

There I sat, staring at the computer, contemplating the steps that brought me to a moment where, 26 and unemployed, I wish I had majored in CS. A few key moments in my high school life set me on my current path of civil/construction engineering instead of software engineering. 

The first blemish on my vision of a future as a software engineer came from reading a book. The Bug: A Novel by Ellen Ullman depicted the harsh realities of programmers in the 80s and 90s.

Awkward co-workers, unremarkable pay, uninspiring work tasks, and soul-crushing work environments. Yes, a work of fiction, but it was the first time that I questioned my desire to sit in front of a computer screen 40 hours a week. And remember that programming was not the sweet gig it is now -- we have companies like Google and Facebook to thank for that. 

My prospects for being distinguished in the field also seemed grim. I knew of so many genius programmers / computer engineers: people that were building their own computer circuitry at the age of 14. I just liked computers and games. I developed the sense I would always be secondary to those with a natural -- or even genius -- aptitude for the field. 

The final proverbial nail in the coffin that put to rest my dream of being a programmer: an innocuous question from my 11th grade math teacher about what I'd like to major in college. When I responded with CS, he expressed surprise that I wasn't considering engineering (civil, mechanical, chemical, etc.). I had no clue what engineering was, so I started asking around. 

That's when I latched onto the idea of being a civil engineer. It was a timely confluence of events that discouraged programming and encouraged a career that emphasized math, problem-solving, and making tangible work products (bridges, buildings, water treatment plants, etc.). 

On good days, I am very happy with my path in life, my career choices, and my confidence in finding a fulfilling vocation. Civil and construction engineering are -- in so many ways -- an excellent fit. 

  • You get to build stuff. Psychologists indicate that physical work products are often more deeply satisfying than conceptual or electronic products. 
  • You get to problem-solve all day, every day.
  • You get to work with people. I like people. I find team interactions to be fascinating. I like helping people work together to build something great. 
  • You receive a comfortable salary and comparatively better job security. 
  • You work on infrastructure, which is an excellent way to advance the sustainability movement. 

Saturday night was not one of those days. I was lamenting my path, discouraged that I would never get to try out a fascinating field because of events in high school. 

I messaged my friend Bobby, a CS graduate from Stanford. Fantastic person, incredibly talented and intelligent. He offered words of encouragement and resources. Programming, he said, is one of the easiest skills to pick up through self-taught methods; the resources available are bountiful. He essentially laid out a path for becoming a hireable software engineer, and it could take as little as a year. The key was assiduous study and practice. 

The programming world is a meritocracy. It doesn't matter if you have a high school diploma; if you show an ability to program and potential to be a valuable and productive team member, you will get hired. The better you are, the better you do. No institutionalized path to follow or corporate ladder to climb. 

I don't see myself as becoming a full-on software engineer, working for the likes of Google. But perhaps I can combine programming with construction engineering in some satisfying way. Perhaps a startup is not so far out of reach. Regardless of how programming may actually influence my career path, I was pumped.

I began lessons right away, at 1am on a Saturday night. I couldn't contain my excitement, I couldn't go to sleep. This exhilaration was foreign to me, it jolted me from the ennui that has plagued me. I am now taking lessons from Codecademy and Stanford Engineering Everywhere.

The past half year has sailed past me in a blur. I have operated at 30-50% of my potential ever since I moved out to New York. Yes the environment doesn't help matters, but ultimately I am in charge of my own reality. I need to keep my brain exercised, I need a structured environment to push me, I need to always be learning. In that moment, I felt expansive and invincible. Able to accomplish anything. Able to see a path to development and success. Entirely in charge of my own performance in life; I do well if I work hard, I don't if I slack off. The only obstacle in the road was myself -- no politics, no external factors outside my control, nothing.

Programming or no, I am awake.  

I am eager for life, and it feels good. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Making decisions.

I dislike making decisions. I really, really dislike making decisions. As a Libran, I tend to overanalyze and agonize over every choice, trying to weigh all the pros and cons. Reading books like Blink and taking courses on Decision Analysis have done little to get me through the slog.

Does everyone go through such an extensive cost/benefit analysis on their decisions? I hope not, because it can be paralyzing. It gets worse when you're poor. When you don't have much money, that money is "worth more" to you. $1 to a penniless person is worth more than $1 to a millionaire. The increased worth of money slides the scales on cost/benefit analyses, making life more complicated. You are driven to analyse all expenses with a more careful -- and frugal -- eye.

With most decisions in life, I focus on creating value over saving money. I will happily spend the extra money to buy premium quality meats, cheeses, and produce, because they taste worlds better and feel better in my body. It is, as they say, "worth it to me." That philosophy, however, is challenged when living significantly below the poverty line. For example, the difference between buying the Dance Only pass and the Full Event pass to bluesSHOUT is $100. In the past, I could focus on creating a certain quality of life (which would include the occasional purchase of a full event pass to a blues festival) and not worry about the specific numbers. Now, I must weigh the benefit of dance training against my ability to pay for rent, food, and rainy-day expenses. When you no longer have "extra money" to spend on hobbies, it is much more difficult to justify spending that money to enrich your life.

Being a Libran that is low on cash, more time is spent (wasted?) in the cost/benefit analysis process. 

Meanwhile, a decade of psychology research indicates that our brain's executive function is limited and weakens with use -- just like a muscle. In case the term is unfamiliar to you: "executive functioning involves activating, orchestrating, monitoring, evaluating, and adapting different strategies to accomplish different tasks...It requires the ability to analyze situations, plan and take action, focus and maintain attention, and adjust actions as needed to get the job done." [1] 

A decade of studies have shown that a brain exhausted from executive function use will perform "poorly" in subsequent and unrelated tasks. In one study, subjects were TWICE AS LIKELY to eat an indulgent chocolate cake over a healthful salad when tasked with memorizing a seven-digit number instead of a two-digit number. [2] The same goes for choosing leisure activites (watching TV) over "productive" activities (studying) after a mentally taxing task. [3] Willpower and executive function are finite resources. How you spend those resources (or, in my case, waste them) can have unexpected effects in your life.

(Seriously, read this article and listen to the Radiolab episode "Choice"; they're both totally worth it.) 

Tradeoff resolution -- weighing options and then acting on it -- is particularly draining: "in one study, the scientists show that people who had to rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted than those who had to actually make choices between the very same options." [2] Evaluating options is very different when you don't have to act on that evaluation. You can be glib. Ever make a choice in on a plane ticket in advance, and then find yourself stalling and rethinking when it comes to click the "Purchase" button? That is tradeoff resolution at work.

Deciding what task to do next is also exhausting -- even before doing the work! Ever spend 15 minutes scrolling around in your inbox, agonizing over how many things you're supposed to be doing right now and not sure which one to do next? Work philosophies such as Getting Things Done and OmniFocus try to address this issue by removing the process of deciding what to do next; think of it like a context-sensitive, prioritized to-do list where you work from top to bottom. 

The more you fill your life with menial decisions, the less mental strength you will have to spare for the choices that actually matter.

Tying it back into the previous thread about money: as your income increases, you free up your mind to focus on decisions and activities that actually matter (since a decreased value of money can often simplify choices dramatically). Those activities -- such as focusing on a single task (i.e. doing work) -- will then produce returns to give you more income. Success begets more success. On the flipside, it becomes clear how being impoverished (and a Libran) can create a snowballing effect in the mind and impact the ability to focus.

So the next time you're debating the purchase of that succulent $1.25 grapefruit at the produce stand, say "Fuck it" and buy the grapefruit. You have better things to consider.