Pressure

Last few days I’ve had a lot of paralytic anxiety, so I’ve been aware of that and had it on my mind. I’ve gone through this process enough times to know that the key is the pressure I put on myself, but I can’t always find my way back in my head to the origin. I start by saying a lot of mantras to myself (this is why I often have good quotes for living) and repeat them until something breaks through. I often think of the Samurai mindset where survival comes best from assuming death; it works by analogy very well elsewhere in life, such as achieving monetary success, doing well in a class, starting a relationship… focusing on the journey, not the risks.  So, I keep that rolling around.

Earlier tonight I happened upon this awesome quote again by Max Planck:

Scientific discovery and scientific knowledge have been achieved only by those who have gone in pursuit of it without any practical purpose whatsoever in view.

Pressure started to lift. I continued thinking about all the pressure I put on myself and how my “potential” feels like such a burden when I let it get to me. And later I found myself eventually thinking “I’ll never change the world. That simply isn’t feasible. The best I can do is change a few lives, and I’ve even already done that.” When I say the world feels like it’s watching and laying a burden on me, I mean it. Why have I created this tremendous and powerful watchdog in my own psyche that hounds me every day, saying tsk tsk tsk, why aren’t you accomplishing more? It’s as if I’ve made my own internal version of god. When I let it crush me, the only end result is that I sit around and dawdle, watch YouTube, play games, not really wanting to, not really enjoying myself, wondering why I’m not doing something else. Why is it so often true that directly pursuing a goal is antithetical to achieving it?

Rely On Your Experts

I’ve worked in the IT industry for 20 years. All of my experience began as an 11-year old with the first computer on the block, sequestering myself in the basement to dissect and analyse this new puzzle without any outside influence or assistance. Despite never having a degree in the field, I clawed my way up the ranks and broke past the ceiling of gainful technician employment, making my way into upper management and, I had erstwhile hoped, eventually executive levels. I’ve made more money in the last few years than I thought I’d ever make in my life a decade ago (although I have to confess my standards were fairly low).

So why have I just quit, and signed myself up to return to university for a total career change?

If you are on LinkedIn, then you are most likely familiar with business lingo and associated terms. Agility, growing business, methodologies, six sigma, ideation, value-added, resource allocation, leveraging assets, etc. If you haven’t experienced them first-hand or ever had to string them together in a presentation, chances are you’ve at least been in a meeting with them used, or seen a facsimile of that experience in a movie. You might have the impression that every company probably has at least one guy who just loves uttering these phrases to unintentionally humorous effect and is somehow tolerated by the top brass. Unfortunately, the truth is more somber.

I worked as part of a team of five people managing production support for a client with a database measuring in the terabytes. We used a well-known third-party frontend system to allow them to run a call center, manage their inventory, run reports, and import new prospect data. This frontend required certain expertise and had some mechanisms that were inscrutable to anyone outside of those who created it; in other words, just like every other piece of technology, it both created and needed technical specialists. This was our job. I was a bit unique in that I was part manager, part talking head for the client, and part subject matter expert.

Problems will always occur of course, and our system was no different. Complicated infrastructure spread across multiple sites (and multiple companies) meant daily life was a string of alarm bells going off. I won’t bore you with details or jargon, but if you think your Windows computer has issues, you can imagine running 1500 of them spread across the country, all using a system managing data for millions of active customers. Five people wasn’t enough to get this done, but we made do and put in plenty of overtime.

As you can imagine, we had to report to someone above us on a frequent basis so that the brass had an idea of where the account stood and the kind of service we were providing. Based on the scene I’ve set, how many higher-ups would you guess we had to work with in similar capacities? One, two, five?

Ten. For our group of five people, I can easily think of ten others who needed weekly or daily meetings with one or more of us in order to “stay informed”. I’d say at least a full quarter of our working time was devoted to regurgitating the same information to multiple hungry mouths. As far as we could tell, the entire set of duties each of these people performed revolved around translating the same information into simpler (read: dumber) terms for the people above or around them. We’re talking about people easily making six-figure salaries, spending their hours each day putting together spreadsheets and presentation slides, bloviating in meetings, researching new terms to slap onto existing processes like a “fresh” label on meats in a market. This defined half of my own duties, since I was half a manager.

It’s odd to say it, but this is actually big business. There is an entire industry centered around perpetuating upper management value by constantly redefining it and little else. In my experience, and with all the objectivity I have, I do not feel as though most managers and executives are skillful or more capable than average (good outliers skew the curve). You might expect that people who have risen to this level would be the cream of the crop, but the reality is that they represent their own separate industry, and contain just as many or more poor performers as any other. When I think of America’s issues with being a service-oriented economy and wondering to myself why we’re in such a sinkhole in that respect… this is the first place my mind goes. Imagine just how much money is spent on people playing hot-potato with each other, turning it over to show a new side each time and calling this discovery something of their own. Every manager trying to fabricate value for their own position adds to the collective effort of all managers to make the position itself worth employing. As I spent more and more time on my managerial duties, I became increasingly disgusted with myself, despite receiving accolades from my peers.

But I’m not here to complain; I’m here to make a suggestion. Here it is: rely on your experts.

If you hire someone to do a job, let them do their job. Yes, there will always be risks and you will always be tempted to micromanage them, but spend more time on the front end during the interview process and work harder to avoid hiring people out of desperation or lack of a talent pool. Transfer proven employees laterally and vertically to take on new skills and keep investing in them. Later, if and when problems develop, don’t succumb to the fear-based response of assuming failures are occurring because of personnel. Failures are most often and most likely from software and hardware defects, limitations, and restraints. Good and even adequate employees handle these issues without assistance and pass on relevant knowledge. The first question you should ask as a manager to an expert you’ve hired is not “What went wrong and why, and how can we fix it?” You don’t need that information; even if you’re feverishly curious, you shouldn’t be spending your valuable time on trying to understand these details, any more than they should be trying to build the personal relationships you probably have with a dozen clients and other departments. The correct first question to ask technicians is “Are you able to handle this problem now, and next time it happens?” You will then get a valuable response that is of interest to your position in a number of ways. Now and then, you can ask them individually if they have any concerns over the performance of their peers. Again, they will give you good information. No need to try to become a pseudo-expert to make your own determination; instead, place your trust in them, and you’ll feel their appreciation.

I now see managers as something like bacteria. One or two hanging around is easy to control, and some types are beneficial in balance. But if you leave them alone to multiply and take over their own territory, they will hurt the parent organism. The space in which this infection grows is the gap in knowledge required for understanding, where confusion can fester and flourish, masking true needs and resources. In many industries it is not difficult to grasp what is happening at the ground level. In IT, this gap is so large it may have no equal.

Of course, if you the reader are working in upper management, I don’t expect you to put your job willingly at risk, nor do I imply that you personally are not providing your worth. But I do suggest that a sort of a reckoning might be on its way, and you could be very well served by adjusting your strategy in dealing with your technical groups now, as opposed to fighting to avoid downsizing later. There’s a new kind of internet-bred skepticism taking hold. Just witness growing trends of active disinterest in politics and television media, and the artificially constructed delivery they employ. I’d love to think this means people are getting tired of being fed BS, and will bring that more and more into the workplace.

Me, I’m checking out, and moving on to an industry in research and manufacturing. I’ll stay involved with computers of course, but only as a tool and a hobby. Obviously the same issues with management can happen with any other industry, but as mentioned IT is unique in the depth and breadth of specialities involved, and the distance between novice and expert make closing the gap a fruitless effort. It’s akin to the manager of a hospital ward asking a brain surgeon to describe how a brain stent was installed in a stroke patient, such that the manager could replicate the surgery; whether you spend hours going over details or just “ballpark” it, it won’t be accurately passed on because the manager is likely either not a trained doctor or is not specialized in the same area. The amount of time a full knowledge transfer would require makes the endeavor itself a waste of time, and anything less will be dangerously incomplete and will only succumb to the grapevine effect as more managers become involved.

The sooner the industry catches on to the reality that IT managers will never efficiently understand technicians and must instead seek only to support them, the healthier the workplace, and possibly the country’s economy, will get.

Review: Interstellar

Atmosphere:  A.  Never have I been so firmly planted between a state of belief and disbelief for 3 hours.  I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it certainly put you on the edge of your seat and did an amazing job of conveying feelings like loneliness, dread, momentum, dizziness, excitement, unending boredom.  This movie would be at the bottom of the discount barrel if it was even one jot less impressive to watch.

Intelligence:  D.  This movie involves so much science and pseudo-science that it left me questioning what I thought I knew about science.  Amazing visuals and forceful acting left me doubting myself when I heard some of the most ridiculous ideas ever spoken in film.  But ultimately, I never could keep knowledge of the ridiculousness I was viewing out of my head, at least for more than a few moments.

Involvement:  C-.  You will be pulled in, I have little doubt of that, in one form or another.  Whether it is the emotional grab, the powerful acting, the intense situations that does it… pick your poison.  But, it’s very difficult to keep a straight face when a movie repeatedly makes rather obvious attempts to appeal to your “heart” and remind you in heavy-handed fashion that there is something powerful and mystical about love that no amount of science can truly understand.  It then of course reinforces its own hypothesis by providing itself as proof, which should infuriate you.

What will annoy you:

Delivery.  Oh god… I just don’t know.  I can’t even.  This film left me speechless in a way I can’t describe.  Is it a commentary on the human condition?  A 1950’s-style sci-fi space romp with modernized visuals?  An apocalypse fantasy?  It fluctuates so frequently and so seamlessly between monstrous stupidity and engaging emotion that I often felt myself tearing up five seconds after rolling my eyes and groaning.

Plot.  Interstellar is “Titanic” in space.  Only after Jack sinks to the bottom of the ocean, he freezes into the iceberg that sunk the ship, is dug out decades later, and wakes up completely unharmed back home, all conveniently explained by go fuck yourself.  Then he meets Rose again, who is now very old, and she tells him to GTFO.  Oh, and he actually helped save the Titanic, in reverse, from the future, while in the iceberg, which someone created from the future.  I’m not pulling your leg; I actually think this is a great analogy of the film.

Message.  The movie tries to send several different messages, all of them lofty and judgmental from a singular point of view.  Hypothesis: Love is more powerful than anything else.  Proof: Love or lack of it guides the fortunes of every main character.  I’ve felt less railroaded into a moral at the end of the story by Disney films.

Science.  In general, the validity of an idea can be ball-parked pretty easily by asking how many known laws it violates.  Ghosts?  Foolish.  Incorporeal bodies that are still somehow able to affect things corporeally and maintain intelligence or intention flies in the face of nearly any stable theory you can think of.  Aliens?  Silly but getting warmer, since there are in fact several good reasons to think we aren’t alone as life in the universe.  A man in a clown suit hiding behind my house?  Certainly realistically possible; all you need is someone with the will and the right timing.  What do you think of a bookshelf that forms a conduit for all of space and time?  What about a world that has only a few calm feet of water but somehow has mile-high oscillating waves?  How about making it alive through a fucking black hole?  In fact, now that I think about it… this movie is very much like a modern version of The Black Hole (1979).  Which happens to be a Disney film.

Fighting

A long time ago, when I was around 22, I was sitting on a grassy knoll at my university on a beautiful sunny day, and a good friend of mine wandered over and asked what I was thinking about.  I answered “I’m thinking about dying”.  I haven’t stopped thinking about it since, though I’ve wished many times I could.  But now finally at this point in my life, 14 years later, I’m not afraid of thinking about it.  I’ve learned many lessons since then.

One lesson I had to learn indirectly from my father:  If someone doesn’t want to be happy, they never will be.  My father has led a flagellant’s life, punishing himself and holding himself back for a thousand imagined flaws and weaknesses.  The details of his past are not worth reviewing, but suffice to say he has spent his life running from excellence and challenge, and now spends his days terrorizing himself of his final inevitable end.

He was my life-long mortal enemy until I decided to try and forgive him as I passed my early 20’s.  I then dedicated part of my life for over 10 years to trying to make him happy… I gave thoughtful gifts, offered support both physical and emotional, and I’m proud to say I even made some of his dreams come true.  Unfortunately all he could allow himself to return to me, save for a few moments when he was at his most vulnerable, was his typical method of manipulation to have his wants satisfied.  He held the firm belief that the only way to get what he wanted was to try and fool another into giving it, since after all, his desires couldn’t possibly have merit on their own, could they?  Sadly now in his old age combined with his infirmities, I am certain he will not one day believe otherwise.  He will die a pitiful death, and were I to allow myself, I would be heartbroken over this idea.  However, I must look to my own life rather than throwing my efforts into a black hole.

What I have learned from this, combined with other life experiences, is that courage is a rare and complicated thing.  I have also learned that death has a benefit; it allows others to let go.  It is so much easier for me to release myself of past obligations and sufferings when I imagine situations are dead and gone forever, rather than allow my mind to fantasize there might still be some reality to them.  This keeps my thoughts and general level of cognitive awareness and happiness free of confusion and contradiction, rather than clinging to pieces of things in the past that cannot be again.  Among the cruelties man can inflict upon himself, I see the worst as when a man gives himself different answers at different times for the same questions.  A human brain is a thing of habit, and if you allow contradictions to linger long, you will lose your ability to see them clearly and to rid them of your thinking in general.

I lead an enthusiastic life and am known to have confidence and a straightforward manner, but it is not born from some inner feeling of joy and pleasure at the everlasting and omnipresent pulchritude of life itself.  It is because life is futile.  Death is the only outcome, and I can think of no greater cruelty, ever devised by any man or other situation I can imagine, than to place me here with all my loves and joys and to tell me I shall lose them all some day.  This is a thought that cripples me at night, and I say cripples because there is no option out of it.  But after enduring this horror for years, when these moments now occur, I call upon my aggression and anger, toss all my cares and everything I hold to overboard and into the deeps, and start spoiling for a fight.  I allow my physical responses to take over and show me the way to keep breathing, keep focusing on survival.  I don’t walk out of my home and look for something to punch, mind you.  It is enough that I have the knowledge of how to live, how to feel engaged and attached to my immediate world once again and to lose the terrible feeling of disaffectation that comes from terror living always nearby in your thoughts.  Had I not the ability to tap into this consciously and to have taken the time to understand it, I might otherwise be a foolish thrill-seeker or a person who cuts himself to receive the same jolt of awareness.

I live now by my adrenaline.  It is part of my body’s natural and total emotional system.  In this day and age of emphasis on peace and passivity (and perhaps I live in too civilized an area), it is easy and even unavoidable by nature of influence to absorb the idea that life is better without conflict.  I argue this is simply not true.  Without an expression of battle I don’t believe the value of anything can be truly settled in the human mind.  Anger and aggression are absolutely necessary states to compliment a healthy human mind.  But they should be directed at something I deem possible, not something of utter futility.  So in the end, what I am suggesting is the ultimate distraction from the truth of inexorable loss, which at the same time allows me to take greater ownership of the time and experiences I do have.  Every moment is mine to capture, until I have no time left.  That is simply the situation.

I therefore conclude that it is the survival instinct that the average modern man lacks, and I am grateful I can conjure it.  Every man must have something to fight in his life other than time.

Tulips

I often find myself trying to adopt a Spartan Wit, trying to encapsulate as much meaning as I can in as few words as possible.  I prefer to focus on the life experiences that don’t require or involve words anyway.  Even better if those few words match some rhyme or rhythm that “speaks to the soul”.  Succinctness can add power and memorability.

But in some cases… I don’t have words, and they don’t belong anyway.  I find I’m just trying to impress someone, an invisible composite observer made up of all the people in my life I ever intellectually adulated.  Melancholia, mourning, and lovelornness aren’t improved with words.  Neither are sunsets, perfect smiles and the smell of someone’s favorite flower.  Extended times of solitude can help give perspectives on these limitations of words.

Sometimes love can live forever in happiness or in pain.  Sometimes a person can’t be a good friend because they’re consumed by their own issues.  Sometimes they need space and a long, long time to heal.  Sometimes leaving them is the only possible way you might see them again some day in better conditions.  Sometimes you spend all your energy reminding yourself of that reality just to drown out the heartache and loss that you feel in every bone in your body.  Sometimes it’s good to be reminded how much it hurts to not have someone because it says you’re alive.  And sometimes… none of this is adequate to describe it all happening.

Self-Oppression

I would guess most of us know at least one person who threw themselves into the practice of avoiding responsibility for a long period, and how much damage it can cause to them and those they love. At first they complain, then refuse, then actively campaign against being “told” how to live. At a shallow level of psychological analysis, we might say that they have internalized oppression from others and have become obsessed with fighting an internal battle against it. And I’m willing to bet most of us have either been this person, or have been able to relate to it at least once in life.

Sometimes we feel as though we have too many rules to follow. Whatever cause is irrelevant here, but the amount of influence or time it takes to solidify this impression is important. When we reach this mindset, any time someone else, or even ourselves, say that we “must” do something, we feel oppressed, constrained, suffocated. If we let this impression entrench itself over time, it becomes a great danger as a reinforced habit.

So, how to heal it?   There is obviously no way to avoid things that command your attention and still maintain any kind of healthy life.  But, why do we choose sometimes to run from them?  I suggest the answer is very simple: because we have stopped believing in positive outcomes from things we are compelled to do.

How incorrect this is!  The truth is that most things we are compelled to do, or things that add on additional personal responsibility, have very satisfactory results.  Very simplistic examples include defending yourself, eating, breathing, and having sex.  More interesting ones to dissect might be doing your homework, engaging in competition, confronting your fears, having a child, wearing a suit to work each day, remaining faithful to your spouse, or making yourself go to therapy; these things have benefits that pay off in the longer term and therefore require more willpower or intelligent consideration.

If you are traumatized from bad relationships, hurt by your parents, claustrophobic at work (or unable to find it), or otherwise feeling like your options become more and more limited each day… Try and remember the better times when outcomes were good.  Focus on small goals you know you can achieve to rebuild your confidence in positive outcomes, and concurrently you will heal over time.  You do not have an issue with oppression; you have an issue with optimism.  Compulsion (internal or external), like solitude or strong emotions, may appear to be double-edged, but is necessary for a balanced and happy life.

Knowledge

Knowledge is a trap, and the greatest of its kind.

Knowledge prevents learning.  It lays down a certainty in a person’s future that dissolves wonderment and anticipation on contact.  If you know the answer to a question, what is the point in asking?  If you know sex will happen, where is the thrill of the hunt?  If you know a battle will be won, can it truly be called a victory?

Worst of all though, is that knowledge reinforces a false sense of security and finality.  We think a piece of knowledge can remain static, that we have gained something which cannot be lost.  In times of uncertainty, we bare this weakness to the world by clinging to certainty in desperation.  When a person’s religious beliefs are threatened to be torn asunder by attack, apathy or revelation, how do they react?  “But I know!  I know of something for certain!”  And when the scientist who spent his life researching man’s culpability in progressing global climate change is confronted with new and unforeseen data reducing his highest theories to confusion, does he react any differently?

We often think that love can only be possible with intimate knowledge of immutable qualities in someone else.  But what if the truth is as ironic as this: love exists only when someone both has knowledge of another person’s mind, and also knows it can change at any moment?

It is not that knowledge does not exist.  It is that knowledge exists in fluidity and malleability.  To attempt to attach an indestructible quality of indelibility to a piece of knowledge is to try to stand in the ocean.  This is destructive to your psyche.  Better to follow the waves and see what they make possible.

 

Love

There are things that are reality, and then there are things we need to believe to survive.  They don’t often coincide.  Sometimes one thing contains the illusion of another.

Any idea can be destroyed by too much analysis; this is the risk of breaking the boundaries within which the idea can live.  If you allow your focus to fall outside of these bounds you will lose the meaning of the idea.

Imagine a beautiful piece of art you could produce with your own hands, and then ask yourself, what meaning in it?  What is the point?  Naturally the point only exists within the context of the aesthetic experience and the fulfillment of great inspiration.  To complete it would be to accomplish a memorable and valuable thing.  But to ask what else it means is to rupture this context purposefully.  This is one of the more malicious thought patterns possible in humans.  It is a logically invalid question to break a context and then try to interpret meaning from within that context.  It is akin to saying “of all the colors possible to see, what is the number 7?”  “You own a cat; but can it drive a car across the country?”  “You ran 10 miles without stopping.  Too bad you can’t fly.”  These are all positions outside of their applicability.  Any context can be broken and those who exercise this ability delude themselves thinking they have some additional measure of insight.  The act of levity is very powerful and thus has all the pitfalls of being a great power, including temptation and corruption.

To take care of ourselves as human beings in all capacities including emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical, we need awareness of what contexts to break and what contexts to solidify.  That is the primary mechanism of coming to know yourself.  Identify the boundaries and in doing so identify where to find meaning and how to destroy it.  How powerful an ability, and what strength it takes to apply it appropriately!

A man practicing objectivity might say that he is fundamentally alone and unknowable to any other person.  In some context this might be true, but what is “alone”?  Isn’t this a relative word, dependent completely on the concept of “togetherness”?  Isn’t it like “courage”, which can’t be defined or in fact achieved without including fear?  And so many other notions relative to each other on their own sliding scales; light and dark, black and white, good and evil?  No man can be courageous without having fear, or else he is just an automaton.  Nothing could be defined as “dark” in a world where there is no light.  In other words, without the possibility of contrast, meaning is lost.  So I ask, is it possible to be “alone” in some sense where there is no possibility for some kind of “togetherness”?  isn’t it a waste of breath, a form of flagellation, to formulate such a destructive idea as “I will always be alone in some way”?  Better to avoid it entirely.

Do not think negatively on some part of you that has a kind of permanent distance from others.  Accept it, and embrace it.  Do not attempt to reach a “greater connection”.  You will only pursue a moving phantasm in perpetuity.  Allow yourself instead to stop running, stop pursuing, and to let time slow down and give you rest and peace.  Only then will you truly come to appreciate the few people in your life who can gift you with the sensation of being together on a deeper level than you can understand.  Only then will you occasionally get the most memorable and intimate sensation that someone else has, for a brief instant, penetrated your veil and “felt” you in a new light.  The context of being capable of love and of being loved is the most precious thing you will ever have.  Allow it to live and breath in its own life.  There is no need to prove it, question it, or analyse it.  Just enjoy it, and survive by it.