Friday, April 19, 2013

Words of advice for young people

Last February found me back east for a meeting of the trustees of WPRB, my old college radio station. I had been in communication with the events chair of dear old Terrace F. Club, and was invited to give an installment of their series of Talks with Interesting People Accompanied by Drinks.

Princeton in particular but Ivies in general encourage certain temperaments and behaviors: the theoretical over the practical, the critical over the active, the verbal over the physical. Furthermore, the sort of person who gets in tends to have gotten there by staying on the rails: do what you're told, delay gratification, seek affirmation from success within hierarchical systems. Looking ahead to my five-year college reunion this May, I figured I'd finally write up my reflections.

It's been part of my self-work over the past five years to jump those rails. I didn't know what I was really doing at the beginning, but over time I've pulled together scraps and pieces from various different sources of inspiration, into something that begins to approach an "approach." 

It helps to start with an invocation of sorts; in this case, it's "The Laughing Heart," by Bukowski. 

After that, I discussed a bit of my personal narrative, involving a low point in the spring of 2007, a restorative summer in Budapest,  connections made with internet wiseguys, life in Cambodia, and my taking wing in San Francisco, followed by some takeaways. Here they are, more or less:

Sieze opportunities to jump the track. There are very few times in your life where you will be as free in your choices as you will be shortly after graduation. Conversely, it's very easy to fall into what's expected of you, or what sounds good when describing it to your parents or friends. Refuse the impulse: you have your whole life ahead of you to do expected things. Don't be afraid to spend time on something that seems worth exploring. There's an accepted place in our culture for young vagabonds.

Collorary: avoid debt as much as possible. Not making much money is fine as long as you can live cheaply, but debt severely narrows your ability to do what you want and go where you please. They're called bonds for a reason. If you're considering grad school, figure out how to do it without ending up in a Dickensian state of penury and arrears. Live cheaply and do what inspires you.

When in doubt, go somewhere foreign.  The experience of being a stranger in a strange land does lots of useful things for blowing open your perspectives. You'll learn as much about yourself as you do the place you're living in. Also, being at loose ends in a foreign country looks better to future scrutinizers than doing the same thing in your parents' basement, and being a native English speaker is a lot more marketable in a country where that actually matters.

Live (cheaply) in an interesting place. Place matters. Where you choose to live will determine who you meet and which paths open themselves up to you. Fully "post-geographic" life can be had by a select few (often justified by having highly elite skills), but it's mostly a bullshit concept created by a historical fluke of cheap air travel. Richard Florida may not always be right, but Who's Your City is pretty spot-on. Find a place with a critical mass of conversation and work on the topics that most drive you. But take care to make sure that you have the resources and the contacts to make it stick; Manhattan might not be the place if you don't know anyone and can only afford to live there for two weeks.

Make friends with interesting people. Once ensconced in a given place, build out your network of like-minded geeks and weirdos. Twitter is an amazing tool in this regard, because it allows you to slowly wend your way into a group of people. Cultivate friendships that inspire you to become who you want to be, friends who encourage and instigate. Keep a lookout on your calendar for events that make you go, "whoa, that is awesome. I want to know the people who organized that." THEN VOLUNTEER.

Get involved in interesting projects. This is tightly linked to the above two points. Projects are one of the best ways to develop relationships with like-minded and creative people in your geography. They're a way to take twitter-friends and turn them into actual working partners. They develop social capital, and if the final result is worth sharing, it builds a reputation. Extracurricular projects are a great way of learning new skills and making connections both creative and potentially professional. If you can learn, grow, and make things on your own time, it blurs the barriers between life and "school."

Let the world be your school. When I was a kid, we had a Sesame street storybook about Grover's visit to the "Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum," which was filled with all manner of tall and short and loud and squishy things. But the door outside at the end read 'To Everything Else,' and for whatever reason that stuck with me. The world is full of fascinating things and opportunities to learn, if you have the right eyes for seeing them. This is another entry in the "be wary of falling into grad school" folder, in part because if you're living in an interesting place and doing interesting things with interesting people, you're probably going to be learning a lot. You may not have certificates to prove that you know things, but speaking intelligently about a project you executed may be just as good. Specific technical skills often do need instruction, but with luck you can find someone at your local hacker space to teach you the basics for free.

Learn to take well-considered risks. This is a concept I picked up from Bill Gurstelle's Absinthe and Flamethrowers. We generally live in a culture where we're made to feel like we can't take things into our own hands. Even our playgrounds are too safe. You can learn a lot about yourself and the world by stepping outside the guardrails and carefully preparing to do dangerous things. Gurstelle reports that people who practice moderate risk-taking also report greater life fulfillment than any of the other segments. You'll also be more useful in a disaster, which is a nice bonus.

Figure out who you are, and shed who you're not; people probably care less about it than you think. It's not a bad thing to be a little strange, and the less energy you spend self-policing and suppressing yourself, the more you can put into doing things you love. Now there may be certain things about yourself that require discretion, particularly if you have a family or job that might not accept it. I'm not telling you to suddenly run your new self over the fence and through the market square. It will take time to resolve the fissures of identity, but it all starts with be honest with, and accepting of, yourself. Embrace positive disintegration, it's what your early twenties are for.

Identify useful obsessions and geekeries. You're always going to do better in classes that overlap with your obsessions, but more than that it's good for your mind and soul to have areas where you can unabashedly dive deep. You don't have to justify them, as long as they probably won't destroy you (see the section on "well-considered risks"), but they're even better for you if they can set you on the path to learning by making. Even if they don't, deep knowledge in any domain is better than a smattering of bullshit.

Figure out where your multiple geekeries intersect, and become a micro-expert. It was probably around the time I found myself giving a talk on "Interspecies Romance in the Mass Effect Series" that I realized that micro-expertise is a thing, particularly in the internet age. Find extremely disparate areas of interest, and figure out what the connections might be. The more specific and zoomed-in you get, the more likely you are to find yourself the only one around who can cross between them.

Make things. Break things. Tinker. Most people in the developed world are fundamentally alienated from the vast majority of the manufactured environment surrounding them. Creative ingenuity and reuse are generally discouraged in favor of specialized products with built-in obsolescence cycles. Many devices are now actively hostile to user repair and modification. This system is not sustainable, and it does not encourage human engagement with the world around us. Instead, it's up to us to make the world we want to see. "Making" in this context doesn't just apply to shop-class type activities, but of a specific way of looking at the world, one that begins with the fact that you are allowed to do things, and change things, and create things out of what's at hand. The activity involved could be filmmaking, or cooking, or electronics, but Making is defined by this mindset.

Everything is a beta-test. Get something into existence, observe, collect results, and iterate from there. It keeps you from getting hung up about the final form, while giving you the momentum to see a project through. A project's deadliest enemy is not a harsh critic, but a lack of energy on the part of its creator to finish.

Finally, a while we're here, take few words of advice for young people, from old Bull Lee. 
(He's right about the energy vampires, btw.)

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