I started writing this post at the start of August 2007, a few months after I launched from college graduation into a self-imposed gap year and the exhilarating, terrifying, overwhelming freedom contained therein. Today I'm a bit over a month into graduate school, with four years of world-wandering and open source hacking in the interim. I was looking to write this post anyway when I stumbled across the ancient uncompleted draft and realize I had already done it... and that I might as well finish what I started.
"This is a story I'm trying to write in order to understand what I've been doing for the last few months - because these kinds of stories about yourself are the kind that sometimes become true in the telling of them." --me at 21
A common theme to both versions of the post: structure is something I complain about mightily, but without it, I do a terrible job of living. I've taken the original text from my younger self -- 21 years old, living with three buddies in one bedroom of a big house full of MIT students and living hungrily off big pots of communal food -- and woven the conversation with my current self (now 25) through it.
Younger Mel: I've been wishing for freedom from structure for years: "If only I didn't have to go to school!" "If only I didn't need to have an office job!" "If only I didn't have to keep somebody else's schedule..." Freedom from constraints was the light at the end of a very, very long tunnel. I played by the rules (and later, with the rules) in preparation for that glorious day when there would be no rules...
Then I graduated from college and abruptly got shoved out the end of that tunnel into the utter void of responsibilities I'd prepared for myself. No grad school. No job. No schedule, no obligations, nobody to report to, be accountable to, be responsible for. A pre-paid room with food for the summer so I didn't even need to worry about scraping by. Just my own life in my own hands and the chance to make whatever I wanted of it. It was glorious, dizzying, mind-opening...
And I didn't know what to do with it.
In fact, I handled it very badly. In the absence of somebody else telling me who Iwas and what I was trying to do, I had no idea who I was and what I was aiming for. It's like having a glass ceiling suddenly whipped off from over you - even if you've fought against that ceiling in the past, the fact that there was a ceiling for you to fight against defined your actions, and when the ceiling vanishes you realize you can't actually fly any higher because you've only built your wings to carry you high enough to tap against the topmost layers of glass.
Or so you claim. Maybe you can fly higher, but you're scared to. Maybe you're physically strong enough to keep flapping and break out, but don't know what kind of turbulence you'll hit or whether you'll be able to keep flying through them. And nobody's telling you that you're going to be okay, and nobody's telling you that you've got to keep going, so you don't know if you should.
Older Mel: I'd like to think I've improved on this front, mostly by admitting my own inability to cope with that alone and starting to ask people to help. Or accepting their help when they give it without you asking. It's impossible to be your own safety net; no matter how well you set things up, you're still going to need other hands to catch you on the way down. But it's still much easier said than done.
And one thing those folks can't help you with is deciding what you want, where you should go. They may be able to help you uncover what you want to do, but it's still you who have to do the finding. I've never had a shining moment of clarity, no blinding flash of light that tells me with great confidence that I'm doing the right thing. I second-guess that. All the time, even when I think I feel sure -- because I know perceptions can be deceiving.
Younger Mel: For the first time in my 21 years, nobody was telling me what to do. For the first time, I had no "expected next step" to head towards - I was no longer getting ready for preschool, or middle school, or college... I was supposed to be ready for whatever I wanted to be ready for.
And I had no idea what I wanted to be ready for. I didn't know what I could be ready for. I got scared that I wasn't actually ready for anything. I got even more scared that I could actually be ready for everything.
Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. --Nelson Mandela
I didn't want that power. I wanted to think that I couldn't possibly have that power. I punted it and sabotaged it and tried to make it go away, and when it didn't, I ran. I started to eat, sleep, and travel erratically - return communications spasmodically, give presentations in a half-terrified, disorganized manner, become irrelevant, incoherent, and irresponsible in the hope that eventually nobody would look to me for wisdom or action.
Older Mel: Wait, I've done this before? Crap. Crap.
Younger Mel: I did a lovely little bit of self-sabotage wherein I rationalized that if I wanted to do something good, I had to do a lot of tiny little good things (because no effort of mine could be non-sucky enough to be really good) - then promptly proceeded to half-start a series of potentially wonderful projects and then drop the ball on all of them, which reinforced the "see, I suck!" and "nothing I do can actually make a difference" memes. In the absence of external restraints, the only person I could blame for a failure was myself. And I did.
Basically, I curled up in a ball and loudly and repeatedly proclaimed "Nononono, not me! Stop looking at me like I'm a competent person! Tell me I suck, because people who suck are safe - they can't impact the world, so they can't actually damage anything, and maybe they can help someone with actual potential fix something - but I certainly don't have actual potential so please stop treating me like I do."
Older Mel: Because I'm terrified that I might actually have the power to make a difference. Because if I have that power, I'm going to have to try to use it. Because if I try to use it, I might fail and unleash things that I don't understand or intend.
Younger Mel: Because when I reach the limits of my knowledge and stare into the gap marked "Here Be Dragons," I am very, very, very afraid. Afraid of what might be there. Afraid what I might be there, where people have stopped telling me what I should be.
Older Mel: But you've found a little of what you might be there, haven't you? Am I now the sort of person you would have looked up to at 21, someone you might have secretly wished to become, but never hoped for (because you never hope, on the off chance that things don't work out)? I hope so.
I've gone around the world, I've taught, I've learned, I've given talks at places where a few years ago I thought I'd never be good enough to even go in and listen to those talks... you have done all this, because you grow up to me. You make a difference in the lives of people, even if you don't know what you're doing. Just going forward and trying it anyway, and being visible in your struggles and your failures. That's inspiring, because you let yourself not look perfect. And you're not trying to deliberately look imperfect. Your greatest strength is that you can -- sometimes, when you are forget to raise your guard -- allow yourself to be yourself and nothing more.
Younger Mel: I'm afraid of myself. I'm not going to dismiss it with a "isn't it silly to be afraid of yourself?" because it isn't; that dismissal is a reaction to the fear that attempts to trivialize what you can do so you won't actually have to confront it. I'm afraid of myself and what I could do because I do have power, and potential, and don't really understand what that means, or how I might use it.
Older Mel: I don't know that I understand that any better now than I did at your age.
Younger Mel: That's something that nobody can really teach me. The meaning, purpose, and power of my life is something I'll need to construct on my own. I need to be a good steward and nurturer of my own time and talents, and train myself properly for my life's work, while realizing that the real training comes when you're actually doing something, and that most "training" is really procrastination, and that my life's work is whatever work I happen to be doing during the course of my life, and it's perfectly fine to make it up as I go along.
Older Mel: We build our lives and train ourselves into the people we become whether we realize it or not, whether we like what we're becoming or not. Perhaps one of the things I've been neglecting lately is who to train with; you tend to assume that all training needs to be solo, needs to be slow, systematic, planned. You have this desperate need to prove yourself. I still do. It drives us to do stupid things sometimes.
Don't try to power through everything solely from your own self-discipline, because it'll fall flat -- not because you're not smart or dedicated enough, but because that's not how you work or how you think; it's senseless to use a big chunk of your energy to rein in the rest of your energy. Let something else do that reining-in sometimes; find ways to trust so that you can let yourself loose and still be found afterwards. Mind you, I'm saying this with the full acknowledgement that I'm still crap at it myself. Trust is hard.
Younger Mel: I have tremendous amounts of power. I have the responsibility to use that to make a difference. I need to begin this - not now, but all the time - many tiny continuous little beginnings.
Older Mel: There will never be an end to those beginnings. And it's okay to realize that and to sometimes put things down and walk away and go be happy for a while; there will always be things that you can do when you get back.
And oh, but I need so much help to realize this constantly, and to do it... left to my own devices, I don't do that. I may be shy and introverted, I may need and crave solitude for inspiration, for some types of joyous work-sprinting -- but it is not good for me to be alone. It is not good for me to be ungrounded.
So what do I do about that? I don't know. But I think I will start now by picking up the phone and calling someone...