on not knowing what the hell I’m doing despite appearances to the contrary

April 17, 2012 – 8:48 pm

When I started getting involved with FOSS, visit this I was a naive and sheltered student who hadn’t really seen or done much in the world, and saw the people in the first communities I joined as just… the coolest people ever. They flew all over the world for speaking engagements! They did crazy hackathons and boldly jumped into new things! They cooked ethnic food I’d never seen at big dinner parties in their apartments in the city with people I’d read about on the internet but never dreamed of meeting, they were all grown-up and in their mid-twenties and totally had life figured out. Right?

Fast forward. I’m 25 now, still doing FOSS stuff, flying all over the world for speaking engagements, doing crazy hackathons, boldly jumping into new things, cooking ethnic food at dinner parties in my apartment in the city with people from the intarwebz. I grew up to become one of the people that my younger self idolized, and now students come up to me and ask how I’ve done all this amazing stuff, and say they wish they could have so much of their lives figured out, and I have a weird disconnected moment because I have no freaking idea what I’m doing. I am making it all up. And I think: “good grief, is that what they were doing?”

Now those people are in their early thirties, maybe finishing grad school and starting professorships, maybe getting married and starting families, maybe starting companies, maybe making big waves in their field. And I look ahead and think: how will I ever be ready for that? And I look at myself now and think: I am where they were at this age – maybe I can grow up to be that awesome. And I look behind and think that when I was younger, I thought that people like my current self were grown up already. And then I buckle down and work harder! because… what else can I do?

I still feel awkward growing into “the middle” — no longer clearly an neophyte in all things, caught somewhere between journeyman and apprentice. Actually, that’s selling myself short — I’m clearly a journeyman for some things (facilitating open source communities) and an apprentice for others (scholarly research), but it’s at least comforting that I’m not a master in anything yet. That would just be… far too scary. I can’t admit that possibility yet; I don’t have a clear picture of what I want to grow into.

Or I do, and I don’t want to admit what that picture looks like because it might get laughed at; sometimes the world is awfully good at squashing dreams down, especially if you’re an ambitious <insert any of a number of categories I fit into>.

I need to get myself into a mental space where I can do things again, so I’ll steer into ending on this note:  you’re never really ready for the world, but that means you’re about as ready as you’re going to get, so you might as well go out and get it.


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  1. 5 Responses to “on not knowing what the hell I’m doing despite appearances to the contrary”

  2. Mel, this reads like Feynman + modesty, which is to say, even better than Feynman :)

    I (still) take my hat off to you: to your efforts, to your candour, and to the dreams at whose heels that candour is nibbling – even though you haven’t yet revealed them.

    By sampablokuper on Apr 17, 2012

  3. In fact, you could say I’ve decided it’s better just to leave my hat on the hatstand when we’re in touch, since I know I’ll be taking it off within nanoseconds :)

    By sampablokuper on Apr 17, 2012

  4. I was a fan of all the things you could accomplish as mini-Mel and I’m even more impressed at all-grown-up-Mel. Just keep being you!

    By Jamie on Apr 17, 2012

  5. This state of people looking up to you, yet not feeling like it’s deserved, reminds me of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” Some of the advice he gives sounds funny if you know some details from his life, but his wisdom was won through experience (perhaps even because he was going through it at the time).

    I don’t dare even give such advice because i’m so far from having things figured out that i don’t even know what to say ;-) So if you feel a bit like Rilke, count it as progress :D

    By Mark Hoemmen on Apr 17, 2012

  6. Mel, I like this post so much. I feel it’s scary too to settle down on one thing and the future of becoming a master of some specific thing. Like you said, there are many possibilities, and I am still not having a clear picture of my future, or I do, but afraid that people will squash dreams down. And, you are right, we just need to overcome (or ignore the scariness) and might as well go out and get what we are about to be ready for!

    By Xin Chen on Apr 17, 2012

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