Friday, December 8, 2017

On Failure

Embracing failure is not the point. Being willing to fail is the point. The moment will be there and then it will be gone. Don't let fear hold you back. Failure will come if you're doing things that don't have a highly controllable outcome. Putting all your energy into things that you know you can do yields success after success, but playing it safe is a great way to limit yourself. Success after success? Maybe if achieving some arbitrary goal is considered a success. Play video games and beat the final boss. Success? Sure, you achieved the objective of the game, but is that a success? What did you really achieve? You had fun. Maybe you solved a couple of puzzles. Fun is important, but it's not a success. It's not a success unless you're putting something at risk.

Putting your ego at risk doesn't count. Questioning your video game prowess as a consequence of failing to beat some game is not risk. Playing a game rather than engaging with life is a failure. Spend time with people not pixels. Be scared. Feeling uncomfortable and wanting to bail is a sign that you're in a place that will give you a chance to grow. I always bailed when I felt like that. My biggest regrets are bailing out when I should have dug in.

I volunteered to lead a project with an uncertain outcome at work. My boss suggested I stay in my lane and leave the project to somebody else. He wanted to play it safe. He had his spot. He wanted to hold it. I had my spot. I wanted to expand it. So I took on the project. It succeeded. I knew it would. I wouldn't have done it if I thought it would fail. I guess I didn't succeed based on my definition above. I guess graduate school was my biggest risk of failure. I left a nice job to spend a few years in a lab doing projects with no obvious success. If I hadn't gotten lucky with a porphyrin film or two, maybe things wouldn't have turned out so well. Impossible to say now. What's done is done.

What's done is done. Either you found a way to make it work or things fell off the rails. Take the chance when it's presented. If there is something you want, go after it. You want that relationship, pursue it. You want to get to some point in your career, go after it. You want to change something about yourself, acknowledge what's holding you back and grow. Hopefully the thing holding you back isn't rooted in something I did to you so many years ago. I'm not a great father, but I love you.

Know what you want. If you care enough, the risk of failure will look like nothing compared to missing out on a chance to get what matters to you. Seeing your chance pass you by will hurt more than things not working out the way you saw them in your head. Don't be reckless. Be smart. Keep your eyes open. Pay attention. Disengage with your ego.

Your mother and I had a huge fight when I went to Boston to interview for a job. Our relationship suffered from my choice. We got to a point where I wasn't sure if I could do what your mom deserved. I've had to dig into some serious shit to get to a point where I can be the man your mother deserves (and the father you deserve). It's taken me years to get to a point where I can start repairing the damage I inflicted. That interview was a failure. The entire event was all about fueling and protecting my ego. I did something that made me feel safe, pursuing some kind of external recognition of my abilities and promise, rather than growing beyond the limits I put on myself when I was young. I was fueling an outdated version of myself rather than stretching beyond that limited sense of my potential.

Don't limit yourself. Put yourself at risk. Go beyond. It might take a few tries, but you'll get there. It's alright to be scared. Just don't listen to the fear.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Goal Contradiction and Priorities

Many of the goals that I set for myself are really just advanced allocation of how I will be spending my time. When I decide to read 52 books in a year, I am setting aside a huge amount of time for reading. The number of books I choose to read is mostly a statement of how much time I plan on reading over the year as the number of books I read and the amount of time I spend reading is tightly correlated. The length and difficultly of whatever book I read has an impact on how much time I need to read it, but that impact is secondary to the volume of time I set aside for reading. 

Fitness goals have this property. Going to the gym three days a week requires me to set aside an hour or so three days a week for lifting. If I set a rowing distance goal or a running distance goal, that's just me saying that I will spend so much time on the rowing machine or on the roads running. Even performance goals like finishing a marathon or setting a new 10K PR require a prescribed amount of time for training. By making the goal I accept the training plan, or, to put it another way, I decide to set aside a particular period of time for training. 

The more of these time volume goals that I stack on myself, the more I have to negotiate goal conflict. I'm thinking of setting a sleep goal this year. Going to bed at a particular time each night means that I may have to cut my reading time short. That puts my reading goal at odds with my sleeping goal. I want to get more sleep so I feel more energetic when I run in the morning. The sleep goal is not in conflict with a running goal (run a marathon will be a goal, I kind of like setting a new 10K PR, that might make it in too). 

Some goals are clearly free from any kind of conflict. Avoiding goals rarely face goal conflict. Buying no books stands by itself. It takes no time and does not limit my reading choices considering that I own 175 books that I've yet to read. Losing weight (or whatever way I choice to state that goal) is kind of in a hybrid position. Working out contributes to weight loss, but healthy eating will drive more of my weight lose than exercise. 

Volume goals are definitely the challenge. More rowing would eat into my reading time, but it would help with losing weight and could improve my running. A goal priority could eliminate this conflict. If I decide that getting in my reading is more important than rowing, the reading goal would take priority. Fitness over reading, and the treadmill comes before the reading. Putting the sleep goal first would make everything secondary after 10:30 or whatever time I set for my bedtime. I gave myself a bed time a year or so ago and it actually worked pretty well. 

There is no doubt that reading has been my top goal this year. Finishing 52 books this year has become a near obsession. But even that goal has become secondary to completing the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge. I used several chunks of potential reading time to get in rowing machine meters today. I may miss that goal, I need to row 11,000 m Christmas Eve Eve and Christmas Eve, but I'm keeping the possibility alive by getting in over 9000 m today. 

The volume goals are all about time, but there is a certain amount of energy management involved in these as well. I was working out in the evenings when I first started writing this blog. I would drag myself downstairs at 10 or 10:30 to get in the garage and exercise. That doesn't work for me anymore. Getting up at 5 to run two days a week requires an entirely different energy management strategy. If I stay up too late the night before a run, that messes me up for days. I'll be extra tired that night. It's hard to read if you're falling asleep. 

Managing energy is really the key to meeting any goal. With that in mind, sleep will be a big goal for me this year. This is a key strategic decision as the shape of my other goals is profoundly affected by this one decision. I was already going to go conservative on the reading goal, 25 books. That's half of what I've read this year. More rest is also good for testosterone maintenance and will reinforce my physical training efforts by enhancing recovery. Sleep is good for testosterone health as well. So sleep will be my primary volume goal. I've tried this before and it didn't work so well. Maybe this year will be different.

Friday, December 2, 2016

I am my own man

I've hatched a plan to read every book that I own. I call this adventure Bookshelf Zero. This is a multi-year project. With 177 unread books on my shelves, it will be a little while until I've finished everything. The number of books is intimidating enough. Throw in the level of difficulty with some of these and the challenge gains a whole new level. I just read 13 pages of Swann's Way. That's the first book in his massive In Search of Lost Time. Books 2-7 are part of that 177. The Russian's, dense pieces of philosophy, a huge book on the history of the Whig party in the United States. These are all books that I will read if I'm to reach Bookshelf Zero.

I've already resolved to buy zero books in 2017. I managed to go a whole year without buying a book a few years ago. I went on a bit of a book buying binge right before that year started. I'm doing the same thing now. Part of it was buying skinny books to help me reach 52 for the year (a goal that gets more and more difficult to realize with every passing day), but part of it is getting my fill of book buying before the year is out. I'm still trying to decide if I really like to read or if I just read so I can justify buying more books.

What the hell was I thinking is a question I have asked myself more than a few times as I've looked over my list of unread books. Why do I have this need to pull every "hard" book that has ever been written into my life? What am I trying to prove? Then I look at my desire to pick up Capital in the Twentieth Century or a Brief History of Time (I can probably pick them up cheap at one of the two recently opened used book stores...) and realize I'm just doing more of the same. Buying these super hard books gives me some kind of boost. Reading them doesn't really seem to be the point.

Bookshelf Zero is about actually reading books that I have bought, but a big part of it is actually reading these complex, dense, and less than riveting tomes that I bought way back when to feel better about myself. I really like reading Proust, but I can't help but feel that part of my motivation to read this kind of challenging literature is rooted in my desire to prove my worth. Just who I'm trying to impress is a trickier question.

Reading is the one thread that runs through every stage of my life. I have always read. Always. I read fewer books when I was a graduate student, but I was reading papers relevant to my research almost every day. I always manage to find time to read. I aspire to read some of the hardest books around. Why bother? What does this drive to read Proust or Tolstoy say about me? I can't help but think that getting to the root of my drive to read, and what I want to read, will help me figure out just who I am and what I'm about.

I have this urge to write about my reading exploits. I like to think that this compulsion is related to this need to figure out just who I am. It's seems silly to be talking about self-discovery when I'm 40 years old. But if it's a choice between self-discovery and becoming my father, I'll take delayed self-discovery every time.

The effort to establish some kind of relationship with my father via email is over. I tried. There's nothing more I can do. My dad was here on Saturday. It's the first time he's been to my house in 9 years. I will be surprised if he ever comes back. My father has no interest in building a relationship with me. He's an emotional void. He said almost nothing to me when he was here. He didn't make an effort to talk to either of my kids. He's a waste. He's a liar. He's not worth my time and effort. He's not the kind of person that I want in my life.

I have a very strong fear of becoming my father. I was well on my way, at least in certain respects. My dad seeks to impress others by his acquired knowledge. I have often thought that my book thing may be my version of his WWII obsession. My desire to delve into this reading experience is partially to get to the bottom of my reading motivations. I want to prove to myself that I'm not doing it to impress people. I want to prove to myself that I'm not my father.

I'm not cheating on my wife so that's a good way to not be my father. I'm not a compulsive liar. My Dad's entire life is a lie. It's all a big effort to convince himself that he's not a big loser. He's trying to tell himself that he's a man, that he's important, that he matters. I wanted to build a relationship with him because I wanted to know why he feels that way. He's never going to tell me. He doesn't know himself. He's just a weakling who does all he can to tell himself that he's strong. I intimidate the hell out of him. He's afraid of me. He's afraid of everything.

My dad is afraid that people will see his weakness. He slinks around thinking that people won't notice that's he's constantly afraid of being found out as a terrified little man. He uses women to tell himself that he's a big bad man. He's so pathetic. I kind of think that I want him to acknowledge my superiority. I want to hear him say that I have what he wants. I just want to be better than him. I know that I am. He knows that I am. I want to hear him say it. I want to hear him say that he's happy about it, that he's proud of me. But he had nothing to do with who I am. I am who I am in spite of his presence in my life. I defeated his efforts to hold me back. I'm a constant reminder of his failure. I'm proof of his weakness. He wants to run away and start his life over in Alabama.

He doesn't deserve my love. He deserves my scorn.

And I'm going to read all my books because reading is and always has been central to my life and identity. I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody. I just want to read the books that have endured and defy the passage of time. Books have always been my connection to the world that exists outside of me. I've slowly been able to open myself to that world in other ways. Books will always be part of that connection.

Sunday, November 6, 2016


I made the rash decision to start communicating with my Dad via email. I thought I was over my anger, but dealing with him in even this far from intimate fashion stirs my long repressed hostility. Then I get angry at myself for getting angry at this ineffectual and worthless human. It's a bad cycle. I have been holding back in my email messages, but I'm finding it harder and harder to refrain from unleashing my frustration. I'm going to vent a little of it here (and my wife will be hearing about it as soon as she finishes running), but I know it's not going to help all that much. I need to tell him what I'm feeling. That's the only way these feelings ever begin to go away.

My dad keeps mentioning how he's gotten over his anger. I never had an issue with his anger. I found it so unreasonable and purposeless that it never really got to me. I was never physically intimidated by him, I'm several inches taller and a good fifty pounds heavier than he is so I was not physically threatened. He definitely has a short temper, or had if you believe his claims of reformation, but I could have lived with that. What I can't live with is the constant neglect and indifference. I'm tired of everything being about him. I want to matter, to be a priority, to be important to him. That's not happening anytime soon.

The emails I've been exchanging have been all about him. How he's changed and wants a relationship. How he has done all this work on himself and is now this calm and centered person. Give me a break. You're still a selfish asshole. That's the problem. Your needs trump all others. Even this stupid shamanism thing is just another plunge down the rabbit hole of his favorite subject, himself. He wants to tell me all about what he's done. He can't bother to ask me what I've been up to, what I'm doing, what I'm interested in. Nope, it's all about him.

Where does my anger come from? I'm sure it goes much deeper than this, but it really became obvious to me after my parents divorced. We were moving my mom out of the place they lived together and into an apartment. Did he come help? Of course not. He came, sorted through some boxes of albums, took a few, and left. I had to to lug all of his shit up to the curb. Asshole. He hooked up with this obnoxious women that everybody in my family strongly disliked. I asked my dad not to bring her to my college graduation. He brought her anyway. I asked him to come talk to me without her. She came with him anyway. My feelings were totally disregarded. I was ignored and dismissed. His new woman's son claimed to have been molested at my wedding. He wanted to turn my wedding into an inquisition of this guy. That was the last straw. I stopped talking to him for awhile after that. I haven't had regular contact with him since then. These things seem kind of petty laid out here, but they're just strong examples of a behavior that has been livelong. It's hard to see without the context of growing up with a narcisstic father.

Friday, October 28, 2016


I reread some of my posts from last year while I was at work earlier this week. I wanted to reread some of the posts where I railed against some stuff that was going on in my career. I haven't felt that passionate about my job in years. I was going to use the gradual erosion of my career ambition to make a link between my career and the expertise work of K. Anders Ericsson. At about the same time I was writing posts blasting my manager and the short-sightedness of the organization, I was reading Ericsson's papers about how to develop expertise. I often asked myself how I could apply deliberate practice to my career. It's taken six years, but I finally found a link. I was all set to write about that, but I lost interest in that topic as I started to reread some of my old posts while working back to the original angsty career stuff.

A year ago I was writing about how I strive to be heroic and the centrality of fear in my life. I had forgotten about these posts. They still feel very real and relevant to me, but they're not quite telling the whole story. Those posts are the trail I've left as I've wandered around my own psyche trying to figure out how I can get beyond the self-image issues that have plagued me since I was a kid. Fear is certainly a big part of the picture, but what am I afraid of? The overseer has his role, but what is he really keeping me from? What is so special about the heroic?

I fear being insufficiently masculine. I'm not an aggressive, take charge, macho kind of guy. Part of me feels like that's a big problem. Not the conscious part of me, but some buried deep down  That wasn't good enough for my Dad. I cry at movies. I did it as a kid and I still do it as an adult. I can remember trying very hard not to cry when some character in a movie was dying. That wasn't what real boys did at movies. This is just one way that I had to repress my true nature, to hide who I really am, in order to avoid being made to feel inferior, lacking, not enough. This set up a who dynamic where I sought ways to hide my lack of sufficient masculinity.

This sounded like a trying to hard kind of theory until I started thinking about why I played football. Football provided me with a sense of superiority. I didn't have a strong enough ego to feel like I was adequate just as I am. I used football, a game full of masculine bravado and display, to compensate for my sense that I was insufficiently manly. I felt insufficient in other ways. My acne made me feel like I wasn't physically appealing. I never felt like anybody would want to be with somebody who looked like me.

So I felt like I had to present myself as a big, tough man while feeling like I was physically unappealing. I constantly feared that people would figure out that I was inferior and would ridicule me for all that I failed to be in life. As I thought through this whole dynamic, I had to ask myself, if I didn't feel sufficiently masculine, what model was I using to determine my relative masculinity? My dad was my vision of the ideal male, or at least he has transferred his idea of masculinity to me. My Dad's idol is George Patton. That guy is the ultimate man's man. He was take charge, he was tough, people listened to him. He did what he wanted, sleeping around, acting tough. That's my Dad's idea of what a man should be. That's not what I am. I know if drove my Dad crazy that I wasn't getting all the chicks in high school. He pursued women as a way to compensate for his own sense of inadequacy. I try to fill my own sense of inadequacy by applying to graduate school and different jobs. The decisions that have done the most damage in my marriage are rooted in my need to use something external to feel better about myself. I was constantly fighting a fear that I would be found lacking if I didn't keep demonstrating my superiority. I was afraid of the sense of inferiority that has been with me since I was very young.

I rejected my Dad and his ideals long ago, but my perception that he felt like I didn't measure up to what he wanted me to be lingers deep down in my identity. I've never been satisfied with myself. There is no reason for this. All the striving I write about on this blog is just me trying to find something that will finally make me feel like I'm worth something. If I can just do these few things, I'll be enough. I can fill the absences in my ego with accomplishments. I can find an ego, a sense of who I am and what I'm about, in books, education, or a better title at work.

There is no reason for me to feel inferior. I am enough just as I am. I don't need to keep proving myself to the rest of the world. I just need to accept myself as I am. I don't need to fit a mold or meet some kind of external standard. I am sufficient just as I am.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

It's all just a game

It's all just a big game. Merit, ability, the best person for the job, opportunities to grow as a professional, promotions and other organizational rewards aren't based on any of those things. I've clung to the idea that there is some kind of meaning and significance to be extracted for earning recognition and rewards. I have lived my life with my identity and self-worth tied up in whether or not I can rise above my peers and earn whatever was coveted. Good grades, a spot on the varsity team, the job, the promotion, the raise, the top spot. I have been operating under the delusion that the achievement of these things in some way equates to my value and ability, my worth as a human being. I strive to be chosen, selected, singled out as acknowledgement of my inherent value. Recognition is not acknowledgement of my value. It's not worthless or unimportant, but it's also not the route to happiness and meaning.

My desire to transform my work culture is nothing more than me trying to create a space where the rules of the game match what I find to be the right and true way to determine worth. I see directors scrambling to hang on to some shriveled vestige of clout and power and judge them for not understanding what really needs to be done. I see their efforts to maneuver and criticize them for not getting what's really important. They're playing the game. I'm blundering around, blinded by my own self-righteousness, bloviating about the injustice of my value and worth not being rewarded by important jobs right now.

It's not the job that I crave. It's the acknowledgement of my worth. I've linked meaning to accomplishment and pursued accomplishment as a way to craft my identity. I'm not getting what I want to say right. It's more subtle than this, less strident and sure. I had a realization today. What I held true one moment suddenly felt hollow and empty the next. It wasn't a crushing blow to my sense of worth, but a relief. I felt like I could finally unclench and just be for a moment. I will work on just what it was. This is a good start, it captures the moment in a way that I can come back to later.

Friday, January 8, 2016

What I want?

Every year I spend a couple of days noodling different New Year's Resolutions. They are always very task based, read this, do this many workouts, don't buy so many books. There isn't really a general theme or purpose. There is an effort to change behavior to prevent something (getting fat) or to enable something else (reading books to justify buying more of them), but there isn't a conscious decision to actually change something about myself. The origins of my actions are never addressed by these resolutions. There is never an effort to change my internal dialogue or to pay attention to how I talk to myself.

I've always kept score (resolutions are one way that I keep doing that now that I'm out of school and work in a field that is difficult to measure in a way that spurns competition or data based comparisons). There are few things that I engage in simply for the sake of the experience. Physically pleasing things come to mind (eating, beer, sex) as exceptions to this rule. Spending time with my family. But when it comes to the way I spend time that is my own, there is always some kind of challenge pushing me forward. I read to finish whatever I am reading. My runs are about getting faster personal records. Work is all about doing things to get ahead. Doing something just because you enjoy it is an odd professional behavior. The expectation is that you do things you don't like or enjoy for the future opportunities they offer (including the future offer of a regular paycheck). Sticking with something you like for the simple fact that you like is much more an exception than a rule. At least that's been my experience. 

I certainly fell into the do unpleasant things now for future benefits trap. Unpleasant things, like working hard in school, would unlock fancy schools (the more competitive the school, the better) and other difficult to access resources. I played basketball and ran track, two sports that I wasn't particularly into, to earn a spot on the varsity football team (and than I moved, what a waste). I pursued the exclusive so I could wrap myself in that shiny wrapper and have the world see those things. I wouldn't have to show anything about myself. I wouldn't have to know anything about myself. The things I was part of would impress people and save me the trouble of engaging with the world in an open and vulnerable manner. 

My resolutions are just a continuation of that trend. I set up these challenges to distract myself from life while feeding a need to stand out, raise myself up (at least my own judgement) to a place that separates me from everybody else. My resolutions have just been efforts to keep me busy doing something that isn't a total waste or time rather than working on the parts of my life that really need attention. So the next obvious question, what areas of my life need attention?

I need to stop keeping score. This is all about separating what I do because I enjoy it from doing something because it gets me one step closer to achieving some arbitrary goal. Goals are great, but a goal should be attached to some larger vision. A good goal gets me closer to what I want in my life (or further away from what I don't want). So that's the challenge; setting goals that get me closer to what I want in life. Now the real challenge, what do I want? Not what other people want. Not what people expect me to want. What do I want.