Life Under the Weight of Opportunity Cost
July 17, 2016, 4:30 a.m. (updated: July 17, 2016, 4:42 a.m.)
This is a self-reflective post, interesting mostly if you want to understand what goes on inside my head these days. There’s no practical knowledge to be gained from it, no commentary on politics, popular culture. It’s meta.
I’m sitting on the porch in California, it's a nice summer Saturday morning. I can see water, lots of green, there’s a hutton’s vireo on a tree next to me. It’s quiet, just the bird's song, the wind, some children playing in a very distant background. Every once in a while a single car or bicycle passes. Occasionally, you can hear a small airplane flying above, there’s an airport nearby where rich people keep their cirruses and other similar small airplanes.
For a long time I was waiting for a perfectly calm and quiet moment. One where I can try a look at my life from a grand perspective. I realize now that this is it. It’s calm, it’s peaceful. I can feel the warmth of the sun shining on my bare feet as the dry wood of the porch starts heating up. There isn’t going to be a moment anytime soon where the circumstances are more suited towards this, more perfect. In a typical procrastinator’s fashion, I get up to take the empty coffee cup away. I pour myself a glass of iced tea, in case I need a drink while pondering life. Even though this background description doesn’t directly touch on anything of substance, my mind is already working on it in the background.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been home alone. My family is on vacation to Europe. I’ve been enjoying a form of vacation myself, even though I’ve been plenty busy. At Facebook, my small team starts picking up steam. At home, I completed my synthesizer recording setup and have been playing with it for long hours after work. This admittedly caused me to become chronically tired during the day, so I decided to cut down on this. Maybe structure that time better. I need a plan on what I want to get out of it. But that’s a subject for a different note. This time I want to talk about some insight that my time alone unearthed.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
I am not unhappy being on my own. I am incomplete and I want to get reunited with my family. I’d do it tomorrow if that were possible. I do wonder what my boy is up to, I do miss my significant other’s presence. But by myself, I am not unhappy. This quiet time lets me observe the undertones of my personality better, see it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
For the good, I am slowly creating order in my surroundings. The house is cleaner, low-hanging fruit is being plucked one after another. Another month and I will probably have my shelves and drawers labelled. When a family I know stopped by with a surprise visit, I was fully prepared to host them without any additional work. I wish to do this with my mental state as well. That won’t happen overnight. Cleaning up the physical space around me took time, I did things one by one, often with long periods of “non-doing” in-between. This was not forced. I enjoy this part of myself, I can build upon it. In this sense, I am discovering that I have a strong need for order in my life. There’s something in it that is very satisfying. It lets me relax, it lets me focus.
For the bad, I notice how often my word is useless. I keep making promises that I don’t keep, not even to myself. Sometimes they cannot be kept due to time constraints or excessive optimism on my part. More commonly though, I simply forget (a terrible thing to say to someone I failed, I know) or drop the ball due to lack of order in my mental space. I don’t fail at promises due to ill will. There’s just so much concurrent responsibility I have to deal with that my subconscious shuts down from being overwhelmed by it all. And so I succumb to waves of activity, in one direction at a time. As much as I believe that some structure will help me become more trustworthy, I think ultimately I can only succeed by cutting down on commitments. I have to limit them, just as with what I did with my information streams.
But limiting yourself is hard. The ugly truth is that I am very greedy. Not so much in the material sense as in the experiential sense. I’m drawn towards new experiences. Once I play with them enough, they lose their glamour. But there’s always more coming. During the past weeks I finally realized that the reason for that greed is another undertone in my life, constant fear of harm and death. They are related but not the same. In some respects, the former is worse. What I mean here is that there can be an illness, accident, or change in my life’s situation that will suddenly make me unable to continue experiencing the world as I do now. You might call this constant fear of missing out, perpetual fear that the window of opportunity will suddenly close. Life under permanent weight of opportunity cost is devoid of tranquility that should be expected of a person in my situation.
What if I could not fail?
So here we are. If you think having the fragility of my situation constantly in the corner of my mind is insane enough, there’e more. It’s not just the fear of losing what I already have, it’s also the thought that I’m so close to something big I can almost touch it. Six years ago, I made a mental exercise called “What if I could not fail?” which was about making a projection into the future of what I would like to accomplish by means of “having”, “being” and “doing”. Want to take a sneak peek?
The desperate young father with a shitty work situation wanted most of all to get rid of debt and live in a comfortably-sized house. Aspiration-wise, he wanted to move abroad and work for a world-class corporation, to see the actual state of the art. He wanted to be a Python committer, he wanted to be recognizable in the open source world. Yes, I guess recognition and a taste of “real life” was what he was after. If I could go back and tell him: “Dude, relax, a few years from now all of this will be in your everyday life”, he’d laugh at me. Yet here we are. Isn’t this amazing? I can only feel immense gratitude for that.
There were other things on that list that so far haven’t materialized. Past me wanted to own a café where every visit would be an experience. There’d be ambient music in the background, evolving illustrations on the walls, and a phone app that lets customers interact with the place (including mundane things like managing orders). I wanted a place oddly attractive to introverts. I have no idea where this place should be. I have no idea if it would be a success. But I’d very much like to try. If I could not fail, I would like to build, own and operate such a place in a few years.
Past me also wanted to record and perform on stage with Trent Reznor, Maynard James Keenan, or another figure of this caliber. Proving myself as a musician is an yet unfulfilled dream of mine. Especially that I neither have the voice nor the training to sing, yet I reached the conclusion that without a voice, options to be heard are much more limited. Think: the interrogation scene in The Matrix. With my current setup, the only excuses I can come up with are lack of time and no ties to the industry. If I could not fail, I would like to become a recognized musician. Not a part-time hobbyist, but the real thing.
Now is better than never, but never is probably better than right now
I can’t help but think this is a crucial time to either plant the seeds for those things or screw it up for life. As just one example, I can literally drive to Trent Reznor’s house on one tank of gas. Better yet, he works with Apple now. How likely is it that I know a person who knows a person who knows him personally? Very likely. But here’s the snag. Three months ago there was a charity auction where you could win a broken Nine Inch Nails guitar, hand-delivered by Trent Reznor. And I thought: “If I really met him 1:1, what on Earth could I say to him that would be meaningful?”
Sadly, I don’t have a great answer for this. I do not wish to humble myself and put myself in the position of a random audience member. At the same time, I am a random audience member and want to acknowledge my respect to this guy’s body of work. To establish myself as a peer, I need something that I can show. I need something intriguing, something legit enough to make a conversation, let alone further collaboration, attractive to the guy. Truth is, if I had my chance of a lifetime tomorrow, I would screw it up. Fixing this is high on my priority list.
All of this self-reflection is new uncharted territory for me. There’s a lot of clarity that I didn’t expect. Some of it might even be actionable. As for you, if it seems that I complain a lot, this is the reason. If it seems that I don’t value what I have, nothing could be farther from the truth. My life today literally looks better than my dreams six years ago. I might not be vocal about it enough, I’m working on that. No promises though. This one thing I learned.