My Decade of Progress
376 · 11 April 02
If I apply some of the logic from my day job to my personal life (and I do not wish to suggest that this is a general habit I recommend), it is immediately obvious what is missing from the stock-taking I wrote in issue 114, a day before my thirtieth birthday. It does not specify Next Steps. I wasn't unaware of this at the time, of course. "I lack the plan", I said. But there is a big difference between a plan and Next Steps, or, capitalized more appropriately, between a Plan and next steps. You almost never have Plans. Plans belong to the same imaginary universe as Mission Statements and Values and Goals, a hazy Platonic dream-dimension in which it is possible to drift, indefinitely and euphorically, while back in the obdurately unaffected real world your actual body slowly decays. A Plan is a description of what you would do if you and your environment did not exist. It would be a stretch to claim that my company has management philosophies, or development methodologies, or optimized business processes. We have a build-numbering system. We have a bug-tracking database. We have the best ad hoc asynchronous collaboration software on the planet, which we would almost certainly be unable to afford if it weren't that we are the manufacturers of the best ad hoc asynchronous collaboration software on the planet. We have a building that keeps the sales people on a different floor from the programmers, and our VP of engineering has an excellent library of zoomorphic $25.95 business books you can read in three quarters of an hour. I have a lot of nerf weapons. We might have a Mission Statement somewhere, safely locked away where it can't hurt anybody. But in the last five years we have successfully shipped six versions of the best ad hoc asynchronous collaboration software on the planet, on or very near schedule. We have survived an industry-wide ecological disaster, and in extremely adverse conditions have, if not started making money, at least stopped losing it. It remains to be seen whether we will ever be spectacularly successful, but we are doing something right. We are, if nothing else, mercilessly practical, and I strongly suspect that the appeal of our software is in part a function of the degree to which our own working style is manifest in it. We write Plans when we have to, and occasionally we essay a flourish of Vision or Strategy, but what we really do well is assign next steps. You rarely know where you're really going, but you can almost always figure out what the first remaining unit of progress towards knowing consists of, and who's best suited to make it.
But before I get to next steps for myself, where am I? "My thirties, I am resolved, will be a decade of progress", I said. But I did not say how, nor towards what. And so, looking back now from halfway through them, how will I say how I'm doing? Having not assigned next steps, at thirty, I have to retrace my path looking for the steps I've taken since, and try to reconstruct where they might have been heading. My initial instinct is that not very much has changed in my last five years. I still have the same job, still live in the same city. I was single at thirty, and am still single at thirty-five with only subtle blips in between. I spent the night before the night before my thirtieth birthday sitting at my computer writing about my life with music, and I am spending the night before a week after my thirty-fifth sitting in front of this same screen listening to these same records.
But I say that, and then I wonder. I check some receipts, and remember that this actually is not the same computer. In fact, it's not the same room, they aren't the same records, and those are just the beginning. A dozen histories around me have their own versions of how I am older. A spreadsheet reports that I am making half again what I was then. A pile of mortgage statements remind me that a few months after my thirtieth birthday I bought a house. Five years ago I was the interface designer at a twenty-person software start-up you'd never heard of; today I am in charge of the design and documentation groups at a two-hundred-person software company you've still probably never heard of, but which has customers you have heard of. I no longer sleep on a futon on the floor. My car now has heated seats. I've started writing songs again, and taking pictures. But then again, on my thirtieth birthday I was listening to Shostakovich, and on my thirty-fifth I am listening to a coterie of twenty-year-old Japanese women, so quantitative metrics may not be the most illustrative or sympathetic. And I'm avoiding the first question you would ask me, if you cared about the answer. Never mind all the shoe styles I've gone through and the CD shelves I've overflowed. Am I happy? Am I happier?
A part of me resists the question from its very conception. I felt shocks of recognition, recently, as characters in both Six Feet Under and Kissing Jessica Stein, when asked this same question, responded with versions of "Happy? Why would I be happy?" I would say that I'm trying to understand things before I'd say that I'm trying to be happy. Happiness, the theory goes, is a result and reward of a well-structured life, but not itself the goal. Yet this is at least a little facile and pretentious. I'm a practical philosopher, not a theoretical scientist, if I'm allowed to be either (which is also pretentious, but less facile). The purpose of understanding is action, and the end of action is something. Joy? Serenity? Enlightenment? Calling it happiness seems less dignified, but probably just as accurate. These nights with these records are the focal points of my attempts, observing how we are, to deduce how we should be, and if I'm reticent about asking for happiness for myself, I'm eager to wish it for you, and it's an easy sleight-of-hand to momentarily let "you" include me.
Answering the question is a harder trick. What do I understand now, and what did I understand five years ago? How happy am I now, and how happy was I at thirty? Even with weekly data on my emotional state, these are very difficult things to measure. But as I sift through the evidence, I'm surprised how quickly two different self-portraits begin to coalesce. My old syllogisms are laced with anger I'd forgotten about, marred by fissures of self-deprecation that doesn't quite reach ruefulness. "I'm weary", I find myself saying in a letter I wrote two days into my thirties, "of the tendency to follow paths of least resistance for lack of any better ideas", and that, at least, is no longer anywhere to be found on my roster of wearinesses. I now feel like I am mostly making the decisions I want to be making (although admittedly there can be various explanations for this; that same letter features an exasperated deconstruction of the intrinsic and intractable flaws of my job, for example, and the fact that I'm still doing it five years later could be attributed as easily to resignation and inertia as to improvements and deeper understanding). But as long as I'm still not drinking, I'm going to assume I'm living up to my standards more than they're falling to meet me. This Japanese obsession is far too recent to define five years that it arrives at the end of, but it makes a potentially instructive contrast with the classical-music binge I was on at thirty. We'll see, of course, five years from now, if I can still write "Where is the post office?" in hiragana, but in lieu of prescience I can only report on the apparent difference in motivations. Classical music was an interest I cultivated consciously, a methodical investigation into a subject I felt I should know more about. Learning Japanese is a whim, and a capitulation to a seemingly involuntary fascination. I suppose it's possible I'll someday feel I've become a better person by learning Japanese, in the way that just about any horizon-broadening is valuable, but that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I've discovered an astonishing vein of wonderful records, and even though I'm utterly certain that nothing revolutionary is being said on them, I can't bear not knowing what that nothing is. This may sound a little backwards, since what I said was that I wanted to be making more-conscious decisions; wasn't classical music something my mind chose, where J-Pop is something my skin has fallen for? But I think it's painfully clear, from how quickly classical music retreated to the fringes of my awareness as soon as I ran across some new supplies of pop, that I took on classical music as a new project because I temporarily felt a dearth of new urges. It was a radical change of direction, but radical changes of direction usually mean that you were very lost before you made them, and are probably still fairly lost afterwards. When you're on course, the next steps are small, and easily identified. Signing up for a Japanese class was capitulation to a visceral urge, but having become a person open to such urges is something of which I am willing to be especially fiercely proud because I have no idea how I did it. At thirty I was seriously contemplating quitting my job, and at thirty-five I am not, and this too we could easily call surrender, but as I read through the litany of complaints I had, it seems more like I have learned how to not be so self-defeating. I wanted my job to make me happy, and resented it when it didn't; this is a textbook vicious cycle. Five years later I no longer really think about whether I enjoy my job, per se. I do it out of accumulated feelings of ownership and responsibility, and a sense of ambition for what the software we make could do for people, and the less I demand that my job make me happy, the less power it has to make me unhappy.
And yes, I was single at thirty and I'm single at thirty-five, but they are very different singles. At thirty I just wanted a new girlfriend. I wanted not to be lonely, in the same somewhat myopic way I wanted to be happy at my job. But the girlfriends I broke up with in order to be single at thirty were untenable precisely because I got them by just wanting girlfriends. At thirty five I no longer think of loneliness as a problem in itself. I would like it to turn out that the way I want to live lends itself to company, but I'm implicitly stipulating that being single is a symptom it's not useful to try to treat directly. I'm not taking Japanese to meet Japanese girls (what would they be doing in an introductory Japanese class?), but it wouldn't surprise me terribly if something indirectly came of it. The kind of person who is willing to get up on Saturday mornings and go to class, instead of sleeping until noon after playing online Scrabble all night, ought to be more likely to meet people. I'm not learning another language in order to be a more attractive reproductive partner (at least not consciously; evolution might have a contrary opinion), but it's a step in becoming more of the person I want to be, and thus also more of the person I'd want a partner to be looking for. If the form asks whether I want children, I say Yes, but what I really want is to meet someone with whom I share so much belief and ambition that applying our synergy to anything less than a twenty- or thirty-year joint project would feel like squandering it.
So here I am, halfway from thirty to forty, halfway through my decade of progress. Could this be halfway to anything? Can I imagine that the distance from here to a forty I'll be pleased with involves no more and no harder work than what I've done since thirty? Well, yes, I can. I can imagine, in fact, that I'm even closer than that. At thirty I felt like I was beginning an epic journey, which is another way of saying that I was nowhere near ready for that journey to end. Now I feel like I could be ready. I may not reach the next stage for five years, or ever, but I might reach it tomorrow. Maybe I'll get to work tomorrow and find that some wrong-coast conglomerate has purchased my company and issued me a parachute. On the way home, with my nerf guns in boxes in my back seat, I'll stop to buy tortillas and end up giving directions to a man with an eye patch, who will turn out to work for NPR and invite me to come on and rail against CD copy-protection and the Oscars. A couple good jokes there will land me in Korea in June for the World Cup, tagging along with the US team because Lord Something at the BBC thought it would be amusing to see how cultural imperialists deal with their quadrennial world-stage humiliation. When the US confounds expectations (and infuriates Europe) by blowing through Portugal, Poland and Croatia on the way to losing to Ecuador on PKs in the quarterfinals, I'll have a hastily-booked extra week in Japan, where they will be impressed by both my fluency and my politely single-minded dedication to locating every post office in Tokyo. On my rescheduled flight home, upgraded to first class after bantering with the stewardesses about having written a letter and also a picture postcard, I'll be seated next to an Australian diplomat who once lived upstairs from half of Hunters & Collectors. At a dinner party at his brother's house in Waltham, a month later, I'll meet his brother's wife's best friend, who will turn out to have been adopted by a couple my parents knew when my father was teaching at Texas A&M the year before either of us were born. We will be married fifteen months later, at 4:00 one morning in the Harvard Square T station, in a self-scripted ceremony that entails the bride's and groom's sides dressing in home-and-away soccer uniforms and singing a Not Drowning, Waving song. When the children reach school age we will move to Santa Fe, because the mud there is cleaner. My brilliant first novel, four years in the writing, will be so universally loathed that it will become the only book in all of American major-house publishing history to have been remaindered and banned in that order, but my subsequent slim volume about improvisational cooking, dashed off in three manic weeks after years of threatening to, will be such an enormous hit that I am never again financially compelled to do anything more taxing than writing the occasional frivolous sequel. In our spare time my wife and I will amuse ourselves by teaching Plato and Nietzsche at St. John's, and for reasons too complicated to go into here, this will result in our being two of six civilians chosen for the 2052 trip to Io to meet with the first star-faring alien race to visit the solar system in over four thousand years. After a tense, complex month of negotiations, history will have it that we averted two catastrophic misunderstandings and were thus the architects of the human race's entrance into the galactic community, and although a fluke meteorite puncture on the way home will end our lives 15 years short of the 100 we intended, you will remember our names forever. The War Against Silence #3000, eerily, will turn out to be my last, but for 3001 my granddaughter will write a short obituary, for 3002 she'll write about the weird mail she got the previous week, and for 3003 she will write her first music review.
But now I have slipped into Missions, and I already admitted that those are inane even when they're many orders of magnitude less fanciful than this. I don't need a three-thousand-issue plan, anyway, I just need some next steps. What am I going to do tomorrow? The way you know a project is going smoothly, though, is when you ask what you're going to do tomorrow, and everybody just shrugs and says "Same thing we did today." When you're doing the right things, the next steps take care of themselves. Intending for tomorrow to basically resemble today doesn't prove that you are doing the right things, mind you, but it suggests that you're either nearly on course, or horribly lost. I don't feel that lost. Am I really in a position to be giving more advice than I'm taking? Probably not, but "giving" and "taking" are artificially polarized ways of describing what happens with advice. I still hold the door for people on my way out of physical therapy, after all. Ideas about how we should live exist in the space between us. They may be right or wrong, or it may not matter half as much as how we circle them. Am I happy? No, not if you ask me like that, but I am content that I am doing useful things, and for the moment that's close enough. My next next steps may sound mundane, but at least I can list them: I will memorize the names of the months in Japanese; I will update the spec for how multiple SML-linked eRoom 6 facilities can be merged into a single eRoom 7 community; I will make split pea soup; I will try harder to find a television store whose salespeople I don't despise; I will drag at least two friends to my Monday-night Scrabble club; I will resist the urge to trade Diallo for Serna for at least two more fantasy-league weeks; I will stretch my left hamstring properly before doing my knee exercises; I will watch Dogma twice more to hear both commentary tracks, and then never again; I will quit buying Umberto Eco non-fiction unless it is clearly labeled as humor; I will no longer bid on Taiwanese bootlegs on eBay now that I know how to recognize them; I will try to give 1000 Kisses the same benefit of the doubt I give "A Thousand Miles"; I will try that Belgian waffle recipe again now that I have the right sugar; I will dream of architecture and vacuum my car. I will listen to records. I will aspire to one day be wrong about no more than 45% of everything I think I believe. I will wonder how much of tomorrow will seem haplessly misspent and hopelessly naïve when I look back from forty, but try not to let that keep me from growing one day older by morning.