Master of None

There have been many things that I thought I could develop into serious career options over the years. When I was around sixteen I considered growing up to be a professional skateboarder or a professional gamer. I only ever learned to do an Ollie, which I think I could still pull off with a few days of practise. I have since given up on these two as career options. Around eighteen I was really good at maths and physics and I thought I’d go study at an IIT and spend a decent amount of my life doing research and other science stuff. This too seems only a remote possibility at the moment. I was gifted Feynman’s Lectures on Physics many years ago and I still haven’t read them.

When I was in college I’d gotten pretty good at algorithms and AI for¬†puzzle games and I thought I could build a career around that. I think I’m still pretty sharp with these skills. I could probably still do this if I was to leave my current job and be underpaid for a couple of years. It’s because this is somewhat similar to what I currently do (which is run an ecommerce website), that I still think of it as an achievable option.

I first started this blog in 2005 on Xanga. I’ve enjoyed writing since then but I’ve never done enough of it. I once made a submission to a science fiction short story writing competition and I won second prize. There was actual prize money and they mailed me a cheque. I thought I could write more things good enough to put out into the world at some point in my life. I never believed I’d make any serious money writing and so I thought that when I’m older and I’ve figured out the making money part of my life I’ll do some serious writing. I guess I still believe this.

In my early twenties I made a couple of simple websites built on WordPress as freelance projects. I then thought¬† that I could make websites or web applications for a living. I guess I was right about this one. I also worked as a software developer making a web application in Java for almost two years. The work was easy and paid decently well but I always knew that this couldn’t be all that I’ll do for the rest of my life. It was nowhere close to as exciting as any of the other things.

When I was really young my parents sent me for tabla classes. They were once a week and I went for years. I didn’t learn all that much but I developed a good sense of rhythm. I eventually bought a second hand guitar. I thought that if I don’t manage to write prose, I can write songs instead. Maybe they’ll be easier because they’re shorter. The fulfilment lay in telling stories. I wrote a few songs and some of them aren’t too bad but this didn’t go much further either.

When I first played the drums it felt like I could get the hang of it quickly. It could have been all the tabla knowledge I didn’t know I had. The drums don’t help me tell stories but they could help me make more complete songs. They’re also a lot of fun to learn and jam with.

This is not a comprehensive list. This is probably less than half of all the things I thought I could do and spent at least a little time learning, but these are most of the important ones. These are the ones that have stuck with me for long enough to really count. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while then I’ve told you almost all of these things before at some point. I’m sorry about repeating them. I needed to tell you this story to get to the point of this blog post.

I’m the kind of person who wants to do a lot of things. And we live in a culture that glorifies people who do one thing really well. I partly believe that with a rather large dose of discipline and a few difficult choices I could still be one of these things; a socially acknowledged success. But that’s rather difficult and very little fun. I’ve tried making these difficult choices and working on one thing at a time. When I decided that I should make writing a top priority I’d feel guilty every time I started doing something else that was fun, even if it was something equally fulfilling and meaningful. When the guilt would drive me to try to write, I’d be staring at a blank screen. After backspacing a couple of sentences a dozen times I’d be back on Reddit again.

The realisation crept up to me that I’ll never get good enough at any of these things because when I stop and focus on only one thing, it still doesn’t work. I never openly accepted this to myself, but it was always at the back of my head, looming and melancholic. Too big and scary to deal with.

Learning something is also really rewarding at the start, after which it starts to plateau. It takes an increasing amount of time and effort to make what seems like diminishing progress. Add to this the knowledge that I’ll never be good enough to really make something of this skill and I’m at the point when I stop trying to get better. It’s now just another guitar standing in the corner of my room that I’ll pick up once every couple of months.

I want to say that it’s okay to be mediocre at something forever and I’ve tried believing that but it doesn’t work for me. I’d rather just watch TV and go out and drink with friends and spend hours browsing Reddit or Instagram than put in effort to be just a notch above the the level of mediocre that I used to be. So that’s what I did for over a year. I still didn’t want to admit that I’d abandoned most of my ambition, and so I never thought about it and things largely remained the way they were.

It’s honestly not that bad a place to be. The good thing about actually enjoying doing so many things is that even if I do one of them once in a few months it feels great. I just need to have forgotten exactly how good it felt the last time. If I do it more often then I’m hit with the realisation that I haven’t made any progress and I never will.

It took me a couple of years to fully understand that just because I’m not going to be as good at anything as I’d once hoped is not enough reason to stop trying entirely. I will never be enough of a musician or writer or skateboarder for that alone to be satisfactory. I am a part-entrepreneur, part-programmer, aspiring writer and musician, amateur drummer who can strum chords on a guitar and can probably do an Ollie. There may be a few things to add to that description but it’s largely pretty rigid. I’ve tried to change it and failed. What I really need to do is be the best part-entrepreneur, part-programmer, aspiring writer and musician, amateur drummer who can strum chords on a guitar and can probably do an Ollie you’ll ever meet. This is the only way to keep a distant-future-me from suddenly being struck with the crushing guilt of not having done enough in my life at a point when it’s to late to do anything about it.

In the course of my whole life, I can probably make twenty to thirty songs that a few hundred people will love and be really moved by. I can also manage to be a good enough drummer and guitarist to jam with for most part of it. I can also write a dozen short stories and maybe even a book or two out of which three will ever be liked by over a thousand people. I can also contribute in a very small way towards making software that significantly makes the world a better place. I can also be a forty-something who can have fun at a skate park and briefly explain the latest developments in particle physics. I can hopefully also use one or more of these skills to make enough money to live a decent life.

Any one of these things isn’t much but if I can do all of them, that’s really something. That’s also something that twenty-nine year old me feels is certainly achievable.

 

Wishing you luck with whatever you chose to do with the rest of your life,

The best part-entrepreneur, part-programmer, aspiring writer and musician, amateur drummer who can strum chords on a guitar and can probably do an Ollie you’ll ever meet.

Time and its measurements / An argument against thinking ahead

You live most of your lives like you will live forever. You will spend today knowing that you are not going to die tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or before 2020. There are, of course, exceptions to this but I’m reasonably confident that they aren’t reading this blog post. Most of you are not in denial about death, but you’d still prefer to think about it as an event in the distant future that you do not need to concern yourself with now, or anytime soon.

When was the last time you felt truly proud of yourself? When was the last time you experienced exaltation or absolute contentment? When was the last time that you felt happiness in such abundance that you couldn’t contain it? How long did it last? When was the last time you felt an overbearing need to act on something? Did you? When was the last time you were struck to your very core by the anxiety of losing something you loved? When was the last time disappointment sank all the way down to your gut?

I sit here in front of you with my folded electricity bill covering the top right corner of my laptop screen. Why? Because I was reading a book and I wanted to keep myself from knowing what time it is so that I don’t feel sleepy and I could read it for longer. The experiment seems to have worked well because although I don’t know exactly what time it is now I know that it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 4am and that’s longer that I would have read if I’d been reminded of the time all throughout. Not to mention that I would also not be writing this blog post.

If you didn’t know what what time it was or what time you had to wake up in the morning then would you still sleep rather than continuing whatever you’re enjoying doing so much? If you didn’t know what the name of the next day of the week was or how many days it was till your birthday then would you still put yourself through the gruelling routine of today? Maybe if we didn’t use these measurements of time to reason things out we’d do things differently. And yes, not being able to quantify time would lead us to more irrational decisions, but our decisions can only be as rational as the assumptions of our objectives and morality that they’re based on.

I want to try for an unknown interval of time, to not count time and see how that works out. And I want to ask you, are we living or are we dying?

Day 72: Wallflowers and Ordinary Superheroes

I have much to tell you today. I have two main things to tell you about, so I’ll do it the fun way and tell you both at the same time. You can kill a lot of time on trains by observing people and trying to guess their stories or invent stories for them. This is the best you can do in a train if you don’t have something to read. You can’t do this when traveling in buses because you can’t observe people that much. You can look around as much as you want in a train and if you directly look at people only once in a while they’ll never even make eye contact with you. Some stories seem the same. Here in New York there’s usually the couple traveling back home after a long day if it’s between 7-9pm. Sometimes they’re bringing home groceries, sometimes they have a kid, sometimes she’s pregnant and they’re bringing back a giant bag of diapers. In the morning most faces are blank, most are falling asleep. I think I can tell pretty well who’s already had their coffee, who hasn’t and who doesn’t need coffee. There’s sometimes the one casually dressed person or the one who gets off at Christopher street (Christopher street is an evening place, it doesn’t really have any offices) and I imagine that they’re doing something interesting for a living. Maybe he works at a record store, or runs a restaurant. Once in a while I’ll find somebody really interesting, like the guy carrying a keyboard it’s bag and composing music on his Mac I saw one night. I saw someone like that today.

I’ve never really come across things like this in Bombay. We Indians are an introverted bunch. We’re comfortable being wallflowers. Not all of us of course. But it’s an easy observation to make about us in general. I’m not saying this is the only reason I don’t see things like this in Bombay but it certainly is one of them. People won’t make music or paint or draw or write in public places. I’ve seen a few people draw or write in coffee shops a few times, but not as often as here. We don’t even join in conversations on the train if we don’t know the people having them. I probably don’t speak for all of us but I can speak for myself. I can hardly write in public, I’m too conscious of anyone looking over my shoulder. It bothers me even when I’m reading if anyone else is close enough to read what I’m reading. When I was younger it would bother me if people could see the title of the book I was reading. It bothers me if someone can read my twitter feed while I read it on the train and I lock my iPod as soon as I’m done selecting a song so that no one can see what song I’m listening to. None of these anxieties have any good justification. At the most it might make a good two minute conversation if a stranger liked the song I was listening to or the book I was reading or was curious about what I was writing. A two minute conversation with a stranger is always fun and these things are very unlikely to happen in Bombay anyway because as I said, we won’t talk to strangers.

When coming back on the subway today, while listening to Death Cab For Cutie I was looking around the train compartment as you’d expect. What caught my eye was a girl (woman?) drawing a comic book. This was a thick hard covered book about the size of your average comic book. She drew just with a black pen. What’s really something worth mentioning is, she did this when standing. Imagine trying to draw on a local train in Bombay. It’s harder to draw on a subway train in New York because the tracks aren’t as straight and the trains turn a lot more often. I can hardly even write in legible handwriting in moving vehicles. Getting both hands free long enough to plug my earphones into my iPod and put them in my ears is sometimes a challenge on this subway, but she drew, while standing and not falling. Watching her, I wished that I had a talent like that. Not just being able to draw a comic book while standing in a moving train, but also caring enough about the comic book to do it in whatever free time she got, struggling against the movement of the train and not being bothered by anyone looking at what she’s drawing.

For me, it’s not just about being invisible, it’s about being able to control what you see. I can tell you all of this here not only because hardly anyone ever reads this, but mostly because I can take my time and tell you exactly as much as I want to tell you. If there was even a little thing I didn’t want to tell you, it would never make it here, no matter how brilliant a blog post it might have made. If I had to tell you one thing that I learnt here, I’d say it’s that you have to stop being a wallflower at some point. It’s easier and probably more fun to not be invisible all the time, but what’s much more important is that it can just get in the way a lot of the time. If it’s being in a moving train surrounded by people that’s stopping you from working on your comic book then that’s a problem. You should get over it someday.

While we’re talking about comic books, lets look what superheroes have most in common, it’s that they can all do something that no one else can, they seem to have a firm distinction of right and wrong, and there’s usually multiple people who want things to be as the superhero would perceive to be wrong. But you see, the super-villains fulfill these three requirements as well. it’s you who decides who’s who and most of the time it’s really hard to tell. The superhero inspires people, the villain gives them fear.

From when I was really little, I always believed that the world would end someday in my lifetime. That an apocalypse of sorts would come. And I’d be ready when this happened because I was the only one who really believed this was going to happen. I’d be the superhero then, because I’d been preparing for it since my childhood. I’m not sure what made it happen but as I grew up I gradually began to believe that I’m not that special, and that the world won’t really end. Take the world apart and if we all had to start from scratch, it still sounds like a good idea to some part of me. I just don’t think it’s happening anymore.

The world isn’t ending and there aren’t any of us who can fly or catch bullets or open wormholes in space or travel in time, but this doesn’t mean that we’re all the same. There are still some of us who do what they think they really should, and find time to do them in a world that tries to steer them away. There are still some of us who struggle against the fruitlessness of their efforts and people who degrade their efforts. There are still some of us who can do things like drawing comic books while standing in a moving train and inspire people by just doing it.

The blank page / To creativity!

Now that I travel 4 hours a day to and from work I’m left with almost no time for anything else. I try sometimes, to put this time to good use. Apart from having books to read and music to listen to, I bought a notebook to write stuff in. This notebook lay in my bag untouched for almost a month (one time I opened it, stared at the first page for a while and put it back in my bag) until finally, I wrote this:-

The blank page / To creativity! (6/10/09)

Does the blank page scare you? The blank page intimidates me. It stresses me out. It makes me feel like shutting the book and tossing the pencil. The blank page is unearthly. It’s pure, plain, empty, and its emptiness is contagious. It seeps into my mind and reduces all thought to void.

It seems unconquerable. To add to a blank page, to create out of nothing, impossible. A mountain insurmountable. I look at it, admire its beauty, admire those with the courage and skill to conquer it and then turn away.

But sometimes… Sometimes creativity once believed to be dead rises from its grave and roars a deafening roar from the back of my head. Then, with one sentence, with one word, as easily as life can be ended with a piercing bullet, the blank page is conquered. And after that one brave word follow thousands more, millions more. They sing, they dance, they play. They give birth to stories of hope and despair, take you on a rollercoaster ride of emotion, and spread the light of thought in this universe of infinity. They embrace you, inspire you, and share your loneliness with you.

As witness to this event, these words will testify. To remind me that blank pages can be conquered, that they can be even more beautiful when filled, and each individual is gifted with his own creativity which never dies. Creativity which will conquer books, page by page, word by word.