Monday, December 19, 2011

I'm Hungry.

I was listening to the impact of poverty on children on Talk of the Nation on NPR and had some thoughts. I was on free lunches while I lived in St Louis and reduced price lunches throughout elementary and into middle school. I suppose that means I lived in poverty. I never felt like I lived in poverty because I had plenty of toys and we always had food and the heat always worked at home and we had a home!

As 2011 draws to a close I am realizing that this year when I file taxes it will be the first year that I get paid more than minimum wage for the entire year. I suppose I have been poor my whole life. Even as I write that I cannot actually believe it. Wealth is about so much more than income.

For example, my family always had a place to live but my parents did not own a home from the time I was five until I was 20. We lived in apartments and houses lent to us by my dad's employer. I consider having a house, apartment, or place to live wealth. The same goes for vehicles. My parents have bought only one new car in my 25.5 years, but numerous cars over ten years old. Having one or more vehicles counts as wealth to me. Even though I currently drive an 18 year old van with 277,000 miles, I consider that a luxury item.

I am continually thinking about motivation. How does one get it? Where does it come from? What events lead to increased motivation? What things will decrease motivation? Why do I pound out ten or more hours of running per week? What am I trying to prove? Why do I care about getting the best answer to an engineering problem at work and not just an acceptable answer? Why do I model things with solid (3D) elements when others use only shell (2D) elements? Why did I go to college at WPI in Massachusetts? Why did I get a master's degree?

I finished Steve Job's biography by Walter Isaacson on Saturday. What was Steve's motivation? It seems making the best possible user experience, but that is not 100% clear. I will write a review of the book in the coming weeks.

Motivation is something that is cultivated and grown, but exists within. Can one person give another person the seed of motivation? That is one tough question. If the answer is yes then I give credit to my parents for the roots of my motivation. My family vacationed to Colorado when I was young and we camped, had fires and cooked, and my dad told stories of hiking mountains like Longs Peak. I think that those little trips were the seeds of my mountaineering motivation. It was developed along the way by four summers at Philmont, and numerous hikes and climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park and the 14ers around Leadville. Yet it started with a hike to Emerald Lake and a drive to the continental divide ranger station in RMNP. My other motivations have roots with my parents. When I was six or seven I out sprinted my dad in our back yard. He might have let me win but I decided that I should not be able beat him and I did not want others to beat me unless they were actually faster. However, had he beat me would I have gotten discouraged and chose not to pursue running? Probably... My parents are geniuses. I hope I can do half as well with my kids as they did with my sister and I.

I feel that my motivation wanes when I have more luxury in life. Nice things, which I really like, give me the feeling of being complacent. (I'm struggling to come up with an example. I've been sitting here for at least 10 minutes without writing a sentence.)

I quit acting when I went to college. I did five musicals, four plays, and a slew of speech and drama routines at competitions in high school. The highlight was my senior year when my duet with Dana May Salah was amazing. We cleaned up at just about every meet. We were getting first and second at almost every meet we went to. That was after three years of struggling to make it to finals at local speech and drama competitions. At state that year we expected to cruise through semifinals and compete for the win, but judges rated us terribly. Our second round was the best performance of the year. It was the best acting I ever did. When we calmly walked out of the room we were seriously jumping up and down because we just had the most amazing performance of the year! The judge gave us a ranking of five, with one being the best and ten the worst. Unbelievable. We didn't even make it to semifinals. I did do improvised duet acting also at that state meet and my partner and I got 8th at state with a really really tough draw in the semifinal round. The point being, my motivation for acting left after that state meet. People in my home town thought I was going to go into acting, and were surprised that I cared so much more about engineering. Some were even disappointed.

I had no success in competition acting for two and a half years then I had success at the end of my junior year and lots of success my senior year. I was loaded with motivation at the state meet my senior year. After the rejection I feel I felt acting was a search for acceptance and popularity. I felt that hard work did not necessarily pay off. Success or failure was determined by the whim of another person. In engineering and running and mountaineering and relationships the return on investment seems far more direct. If I train hard in running, I run faster races. If I study more material in engineering, I will have a better grasp of the phenomena. If I climb more I will be able to climb more. If I spend more time with a person we will have a stronger relationship (if we can work past the fact that I am a self centered egomaniac). In the words of my high school running coach, "You get what you get."

Another aspect of my attitude is that I compare myself to the best in the world. Watching the movie Inside Job one person commented that investment banking became a contest. 50 Billion dollar deals were not enough it had to be 100 billion. Unfortunately, I feel that way sometimes. So and so runs a 2:14 marathon, so I want to see if I can do it. So and so climbed Everest without oxygen, and I'm a way better runner than he is so I must be able to do it. So and so started a company that revolutionized the industry, and I'm a far better engineer than he is and more personable too. These thoughts filter down to the way that I live. Why don't I get rid of my van and buy a Mini Cooper like I have wanted for a decade? Because I would rather drive a Prosche 911 Turbo. Why don't I buy a nice bed and some more furniture and a huge TV? Because I would rather buy land and have a house. Why did I go to Pakistan and try an 8000 meter peak instead of trying Denali or Aconcagua first? Because it's bigger and bigger equals better right?

I am clearly delusional. I am obviously crazy. I have accepted those opinions as facts. I fear that these ideas in my head hamper my ability to have a committed romantic relationship. Or any relationship really. On the other hand my focus is very long term. I've been thinking about Mt. Everest for eight years, now it's just the funding. I do know that these expectations and desires set me up for disappointment. March 2010 was a really rough month. Fortunately, I am enough of a normal person to take joy in how far I have come. When I defended my masters thesis I was incredibly happy! After so much time and work, I had something to show. It was the most fulfilling formal educational experience I have had. There were so many times I thought about quitting. When I ran a 4:38 mile at Smith college my senior year of college I was ecstatic! While I planned and still do plan to be able to run under 4:20 in the mile some day, actually getting under 4:40 was amazing because part of me never thought it would happen. It is the same with my engineering. I solve problems and make products last longer, and in 2010, I was not sure I would ever have that chance. I'm a useful addition. I'm part of something. I am economically productive. It is very rewarding.

I still have a lot to do in life. I have a number of "delusions" to chase. However, if this afternoon I end up unable to walk, talk, see, and work for the next 50 years of my life I have enjoyed more success than any one person ever deserves. It is the dichotomy of performance.  The new best performance is not enough, yet it is infinitely more than is deserved. I am so blessed!

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