The Pursuit of Knowledge

I started writing this as a comment in reply to Adam Bossy's post The Paradox of Self-Education. The comment became so long that I decided to turn it into a post here on my blog.

I grew up wanting to "be everything", from astronomer, to musician, to entomologist, to geneticist, to Navy SEAL, to writer, to geologist, to computer scientist. Hell, even meteorology (the study of weather, i.e., what the weather man does) fascinated me! I was home schooled through high school and never spent a single day in public or private school. (I actually ended up teaching myself through high school because my parents were busy teaching my younger brother and sister.) This gave me great freedom to study anything that happened to interest me. Over the course of a year, I probably switched between being totally engrossed in a dozen different fields. But in my teens, I realized that "being everything" wasn't a career path and just knowing a little bit about many different fields wasn't going to pay the bills. So I picked the most developed of my skills and went into IT.

Now at 26 and no college degree, I'm working for a software start-up doing a whole variety of things (programming, sysadmin, tech support, editor, you name it) and I run my own small but successful web hosting company. My interest in many other fields has not changed or decreased in any way. The only thing that has changed is my ability to spend ANY amount of time exploring them.

While pondering many of the same points as Adam does in his post, I came to the conclusion that it's our bills and our standards of living that are holding us down. By living paycheck to paycheck we make it impossible to take six months or a year off from work to explore some new thing that has peaked our interest. Socially, we're expected to follow the same routine advancement in our current field from one position to another, making a bigger paycheck and being able to raise our standard of living that much higher (thereby putting us back to where we started and resulting in yet another desire for a raise and advancement).

I went from spending upwards of $2,500 a month down to $800 a month by making lifestyle adjustments. "Do I need cable TV?" No, I have the Internet. "Do I need this two-bedroom, 1,500 sqft apartment?" No, I'm a single guy and the rent is a huge part of my paycheck -- 400 sqft will do. "Do I need to drive into work?" No, I can take public transportation. "Do I need this $5 coffee every day?" No, a $.50 green tea will suffice and it will be healthier.

My goal now is to continue living frugally so I can set aside a big enough bucket of money to get me through one year without work. Then, when the time is right, I'll spend a year learning something of interest, possibly making small amounts of money on the side. When needed, I'll start working and hopefully keep repeating this process. If something I do makes me tons of money, great. If not... well it's not about the money.

The pursuit of knowledge is to me more important than all the money in the world. Sure, money would make that pursuit easier, but life isn't easy. This is where I feel society gets it wrong. We put money and status first and education and knowledge second, using the latter to obtain the former. Imagine a society where the pursuit of knowledge defined our standards of living. (Oh no, what would happen to all the ads?!)

If we're willing to sacrifice our high-strung lifestyle for the ability to spend time learning and increasing knowledge, then we can accomplish amazing things, both individually and as a society. A world pursuing money and status has all the reason to fight amongst themselves and start wars, but a world pursuing knowledge and advancement has all the reason to maintain peace.

Do one thing every day that scares you

Yesterday my parents badly needed sand because their big driveway was covered in sheer ice. Many people have told me that as long as I was a Lowell resident I could get free sand from a particular Lowell Public Works yard. (It's actually better than regular sand because it's a salt/sand mixture they use on the public roads.) I've seen plenty of municipal plow trucks drive down the long dirt road to the yard but never any non-municipal trucks, so I was always hesitant to check it out. None of us really has the money to spend on bags and bags of sand or salt from Home Depot, so filling my truck with free sand would be really helpful for everyone.

I'm not a Lowell resident anymore (I used to own three rental properties in Lowell but I live in NH now) however my truck still has a Massachusetts license plates. For many years I've imagined the worst possible outcome for driving down that long dirt road to get sand. I imagined armed guards with guns ready to fire upon me for trespassing, getting arrested by the police, etc, etc. Then yesterday, after realizing the worst possible thing that could actually happen (of all the most likely bad things) would be for someone to simply tell me "no, the sand is for city use only", I finally built up the courage to drive down the road to see if I could get some free sand.

The yard was empty. There were no armed guards with guns ready to fire upon me. There were no gates preventing me from passing. In fact, there weren't even any signs that said "No Trespassing" or "Official Use Only" and not a single person in sight to stop me! I drove up to the huge pile of sand, filled my truck, and drove away. That's when it hit me. If I had only built up the courage to do something that had very little risk associated with it, I could have had access to free sand for all my rental properties for the past 6 years! As I drove away from the huge pile of sand, I remembered a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: "Do one thing every day that scares you."

Comfort makes us feel good; it's relaxing and it allows us to enjoy life. Unfortunately like many narcotics comfort has a nasty side-effect; too much of it leads to the exact opposite: discomfort. It should, therefore, be used in moderation (like everything else in life) and we should not use it as a constant destination. The destination of every moment should be the growth and gratitude of this life.

Staying within our comfort zone limits our ability to grow and learn. Niels Bohr, a Nobel Prize winning Danish physicist who made fundamental contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics said, "An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field." Nobody is comfortable making mistakes, but if mistakes are such a vital component to advancing our growth then we need to embrace doing things that scare us; we need to embrace doing things that make us feel uncomfortable so that we can live richer, fuller lives, instead of living a life of fear, worry, and uncertainty.

It's no doubt a scary thing to intentionally do something that makes us feel uncomfortable; to intentionally do something where the outcome or consequences are unknown. However, if we recognize that much of the fear comes from our own subconscious playing out the worst possible outcome, the outcome that is probably less likely to happen than lightning striking us from inside an office building, then we can quickly overcome our fears and grow in amazing ways.

Doing something every day that scares you may be quite a challenge but just try to think of all the little things that you don't do every day simply because you're afraid or because you're uncertain of their outcome. Saying hello to the cute girl who works in an adjacent office, taking an alternate route to a frequent destination down roads you've never traveled, selling something you don't use but think you'll eventually need, being extra friendly to a family member who you've never gotten along with, standing up to your boss or manager when you know you're right. I'm sure if you think carefully you can find plenty of harmless things you've avoided simply out of fear of the unknown.

Be more open to new experiences and grab life by the horns. Get out of your comfort zone and face challenges head on. Do one thing every day that scares you. Don't be afraid to learn something new about yourself or to change something about who you think you are as a person. But remember, as Mrs. Roosevelt also said, "Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself."

Finding the Synergy Between Control and Chaos

For Thea's (my future brother-in-law) bachelor party, we went to F1 in Boston. F1 is an indoor, high-powered go-cart track. Two tracks actually, but we only raced on one (track 2). The track allows for 10 racers at a time. There were 15 of us, so we raced in two groups. There were two initial races, and the top ten with the best lap times raced in a final championship round. We were told we would have four races, with the fourth race being the championship race, so at least some of us felt cheated out of a possible win.

It was an incredible experience. I've always understood how professional racers constantly search for the balance between losing control and pushing the machine to its limit. If you're afraid to lose control, then you'll never find where that limit is and therefore never be as good as you could be. This fact holds true in many aspects of life as well. But passing the limit is one thing, you must also find a synergy between control and chaos. I grasped hold of that synergy several times tonight.

Life is fragile. We live on the edge every day without even knowing it. It's only when we get really close to losing control that we realize how out of control something can become; when we just barely avoid a car accident or feel the pit in our stomach as we almost fall off a ladder.

This is an interesting realization for me, in that I've never understood why I do well in certain things and yet with others I feel something inside myself holding back. For example, I compared my racing at F1 with the Mazda Rev-It-Up racing a few years ago, in which we raced actual full size Mazda6 cars. There was no speed limit, you wouldn't have to pay for the car if you flipped it over and the most that could happen to you if you knock over a cone, or even drive entirely out of the course area, is that you'd be penalized or not allowed to compete in the final round. Why then, should I hold back? I shouldn't have, but I did. I held back because I knew with enough speed and just the right turning, it was possible to flip the car. Was it instinct? Was it an intelligent risk assessment? Or was I just being chicken shit?

During the F1 racing, I knew the limits, the maximum speed, the track, and I knew I couldn't flip over. So I pushed the limits, over and over. Tires screeching, I drifted around the corners at maximum speed, spinning out only once in 55 laps. I averaged the best lap time out of everyone during the first two races, so my cart started in first place during the last round. Life must have been teaching me to be humble because in 55 laps the one time I spun out happened to be during the championship round. It cost me the round entirely (I ended with 7th place).

This realization also made me understand why I enjoy change and why, as monotonous as it can become, I enjoy driving. It's mental challenge I crave, visual and physical stimulation to challenge my senses. When I'm driving, I know at any moment an accident could happen. This causes me to be alert and take driving very seriously. I cannot settle into a little rut and enjoy it. I'm not satisfied when something is complete or when everyone else wants to sit back and admire their work. Movement. That's what I crave. Whether physical or mental, movement is vital to our growth as a human race.

Music. If you actually listen to and analyze every beat in your head, you begin to create a mental work of art, which, for me at least, seems to instantly transform into emotion. Movement. Always stay moving.

Mistakes are limits. They are dead end roads. When you discover a dead end road you don't park your car and wait for the road to suddenly lead somewhere interesting. You turn around and find another route! Life teaches us lessons. We have the choice to learn from those lessons and use them to make more educated decisions, or to forget the lesson and make our journey that more difficult. If you're lost, you don't throw away a map that has been handed to you, right? So why would you want to throw away anything that will help you live a better life? (If you don't know how to read a map, learn.)

So how does F1 racing have anything to do with learning lessons in life? Well the single time I spun out in 55 laps shows me how even though you think you've got life figured out, even though you were handed the first place position at the start of the race, there is always something new around the corner. Maybe a new lesson, maybe a new idea. The point is this: don't settle for anything. The moment we begin to accept things for the way they are, we age -- we become old and rigid. Finding that synergy, that balance, in life is what keeps us forever young.