Bad Habits

Going off to live in a new place often causes you to redefine yourself as a person: to break down old bad habits and replace them with new, more productive patterns. Then when you come back, the old bad habits kick right back in again and all that work you put in to redefine yourself is put aside.

Well, I’ve never lived anywhere but here in Boulder (I lived for a year in Maryland when I was 5, but that doesn’t really count). But I figuratively went off to a new place when I started CU, and then again when I went to work at NetDevil. You could see traces of a hard-working, responsible person coming out. In school, I went to class all the time and worked hard; during work, I went every day and did my job well (but didn’t want to work any more that I already was, which is why I left).

Now I’ve come back; I am not enrolled in school and I’m unemployed. I have loads of spare time on my hands again. And just as expected, I’ve rebuilt my old bad habits…

… For some definition of “bad”. Now I have a chance to look back on the last few years. What have I done that I’m proud of?

  1. Got good grades in school.
  2. Made two or three computer games.
  3. Wrote two songs.
  4. Started a band.

#4 I did after I took my scholastic hiatus but before I was employed. But I don’t want to say “it doesn’t count”, because it still could have been the school environment that influenced me to do that. Regardless, this all pales in comparison to my old, bad habits:

  1. God bad grades in school.
  2. Made one computer game per month, approximately.
  3. Wrote two songs per month.
  4. Learned a new challenging piano piece every month.
  5. Became well-known as a contributor in the Perl community.

Looking back, my bad habit of learning is much faster than the new, responsible habit of learning, because my bad habit is to learn by myself at my own level and speed, and my new habit was to learn at the rate others were teaching me.

In summary, I like my bad habits much better. I enjoy myself more, I’m more satisfied with my creative output, and I’m always well-rested. While a student or employed, I’m usually fatigued from working as well as being ill-rested (as a byproduct of trying to be creative), and my creative output is pitifully small. Over the past week after my return from my vacation (which I took promptly after quitting NetDevil), I saw my old rate of creativity completely revitalized, more than it has been in years.

At some point I learned not to waste time: to use idle time and energy to learn and to create. And I love that about myself. That’s what allows me to become excellent at whatever I do; “hard work” is not what does it. The mind works best when it is free to experiment—without deadlines and without stress.

But I have a bit of an internal conflict—conflicting fears even. I fear that if I stay with my bad habits then I will never “get anywhere”. My goal was to get a PhD and become a professor. But I also fear that as a PhD student and as a professor—or whatever I end up doing—I would keep my responsible habits and be dissatisfied with my creative work.

I think I can disarm the first one, though. What is “getting somewhere”? There are a lot of professors who make major contributions to their fields, but there are a lot of professors who don’t. Someone in the math department once commented that for the majority of math dissertations, the number of readers is roughly proportional to the number of authors. The other part of “getting somewhere” is making money, but my skills (which, mind, I have developed thus far on my bad habits) can definitely do that for me when I need it.

As far as I can tell, the only thing I am missing by not taking the school route is colleagues, who can indeed help me learn faster and bring me to more advanced levels. But it’s not that I can’t find such people elsewhere; I certainly had no trouble in the Perl community. I think I will still contribute to mathematics and computer science even if I stopped formal education right now.

It looks like I just argued to myself that there’s no need for school anymore. That’s a frightening prospect because it’s been on my radar to go to graduate school for so long. In particular, Karlin’s parents have been highly influential in my life and I respect them very much, and they are quite keen on my finishing a bachelors and persuing a graduate degree. As far as I have convinced myself, though, I would actually cripple myself by going back to school and not taking things at my own pace. This may be the time to devise a nonstandard lifestyle on which I can support myself and have the freedom I need. I have been considering starting a rehearsal studio business…

Dilemmas aside, I’m very happy that my bad habits have returned to me.

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