I lied. This post is not actually about Reddit. However the role Reddit plays in my life exemplifies a type of behavior I am minimizing: consuming without a goal. Reddit is my starting point and I’ll generalize from there. Please understand that I am not disparaging Reddit as a whole – I am making a statement about my own behavior when using Reddit.
When I say consuming without a goal I mean absorbing a lot of information with little to no reward besides the base stimulation that seeing lots of new comments, images, and links offers. This type of stimulation results in a lot of short-term gratification but yields little benefit in the long run.
As I write this currently the top 3 posts on Reddit (based on default subreddits without logging on) are:
- Swedish justice minister falls for Daily Currant spoof story on marijuana deaths, calling incident “stupid and sad”
- number 1 rule at a party : DON’T FALL ASLEEP FIRST!!
- What do you see on tv all the time that never actually happens in everyday life?
While there are more focused and useful subreddits (a better-known one that comes to mind is /r/AskHistorians) these three links are a good sample of what I encounter most often. There are lots of links to news articles that I am personally not involved with, random comical things happening in other people’s lives that I don’t care about, and possibly interesting discussions that don’t really make my life better.
Even when I tailor the subreddits to my tastes with subscriptions to /r/engineering, for example, the basic content does not change. /r/engineering often has the same type of content I find uninteresting except with a different coat of paint. And I would argue that the more banal, asinine, or irrelevant content is more addictive.
This sort of content and gratification-seeking behavior on Reddit is the root of this post today. I want to avoid behavior that does not lead to a happier life. Looking at memes/image macros, following pun threads in comments, and being bombarded by a seemingly random collection of information is not helping me be happier.
Other examples from my personal life would be letting myself get caught up watching a TV show that I don’t really enjoy but sit down and watch anyway because it happens to be on.
That’s not to say avoid TV altogether! There are shows that stimulate the imagination I whole-heartedly recommend and documentaries can be a good source of TV that is beneficial.
The key is to have a goal.
It doesn’t have to be a grandiose goal like changing the world. Those types of goals are usually too taxing for their own good anyway because of the scope. I prefer to work with personal, quantifiable, and achievable goals that can build momentum into a massive shift.
Spending time with friends and loved ones, for example, is a wonderful goal. I don’t suggest watching Judge Judy on your own (I use this example because it’s a guilty pleasure of mine) but if you’re sitting with friends and able to bond over it – either because you are enjoying it or because you’re making fun of it (I’ve been known to do both) then you are working on something that leads to long-term benefits.
A clearly superior use of my Reddit time is to improve my skills. I don’t mean random skills that don’t help me with anything. I can learn how to build a website but does that do anything for me as an engineer? Not immediately and without a clear reason for requiring a website that skill is just another project waiting to cause stress and disappointment by not being completed. On the other hand I can review my textbooks and hone my math skills, both of which have direct benefits to my job and to my mental well-being. Plus the better I get with engineering concepts the more likely I am to be able to innovate.
Instead of being on Reddit, even if it was only a “quick” Reddit break, I could have cleaned my apartment. I get stressed when my apartment is messy in any way so the cleaning option is obviously better but it is not instant gratification like Reddit is. But that’s my point – the extra willpower and discipline to clean is tough but improves my happiness while Reddit does not.
Just so we are perfectly clear I’m not saying Reddit is bad. I’m saying my use of Reddit is a waste of time. There are certainly plenty of folk who use Reddit productively as a tool for communication, collaboration, development, marketing, or any number of other things. (Though for every one of those people there are 100 more using Reddit for puns and image macros.) There are plenty of other behaviors for me that fall into the same waste of time: playing games on my smartphone, procrastinating, sitting around doing nothing, and more.
My point in all this is that I want to be more selective with how I spend my time so that I can be true to my personal motto: Live deliberately.
Blogging unsettles me because I associate it with narcissism. The feeling is exacerbated by the limited reach of this blog. However I have found reasons to keep blogging through introspection.
1. Contributing to the documented collective experience of humans.
The internet brought about an unprecedented level of communication between people and a lot of it is documented. Many people are unaware of the extent but it is safe to assume that anything that has been on the internet is on there forever. I find reviews particularly useful as they help me come to an informed decision about a new product I am considering purchasing. I find reading about others’ experiences helpful because it is more information for me to use in my own life. I don’t want to be only a consumer in these and other pieces of communication that benefit people. I want to contribute. Blogging is one way of doing so that balances the skills needed for entry, the time required, and the potential audience in a way that suits my circumstance.
2. Developing and maintaining skills related to writing.
There are benefits of blogging to me that provide the driving motivation to continue writing provided I set my expectations properly. I am not hoping to become famous though I certainly won’t deny that it’s nice to think about. Probably the most immediate and tangible result of blogging for me is improvements to my writing. If I don’t write I can’t continue to improve my grammar, use of vocabulary, and my voice. Rather than lament a lack of development I want to choose to be proactive and practice by writing regularly.
3. A combination of keeping in touch with friends, journaling, and learning.
I want to keep in touch with everybody in my life but that can become temporally prohibitive. There may also be cases where I have the time but my friend does not. These are cases where having a blog can be useful. Especially with useful titles and headers a friend can understand if a blog post is useful or not. My prior flirtations with search engine optimization also indicate that this is good for building a wider audience as well. Mysterious titles may be useful for self-aggrandizing but serve no further purpose. Additionally some thoughts come out better when written than when spoken in a conversation. There are benefits and drawbacks to both forms of communication and maintaining both lines can be helpful.
In the process of revealing various details of my life from my thoughts to mundane details like a new purchase I am also journaling. A quick Google search for “benefits of journaling” finds sources (many of them blogs!) that claim benefits of journaling. Anecdotally speaking I find that I am better able to process my thoughts and feelings, I have some sort of record I can look back on for future reference, and seeing my thoughts in writing often provokes further inquiry and insight.
I think that practically reasons 2 and 3 are what drive me to rationalize blogging as useful via reason 1. Still I think that the thought process is valid so I have no problem with crafting an experience that benefits me if it also serves to benefit others.
Now comes the difficult period of forming a habit so that I can reap the benefits.
Lately on the radio I’ve heard Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City collaborate on the song, “Good Time.” There’s one part in the song that gets my brain going all fuzzy so being the lazy spendthrift I am I simply looked it up on YouTube. And thus began a crisis of existence.
Here, take a look at the video:
The premise of the video seems to be a group of friends gathering in an ambiguous location surrounded by trees, ostensibly a camping site in the middle of a national forest. The video and song ooze qualities of a bohemian lifestyle and glorify it. Certainly nothing harmful, at least intrinsically, but for a guy who tends to study and research in his free time there’s a little bit of bitterness for where nothing glorifies my lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. In fact, I enjoy it and take pride in it which is why it stings to never see a engineer’s life glorified. We are the people who bring to you everything you have yet everything indicates that to have a “good time” we must abandon what our instinct drives us to do and what our heart tells us we enjoy.
Heck even within engineers I get the sense that a large gap exists where there are those who have answered a calling and those who simply got a degree in engineering. I get the feeling more and more that finding a fellow engineer as passionate as I am is extremely rare (and for that matter I’m really lucky to work in a company with so many amazing, enthusiastic engineers).
It’s a sore spot for me that the lifestyle I’ve chosen for myself is never seen as “fun” or “cool” except among others who share that thought. I’ll never see 50 Cent rapping about the engineer life, for example.
Then again, maybe I just feel this way because I don’t find as many people around me with the mindset. Where I live is not exactly a hotbed for technology.
What does it mean that I’m wondering this at all? I certainly love what I do, but there is the realization that I’m at a sort of stagnant point. Of course, that’s on me though. I have to break through this barrier.
Mark my words: I will succeed. I will excel. I will innovate. I will change the world!
It occurred to me as I attempted to organize my bookmarks that over time I’ve accumulated several hundred bookmarks. I’m sure it pales in comparison to others out there but I think there’re interesting insights to be had in the midst of all these links.
I find that the links that stay on my bookmarks list are bookmarks that resonate most with my being. Take for example the following image I saved in my set of bookmarks (it’s a bit long, but I think it’s real good):
For me there exists a somber sense to this image, this comic, this snippet. This and other links with a similar feel make it while other things I’d saved on a whim get culled.
Other topics of note in my set of bookmarks includes engineering and programming links.
The introspective insights were unexpected here. My bookmarks reveal a man drawn to sadness, enthralled by the possibilities of engineering, and excited by everything he encounters.
What do yours reveal?
Lately I’ve felt at odds with my ambitions at a daily level due to lacking energy and efficiency. I suspect the primary culprit is a lack of sleep. I’m doing my best to get back on track. You’ll hear more from me once I do!
But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.— Umberto Eco
I took some time to scan my old posts to find loose ends I haven’t addressed. In the process I encountered a post I created while researching over summer and staying in an apartment near campus. I was struck paralyzed by grocery shopping and amused at the prospect of cleaning my bathroom. I had no problem with it but living in a dorm with a cleaning staff didn’t present many opportunities to perfect the art while taking classes.
Later I more directly compared my experience living in dorms to living in my apartment. This was from June of 2011. It’s been a year since and there is much to add to the topic. I also promised a more holistic perspective "soon" and it turns out "soon" is just about one year later. Who’d have thunk it!
The dominant impression of difference is time. Let’s think worst-case-scenario for college: 4 lab classes with 3 55-minute lectures per week and a 3-hour lab once a week. That’s approximately 24 hours of time. My professors used to say for every hour of class time an ideal student will spend 2 hours of out-of-class time. For an "easier" major that may be overestimating while for a "harder" major it can easily be underestimating but it is reasonable enough for the sake of discussion. Now the total time related directly to school is 48 hours per week (12 class, 24 out of class, and 12 lab). Just for completeness let’s add another 12 hours for any research endeavors and other miscellaneous academic pursuits.
That’s 60 hours total. Keep in mind that this is an overestimation based on Duke’s system. Very few people if anybody takes 4 lab classes in one semester, for example.
The most fair comparison for strictly academic hours in college would be commitments in the "real world". The first is my job. I’m expected in at 8am and I can leave at 5pm. There’s an hour lunch in there somewhere if I choose to use it. So far that’s 45 hours. I am going to include here time I have to spend grocery shopping, cooking, and otherwise running errands because I would prefer to be doing other things. Personally this comes out to about 5 hours in a given week, but that’s because I avoid or minimize as much as I can. My cooking times, for example, can be as low as 15 minutes for a given evening. And on top of only having to shop for one person I streamline my grocery trip as much as possible.
A total of 50 hours.
Thus it seems more time is available in "the real world." Bear in mind this is my experience. Depending on work circumstances this comparison may be different but for me I definitely have more time in "the real world."
While at first more available time is a blessing it is rapidly filled with commitments. This happens in college too but the main difference is in the nature of the commitments. In college, everything wraps up neatly on a weekly, monthly, or per semester basis. The problem set I have to do? Completed in a week, graded in another, and while that’s happening I have another to work on. The lab report? Next month. The class? Done at the end of the semester. There is a constant sense of completion, of progress, and accomplishment. Not so once outside of the academic world. I have a job that is indefinite in the length of its commitment working on projects that have tasks taking up months for deadlines and goals that are years off. I don’t get an A+ for making a delicious meal nor do I get a pat on the back for showing up to work. I’m not guided but for the most part am expected to be able to guide myself, asking questions as necessary and completing assignments and tasks as soon as humanly possible. This is jarring for a young adult coming out of a system that breaks things up into guided chunks after something around 18 years.
Learning to find success in the "real world" as a result is tough. I think most people are trained for sprints to succeed and then thrown into a world where it takes endurance and patience. There are fast paced industries but even there a single project’s scope is often larger than anything experienced in college. More importantly, without constant feedback on successes and failures and the obligation to complete relatively tedious tasks the sense of accomplishing fades and rediscovering a sense of progress takes time.
Access to Passions
Furthermore, after college access to luxuries becomes more difficult. When I was in school living on campus going to the gym was easy, spending time with friends simply required walking out my door, and I could find a million exciting things to do within a 5 minute walk from my dorm room. Your mileage on this will vary depending on circumstances like if you didn’t live on campus or if your college had less of a residential mindset than Duke did, but for me transitioning into the "real world" from what was essentially a walled garden was difficult. I have more time now but doing anything I love takes more thought. If I want to go to the gym I have first get a gym membership and then drive to the gym (my apartment complex doesn’t have a gym). If I want to practice my instruments I have to find a way to practice outside or practice at a time in my apartment when it doesn’t bother anyone, which can be impossible when I have other things to do in those times like tutor. I want to volunteer at local schools but I work from 8 to 5 (at least!) so I can rarely help in the actual school portion that I am interested in. Compromises everywhere and hard work just for fun.
The Little Things and the Big Things
I would argue that as a whole, taking what I’ve said so far into account, school felt more care-free. I worked hard, I had fun, and I learned a lot but never did I have to worry about causing millions of dollars of damages in a project because I was off on a design by tens of thousandths of inches.
Oh! And I forgot one big thing! My family treats me much more adult now. It’s been developing gradually but now with a steady income and evidence that I am in many ways a relatively independent human being I’m told more problems and issues the family is having. This can be somewhat jarring after many years of being kept in the dark to some degree but it’s also empowering to know what’s going on and potentially help out.
The “real world” feels heavier due to having easier access to available information. Each successive level of schooling – elementary to middle to high to college – slowly removed layers of difficulty in having access to information. Now, there is a confounding variable here of the Internet but let me tell you something, there’s a world of a difference in following a presidential campaign as a middle schooler, a high schooler, then an idealistic college student, and now a legal adult in the “real world” paying taxes, needing insurance, paying rent and otherwise handling many more things for myself than I had to otherwise.
College or the Real World?
If I could choose freely between the two I think I could choose the experience I have now. It’s certainly not as easily fun as college life was but I thrive under the responsibility and freedom when I’m on top of my game. Every once in a while I get overwhelmed but that’s not enough to give up on adult life.
College is great but I did not have enough talent to feel I was making contributions to the world. I was learning but not creating. As a working engineer (acknowledging that my college education helped get me here) even if I make no great breakthroughs I can reason that every project I complete contributes a little bit to the world.
I worked hard in school and with a little help from serendipity I have a job I enjoy and learn a lot from. The salary is such that I can afford certain luxuries that make life better. I don’t simply mean being able to buy things.
The biggest luxury my work situation affords is being able to freely automate most of my payments. For my vast student loans, car loans, and other bills I can set up auto bill-pay and not have to worry about it. I do monitor it so I don’t miss any errors or oddities that come up but without having to constantly remember to actively pay bills the load on my mind is lessened. The college analogy is having a homework but getting to automate it.
My apartment is larger than my dorm and is harder to maintain. For about 5 months I basically had the same amount of stuff as I did in college just spread out over many more rooms. In time my material possessions began to build up so now I have a legitimate full apartment to maintain. I can get very stressed out with messes so ultimately the higher maintenance means it’s harder to remain stress free.
I haven’t mentioned cooking much yet. In college I had a meal plan that included “food points” I could use at merchants on campus or even off campus for delivery. I never had to cook until I first lived in an apartment by myself. I’m still not an excellent chef by any means but I’ve assessed my needs and desires to cook most efficiently for me.
Hopefully this covers what you’re curious about. If you have any more questions ask in the comments and I’ll get to them! (Hopefully in less than a year…)
It’s not foreign for me to contemplate the role blogging plays in my life. The allure of gaining Internet fame is ever-present but as a man understanding probabilities and likelihood I’m not going to quit my day job.
Maintaining a blog has become meditation. Like maintaining a journal I can take thoughts and parse them through writing. I’ve often sat down with a vague idea in my mind and as I write, the quest for the precise set of words to convey an idea with its subtleties acts as a sieve to remove the chaff from my thoughts, leaving a focused idea that I can develop further.
The hunt for wording is exciting. As an aspiring poet of (hopefully) above-average skill I’m drawn to the feeling of discovering the perfect word, not unlike the feeling of placing the correct puzzle piece in its rightful home. I reach back well into the recesses of my mind to access words I haven’t thought of in years sometimes and it sends waves of warmth down my spine as if I’ve found an old game I loved to play. My voice as a writer develops in tandem, and as cross-training helps in the physical realm, pursuing multiple forms of writing serves to improve my core strengths, benefitting everything I do.
I challenge myself to express ideas more concisely, to use metaphors that are uncommon or perhaps even brand new. I challenge myself to grow as a writer and to speak my ideas with the same intensity I have in thought.
Here’s an example. Just a few paragraphs ago I said, “…I can take thoughts and parse them…” That section of the sentence initially said, “…thoughts in my head…” rather than just “thoughts.” Reviewing it I wondered, “Where else am I going to have thoughts?” It hit me that unless I was expressing a specific way the thoughts are behaving in my head, such as a whirlwind of thoughts, it is assumed that the thoughts are in my head.
Revelations like that fascinate me, and as I write I have many kinds. Recently I looked at Gunslinger Girl critically and reviewed it. In the process I managed to distill my enjoyment into its component parts. With that information in hand I could then apply it to other things I enjoy and compare, or better yet I can predict more accurately if I will like something in the future.
Getting to know myself, whether learning about my preferences or developing my voice, is a reward for writing unparalleled short of winning the lottery and a lifetime supply of chocolate.
It is my belief that video games are an art form. Keep in mind that like any art form there are pieces with immense substance and value while other pieces are not at all significant from an artistic point of view (they can still be great for consumers – perhaps better than the better art). Example of artful games include Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. An example of the second category would include Angry Birds. Note that I’m not saying Angry Birds is not a good game or that it has no art direction but that it is not at the same level of Prince of Persia. If you really want to pull out a steaming pile of shit you can look at something like Big Rigs.
Now, what makes video games different? They have narrative elements, audible elements, and visual elements. At the core they are books, paintings, music, movies, and every other form put together into one. The big difference however is in the involvement of the consumer. Even in linear games the involvement of the player is more actively participating. Especially with newer games tending toward having choices and multiple endings they player is no longer a passive recipient of an intention, idea, or a story but an equal partner in crafting an experience.
Of course, people that don’t generally appreciate the artistic and abstract won’t get anything out of a video game. These are the same people who don’t read or appreciate Picasso and Monet. They will always exist but it does not take away from video games at all.
If you haven’t figured out already I’m pretty excited about video games. I’m really happy to see the direction that quality games are heading and there are definitely issues to deal with (as evidenced by Mass Effect 3’s ending controversy) the future is promising.