Sunday, June 23, 2024

Geeks and the Meaning of Life

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When one spends 50 or 60 hours a week immersed in an activity (does anyone reading this still work 40 hours or less?), it is easy to lose one’s perspective on just where that activity should rate in our lives.

This is especially for those of us who work in IT, with its high levels of pressure, responsibility and accountability (at least in the ideal, even if they are often avoided in practice).

For some of us, that very responsibility gives us a sense of importance, belonging and purpose – people depend on us. Our pager or mobile phone proves it by ringing us at all hours and in all places. We take the call because that shows others just how essential we are. It is very like the focus to our lives that having children gives. It may well be the same emotional pathways that are being invoked.

The danger, of course, is that given the duration and intensity of our work experience, we can easily lose sight of the rest of our lives. Maybe other aspects of life lack the buzz and the rewards of time at work, but that will never change if we neglect them.

There is a road called the Karakoram Highway, a wild military road punched through an arm of the Himalayas by the Chinese army at the cost of 900 lives to connect to their ally Pakistan. It winds up the beautiful Hunza valley – full of warring Islamic tribes – before trekking across the plateau wastes of Xinshiang to remote Kashi, populated by the more peaceful Uygur people. It is not a road I expected to share with a portly young earth-mother from Hawaii, robed in velvet kaftan and dripping chunky jewelry, with two little blond pre-school children in tow.

At the time my ponytail came halfway down my back and nobody could have guessed my natural skin color, so I liked to think I was travel-hardened and open-minded. But I struggled with the idea of those two kids staying in the same roadhouses and eating in the same markets and scrambling onto the same local buses as me.

I challenged her on it, and I learned something of great value. She said that it was not a decision she liked to take – bringing them there – but it was the right one because it fit her priorities. So long as you have your priorities clearly sorted, then decisions are easy, even the hard ones.

Her number one priority was travel, number two was the children. She went through the angst of making that choice once, then every decision followed naturally.She was going to travel, therefore she made what arrangements she could to ensure the safety and happiness of the kids as they came along.They were as knowledgeable about food-safety, stranger-danger and self-doctoring as I was. They were a tough worldly road-warrior pair. Now you or I may not agree with her choice, but I believe her methodology was sound.

Take the time to decide your priorities, and review them every few years or at any life-changing event. Write them down, ranked from No. 1 downwards. Give it proper time and effort – do it properly and honestly. No equals. Be realistic, honest and at times brutal. Don’t write what you think they “should” be, write what they really are.

Get at least the top half dozen clear and settled – the rest don’t matter so much, though it is good to be clear on what comes at the bottom too. If you get stuck, try getting a couple of trusted friends together for an evening to help each other develop your priority lists.

For example, mine are:

1. Security and happiness of my nuclear family: my wife, son, mother, and sister.

2. My son’s growth, development and education.

3. Our home.

4. Travel and other novel experiences (see How an IT Guy Found Job Freedom).

5. Self-expression, for example through writing or creative hobbies.

6. Living a long life. The older I get, the more that deferring death creeps up this list. So far it is working.

7. Security and happiness of my extended family.

8. Mental health, especially time out in the wild, back to nature.

9. Friends.

10. Preserving heritage, especially my family’s.

• Earning money, though it gets higher attention where it facilitates higher priorities.

• Watching TV, movies, DVDs, reading papers and magazines, consuming podcasts blogs and websites, music or any of the other media barrages that try to jelly our brains, except as necessary for something above.

• Mowing the lawn.

• Social change. I long since lost my boyish desire to fix the world. I’ve come to terms with it, I’m open about it.

• Politics.

Your job has two aspects that may well appear in different places on the list; what you do because you want to, and what you do because you need the money to pay for what you want. You will note that working appears only briefly as part of number 5 on my top 10 priorities, other than as a means to obtain the money to pay for them. So why did I once allow it to consume more than half my waking hours (even including weekends)?

That noted philosopher, Garfield the cat, said “Work is so bad they have to pay you to do it.” Arrange your life so that work gets the priority it deserves based on your list, and so that it leaves sufficient room and resources for your other priorities to get proper attention.

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