Photo - Tobias Rademacher

The Entanglement of Purpose & Success

There are few things I remember more clearly from my post-secondary than this question from professor Rob Hancock:

How do you define success?

I was as much impacted by the question as I was by how my cohort grappled with the question over the next semester, and beyond. It's a question I've continually faced throughout my whole life.

It turns out that success to me is an elusive, ephemeral, amorphous concept. It slips from me fingers as I grasp at it, crumbles away as I try to hold onto it, and escapes me if I become too bold or complacent.

Success doesn't need to some end goal to capstone your life: some glorious retirement in a great mansion, a C-level job title, or your offspring seeking out their own success. Success can be just a step away than what you have right now, a short walk, or a long hike. Sometimes, it's exactly where you are.

If success is a destination, then purpose is the way there. Purpose is the wind in the sails of a ship, success is a port of call. Purpose guides your path through weathering storms, treacherous seas, and emotional outbursts. It steers you away from the siren's call of whirlpools and icebergs of burnout, and ushers you aginst the looming void of utter failure.

Hard to define, harder to articulate

In 'Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space' (and part of the start of Wanderers), Carl Sagan noted the following (emphasis added):

“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds." - Carl Sagan

In 'Pale Blue Dot' Carl was speaking to space exploration, and I suggest the concept of being "drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand" can apply quite broadly.

I spent much of my life driven by a singular overarching desire that I could hardly understand, and couldn't hope to articulate. I could feel it there, it was a molten core of hope & purpose. To realize my hardly understood goals, I threw myself off cliffs I didn't think I'd survive, climbed walls I thought myself unable to scale, dug into the very depths of my soul, and bathed in fires of proving. I had to wear away the armor I'd built up over my life, test myself, prove myself. To myself.

Only then could I find myself deserving of my definition of success. Only then could I understand my purpose. Only then could I articulate what gave my life meaning.

But then, one can come to realize another fear: What comes after success? Stagnation? A gradual but inevitable drift towards unhappiness? What happens when life has no further meaning? No ladder to climb?

How can we hope to reach success, if it is what we fear? Who must we become to reach this success?

Photographing oneself in a rainy mirror. - @fabiock_
Photographing oneself in a rainy mirror.

Adaptation & Unrest

Carl (above) follows into quoting this:

“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…” - Herman Melville, in Moby Dick

At the start of 2020 I once again listened to Wanderers shortly after reading The Hedonic Treadmill – Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows? by Seph Fontane Pennock . I ponder the relatedness of the two concepts.

When we find success, and there is no ladder or stairway to climb, we start inventing new ones. Consciously, or not. Good things will, eventually, start to feel less good. New ideas in your mind and new changes in your life will cause your definitions of success to change, and with it, your distance to success.

Many employees will depart if they stop getting promotions and raises, relationships fall apart as the partners start to take each other for granted, and ventures with early success can experience a long, destitute path of abandonment.

I experience Hedonic Adaptation often and intensely, it is an inner struggle that wears hard on my heart & mind. I never feel like what I have is enough. It causes me to grow unhappy with the luxuries and priviledges I have, it claws at me to want more.

For some time, I tried to ignore it or quell it. It never worked, of course. This trait is part of my very nature: to refuse it life is to refuse myself wholeness.

These days, I've been trying to learn to control my adaptation. I'm trying to guide my unrest towards entirely new goals with a social or ecological good. To experience a lust and greed for good outcomes, rather than trying to stop myself from experiencing it all together.

I am priviledged to witness so many of my peers and mentors devoting their expertise and efforts into community projects like Rust, and non-profits like Natives in Tech, Trans Lifeline, and RustFest. Perhaps for some, like myself, this helps them define success and follow their purpose outside of their families and professions. Perhaps for them, like myself, this helps them fight against hedonic adaptation.

Tending your flame

If one hopes to use the process of seeking success to fuel to keep the fire of purpose, that fire must be tended to carefully.

Unpredictable chaotic gusts can extinguish a weak flame, improper preparation can cause later failure, the passage of time may bring intense weathering rain or snow, and the consumption of fuel must be balanced.

In a wood fire, there are three core elements:

The fire inside us, of course, has different elements, but each plays a role. Each interacts with the others. I am still not entirely sure what elements make up the fire inside me. But I know I must find balance for it to thrive and last my life.

A newfound (or lost) passion, job, or relationship may cause a shift in the balance of things. They may cause our sense of purpose to flare up or fade, or even force us to smoulder the fire to embers for a time. It can be a rollercoaster of emotions during these times. Sometimes, this result in a sort of 'Honeymoon Period,' burnout, loss of belonging, or something entirely different. Sometimes, the path to stability is not a return to the before: It's something entirely new.

I've found that my balance is ever shifting, it's easy to get overexcited by a work problem for a week, only to leave myself feeling like a drained imposter the next, barely able to bring myself to look at my work. I'm learning to introspect on myself more, and have been actively fostering an ability to take better measure of what others, as well as my own self, are experiencing.

Both in lows and highs, and everywhere between, I've been starting to learn to love those serene moments of purposelessness, those glimpses of forgotten definitions of success. I've learnt that the seeds of ideas from those moments can grow in to new trees, new definitions of success. Those moments still hurt. It still hurts to find myself sitting there for hours doing nothing but stare into the void. But I've been learning that this hurt is part of the process, and it can be applied carefully to rework parts of my own 'operating system', if you will.

At times, things might seem purposeless, there might seem to be no definition of success to find. I'm still learning how to grope around these feelings. The best I've found is to search for a firestarter. For me, this is often found in volunteering to help organize conferences and events for my peers. I pour myself into it, I let it give my own fire life, and I cradle it the best I can, hoping not to lose it again in the afterglow.

A flame with a reflection. - @vanird
A flame with a reflection.

Maintaining your momentum

While we humans are ritualistic creatures, I've found that falling into a consistent ritual of life breeds discomfort and restlessness in me. It leads to more hedonic adaptation. It seems the mind & soul wander, and they are much happier and more productive thriving towards their passions.

The act of scheduling out several weeks in advance brings me great anxiety, but scheduling the bare minimum out a few days offers me deep comfort. Guiding my day with chunks (morning, afternoon, evening, night) and desired outcomes seems to work better than planning each hour. An adapting path with a relatively solid destination.

Stumbles happen. Mistakes happen. They suck. When a project fails, there is a falling out, harm to an individual, or loss of a resource, there must be some hurt. It is my responsibility. It is also my responsibility to move forward in a good way, a way that respects this past mistake. Is it the way to make amends.

I have been learning to attempt to predict problems which might occur, to communicate they may happen, and to address them quickly, before things get worse. This isn't always possible. Unpredictable things happen, sometimes it's noone's fault, sometimes things just happen, during these times it is often best to dwell on resolution, to temporarily redefine success to include overcoming this issue.

But not all things can be addressed instantaneously. We can get worked up. Emotions can run hot. Like a kimchi or a sourdough, sometimes, the best solutions have to ferment. This period of being adrift, awaiting a looming resolution is a time I greatly dread. Sometimes, though, it must be done. Sometimes it is a component of the resolution.

“... Our remote descendants, (...) will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.” ― Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot (Emphasis added)

Build a firepit

In October 2020, I asked some folks on Twitter if they'd ever felt like they'd belonged. 35% of the 188 respondants said 'Nope.' (53% said yup, 12% just looked at the results)

I, also, have never existed in a space I felt I belonged. I do not expect I ever will: I do not seek them. Like Herman Melville, I love to sail forbidden seas. I love to walk along the fringes between belonging and unbelonging, building bridges, forming bonds, and breaking barriers. It helps me define small successes, it helps me build and maintain purpose through longer periods.

Even in spaces you may not feel you entirely belong, you may find refuge. Other times, you might create spaces where you find comfort. These spaces are like firepits, warm beacons in the cold, dark night. At times you might be the keeper of a fire, journeying through the dark to visit another, gathering fuel or others, or telling stories while drawing warmth from the flame. All roles are necessary for balance.

These spaces are necessary. While they are empty and lifeless without us, they can become vibrant microcosms of peer support, shared humour, and opportunities to lift each other up. They are valuable, they are worthwhile. They are what keep us human. They can create an environment of thriving.

These spaces also bring risk. The can invite conflict, unhappiness, or unrealized ambitions. These experiences themselves are valuable, and the process of learning to work through them in a good, healthy way can help offset the harm and pain they cause.

"Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother," an unnamed hunter, as noted by Daniel Everett, via Robin Wall Kimmer's "The Serviceberry".

Must, Should, May

Through my work, I am drawn to reading IETF RFCs, one which is commonly referred to is IETF RFC 2119. The RFC defines 5 terms:

  1. MUST: This word, or the terms "REQUIRED" or "SHALL", mean that the definition is an absolute requirement of the specification.
  2. MUST NOT: This phrase, or the phrase "SHALL NOT", mean that the definition is an absolute prohibition of the specification.
  3. SHOULD: This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.
  4. SHOULD NOT: This phrase, or the phrase "NOT RECOMMENDED" mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances when the particular behavior is acceptable or even useful, but the full implications should be understood and the case carefully weighed before implementing any behavior described with this label.
  5. MAY: This word, or the adjective "OPTIONAL", mean that an item is truly optional. One vendor may choose to include the item because a particular marketplace requires it or because the vendor feels that it enhances the product while another vendor may omit the same item. An implementation which does not include a particular option MUST be prepared to interoperate with another implementation which does include the option, though perhaps with reduced functionality. In the same vein an implementation which does include a particular option MUST be prepared to interoperate with another implementation which does not include the option (except, of course, for the feature the option provides.)

I've come to realize I often apply them when I explore my goals and my definitions of success. It allows me to find more correct definitions of success by understanding better what must, should, should not, and must not happen.

Some examples:

In the last case, I aleviate myself of guilt for not purchasing the item, and later having buyer's remorse.

Success to me

My successful (and muddy) friend, Nami. - Ana Hoben
My successful (and muddy) friend, Nami.

For me, success is finding space where I can thrive and explore whatever I can. It's lifting others up to do the same. It's finding new experiences, learning of new cultures, and sharing in their hopes and dreams. Success is being a creature of empathy and compassion. To be one who ensures the ladder rungs I climb are reinforced for others after me. It is constantly learning, consistently teaching.

Thusfar, I have lived out many of my wildest personal dreams. I've done university level research, discovered my origins, travelled around world, realized my true identity, become a senior engineer, started my own sole proprietorship, found a life partner, and steward the life of an animal. I have enjoyed many small and large successes alongside my many failures.

These days, as I set my sights on the horizon, I have technology to master, my health to recover, teams to build, ecosystems to foster, nations to support, and industries to shift.

I invite you to walk alongside me as I explore this next phase of my life. I am inspired by the efforts of projects like the T'Sou-ke Nation Solar Project, Niiwin, Plato Testing, and Skyway36. I wish to support these kinds of projects. I wish to one day support an Indigenous-led data center or ISP.

I am drawn to the parallels between the Seventh Generation principle alongside the ideas of Carol Nichols in "Rust: A Language for the Next 40 Years" and Sealed Rust. My attention has turned to enabling core infrastructure that must weather the decades and help usher our species through this liminal phase as technology and humanity start to blur, and looming self-wrought disaster threatens our ongoing survival.

The frontiers of research enable so much, yet it is out of reach for so many. It has its own dialect and grammar, it has its own style of writing. It can be locked up by gatekeepers, the domain of fools with overwhelming greed, and no interest in sharing. I wish to unlock gates, and carve doors in barriers that block off those voices we need the most.

I am shook to the core of my self by Russel Mean's "Revolution and American Indians" speech, and drawn to the ideas of Robin Wall Kimmer's "The Serviceberry". I am uplifted by the speakers at Natives in Tech 2020. It has given me reinvigorated definitions of success, and renewed purpose.

I long for a more hopeful future.

Aside: Life Updates

As part of my ongoing long term goals, I've put my company's for-profit operations into hibernation. I do not know if they will need to return. Please, still contact me through my company about Indigenous-led efforts.

Part of this means a close to my work on Vector. The folks there were friendly and clever teammates (and very reliable, good clients). I have some work I'll be wrapping up with them over the next weeks, and I'm hoping to add some new components in the future, but I'll no longer be a constant face there. I'm an contributor though, and will be around their chat, so this is not a goodbye to ecosystem. They have great things in store, and I'm so glad our paths crossed. I'll also no longer be offering paid-for startups/enterprises trainings, and dramatically limiting my services to anyone outside very specific clients.

Starting on the 15th, I'll be part of the staff at Maya Data as a Senior Engineer, primarily to work on Mayastor and other (NDA'd) industrial applications.

While talking with them, it turned we share many areas of research, I appreciated their culture & diversity, and I am eager to help them build up their ecosystem and capacity. Block storage is relatively new to me, but I am excited to learn new ways to apply my existing talents, interact with new cultures, and immerse myself in research. If you're involved in building data centers, databases, the SPDK/DPDK ecosystem, or are interested in replicated block storage, I'd love to talk! Please reach out!

So much to learn. So much to explore. So much to share.