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On Failure

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I recently went back home for the holidays, and was talking about work with a friend from high school, who's now a dental student. We had an interesting conversation about work-life balance:

Friend: When I come home from the dentistry, I turn on the TV, and turn into a vegetable.

Me, from a few short years ago: Man, that sounds so lame. Why don't you work harder to get ahead?

Me, today: That sounds so healthy. I wish I could do that.

I can't relax like a normal person, like I physically can't do it. Multiple people have pointed that out. For the longest time I've prided myself as one of Paul Graham's “animals”:

If you think about people you know, you'll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person's image to mind and imagine the sentence “so-and-so is an animal”. If you laugh, they're not. You don't need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup.

Maybe I'm going through a bit of an identity crisis, or maybe crisis has been my identity all these years, but I don't know if I want this anymore, this drive I've worked years and years to attain. You might not figure it if you met me on the street, but I don't think of myself as successful, and I haven't for many, many years. It's simply not part of my identity.

Failure is. I've accepted no amount of drive can change that.

So this year, as per my New Year's Resolution to “learn to love myself”, I'm making my feelings mentionable and manageable by making this statement publicly accessible and in writing. I wish I could lock down individual URL routes with a passcode and share it with friends only, but I'm done waiting for things to be perfect. I want to change this part of myself now and I'm willing to risk doing things differently.

Background

Many situations left a long-lasting impression on my personality.

I had a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia or SVT that made me go to the ER around 30 times in three years when I was 10-12 y/o (including 4 instances in an ambulance). It's fixed now, but I still check the time on my watch frequently, because I feel like time I'm getting isn't mine to have.

Our home got broken into in 7th grade. The police did nothing. It introduced a deep sense of insecurity by removing the safety of a physical “home”, a resentment towards society, and a distrust of its teachings (e.g. “police are there to protect and serve”). Today, I leave my apartment mostly unfurnished, and I don't like owning things, because I figure everything I physically own also partially belongs to the guy who will inevitably break in and steal it. Five more robberies over the years reinforced this notion.

I still hold my breath when entering public restrooms (even in four-star hotels) from a habit I picked up in first grade, when the custodian never bothered to clean the boy's bathroom properly and the stench made it hard to breathe.

I don't think any of this is particularly unique or notable (I had a friend in sixth grade who'd been robbed six times by then, including one time where his mom had to physically beat a robber out from underneath his bed with a baseball bat), but I do think childhood trauma and behavioral traits, which for me include seeing work as a form of escape, are much more “kernel-space” than “user-space”. They're much more difficult to change. Not only are childhood traits far more deeply ingrained, but they're oftentimes invisible. Those traits have been with us longer than we've possessed a fully-formed logical side. Our logic develops around our illogicity.


By the time I started high school, I've historically hit enough edge cases in life where I came to expect the worst scenario out of a spectrum of possible scenarios. That, combined with insecurity about going from a not-excellent primary school in Canada to a magnet high school in the U.S., resulted in an innate pessimism, deep-seated anger issues, and a serious axe to grind. That saying, “youth is wasted on the young”? That wasn't going to be me. So I worked to escape my problems.

I got what I worked for. I got the grades and GPA, honor roll, and state-level awards. I got into college. Most importantly, I'm fortunate enough to have choice in where I want to go in my life. Choice is wealth. And yet, if you've just walked the beaten path faster than others, and you think departing from that path imparts a cost, how much choice do you really have?

$RACHEL

They say Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships.

I first saw $RACHEL December 8th, 2007, my first day of middle school and school in the U.S. If you ask my friends, they will say I'm not a remembering type of guy. I don't like to remember much these days, but I remember that day just fine. I remember being terrified that all middle school students in the U.S. study calculus, and had hurriedly tried to read through Barron's “Painless Algebra” before school started. I was terrified that I would need to defend myself against the kind of bullying that went on back home.

I needn't have worried. The moment I saw her, laughing in the cafeteria with her friends, I thought to myself, “maybe America isn't so scary after all”.

We ended up going to the same high school. You would think this is the point where I should ask her out, go on a few dates, realize we're incompatible, and then break up. That's not what happened. I didn't understand this feeling, and that crime boss dude in “Batman Begins” nails it on the head when he says “you always fear what you don't understand”. I also saw a tradeoff between time studying and prospective time chasing her. If you study and fail, you'll probably get something out of it. If you chase girls and fail, you'll just get a broken heart.

And a broken heart is the worst thing that could happen to you! Right?

I succeeded in tamping down my feelings for a while. Then I couldn't.

I wanted to go home. Home is where the heart is.

The second date seared into my mind is September 26th, 2011. I even remember the time and location, 2:45PM ET in the art room. I wrote $RACHEL a letter about how I felt about her, and sealed it into a manila envelope. I was too scared to give it to her myself, so I gave it to a mutual friend who promised to deliver it when the time is right. That's the point in space and time where I accepted I would never be hers and she would never be mine.

Great, so that's a wrap. Now it's a simple matter of letting her go.


I cried myself to sleep almost every day for the first three years of college. I became terrified of falling asleep because when I closed my eyes I saw her. A ghost, a mental projection now, that I involuntarily placed on a pedestal, with that shimmering hair and that gorgeous smile. I wanted to forget her and move on. I didn't want to forget. I didn't want to move on. Today, I'm more of a night owl, because I've developed a habit of delaying going to bed.

I realized that hard work didn't make me happy. I've walked halls of gold and marble, seen giant pallets of money moved back and forth by robotic forklifts, cavorted with millionaires and billionaires and future and aspiring millionaires and billionaires. I never wanted any of it. I wanted a quiet life with somebody I deeply wanted, somebody who could make me feel the same way I felt about $RACHEL. When I realized that, the house I've built for myself started to look a lot like firewood. Somehow, I chose a prison. The harder I worked, and the more I tried to forget about $RACHEL, the more the feeling intensified, and the more underlined the past becomes. It's like a fire that can never go out, even if you dump an ocean of water on top of it. It's like blood you can never wash off. And for some reason, I chose this. It's partially why I didn't go into investment banking and high finance, and became a software engineer instead. I knew I cared about more than just money, so I wanted to keep my options open, since there are intense software engineering jobs and laid-back software engineering jobs.

Okay, so go look for somebody else. Easy peasy lemon squeazy, right? Except that you can't compare a person with a ghost. The ghost is infalliable and ever-present. I could take $RACHEL the physical person and compare her with the ghost, and the ghost would win, because the ghost doesn't complain, doesn't get sad or mad, doesn't set boundaries, and isn't real. Not just that, but feeling like that for anybody else almost seems like a betrayal, and brings about a feeling of intense pain. Intense, as in I physically feel a 30-pound weight pressing on my heart no matter how I orient myself, and an intense burning sensation in my eyes, nose, and my throat. So I can't move on.

I mentioned in my New Year's Resolutions this year that I hated myself, every fiber of my being, everything I am. I hope this explains why. Youth is wasted on the young.

At this point, I think I should clarify some things. Absolutely none of this is on $RACHEL. We've probably talked for less than an hour over twelve years, and I only know her as one of the sweetest, kindest, most patient people I've ever met. I'm biased, but I honestly can't think of a time when she said or did anything mean to anybody. And although I would do so many things differently, I'm so grateful that $RACHEL stepped into my life. Wanting her taught me so much about how to become the man I wanted to become. I'd much rather keep the lessons (and the innate understanding over their importance, internalized through pain) rather be ignorant and probably realize this later on in life when there's more at stake. There are much worse fates, like those discussed in “Regrets of the Dying”, where this would fit in as “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings”.

I wanted to do a limited post on failure, but I realized that for me, it's impossible to talk about failure without talking about $RACHEL. Not only do all the failures I've accumulated in my life pale in comparison to my failure in expressing my feelings in a healthy way to $RACHEL, but in some way they all seem connected. Not just in stateful way, where the person I am today makes my present-day decisions, but almost in a procedural way. Like a cornerstone of an arch clicking into place, there's no other failure in my life that's as deeply rooted to my present-day identity.

Lessons Learned

  • I don't rule my feelings. If anything, they rule me. They are me. I neglected my emotional side, and thought that I could “control” it, like an adversary. Not only is my emotional side not an adversary, it's more powerful than my logical side. Again, we were emotional way before we were logical. Without the “why” in life, the “how” is irrelevant. I read “Everything is Fucked” by Mark Manson, who hammers home this central and absolutely critical point.

    I think that's why people say “do what you love” or “do what makes you happy”. There are healthy animals, and unhealthy animals. Healthy animals obsess over their work, but they have a clear emotional boundary, which is “do I still want to do this tonight”, and when they don't feel it, they stop. Unhealthy animals obsess over work because they're afraid. Since reasoning about fear with incomplete information isn't really possible, that fear becomes all-consuming. Things like relaxing don't seem okay. Then the limit is a physical limit (you collapse at work or something), which is far more difficult to recover from.

  • The heart wants what it wants, and it's the mind's job to satisfy that. If I could go back, I would burn down all my studies and my extracurricluars in high school, just to spend five minutes with her at my side. Not only because I ended up burning it all down anyways and switching to a completely different field, but because without the “why” of studying, it kind of is all firewood.

    I think that's why it's important to ask for what you want. If you want a higher salary, you should ask for it instead of being grumpy at work, or study harder and find a better job (of which for software engineers there is always work to do). If you're mad at a friend, you should tell them you're unhappy and why you're unhappy and what could be done differently to prevent such unhappiness in the future, rather than break things off abruptly or be irrationally unhappy in a different situation.

    The heart wants what it wants, and it will get what it wants eventually. You can't stop it, or at least I can't, and I'd say my mental faculties are up there.

  • Tackling problems head-on is the best way to find a solution. When I wanted to conquer my fear of heights, I climbed up every tall building I could, culminating in jumping out of an airplane (which I'd like to point out is much easier than asking somebody out). Voila, my fear of heights has greatly diminished.

    Avoiding something because of fear leads to suffering without purpose. It doesn't do to suffer, let alone suffer without purpose. It's pointless, there is no reward or recognition for doing so. So don't do it, or learn how not to do it.

How I Cope With Failure Today

For me, this is shaping up to be the year of ripping off Band-Aids. Ripping off Band-Aids hurts, but it's important to do so, and avoid building a life made up of chewing gum, baling wire, and duct tape. So I wanted to share things I do to keep myself on track.

  • Relaxation is a muscle. You use your ability to relax, or it atrophies like any other muscle. I never thought I would see the day when I just wouldn't relax, and now I think I might not see the day when I can relax. So practice and be good at relaxing. Otherwise, relaxing will be as hard as going to the gym.

    Relaxing can be anything that makes you happy. If it requires a skill, then it might take some willpower. I'm trying to learn the ukelele, and I've skipped two weeks of studying. I have to practice self-forgiveness and envision a life where I have learned how to play the ukelele to keep at it.

  • Get smacked flat by a feels train. Sometimes, you don't control how you feel about something. I sometimes scream into a pillow until I'm hoarse, because I'd rather have a sore throat than a sore heart. I think I can replace that with crying, or maybe tweaking on a curb, because vocal cords don't last if you don't treat them right.

    Anything is better than a sore heart.

  • Mentally GOTO to the worst-case scenario, then work your way back up the stack. I take the nightmare, and apply layerings of reasoning and rationalizations to tell myself how this nightmare may or may not be unlikely, so that if the nightmare happens, I'll have a mental “ladder” I can use to climb out of the hole. It's honestly a bit hard to explain.

Conclusion

A few months (?) ago, I made this comment on Hacker News:

My take on genius is that it's akin to insanity, and for some of us, insanity doesn't seem to be so insane (which itself is an insane thing to say). Nikola Tesla ended his life alone, with a box of scrap parts as collateral for his rent (https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about...). Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “The Parable of the Madman” (http://historyguide.org/europe/madman.html), and apocryphal stories indicate he may have written it from his own experience.

Beyond some point, being smart really isn't a good thing. You can't relate to people. Nobody understands you. Your value structure is messed up. Parents point to you and tell their children to not be like you. You live on top of a cold, windy, snowy mountain while everybody else lives in a warm and fertile valley. Yet you choose to live on the mountain anyways, because after you lose everything, you realize that's just who you are, and there's really nothing you can do about it beyond accepting it.

And so you are insane. You don't care about being comfortable, or about being paid well, or about people liking you, or having fewer problems in life, or anything else that makes sense. You just care about obsessing over that something.

People always talk about genius like it's some good thing. Maybe sometimes, if you obsess over something society values. But few people talk about the price of genius, probably because we're taught from an early age that being smart is a good thing and so few people go that far off the deep end anyways. I think it should be said, especially for HN types, that there can always be too much of a good thing. That it's healthy to relax, not take things so seriously, have a sense of humor, and relate to other people. That a good life is worth living. Because to forget that is a life lost.

People disagreed with me, but somehow I don't think I'm wrong.


In the end, after you've taken care of your heart, you can truly figure out what you enjoy when your thinking side is attuned to your feeling side. That's what makes life enjoyable. For example, I enjoy learning about Haskell and having conversations with my friends about it:

Me: Monads are applicative functors.

Friend: I'm not sure if you know this Ying, but most people just Google shit and call themselves a full-stack developer and make six figures and have a good life.

Me: (>.>) (satisfied noises)