Sadly, it took the rest of college and four years in the industry for me to realize that not hating something is not the same as actually liking it.
I should have picked up on the early warning signs:
Sign #1 – The required courses for my major were not fun.
During high school, computer programming was fun only because it was new and interesting to me. By the time I was doing it in college, it had become repetitive and mundane.
The programming language was irrelevant — it was the programming process that killed me. It required exactness. Not “practically perfect” exactness, not “close enough” exactness, but absolute exactness.
I say this because you’re writing code for an audience of one: the compiler — a critic in the machine that waits for you to submit your code, only so it can throw it back at you when it’s not correct. Compiler error. Revise your code. Compiler error. Revise again. Compiler error. Revise some more.
Although errors could be simple typos, they were usually something more complicated. You do a little research, make a few hopeful changes to your code, and resubmit it to the compiler. In spite of your efforts, the compiler replies with the same smug response: Compiler error.
The process was maddening. It was like running into a brick wall, being taunted to climb over it, discovering a different brick wall on the other side, and repeating the process indefinitely. It was not fun — it was work.
Sign #2 – The general studies courses were paradise by comparison.
Rhetoric and Composition, Science in Western Civilization, American Cinema, Existentialism in Film, and Intro to Philosophy. I can recall the names of these five courses with ease because they stand out in my memory. In other words, I enjoyed them.
Systems Analysis and Design Methods, Telecommunications, Computer Organization–Assembly Language, Data Structures, Database Systems, Engineering Graphics and CAD, Foundations of Computer Science, Web Service Engineering, Programming Language Structures, Theory of Computation, and Computer Algorithms. I couldn’t recall the names of any of these courses at all because they blend together in my memory — I had to look them up in order to write them here. Put another way, I forgot them.
General studies courses were the lifeblood of my college career. They were unforgettable, because I liked them. Once I realized how much I enjoyed non-computer courses, I looked into my options for enrolling in more courses I thought I might enjoy. Unfortunately…
Sign #3 – I could not enroll in certain courses I wanted to take.
Beginning Piano: This would have been perfect for me because I’ve wanted to play piano for a long time. The problem was that Piano was an ARTS course, and I was majoring in the SCIENCES. The same was true for Intro to Sculpture, Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and Computer Graphics — as ARTS courses, they would not count towards my major.
(If you’re wondering why I couldn’t take Computer Graphics as a CS major, here’s why: There were two “Computer Graphics” courses. The one I wanted to take taught you how to use Photoshop. The one that counted towards my major taught you how to make Photoshop.)
Sign #4 – My primary form of recreation was writing.
I kept a journal while attending college. I wrote it it nearly every day for at least one hour. It was not something I did as an assignment for one of my professors. It was not something I did for anyone else. It was something I did for myself, because it was what I loved to do.
Sign #5 – Friends who knew me best told me I was a writer at heart.
An excerpt from my college journal:
JANUARY 18 2001
Last night Alicia and I were lying on my bed, talking about the irrational things we dream of doing. We can’t though, because we’re too stubborn. We’re both addicted to being rational.
It was an upsetting conversation because we convinced ourselves how meaningless grades are. We decided that we shouldn’t be so neurotic about these unimportant things, and focus on what’s truly important to us. Ironically, she ended our conversation by saying “I should go…I still have homework to do.”
I purposely fell out of my bed. She leaned over the edge, looked down at me, and said “There I go contradicting myself again.”
After she left, I thought I should summarize the readings for science in western civilization. I ended up writing a poem about my suppressed desires for Alicia instead:
how can you lust over the library girl?
the one that keeps her eyes down and her legs crossed.
sweaters and jeans, nothing fancy.
she’s a birthday present with dynamite inside.
but, every time you see her,
it’s to measure the swell of her breasts with your eyes.
every glimpse of skin is a bonfire, burning, burning.
you write her letters,
begging her to forget everything and run away with you,
but you never give them to her.
the library girl is almost completely off limits,
and you know she likes it that way.
you ask the advice of others, and all they can say is:
“the LIBRARY girl? why?”
and you can’t explain it to them.
she just has this hidden virginal spark,
and you want to be the one to drag her into the mud.
you want to be the one to suck the spark out of her.
but you’re too scared, and too timid,
and all you do is travel aimlessly around,
watching for her,
driving past her house with the sad songs on.
you don’t know how to go forward, and you can’t go back,
so you’re left spinning your wheels in the mud.
and, while you wait, with bated breath,
she turns away and starts another book.
I called her up and read it to her. She said “Shaun!? What are you doing in computer science? You are a writer!”
Regardless of all of these signs, I repeatedly denied who I was. I convinced myself that I was a computer guy, because being a computer guy seemed more practical than being a writer. Years later, I realize that it doesn’t matter if it’s more practical — it’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I am.
Which brings me to my point: It’s easy to bury your passion beneath a pile of bills and let rationality run your life. I’ve done it, just as many others have and countless others do — but I don’t recommend it. The real you was never meant to be shut out.
Accept who you are, and then be who you are. Once you have, you’ll only regret you didn’t start doing it sooner.
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