Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Life as a Staircase

If you've worked in the field of computer programming, particularly using someone else's computer programming, some days will inevitably feel like an endless staircase. My legs don't handle actual staircases very well. Uphill is the gravity struggle; downhill is the hammer-to-the-knees onslaught. When scripting and programming become a part of your everyday job, the mental staircase is just as trying.

I use the previous paragraph as informational preface to emphasize the fact that it can be easy, temptingly easy, to make life a set of staircases. With days like today, I unfortunately succumbed to this line of thinking. Maybe it's an individual thing, but I think attacking life as a set of staircases is a bad idea. Especially when the steps can be a little overwhelming.

Of course, setting goals for yourself, in the form of achievements, deadlines, or promises, is generally a good thing. However, in my experience, I have found that looking at these goals in the series of small steps can make me obsessed with the steps and not the next floor.

For example, as a grad student, the main goal is to ... graduate. But there are many steps along the way to graduating, all of which can be considered goals. Passing the qualifying exam, passing the general exam, successfully defending the research. However, a major mistake I made regarding the first step was obsessing about it. Now, provided the obvious problems with the current way the qualifying exam is administered by the School of Meteorology, this obsession was not altogether unexpected. However, an approximately two-month period before the exam was devoted entirely to that exam. Although it is true that passing the exam was necessary to achieve the goal of obtaining a Ph.D., so are the other two steps. In a way, I focused too much on one grain of sand that I lost sight of the beach. As a result of this obsession, I delayed obtaining my other goals by a substantial amount, especially given the fallout of the mental strain achieving one of the steps to the main goal.

It can get worse, as it did in my case. If you set predefined goals to pass the qualifying exam, as I did, your whole life becomes focused on that one thing. Four hours studying dynamics, four hours studying thermodynamics, two hours of atmospheric radiation, and sleep. Repeat tomorrow. And so on...

This is what life can become for me when I approach it with the metaphorical staircases. So, instead of approaching the problem differently and perhaps more simply, the obsession of making the next step feeds on itself until the moment of truth arrives. And the time after that moment of truth can be very dramatic. For me, depressing. Have you ever had an occasion where you stop walking up the stairs and wonder why you're there in the first place? That's the problem with staircases. A lot of time to think about the small things on the way to the top (or bottom).

Next time, I will take the elevator.