To feel alive


I recently watched the movie Rush, a movie on the 70’s rivalry between Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. In a voice-over early on in the movie, James Hunt talks about women, driving, and feeling alive:

I have a theory why women like racing drivers. It’s not because they respect what we do, driving round and round in circles. Mostly they think that’s pathetic, and they’re probably right. It’s our closeness to death. You see, the closer you are to death, the more alive you feel, the more alive you are. And they can see that in you, they feel that in you.

This quote immediately rang true, and stuck with me: not the part about women (I’m sure it may be true), but the part about feeling alive.

The closer you get to death, the more you feel alive.

The thing is, this is pretty extreme. I’ve never had a real brush with death, and most of the people I know haven’t either.

For us, there may be another less-extreme way to put it:

You closer you get to failure, the more alive you feel.

This feels very true to me, although I admit I have only learned it recently.

For most of my academic/working life, I wouldn’t say that I did much which made me feel particularly alive.

In school, many things didn’t matter. Sure, an ‘A’ was tough to get. But for the most part, passing (i.e., getting a D- or better) was pretty easy. Grad school was similar. Getting a specific paper published was difficult, but with time, most PhD students figured out how to graduate with a paper or more. With so many PhDs graduating, failure didn’t feel like a huge concern.

Since I quit my job, things have drastically changed. Failure is a real option. I have already worked on several projects that have not panned out. These failures have cost me time and money, both of which are valuable. I make no money at the moment. I am spending from my savings, and each month without some sort of success eats into these savings. Each month brings me closer to going broke, which would feel like a real failure.

In short, I’m trying to say that my ass is on the line. I feel it every day, and it can be pretty stressful.

But you know what?

After nearly two years of this, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I feel alive. I feel that my work matters. There is real upside, and there is real downside. I am pushing myself, and I am trying to creating something meaningful in the world. Honestly, I can’t think of a better job.

How goals can be limiting: or, how I failed myself by achieving a goal

In my last post, I wrote two short stories about two goals that I had in the past that resulted in different outcomes.

The first was on my failure to make the California state track & field meet in high school, and the second was on how I accomplished my goal of getting at least 3-4 top-tier conference papers in grad school.

I should be happy with reaching the second goal. However, in retrospect, I don’t feel very good about it. In fact, I mentally beat myself up about it sometimes.


Because I failed myself in the process of achieving the goal.

Here is how.

Two problems with goals.

Goals can be highly motivational, but they can also have unintended negative consequences. Here are two that I experienced.

First, the goal may shift your priorities, and cause you to optimize for reaching the goal instead of optimizing for what you should really focus on.

In my case, the focus on paper count negatively changed my priorities. Instead of focusing on finding the big problems, I quickly learned how to spot ideas that were highly publishable. Instead of examining the problems as thoroughly as I could, I did the minimum amount of work necessary to create the data for a paper. In academia, we call these LPUs (Least Publishable Unit). I became very good at creating a LPUs around novel and publishable ideas.

This isn’t good. I would have served myself better by finding big problems and tackling them as thoroughly as I could.

Second, by attaining the goal, you may actually fall short of your potential.

Partway through my PhD, I transferred from the University of Colorado to Northwestern University. My expectation was that I’d graduate in 3 more years at Northwestern. I left Colorado with one top-tier paper under my belt, and hit Northwestern in full stride. In the first year there, I got two more top-tier papers.

Yes, that means I reached the goal!

So what did I proceed to do? I got comfortable. The next year, I published one paper, and the final year, I got a short paper into a top conference. I count all of those as 4.5 top-tier papers.

I blew past the goal of 3-4 top-tier papers, but when I look back on it now, it doesn’t feel good. I know I could have done way better than that if I continued to push.

My goals and their unintended outcomes.

I’m not ashamed of my grad school days. I am pretty proud of the progress, and still like some of the work I did. But I know I was capable of more, and I hate knowing that.

You remember the first goal of making the California state meet? The one where I failed?

The funny thing is that I regret not making the state meet, but I don’t regret anything else about it. I certainly don’t feel bad about the failure. I know that I trained as hard as I could, and I feel confident that I didn’t leave much at the table.

In short, my failure was a success, and my success was a failure.

I’ve learned my lesson.

These days, I don’t focus much on goals anymore.

I focus on execution. I focus on learning. I focus on my craft. I focus on being good. And then being better than that. And then better.. and better..

When I work this way, I’m always proud of myself. I don’t say it in a trite “feel-good” sort of way. I feel genuinely proud because I am trying as hard as I can.

What else can you ask for?

Occasionally, I’ll hit a milepost (which could be considered a goal). I acknowledge it, and then pat myself on the back to celebrate the progress. But then I keep moving forward because moving forward is the right thing to focus on.

P.S. This is post number #21 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

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