Into the Fire

An entry at Illuminated Mind has struck a chord with me. It's titled “If It’s a Good Idea… Don’t Do It”, although “If It's Just a Good Idea…” captures the message more clearly.

One of the reasons I petered out of university was that I was doing it only because it was a good idea, and not because I was still passionate about understanding the physics. Even the dead-centre-of-my-field-of-interest module of Cosmology was failing to inspire me.

It wasn't at all arduous: I still came upon flashes of epiphany every so often—one such I recall involved the insight that the constituent particles in atoms' nuclei are also arranged in shells, like the orbiting electrons, and that shell boundaries could explain some discontinuities in each element's differing physical properties—but they were too few and too far between to hold my interest.

I also realised that I wasn't especially good at maths, and the solid intuitive understanding of maths needed to grok the physics I was learning was just slightly beyond me. Perhaps I stopped caring about maths too.

I realised that I only cared about qualitative trends, and not about the process of calculating results from formulae, or being able to properly derive a formula from memory and a set of more fundamental equations. Once I knew that formula C necessarily followed from formulae A & B, I was happy. I still like unscaled graphs as qualitative illustrations.

The main thing I cited at the time was Six Feet Under. More4 were showing repeats of the later series late each weeknight. I decided that the characters' philosophical discussions (perhaps combined with the late hour of the broadcast) were expanding my mind more than rigorous study of science.

I never particularly wanted a degree—I just wanted to learn about the universe. And I found myself gaining more insight into the universe by following the fictional escapades of a family of intelligent undertakers than by computing physical quantities.

So I was doing what was a good idea, rather than what inspired me. I'd made a similar decision before, when I chose to carry on Religious Studies to full A-level in college, instead of continuing to study Chemistry, despite doing slightly better at chemistry in practically every respect.

The difference was that in that case there'd been a fire for me to jump out of the frying pan and into. Watching Six Feet Under is not a full-time occupation.

So I bummed about a bit, not even looking for a job for the next few months as I had some spare student loan and overdraft to play with.

I eventually happened upon a desk job that suited me down to the ground: opening letters, filing, sorting and being a general administrative office bitch, for the customer relations department of a train operating company.

The work itself was easy and almost entirely stress-free, as I always had someone to turn to when in doubt. I continued to devote much of my mindshare to the day-to-day happenings in software and technology news (an interest I can trace back to the buggy implementation of CSS in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6).

I did, of course, think about my job as and when required. As is my wont, I came up with a couple of suggestions to do things better in the office, but anything beyond keeping tidy, labelled piles of stuff was stymied by being stuck with a particular set of tools.

This was OK. After all, I didn't really care that much. Yes, it'd be nice if Mrs Smith from Glasgow could receive a response to her complaint about delayed trains a day or two sooner, but.

I was rudely awakened from my employmentary coasting when my office was relocated to Newcastle, a 60-minute (free) train-ride each morning and evening, on top of the twenty-minute walk. This gave me plenty of time to read some books for a change, and I sped through The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein and the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov (in full this time) over the course of a couple of weeks.

But co-workers and my genial manager were leaving because of the move, and the immediate vicinity of Newcastle Central railway station is no match for the lunchtime scenery afforded by York's River Ouse and Museum Gardens, especially in summer. Though I couldn't see myself leaving, I couldn't see myself staying there either. And so I jumped: I handed in my notice (metaphorically—I actually just told the outgoing and incoming managers when I intended to leave).

Technology news was replaced by job-searching. I recall one Tuesday in Newcastle spent, by all three members of the administrative team, primarily looking for other employment.

Astoundingly, it worked, and two weeks later I was staying in a hostel in Bristol about to be trained to be a charity street fundraiser.

Thirty-six hours after, I found myself standing at the side of the main street in Leeds, nervously sipping at a cup of tea, trying to dilute the adrenaline.

That day went unexpectedly well, propelled largely by my frequent self-reminders that I was talking to random people on the street and trying to convince them to donate to a charity, for a living.

Three months elapsed.

My old teammate had often told me that the day's outcome could be influenced by my expectation of what would happen. I expected to come back to work and do solidly well. I expected that I knew what I was doing. My old team-leader had said he firmly believed that if you wanted something enough, you'd find a way to attain it. I believed that I wanted to be a good fundraiser. The team's coach insisted I had it in me. I deferred to his superior understanding.

It was starting to become apparent that I wasn't meeting targets. Not just the actual targets, but the minimum ones too. I wasn't earning my place on the team.

This came into focus one Wednesday evening in York when, after applying every technique I could muster—level thinking, playing the long statistical game, appropriate body language, concision, knowledge, friendliness…—I found myself walking home without having signed a single person up.

I realised I didn't actually know what I was doing. I was doing a good impression, much of the time, of someone who knew how to go about street fundraising, but in reality I was winging it. And not well enough. An awful day should yield no fewer than two sign-ups; the remainder of the team had signed people up.

I arrived largely undeterred the following morning in Newcastle, after a journey that was equally oddly familiar and strangely different. It was drizzling—not supposed to affect a fundraiser's performance, but not especially conducive to it. As it was November, there was an almighty racket accompanying a department shop's Christmas display, rendering a decent swathe of the street useless for talking to people. I was deterred.

Despite this, I signed two new donors before lunch, a decent tally for the morning session. Briefly, I convinced myself that I'd remembered how to fundraise. I spent most of the afternoon mulling over the decision to quit, safe in the knowledge that soon enough a decision would most likely be made on my behalf anyway. I even signed another person up (though I'm told he's a serial charity-joiner).

The following morning's news headlines centred around the deepening recession: specifically around new figures for job losses, and the recession's stifling of charitable donations. I have a wry sense of humour.

Jonathan's blog post reminded me strongly of when I left both university and fundraising. Both times, the initial spark of enthusiasm for what on paper is a pretty awesome idea had dwindled, leaving me merely going through the motions.

University lectures were not a chore, so the twenty-or-so hours of every week of term that they occupied weren't sorely missed. Even spending a day in labs each week was OK. Attaining a proper quantitative understanding of physics, though, required plenty of off-timetable study—time I was loath to put in since in truth I cared little for the specifics. It showed: each week's problem questions seemed more and more daunting, which only increased the resolve needed to actually study.

Fundraising had me leaving home each day at around 07:30 and getting back at about 22:30—albeit typically due to healthy after-work socialising. (And I should point out that everything that went with the job was wonderful: my teammates, and our adventures together—even running for a train back from Harrogate with one minute to spare felt like an adventure—were each uniquely brilliant).

I now know that I'm not capable of devoting my time to something that I'm not enthralled by. It doesn't have to be actually important—I just have to care enough to want to take control.

I suppose part of it is the knowledge that someone else could be doing a better job instead of me. My demotivation in physics and fundraising alike roughly coincided with the dawning that I would be neither a brilliant cosmologist nor a legendary fundraiser respectively.

I have this need to correct things and improve upon what's there, and if I can't make something better I tend to leave it to someone else.

So I agree with Jonathan that something just being a good idea doesn't make it a useful application of my time.