Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's All The Same

UPDATE: Here's a better link http://issuu.com/konekt/docs/issue2
My prose is featured on page 64 of the magazine, and 66-67 when you're navigating pages. Confusing.

I couldn't find it online, so I uploaded my second article for Konekt Magazine . Big thanks again to @matthewlombardi for getting me involved with the project.

It’s All the Same: A Verbal Venn Diagram.
These days, I’m plagued by what ifs. What if I had skipped that lecture? What if I had not applied for the job I now have? What if I didn’t live in Slovakia? What if I didn’t go out that night and meet that girl? Funny how a series of seemingly small choices can have such profound effects down the road. None of it matters though. All we can do is accept what has happened and keep moving forward. It’s October, currently. I never realized how important October was, until right now. For a few confounding reasons the thirty days occurring about 1.5 weeks after the fall equinox are extremely interesting to me. I never realized it until I left school. Despite how painfully obvious it is. October is like the annual slingshot of my life. It’s the new January. Firing me around for another 365-day period. The point where I get to slam Jagger shots and dress up like an Ugg Boot or Shawarma is just a convenient perk, in the big picture.

Ok maybe it’s an exaggeration to say it fuels my entire year, but it makes sense to a degree. Summer is obviously “Lax-Town USA” for 95% percent of the student population. At least it was for me. And things are changing in September, sure. But that’s the obvious answer. You finish work, say good-bye to your parents (who by now you are sick of) and escape to a life of freedom and low quality food. But hold on. Let’s be real here: September is a joke. No real work gets done. There are lame attempts, and ambitious resolutions, but those quickly crumble in the face of the weakest forms of peer pressure. Not until the haze of homecoming has risen, do you find yourself a little more underprepared than you would be comfortable with. Intimidating midterms stand looming. Shit is getting serious. It’s October, all of a sudden.

September is nothing more than a summer hangover, when you think about it. In the real world I’m permanently confined to desk space, I burn time lamenting the long days recently gone by. Facebook status updates and tweets from friends all over the world make me jealous of all those kids who just moved back to Kingston. Officemates, like classmates, have just returned from fabulous expeditions to new corners of the globe and while they may be clocking face time at their respective responsibilities, they generally all do a lackluster job as their brains linger in bygone hot spots.

And then it just sort of happens. You wake up. Maybe it’s a Sunday. You slept in because it’s a little darker than usual. It’s probably drizzling. Outside, you feel under-dressed. Puddles linger. Perhaps an insufficient sun struggles vainly to see through its obligation in the water cycle. “-But that sun has more that sufficed since the previous solstice!” You delude yourself, before scornfully spiting the deceptive golden orb. A few wet leaves stick to your left shoe. You feel cheated. The wind cuts through your cardigan. If you don’t have a cold, you’re about to catch one. Summer, and the associated pipe dreams, is over.

Too much of my summer was “squandered” on patios watching supermodels in 6-inch heels and 6-inch skirts, navigate the neglected cobblestone street next to any one of my favourite terraces. I find myself needing to reflect and think on where I’ve come and what I’ve been through these last few months. Octobers cool embrace encourages such forays of thought and logic. I also start drinking lots of tea, which is probably better than the garbage I usually consume. It’s as though during the green bloom of summer, I’m held hostage by a latent sense of excess. There’s no need to reap my harvest. For whatever reason, I am trapped in this paralytic mental state until the world around me starts to physically change. Confronted with falling leaves and that bitter taste in the air, only then, am I shocked into action, impressed with a sense of urgency, as the annual catharsis that is autumn begins to bear down. I’m both the ant and the grasshopper, if you know what I mean.

I admit this is obvious. As autumn encroaches the weather starts to suck, so naturally, I’m more adverse to the outdoors. Avoid wet socks at all costs, I say. The months of September through June are the time to get things done. We’re all conditioned into this from a young age. September, naturally, is the comfortable buffer. It’s just that it wasn’t until this year that I had the personal experience to confirm the case outside of academia. Of course the boundary is a little bit less defined in this case, but the currents under the surface still operate in the same manner.

Although I’m halfway across the world fully engaged in the rat race, memories of a year ago remain fresh. One of the weekly bright spots on my fall calendar, while I ran out the clock on my penultimate undergraduate semester, was a three-hour seminar each Thursday afternoon. That I looked forward to it was particularly odd, being someone who generally deplores lecture as a boring inefficient waste of time (I don’t maintain that’s the right view, just the one I stubbornly harbored). With only a dozen or so classmates, it was by far the smallest university class in which I partook. To make matters better, two professors were on hand. They each excitedly encouraged discussion and inspiration, by sharing their own dreams, trials and tribulations. Our motley crew formed a unique, albeit odd, bond, rather quickly. It makes sense I guess. Our group had all suffered through three and a half years of rigorous undergraduate studies at a very reputable institution. 118th in the world, as of 2009, thank you very much. After so much effort, we could taste victory. The light at the end of the tunnel danced just beyond the edges of our outstretched fingertips.

Like it was a chronic case of extreme psoriasis in the middle of my back, I squirmed for freedom. Everyone did, some felt the need to pretend that they had their act together, but we were all uncomfortable on some level when the notion of the future was brought up, as it so often was. Few of us knew what exactly that fabled next step would be. Even the biggest keeners had yet to hear back from professional and graduate programs. A dash of uncertainty was added to the back of my mind in every situation. Everyone could sense change around the next bend. We were all smart and capable. We had worked extremely hard for the past four years. Day in and day out we locked down in the library; where we read textbooks, lecture notes, journal publications and the occasional crossword. Working hard kept us grounded in the present. It gave us confidence. We knew enough that we would probably keep our heads above water when sink or swim time eventually came around, but we’d be lucky not to catch a wave or two in the mouth while we doggy paddled about, trying to find our way. And you know how nasty that salt-water shit tastes.

I remember with high-res photographic accuracy, a single bullet point made by one of my two instructors. The gist of the life changing statement was: By the very nature of science, precise measurement, extreme attention to detail, and complicated procedures with strange instruments, scientific research is riddled with failure. Experiments fail 19 times out of 20. You clutch your lab book with white knuckles, trying to tear it in half, finally slamming it back on the bench. Your crystals didn’t nucleate. Or your protein sample is contaminated. Frustration overwhelms, easily. But you are obliged to endure it, if you ever want to win.

Suffice it to say: I hate losing. I have always hated losing. That day, I made a conscious choice. In retrospect, it might have been a cop-out but I don’t think so. I decided I would not toil the rest of my life away with fickle experimentation. Maybe I should have reflected on it more then. But reeking of yeast, waiting for another round of test tubes to finish another turn in the centrifuge was the not the way forward, I reasoned. Unfortunately for me, my sage instructor, and ultimately the one who drove the final nail into the nail-ridden coffin that was my potential scientific research career, forgot to mention a corollary that would end up causing me a lot of trouble.

This is another one of those HD photographic moments etched into the back of my eyelids. It makes me wonder what other negatives are waiting to be developed into insights in the darkroom that is my brain. Fast-forward to June 2009: Sorry to be jumping all over the place. My brain is spastic like that. In my pursuit of anything but more frustrating laboratory time, I’m now a ninja of the Bratislava public transport system, riding bus #61 solo at 9:15am on a Sunday, on the way back to my flat.

ASIDE: In case you didn’t catch that, check out how I can say flat now, in lieu of apartment. Now that I’m “Euro-ballin’” I’m also able to say mobile, over even abbreviate to “mobes.” without feeling like a complete cretin. I find a disturbing amount of satisfaction in these absurdly miniscule perks.

Anyways, the reason I’m up so early on this shitty bus is because I just dropped my friend Amit off at the airport. He’s been my first visitor and it really forced me to think about and contrast my life as a student with my current life in post-communist hilarity. Things haven’t changed that much. We got home from the bar, admittedly a little later than usual, at 7:15am. Being one to miss planes rather frequently, it was not until shortly after our morning arrival that Amit realized his flight was to depart at 10:00am, not 10:00pm. It was a hot mess. We scrambled. The travel gods must have been smiling however, as we delivered him to the proper terminal at an appropriate time. Now I’m feeling pretty alone, not to mention that nauseating state between “LiquorMcPissyFaced” and worst-hangover-of-life. Then my bus rolls by the local IKEA. I feel mocked: Through some vicious twist of fate, haunting visions of cheap beds and DIY storage solutions are the only reminders of the last 21 years of my life. Thanks, cruel world.

A minute ago I said I hated losing and I didn’t want to be a scientist. My Prof. had told me that science is about losing, 95% of the time. Kenny Powers wouldn’t accept that, so why should I? If you don’t know who Kenny Powers is, I’m glad we’re not friends. It’s in that vein that I ended up in Eastern Europe. Instead of cramping my hand with endless pipette work, I decided to try my hand at a Sales job.

Yeah, sales won’t involve failure. You idiot.

If you want to be technical about it, my employment is more of a business development role. Effectively though, I sell people on why they want to do business with my firm. I’m not convincing people to purchase recession-proof iPods, as evidenced by soaring Apple stock, or the latest Avon product; I’m selling intangible ideas and services. It’s not easy. For the most part I have fun though. I deal with people, instead of bacterial DNA. That’s a good start. I talk to executives and scientists about what kind of work is happening in their lab, and where they’re faltering. I talk to them about how we might be able to help. Well, that’s what I do on a good day.

Sorry to draw a line in the sand like this; but, if your IQ is anywhere North of 76 you might have already concluded that starting a job in sales because I was afraid of failure was a faulty, not to mention incredibly na├»ve, jump of logic, on my part. Allow me the privilege of painting you a picture, please. On a daily basis I get hung up on more than you have in your life. I am the recipient of an avalanche of “Ari Gold-esque” tirades. People tell me off, on the regular. I have heard “no” and infinite variations on the theme, so many times that I now dare people to hang up on me. I make simple mistakes and I falter in the most creative of ways. Despite tedious preparation and practice, I fail consistently.

So that’s it. That was the part I was destined to learn on my own; the corollary that my wise professor glossed over. It took the particularly ruthless and ubiquitous failure at the very start of my newfound sales career to remind me, in a quick and brutal manner no less, of the lesson I had tried so dramatically to avoid. Failure is not just a part of scientific research, but an inescapable part of my life, as it turns out. To be successful in science, is the same as in anything: I must patiently persist. I must endure. Success in the lab is no different from cold calling. It is not about winning the lottery or pulling a golden ticket out of a chocolate bar wrapper you bought on a whim because there is some big contest to tour a factory and your grandpa gave you a dollar for your birthday; no, success is about tirelessly pursuing something you love. It’s not a new idea. Nor is it a particularly flashy one. Sorry if you were hoping for a silver bullet solution. If, by chance, you ever do find one such bullet, hit me up with it at jeffreyhwaite@gmail.com, but I won’t hold my breath. Each attempt, each grasp at success is an experiment. I now know through brutal experience that the only way I’m going to accomplish anything worth tooting a horn about (I hate that expression, by the way) is by tirelessly pursuing the elusive green light on the dock across the bay that that Gatsby dude was so obsessed with.

Trust me on this one, I moved half-way across the world to try and find a loophole, but I’ve only been further reassured that everything is the same –Plus or minus a little twist based on the intrinsic nature of what it is you’re trying to master, and where the flames you are dancing in, happen to be located. I must make it my habit to pursue failure intelligently, with enthusiasm and curiosity. I’m afraid it’s the only way I’ll make something of myself. And don’t get me started on how afraid I am of not making anything of myself. (Again, think Gatsby). If you want to bring it back to the most old-school level, check what homeboy Aristotle was caught saying “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” I would go on to say then that it is our habits, which provide the true barometer of one’s character. Real insight into a person is gleamed when we emphasize their actions, above their carefully selected words.

If your ambition is ripe and you are serious about success, hold a mirror up to your life. The great thing about mirrors is that they are objective. They don’t lie. It is worth reflecting on where you have been and what you’ve picked up along the way. It’s important to understand what tools you have developed and which ones are now at your disposal. Maybe, it’s even worth speculating about the “What ifs.” But at the end of the day, and this has been the toughest lesson for me, whatever you situation: It is what it is. The past is done. I live in a place where 24-hour grocery stores and pre made salad kits don’t exist. In their place I have barbed wire fences, crumbling derelict buildings and real live whorehouses. Stop dreaming about what could have been and move forward. If you are at all interested in advancing your swagger, becoming the Picasso of your chosen trade, you must come to terms with your situation and decide how best you can leverage it with your personal box of tools. Enslave yourself to good habits and the pinnacle of your potential is within reach. Everyday I need to do as Thomas Friedman described Governor Suebu of Guinea “Think Big. Act Small. Start Now.”

What’s your next move gong to be, chief?

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