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Self-Experimentation

February 6 2022

How I evaluated what I'm about over the last couple of years.

My Faces
I've played around with my personal appearance a lot the last few years.

I often joke that if I have kids, I want to have twins (or, really, any n-tuplets) so that I could A/B test them. While this is not actually okay, one can experiment on themselves. I’ve been doing my own little “soft” experiment in personal growth over the last few years. My plan was to determine what I was all about via hands-on iteration, be it my interests, hobbies or sense of style. Along the way, I also realized what things were no longer important to me and confirmed where my passions lie. I’m now bringing this phase to an end, so it’s a good time for me to look back and reflect on how it went.

Context

After graduating college, I, for the first time in memory, had no overarching accomplishment I was trying to reach. This left me in a very uncertain position, with a myriad of possibilities for who I could be or what I could do. All I really knew is that I had a passion for technology and graphics programming.

When it came to other pursuits, I’ve always been oscillatory. I would get very into something for a while, only to drop it entirely for whatever reason. I think it’s the continuation of this trait that evolved into my experimental process.

I’ve mostly surrounded myself with friends in the tech industry, but with a wide variety of passions outside of work. This is both inspiring, in seeing so many hobbies from an entirely new angles, but also challenging, in that having your job and passion be technology can then be seen as taking your work home with you. Being in this social environment definitely encouraged me to pursue a wider field of interests than I would have otherwise.

Many of these interests were those I’d liked, but given up, when younger. My interests evolved in a different context than I now find myself in, so it’s only natural to assume that what I think I am interested in may not reflect the current reality. As I am an experiential learner, I can’t just watch YouTube to see if I’d find myself passionate for something. Thus, I found myself approaching these old interests again.

The reasons why I gave them up are not always clear in retrospect, but there are two main factors I tend to blame. The first was my lack of proper equipment or tooling. I remember many projects completely failing because I always seemed to have the wrong tool for the job, which was an endlessly frustrating experience. The second reason I ascribe to hypercompetitivity.

Mediocrity

Tim Wu’s In Praise of Mediocrity is probably the single piece of writing I’ve most recommended to friends. It advocates for having hobbies solely for the enjoyment of it, but I think it touches on something greater in regards to our collective perfectionism.

We all grew up in the pressure cooker of modern education, where we are working to outcompete one another at each step in the game in order to get to the next level, and then do it all again. We then matured into a world dominated by globally-connected social media, where we are bombarded by thousands of videos of those best-in-the-world at any and every conceivable activity, for every minute of every day.

Why then, should I bother with a hobby I won’t be good at when I could spend the time at what I am good at? It is this question that culls the seed of a new passion before it germinates. At the very least, we are all pros at consumption, so doomscrolling will always be there, and the cycle begins anew.

In tech, this problem permeates every corner of our lives. I have a friend that once told me he mostly eats out, because why not leave the cooking to the pros, as they do the coding to us? I don’t think this is illogical by any means, but I do think this approach is quite common and causes us to miss out on things we might really enjoy or care about.

We also have an absolute obsession with improving productivity, merely for the sake of improving productivity. This yak-shaving over note-taking apps and setups and keyboards and frameworks doesn’t seem to get us any closer to actually just building something. But herein lies that same drive towards perfection.

Handmade Cutting Board
A cutting board my father and I built last year. This was my first real woodworking project, and I'm happy to say I kept all ten fingers.

Process

The core to my process was in being as open-minded and mediocre as possible, while seeking out as many experiences as possible. Sometimes these were entirely novel. Other times, they were repeats of things I’d done before, but I came at it with a different mindset. The goal here was to not let generalizations based on past experiences have any bearing on the present, nor hypercompetiveness prevent me from enjoying whatever I was trying. While I have touble unironically mentioning the concept of a “growth mindset” post Microsoft corporate training, I think it perfectly encapsulates the idea here.

The next important part was to make sure I was really giving each activity my all—in the sense of trying it seriously, not trying to be the best at it. This meant buying the right equipment, joining online communities and/or spending as much time as I could learning and practicing, as applicable. Ideally, I wanted to try each activity at a regular cadence for an extended period of time to really get a feel for it. I can’t say it always worked well in practice.

Likewise, finding ways to reduce the “startup cost” of a hobby was always at the forefront of my mind. I’ve always found one of the biggest blockers to doing something, even when it’s something I like, to be the cost of context switching back to get started. This could be getting equipment out of a closet, updating necessary drivers and software, or even just remembering where I left off.

In parallel with this process, I spent a lot of energy focusing on personal growth. I came at this from a lot of different angles, from therapy to meditation to reading to—gasp—trying to force myself to be outgoing at social events. Of perhaps the most surprise to me was the value I got out of self-help books, as I’d generally considered them to be nonsense. While often self-help books are a few-sentences-long thesis followed by a too-long book of examples, I do find that they can still be valuable reads. I’ll recommend Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg as the one I felt had the largest impact.

Outside self-help books, there’s another title I read that really had an outsized impact on how I approach things: Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam. This is a dry read examining the gradual decline of social groups in America, and the resultant impact. While this book isn’t intended as a self-help title, one can’t help but realize the dangers of the individualistic activities that have come to dominate our lives, and start to think about how they can better involve themselves in community. I’ve become much more aware of the importance of community since reading this, and I’ve since formed important personal goals around community.

Reflections

Reviewing this process of self-exploration now, I realize I went overboard and would have benefitted from being much more methodical or consistent. The constant flailing between activities grew tiresome, and I definitely wasted resources on things doomed to fail. Being that I did not share this process with others, I can imagine I came across as quite erratic to boot.

I would instead recommend only trying one or two activities at a time, and avoiding those with little chance you’d be interested. Perhaps set a timeframe and a cadence before beginning. I would also not try things multiple times, as it just becomes a waste of time, money and effort for no gain.

Keeping costs associated with hobbies down was a challenge. Certain activities require a large up-front investment to really get started with. I tried to address this by buying equipment used and selling it after the fact, but in retrospect I should have relied more on renting or borrowing (as applicable). The time cost is also huge, as you don’t want to spend years flip-flopping between hobbies you don’t love and styles that bore you.

Perhaps most importantly, I vastly underutilized community during my process. I noticed a huge increase in my personal enjoyment in activities or interests when surrounded by others passionate about whatever it was. If I were to do this again, I would lean very heavily into in-person community around whatever interest it is I’m exploring.

Lastly, I think I would be more definite in what my overall goal of the project was. While it was vaguely “what am I about”, approaching it with more structure and regular reviews on progress would have likely improved time efficiency and helped dodge pointless activities.

Me at a Parade
My friend (pictured, left) invited me to join his music group for Seattle's Solstice Festival and Pride Parade. The theme was something along the lines of *Trailer Park Chic*. My performance was terrible, but I had a blast.

Specifics

If you’re anything like my younger self, this is has all been too hand-wavy to be anything other than bullshit. Hopefully some specifics around what I tried might make things a little bit clearer and more tangible. I won’t touch on everything I did, but I’ll highlight some areas that might be interesting.

Creative

Music as an activity has waxed and waned numerous times for me. I love listening to music, but I never could get fully into playing an instrument the many times I’ve tried. I gave it one last-ditch effort with baritone saxophone, by buying an instrument and taking lessons—until COVID-19 cut them short. It was nice to confirm that it was my lack of interest in practice, not my school load, that stopped me playing.

On the other hand, I reignited my interest in photography. I made a point of taking my camera wherever I went, taking way more photos than necessary. Compared to music, it was almost effortless to study photography, be it rules of thumb for lighting or the mechanics of zoom lenses.

Athletics

On the athletic front, I realized I’m most drawn to those activities that are more individual than group-oriented, and those that have more of a technological component to them. This would be things like biking and backpacking, both of which I’ve really enjoyed having in my collection of hobbies to be mediocre at. There’s something exciting about sports where the state of the art is always improving, and where you can use technology to better adapt yourself to the conditions at hand.

Consumption

Pure consumption, like watching movies or drinking, are fantastic ways to waste time, but I am never able to fully enjoy them without some pangs of guilt. In addition, there really isn’t room to grow with them (outside of perhaps being a critic); everyone is already an expert!

Failures

Many projects ended up being failures—although not necessarily in terms of completion. I thought it would be fun to learn about cars, by stripping mine down completely and adding sound deadener. This turned out to take way longer than expected, and it was a complete struggle to wrap up. I could not get myself to do more than a couple hours of work a day, for weeks. So perhaps it was a fitting last project to take on (at least for quite a while!).

Stripped Car Interior
My last real experiment: seeing if I enjoyed working with cars. I installed a new radio, added a dash cam and stripped the entire interior down in order to cover it in sound deadener. Wireless CarPlay: Yay! Panel Removal: Nay.

Video Games

Video games were the most challenging interest I dealt with. Video games could be considered core to who I was growing up, and set me up on the path I am today interested in computer graphics. However, somewhere along the way I lost the passion for them.

Perhaps I no longer wanted the escape they used to provide, or perhaps I’d seen and done everything there was to offer in the screen with keyboard & mouse or controller format. Either way, I repeatedly tried getting back into gaming because I believed it to me so important to me. I bought and sold video game setups what feels like every 6 months, getting in to and out of gaming sinusoidally. It was incredibly challenging to internalize that I just wasn’t about it anymore and allow myself to “give it up”. It’s not that I wouldn’t still enjoy gaming with friends every now-and-again, or even talking about the classics. I just don’t have that need to be playing all the time, anymore.

Style

Style, be it fashion or interior design, was not something I put much thought into until more recently. On this front, I improved by spending lots of time looking at examples online, and trying things I pretty much knew wouldn’t be great in my home and on my person. Thrift stores were great here, providing things I knew weren’t stylish but couldn’t really explain why. They also provided some absolutely bizarre wall art that I enjoyed decorating past apartments with.

As far as grooming, I also played a lot with hair styles and facial hair, confusing friends and coworkers alike. This was fun, and really let me see why I dislike facial hair and that I cannot be bothered to maintain an undercut.

Lots and lots of iteration and seeing others’ styles later, and I can kind of express my style in words. I’m really not an expert here, so the only real learning I can share is on the importance of intentionality.

Homemade Pretzels
Over the quarantine, I perfected the soft pretzel. While these came out great using washing soda, I've had even better results finally biting the bullet and using lye. The secret to good pretzels is drain cleaner.

Moving

I have no regrets about moving away from where I was comfortable, to somewhere new where I didn’t know many people. Even though it wasn’t far at all geographically or culturally, there was a lot to learn from experiencing a different place. I definitely would recommend others to try the same for a couple of years.

In Conclusion

In retrospect, this project ended up being as much of a failure as it was a success. I can’t say I would do things over the same way. Looking back, it still was obvious were my real passions were, and what I was about. I regret not focusing more on having an overarching goal post-college, and dialing it back with the experiments.

Even so, this wasn’t a complete waste. I’ve come away with a better understanding of myself, and a confidence in my interests. I’ve even been able to give up gaming as something I thought core to myself. Going forward, I’ll be narrowing my scope to really focus in on my big picture goals.