May 6, 2018

It’s easy to start things, much harder to sustain them.

This morning marks the end of my 25 year alive. I’ll be lucky to see the next power of 2, which will in all likelihood be my last.

Writing these is always interesting. I start by writing down everything I remember about the past year. As I do, it feels like a jumble of random things, but it doesn’t take long for me to notice (or perhaps impose) patterns. A common theme for me this year was struggling to sustain things.

Last year I started a local meetup group about a new programming language that excites me. There was a lot of initial interest, and it inspired me that others were as excited about this thing as I am. But as we entered year two, that initial fire started to fade. I started running out of people willing to give talks, and put a lot of pressure on myself to present to keep things going as they were. That made a labor of love start to feel like work, and I began to get burnt out. Finally, I decided to take a different approach. I began hosting a few events as “open-mic nights”, encouraging members to talk informally about what they were working on, and allowing myself not to feel responsible for filling the full two hours with content. And it worked. What’s more, I left the events feeling inspired by what members shared, rather than exhausted by having to do all the sharing myself. Sure, the meeting format had changed, but that was fine. I needed some help, and finally got it when I allowed people to help me in their own way.

A similar—but less successful—lesson in sustainability came from the Diversity & Inclusion group I helped get started at work. As the company grew, it became obvious that by mainly hiring people we knew, we’d not only end up with a stagnant team that mostly looked and thought the same, but would end up perpetuating the exclusionary trends so rife in the tech world.

We started the group with an abundance of energy but not much of a plan. We had meetings, shared articles and perspectives, and organized events. But the energy eventually faded. There was a lot of activity, but it was hard to see results. We all wanted to do something, but didn’t have a clear picture of what success would look like, so it was hard to tell if we were making progress or not. Eventually, work or life got challenging and our group kinda stopped meeting. I’m sure people asked themselves when things got stressful, “Is this something that’s actually making a difference?” I think we did have an impact in terms of awareness. A lot of my colleagues—some of whom I imagine hadn’t thought much about the value of diversity, or the difference between diversity and true inclusion—showed up for meetings and panel discussions and asked insightful questions. I’m proud of those encounters, but it’s hard to measure their effects. And without being able to show the group the outcome our efforts were creating, it grew harder to keep it together. The lesson here was that if you want to move people to change something, you’ve got to show them where they’re going (and why it’s better than here), how to get there, and constantly that they’re getting closer.

That’s a lesson I could have learned from the political organizations I support. At its best, their correspondence paints a clear picture of a goal (the rejection of a cabinet nomination, for example) and why it matters, asks for direct action (such as calling your representative), and sustains the effort by highlighting progress along the way (like senators dropping support for the nomination). At their worst, though, such organizations simply drum up outrage, trying to rouse people to action through strong emotions. While sometimes effective in the short term, frankly, outrage is exhausting. I struggled this year with sustaining my own political participation amidst a rising tide of rancor. For every issue I called a representative about, three more would come out demanding my action. I know I shouldn’t lose hope, but I’m emotionally exhausted. As I wrote in my journal this year:

As my 2-year-old progresses from a baby to a toddler, caring for her is less physically taxing (she sleeps through the night and doesn’t need to be carried anymore) but more emotionally and psychologically taxing, since she now she can and must be reasoned with.

After spending my morning laboring to explain to my daughter why she shouldn’t throw her oatmeal on the floor even though it prompts a novel reaction from da-da, it’s hard to gather the energy in the middle of my workday to explain to my senator why they should not allow a man who cynically downplays what is likely the greatest threat to our childrens’ future well-being to lead the government agency tasked with meeting that threat. And yet, I must find a way to stay hopeful and resilient.

On the bright side, I did finally discover my purpose in life. This certainly deserves its own post, but it came from a conversation I was listening to between a neuroscientist, a physicist, and a philosopher. While they disagree frequently in the course of their conversation, it struck me that they all basically agreed on the purpose of life: to improve the conditions of all conscious beings, a big part of which is making sure the current crop of humans doesn’t ruin things for the 7 billion humans alive right now and the potential infinity of humans to come if we can get our act together. The argument is simple: because living creatures are the only ones who can ascribe meaning to things, the universe can have meaning only to the extent that we give it meaning. So if life is to have any purpose, it is to preserve the only creatures capable of giving it a purpose, and to maximize their ability to create meaning. Practially, that means halting and reversing the vast environmental degradation and human-induced climate change threatening the future of so much life on Earth. But it also means fighting injustice. People who are unfairly imprisoned or struggling to put food on the table have fewer options to give meaning to life than if they had more time, freedom, and resources.

Life doesn’t have just one purpose, but if there is one purpose we can be sure it does have, it must be to sustain and increase the ability of humans to create purpose, right? So I want to get better at sustaining things, from local initiatives to whatever tiny part I can play in the survival and flourishing of the human species. I’ll need to start by figuring out how to sustain my own sense of hope and motivation, and move outward from there.