Sunday, May 12, 2013

What do you want in a spouse?

Now that I'm engaged, I'm rereading a favorite quote from a favorite book of mine -- The Call of Earth, from Orson Scott Card's Homecoming series. This is from chapter 3, “Protection,” and the hero Nafai is having a conversation with the Oversoul (essentially God). 

The central theme here is the gap between what Nafai wants in a spouse and what he should want, how the gap is caused by his own fears and insecurities and how he overcomes them.
Are you saying Eiadh is bad at heart? 
 I’m saying she lives in a world whose center of gravity is herself. She has no purpose higher than her own desires. But you, Nafai, will never be content unless your life is accomplishing something that will change the world. I am giving you that, if you will have the patience to trust me until it comes to you. I will also give you a wife who will share the same dreams, who will help you instead of distracting you.  
 Who is my wife, then? 
The face of Luet came into his mind. 
Nafai shuddered. Luet. She had helped him escape, and saved his life at great risk to herself.  
She had taken him down to the land of women…for bringing him there she might have been killed, right along with him; instead she faced down the women and persuaded them that the Oversoul had commanded it…. 
Nafai owed her much. And he liked her, she was a good person, simple and sweet. So why couldn’t he think of her as a wife? Why did he recoil at the thought?Because she is the waterseer. 
The waterseer – that’s why he didn’t want to marry her. Because she had been having visions from the Oversoul for far longer than he; because she had strength and wisdom that he couldn’t even hope to have. Because she was better than Nafai in every way he could think of. Because if they became partners in this journey back to Earth, she would hear the voice of the Oversoul better than he; she would know the way when he knew nothing at all. When all was silent for him, she would hear music; when he was blind, she would have light. I can’t bear it, to be tied to a woman who will have no reason to respect me, because whatever I do, she has done it first, she can do it better. 
So…you didn’t want to a wife, after all. You wanted a worshipper.  
This realization made him flush with self-contempt. Is that who I am? A boy who is so weak that he can’t imagine loving a woman who is strong? 
The faces of Rasa and Wetchik, his mother and father, came into his mind. Mother was a strong woman – perhaps the strongest in Basilica, though she had never tried to use her prestige and influence to win power for herself. Did it weaken Father because Mother was at least – at least – his equal?.... 
Mother did not have to diminish herself to be part of Father’s life, and he did not have to dominate her in order to be part of her life. Nor did domination flow the other way; the Wetchik had always been his own man, and Rasa had never felt a need to rule over him. 
….I understand, he said silently. They are one person. What does it matter which of them happens to be the voice, whose hands happen to act? 
Can I find such a partnership with Luet? Can I bear it, to have her hear the Oversoul when I cannot? Can I listen to Luet’s dreams, and not be envious? 
And what about her? Will she accept me? 
The question is not, Can I bear to live as one with her. The question is, Am I worthy to be partnered with such a one as that? 
 He felt a trembling warmth suffuse through him, as he were filled with light. Yes, said the Oversoul inside his mind. Yes, that is the question. That is the question.

Here is the conversation when he proposes. It's in the end of chapter 5, “Husbands.”

As the thought formed in his mind, he blurted it out. “The Oversoul chose us for each other, and so yes, I’m asking you to marry me, even though I’m afraid.”  
“Afraid of me?”  
“Not that you mean me any harm – you’ve saved my life, and my father’s life before that. I’m afraid – of your disdain for me. I’m afraid that I’ll always be humiliated before you and your sister, the two of you, seeing everything weak about me, looking down on me. The way you see me now.”

 In all his life, Nafai had never spoken with such brutal frankness about his own fear; he had never felt so exposed and vulnerable in front of anyone.

 “Oh Nafai, I’m sorry,” whispered Luet. “Nafai, I only thought of how frightened I was. I never imagined you might feel that way, too.”

  She was afraid of him?

 “Won’t you look at me, Nafai?” she asked. “I know you never looked at me before, not with hope or with longing, anyway, but now that the Oversoul has given us to each other, can’t you look at me with – with kindness, anyway?”

 How could he lift his face to her now, with his eyes full of tears; and yet, since she asked with, since it would mean disappointment to her if he did not, how could he refuse? He looked at her, and even though his eyes swam with teams – of joy, of relief, of emotions even stronger that he didn’t understand – he saw her as if for the first time, as if her soul had been made transparent to him. He saw the purity of her heart. He saw how fully she had given herself to the Oversoul, and to Basilica, and to her sister, and to him. He saw that in her heart she longed only to build something fine and beautiful, and how readily she was willing to try to do that with this boy who sat before her.

 “What do you see, when you look at me like that?” asked Luet, her voice timid, yet daring to ask.

 “I see what a great and glorious woman you are,” he said, “and how little reason I have to fear you, because you’d never harm me or any other soul.”

 “Is that all you see?” she asked.

 “I see that the Oversoul has found in you the most perfect example of what the human race must all become, if we are to be whole, and not destroy ourselves again.”

 “Nothing more?” she asked.

 By now his eyes had cleared enough to see that she was now on the verge of crying – but not for joy….

 Impulsively he knelt up and gathered her into his arms and held her close, the way he might hold a weeping child. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

 “Don’t be sorry, please,” she said. But her voice was high, the voice of a child who is trying not to be caught crying, and he could feel her tears soaking into his shirt.

 “I’m sorry that it’s only me you get as a husband,” he said.

 “And I’m sorry that it’s only me you get as a wife,” she said. “Not the waterseer, not the glorious being you imagined that you saw. Only me.”

 Finally he understood what she had been asking for all along, and couldn’t help but laugh, because without knowing it he had just now given it to her. “Did you think that I said those things to the waterseer?” he asked. “No, you poor thing, I said those things to you, to Luet, to the girl I met in my mother’s school, to the girl who sassed me any anybody else when she felt like it, to the girl that I’m holding in my arms right now.”

 She laughed then – or sobbed harder, he wasn’t sure. But he knew that whatever she was doing now, it was better. That was all she needed – was for him to tell that he didn’t expect her to be the waterseer all the time, that he was marrying the fragile, imperfect human being, and not the overpowering image that she inadvertently wore.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Laura and Sam are engaged! (Part II, by Laura)

To our friends and family: Many of you know only one of us; or only part of our tale. Though we'll certainly retell this many times, we wanted to ink it out for your benefit and curiosity. For those whom we care about, and who care about us. 

This is part II, written from Laura's point of view. Here is Part I, from Sam's point of view.

Things happen -- May 2012 to present

'She...didn't comment on the romantic content.' Indeed, I did not. 

By the time I received that letter, I had only one month left in my 18-month mission, and I was soaking in every last second. (Utah was and is also amazing.) And while I was touched by the frequency and content of Sam's letters, I still didn't feel more for him than friendship.

Birthday! Orem, Utah; December 8, 2011

This changed gradually, amid a maelstrom of other emotional activity. Let me say that going from 0 to 3 prospective significant others within five days of coming home is at once flattering and bewildering. All three lived more than 2000 miles away from me. 'Dave' redirected his feelings fairly easily. But 'Fred' and Sam seemed to move in an uncanny synchrony. If one called me one day, the other called me the next. If one sent me a package with presents from South America on Thursday (Fred), the other sent me flowers on Friday (Sam). If one suggested he could come visit me in a conversation on Tuesday (Sam), the other invited me to come visit him in a conversation on Wednesday (Fred).

This was not only entertaining, it was also telling. As time passed, I began to look forward to talking with Sam, and turned down time with Fred to talk with Sam. I don't normally like flowers, and I was so happy when Sam's flowers arrived that I began to wonder whether my feelings themselves had changed. A few weeks before he came to visit, I realized they had. (I never did take the vacation with Fred.) So Sam and I started dating.

And, for me, anyway, our relationship progressed in the same even, gentle way. After a few months, I realized I loved him. And the more deeply I loved him, the more I realized that such a good thing doesn't come along every day, and I should run with it.

Time went on; we took turns visiting each other on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, met each others' parents (which went quite well), I applied to UC-Berkeley for grad school, was accepted, decided to go...and I had known for a long time that he wanted to marry me.

Viennese Ball, San Francisco, CA, 
Feb. 22, 2013
Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC,
Apr. 13, 2013

Poor Sam. Patiently waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I'm sure he felt like this was taking forever. Finally, on April Fool's Day, he came to New York for a month. And that was a good month. We enjoyed ourselves, worked through problems, and talked about the future.

Then it happened. I had shown his mom pictures of rings I like, and she had nodded kindly and asked some follow-up questions. On Tuesday, April 30, he showed me this most beautiful ring, and told me -- again -- that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and asked me if I would marry him.

And I said 'yes'.

Laura and Sam are engaged! (Part I, by Sam)

To our friends and family: Many of you know only one of us; or only part of our tale. Though we'll certainly retell this many times, we wanted to ink it out for your benefit and curiosity. For those whom we care about, and who care about us. 

This is part I, written from my point of view. Here is Part II, from Laura's point of view.

Introduction at Stanford -- Apr 2007 to Dec 2008

How did we meet each other? We went to Stanford together. When exactly did we meet? Good question. The tangled answer is a fitting introduction to our friendship.

The first time I met Laura Brignone, it was spring 2007. At the time, six Stanford students were gathered in the common room of the Branner dorm, pretending to be five-year-olds. We were all tutors at an after-school program in Palo Alto, we were doing role-plays to practice crowd control, and I was leading them.

I don't remember meeting her there. 

The second time I met Laura, it was fall 2008. I was with my friend Anne Sophie at the Friday Night Waltz dance in Palo Alto. We both recognized Laura from church, but had never really talked. Apparently Laura was big into social dance, and we chatted a bit there.

She doesn't remember seeing me there.

What I Looked Like...

The first time I met Laura

The second time I met Laura
(good thing she gave me a second chance!)

In either case, we became friends, and would often walk back to our dorms from church together. I asked her if she wanted to go see the glass museum exhibit, little knowing that she was from Corning, the glass capital of the world. We went to my fraternity special dinner together.

I was smitten. It was really the conversation -- Laura had a habit of bringing up interesting counterarguments to what I said, and we would banter while wandering around the beautiful Stanford campus. 

But between me heading to India for two years for my mission in January 2009, and (I found out later) Laura not seeing me as anything more than a friend, nothing really happened. 

A correspondence friendship -- Jan 2009 to May 2012

India was amazing. Being a missionary means that for eighteen months or two years, you are meeting people, listening to their lives and situations and problems and trying to help them apply principles of the Gospel in their lives. It was incredibly hard work, and by both design and will, there's little time to keep up with friends at home.

March 2009, Chennai, India. Returning to apartment 9pm,
after long day in 100 degree heat and 100% humidity

As a result, Laura and I only exchanged a couple letters during the time I was in India. In October 2010, as I was preparing to return home, I dropped her a line by email, seeing if she was still around Stanford.

No, she said. I graduated. I'm actually getting ready to go on a mission of my own.

That's awesome, I thought. And I won't see you again for another year and a half. 

Over the next year, after I came back from India, I went on with life -- returned to Stanford, graduated, got a job in San Francisco, dated. But I wrote Laura almost every month, and she wrote me back.


February 16, 2012 was my sister Rachel's 21st birthday. I had decided to visit her. And so sitting on Rachel's couch, in her apartment north of Chicago, with some encouragement from Rachel and her roommate Bethany, I decided to pen a different kind of letter. The previous ones had been written as a friend. The message here: Laura, I've liked you for a long time.

Laura's subsequent letters were as friendly as the ones prior. She noted that she had received my letter, but didn't comment on the romantic content.

In May, she returned from her mission to her home in Corning, NY.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Post-college: the changing nature of friend interactions

A blog post I wrote over at Less Wrong, a group blog I've posted on in the past. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Struggles, part VIII: Finding relevance

 My first mission president asks us to occasionally send life updates. This is an excerpt from my most recent e-mail.


I believe the last time [July 2011] I sent you an update I just returned from India, full of fire and energy and starting my new job.

For various reasons after I sent that e-mail I hit a bit of a spiritual skid, from which I've recovered. The main theme has been finding the gospel's relevance in my life.

As I launched myself into my new job in San Francisco, I was in a new environment, both in the macro sense (new city) and micro sense (new ward, new housemates, new colleagues).

I was suddenly doing lots of work, all the time, all very technical, not really interacting with the gospel. Or the hanging out with my new friends in the ward -- we would chat or watch movies or go out salsa dancing. Or even when I went on dates -- we would talk and chat about interests, but often times the gospel -- other than setting the mutual underlying expectations -- didn't really seem relevant. I found a couple friends in the ward with whom I could have the type of discussions about the gospel that I would have with my Stanford ward members, but even so it was intellectualizing.

This feeling cast a pall over everything I did -- I would try to read my scriptures, and not see how the stories were relevant to my life. I would go to church, and wonder the same thing.

While there's nothing that I can quite put my finger on, things started to turn around and change as fall turned into winter. Maybe it was watching a good friend -- the sister of the girl that introduced me to the Church -- be sealed in the temple over Christmas.

Quite luckily I was called as assistant executive secretary, which let me get to know the members of the bishopric and have someone around as a model. It reminded me that there were more important things than the worldly stuff that would make me get ahead at work.

I was pretty sick of my job though -- the people there weren't nice, no one really cared about each other, and I had an offer on the table with a startup down near Stanford. I gave two weeks notice -- coincidentally, my last day was the day before I flew out to Las Vegas and saw you last. I moved down to Stanford and got back in touch with my old friends.

One of them was an old home teacher who I had grown close to, and we started having weekly planning sessions, talking about our goals and the things we want to achieve, and making plans to do so.

Of course, there were lots of small things I thought about -- worrying about being consumed by Facebook, wanting to get things certain things done at work. But my flaws and weaknesses, how they were preventing me from achieving my goals, and the importance of applying various gospel concepts in overcoming them, became more apparent.

In May a good friend of mine from Stanford got back from her mission.

If you're counting months you'll see that she left in October 2010, two months before I got home. We'd been writing each other on and off for the last 3.5 years, and I was eager to be in closer contact. I'd told Laura about my feelings for her a couple months before, and I nervously wrote her an email a couple days after she got home. Soon enough we were talking once a week, then twice a week, then twice a week for two hours. We made a plan for me to come visit (she lives in upstate NY), which I did.
She was full of mission zeal, and in swapping stories I probably did more talking and thinking about my mission in two months of phone calls than I had in the last ten months.  I came, and we decided to start dating long-distance.

I feel like in many ways, being in a relationship is a daily tutorial about living the gospel. Talking to someone every day, seeing their weaknesses and fears and hopes, having them see yours, deciding through our actions and words whether to be supportive or not, caring or not, thoughtful or not, selfish or not.

Though most of the time being around each other is just natural (as it should be), but often these decisions will come up. They occur in each aspect of the relationship -- when we're hanging out with her family, at church, or by ourselves; if we're doing something together or if we just talking to each other; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And at the same time, these decisions often don't come up when you're doing technical tasks and work or forming superficial bonds. I think that's why I found it difficult to see gospel applications in my life for a while.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Struggles, part VII: decision

June 2012: I’m talking to a friend from Stanford, recently returned from her mission.

“How’s job search going?” I ask, and get a long answer. She had just unearthed some old letters she sent to professors asking to help them in their research. The letters listing her accomplishments in college, the things she was passionate about academically, and wanted to achieve.

An old self had come back, the person she used to be – driven elite college student, devoted to understanding a few certain areas that she was passionate about, to learning. Who saw this quest as her identity.

Yet once she arrived in her mission, she realized that her persona was setting her apart from those she was charged to serve. Purposefully, consciously, prayerfully, she had shed elite college student in order to be more fully Hermana.

Now elite college student had come back. She was conflicted.

In response, words tumbled out of me, words from a similar conflict I had faced.

I too had Sam and Elder Bhagwat. Both are absent-minded, lose things, have a very distinctive laugh, and focus on a few things with a laserlike intensity.

But the primarily motivation of Sam is to know, to learn, to understand. His primary favorite happy emotion is fascination, accompanied by a wonderous “that’s really interesting.” He was shy in social situations, preferring to discuss and debate abstract topics. His motivating carrot is achieving penetrating insight and understanding.

Elder Bhagwat is more forthright about talking to people, asking them about themselves and telling them about himself. He was still kind of awkward. He cares less about finding the right answer than the emotions. He had a rocky companionship with the son of a Harvard economics professor and an amazing companionship with a Wyoming community college graduate. His motivating carrot is seeing others change their lives for the better and feeling the peace of knowing his Heavenly Father is happy with his actions.

March 2009: I once (accidentally) signed my weekly e-mail home as Elder Bhagwat instead of Sam. Upon receiving an angry response from my mother, I wrote a miffed reply, insisting “Sam is Elder Bhagwat and Elder Bhagwat is Sam.” My tone was wrong, obviously, but my argument was also incorrect, though I didn’t realize it at the time. On my mission, I was mostly Elder Bhagwat; occasionally Sam emerged (such as when we were teaching my favorite investigator, a Google employee who described her height as ‘Lilliputian’).

Back to my conversation with the recently returned Hermana.

June 2012:  “I was doing well for the months after my mission when I was at Stanford, because Sam and Elder Bhagwat were united in purpose. It was really clear that the next part of my life was to graduate from college. And both parts were united in that.”

“But I really struggled after that, when I was at work [at the management consulting firm Mars & Co]. Suddenly the main important thing was to be able to work with a spreadsheet. To SUMIF or sort or INDEX(MATCH()) correctly. And Sam was good at that, but Elder Bhagwat wasn’t. So Sam became the dominant part of my personality again. Because he was useful. Elder Bhagwat wasn’t really useful – charity and service weren’t terribly helpful in working a spreadsheet.”

I’ll call this new person SMB, since we used our initials to identify ourselves on Mars & Co documents. SMB had far more of Sam, than he had of Elder Bhagwat.

Even parts of SMB where Elder Bhagwat should have shown up, such as communication and a good relationships with teammates, he didn’t. SMB’s new teammates played a different ballgame than the people Elder Bhagwat was used to. More businesslike, less nice, less caring of efforts, less egalitarian.

August 2011: On weekends and evenings, I would wonder if I should still be Elder Bhagwat – after all, he didn’t seem terribly useful during the week. And being a Sunday Christian didn’t appeal to me.

So was it just time to say “screw it”, ditch Elder Bhagwat, and turn into SMB?

SMB was fairly familiar -- kind of like Sam. But he was less nice, more thrill- and status-seeking, and certainly far less religious.

I thought so at one point. But I changed my mind.

I wish I could say that I was struck down by an angel, or saw a risen Christ on the road to Damascus, or was reborn in one moment.

But it was more of a process. Looking back, I see six main parts.

First, I realized SMB wasn’t very happy. (Though a skeptic would say I simply hadn’t yet learned to fill the shoes).

Second, I remembered a big reason why I had joined the Church and become Elder Bhagwat in the first place. Because I really really really want to have a happy family, and loved the language of eternal family as I heard the words, along with all it entailed. SMB was not helping me get there.

Third, I looked back beyond my recent dearth of spiritual experiences, to remember those I once had.

Fourth, I resolved my internal tensions in Part VI.

Fifth, I made up my mind, then made up a goal and clung to it. A good friend, the sister of my girlfriend in high school, was getting married in the temple in December in Michigan. I made up my mind that I was going to be there, and stay temple worthy in the meantime. When that passed, I found other reasons.

Six, in March, I quit my job, the main generator of SMB, and found a different job where Elder Bhagwat and Sam could again be united. I was lucky in this.

With a little help from my friends.

A letter from my friend, the above Hermana, arrived at a really, really opportune time.

I ignored my roommates’ questions, but a “where have you been?” from a friend in church was more effective.

I got called as the assistant executive secretary, and took the meeting minutes for bishopric meeting. I had a purpose for being in church again.  

This entry feels like the end of this series. Or at least the beginning of the end. 

I guess I'm not necessarily writing everything in order. I could, and should, probably expand on the six things that happened. I probably will. Some are more tied up than others.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Struggles, part VI: Internal dialogue:

Somewhat later, after Part IV and Part V, I ask myself, “What are you doing?”

“What does the Church, gospel, whatever mean to me practically? I ask myself. “Well, it means several things, the aesthetic element, difficult to describe, that deals with the kind of world that I want to live in. There’s the friend element. And there’s the aspect of what the church, gospel means to me. Of the experiences that I’ve had.”

I think about the spiritual low I’ve been going through.

How could I understand this?

The church explanation: “It’s part of the returned missionary experience, going through the ‘lone and dreary’ world again.”

The rationalist/humanist explanation: “You’re finally out of the closed system you were on your mission and are in a better position now to see the way things really are.”

Hmm…then from a rationalist or humanist perspective, how should I understand the act of going to church?

Rationalist: “It’s part of being part of a group and having group identity, loyalty, feeling, emotion, etc.”

So if God doesn’t exist, do I have to leave the church?
The rationalist continues: “Why would you stay? The point of life is to discover truth.”

Now the pragmatist on my shoulder kicks in, channeling C.S. Lewis.

He brings to mind a scene in the Narnia series, where a group of people discovered at the last day that the god they had been fighting for was a false idol, yet it had led them to do and be good. Brings to mind similar passages in the Screwtape Letters.

So what’s the bottom line?

Pragmatist: “Well, think about your life at church. Perhaps, as you were ‘by staying here you can do more good than by any other way, you will live a happier life than any other way of living life.’ Then you should stay. With caveats; forge your own path, but stay.”

I start thinking again about the various worldviews.

In the rationalist worldview, words like holy and sacred and the accompanying emotions are, if not entirely lacking, than definitely muted. Value to things like sacrifice and self-mastery are difficult to see. Do I want to live, only in that world? I am more than a bit unsettled about that.

Struggles, part V: "I'm done"

It’s a few days earlier, before part IV.

Wednesday, sitting and reflecting, I bring out my journal, the capstone of Mormonism in my life. In it, I write: “I think I’m done.” Done with the church.

“I just don’t want to fight anymore….fight myself. Fight the truth. I don’t know what anymore….there is no God…There are a lot of things I want to keep with me. But I need to find a new home….”

Since around April, I’ve been kicking this argument around in my head.

It’s basically an extension of Occam’s Razor, called minimum message length, or MML.
The basic form of the argument is that if you are explaining a particular situation, you need evidence in proportion to the complexity of your argument. If there are 1000 possible, equally complicated, explanations for a situation, then you need evidence that is 1:1000 in favor of your hypothesis to bring it to even odds.

An example is that the probability of some woman Jane being a blond-haired bank teller is equal to the probability of her being blond-haired (say 1/4) times the probability of her being a bank teller (say 1/100). By adding the extra detail ‘blond-haired’ you have made the likelihood of your statement being true smaller by a factor of 4.

The argument against God is that any explanation of God is very complicated and thus exponentially less likely to be true. If there are 100 independent pieces of information (“Moses led 5000 people across a water bridge” etc), then the “prior” probability starts at around 2^100:1 against*. (Think of the prior probability like really good bookies making odds on a game before it starts, or at least while it’s still going on, before it’s over.) As the evidence rolls in (as the game is played), you adjust the “prior” probability to get the real probability.

But at 2^100:1, you’re starting really, really far in the hole here. You’d need stuff like “Jesus is speaking on CNN now” as opposed to stuff like “I had a spiritual experience and felt the Holy Ghost.”

It bugs the heck out of me, because I don’t have any good response.

I talk about this with my friend Arandur, the handle of another Mormon on the blog I read, called Less Wrong. It’s a rationalist blog, and fairly hostile to religion.

We decide to embark on a Crisis of Faith together, and begin trading e-mails with a fellow I knew named Larry Judkins. Larry is the atheist columnist that I had known at the Sacramento Valley Mirror. He and I had traded barbs in the pages of the newspaper debating the origins of the Book of Mormon.

We trade e-mails. Mostly concerning the origins of the Book of Mormon. There are any number of reasons why a divine origin of the Book of Mormon makes sense to me – its composition process, dictated out loud steadily. The complicatedness of the narrative. Hebraisms in the text. There are other things that seem 19th century-like or otherwise demand explanation, like Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and can generally be solved in some sort of a synthesis. Like “The Book of Mormon is of divine origin, but sometimes runs through a 19th century filter that results in seeming anachronisms.”
Larry’s last post is on the topic of Nazareth. He argues that ‘a Nazarene’ is a title, the location of the village of Nazareth was folklore originating in the centuries after Christ, and that the use of the word Nazareth as a location in the Book of Mormon is evidence that it is a historical anachronism.

Something about his post his me. Not necessarily his specific arguments, but more his timing, hits me, along with the idea from MML that I do need a lot of evidence.

As I read Larry's e-mail, I write in my journal those possibly-fateful words: “I think I’m done.”

*Actually more than that, but we’ll just say this to keep it simple.

Struggles of a returned missionary, part IV

It’s Sunday evening, mid-October in San Francisco.

I’m slightly out of breath, having just walked up a hill to get to the Frat House. It’s in West Portal, a quiet residential neighborhood in San Francisco situated between the Twin Peaks and the Castro on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

The three and four bedroom houses around me probably run between half a million and a million dollars, including the one I’m living in. I live with seven other guys from church in the so-called “Frat House.” which lets us get our own rooms and still keep rent at 700 bucks a month each, here in a city where the average studio apartment rents for a cool 1600.

I open the door and walk inside and down the stairs in front of me.

I walk by my roommate Drew; he’s dressed in a shirt and tie. “Hey, where were you at church,” comes the inevitable question. “Had some work,” I reply.

Not really. I just figured I’d take off so as to avoid questions.

The calculated church-skipping was a culmination of a variety of factors:

• Increased skepticism about the existence of God in general
• Dullness of life related to a frustrating work environment
• Not being able to see the gospel’s relevance in my everyday life.

You’ll see these as repeated themes.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Too many windows open in my life


It’s a recurring scenario.

A friend was over at my house and I wanted to show him my desktop picture – except it took 5 minutes to close everything.

As my computer struggled to open an large Excel file, one of my colleagues pointed out it might be easier if I closed the other 10 Excel data files I had open.

Another colleague noticed it as she saw my Chrome window. So many tabs were open, you couldn’t read the headlines on any of the pages.

I have too many windows open. On my computer, and in my life.

I start doing something and I pause, but I don’t clean it up, close the picture, pick up the “sock weeds” growing around the house.

This isn’t purely a technical problem.

My wallet was, until recently, bulging with tons of old cards I never use anymore.
My pre-21 drivers’ license (yes I still have that, I didn’t destroy it like I was supposed to. My Stanford student ID. My health insurance card from my dad’s work.

A lot of these I hadn’t used in over eight months, some for two or three years. Yet they were still making my wallet thicker and harder to close.

Nor is it a purely physical problem.

These are the windows I currently have open in my life.

Just my obligations, not counting my social life:

• I have a 50-to-60 hour a week consulting job, plus 7.5 hours of weekly commuting. (day job)
• I’m the CFO of a startup my friends are running down in Sunnyvale. (night job, ~10-15 hours/week in the fall, but only 2-3 hours/week now)
• I’m the assistant executive secretary at church, which tacks another three or so hours onto regular 3-hour Sunday church meetings.

How did I get there?
- I took a management consulting class my senior year of college, and found the methodology of analyzing businesses utterly fascinating. I had an assignment to write a 15-page paper for the class. It turned out to be 29 pages, as I explained in great detail why newspapers making their content available for free online were stupidly cannibalizing their business model.

Ultimate decision: to get a job in the field.

I skipped class one Friday back in 2008 and attended a conference ~1 hour away on seasteading. In a nutshell: there are three ways to change government: win a war, an election, or a revolution. Solution: build ships on the ocean where people can leave their current government costlessly. It’s a brilliant idea, crazy, and radical, and I loved it.

Ultimate decision: to work for a related project, Blueseed, which is trying to create an international visa-free startup incubator off of Half-Moon Bay. As the CFO, I prepare financials, and occasionally accompany them to VC pitches.

As the assistant executive secretary, I prepare minutes and agendas for the two main regular leadership meetings in my local congregation.

Because these are the main regular meetings of the local leadership, being the one with control of the agenda is a unique position. When I was asked to fill the role, at the time I was a bit unsure generally about how much I wanted to attend and participate at church.

Ultimate decision: to accept the responsibility in large part because I thought it would be interesting. (I’ve since recommitted independent of this current assignment, fyi)

Okay, but really. Why did I choose to do all of these different activities?

You’ll notice a common thread running through all of these. Interestingness. I optimize for interestingness. When I find something interesting, I am drawn in.
So what’s the problem? That’s bad…why?

The things I find interesting are fairly limitless. But I only have twenty-four hours in a day.

Plus, I haven’t even counted social activities. Talking to family. Just chillaxing.
When you have lots of windows open on your computer, it slows down the processor. When you have lots of in-process projects in your room, it gets cluttered. And when I have too many windows open in my life, I get stressed out. I only have so much time, energy, and loyalty to go around.

Moreover, sometimes my system crashes.

For example:
• There were definitely times at my day job where I was tired and exhausted from my night job, or my social life, and I’ve blankly stared at my computer screen from 5 to 6:30pm.
• There was a girl over the summer who I was interested in and vice versa. However, it was time-intensive to see her and somewhat complicated. So when Blueseed ramped up, the time I might have spent with her I used on Blueseed -- effectively vanishing off the face of the earth. Later, I curtly cut things off. I regret my rudeness -- it was an unintended product of system overload. Call that the blue screen of death, or something.
• This has happened many times before.

For example, I had from a similar situation my sophomore year of college. I was trying to work 30-hour weeks in leadership positions of two different jobs, and take a difficult courseload, including an honors multivariable calculus class. As a result, I got my only C ever in that class. Oops.

I could go on. I won't.

Time to close a window!

The bottom line is: I needed to close a window.

I put in my two weeks’ notice at my management consulting firm.

When I wrote this, I didn’t think they would be able to pay me. So I thought I would stay in the spare bedroom of the apartment/office. I figured that I had enough money for a year, if I cook for myself. Two years, if I don’t have to pay rent. (My job gave me money. I saved ~35% of my salary. Management consulting pays well, and I’m a huge cheapskate.)

Now they can, which is even better. And I can get a place of my own in Palo Alto.

I’ll get stock, which is worth a lot on paper, at the current valuation our investors are giving us (though most startups fail, in which case my stock would be worthless).