It is very difficult to predict how one’s life will go; not only your life situation, but the very objects of your desire, are subject to change. This accounts for the terrible mess that people sometimes make of their selection of college major. Since life is a delicate, dynamical system, it may in fact be impossible to align your training with your destiny; perhaps to study writing is to guarantee a future in boxing, but to train for boxing would only nudge you into theatre…
One of my hobbies is to write little biographies of myself, as seen from the future, often in the form of resumes. I’m quite prolific at making these. In some respects these resumes tend to run hopelessly optimistic, but also they suffer from a failure of imagination; this is because one’s idea of what is interesting or prestigious, when one is young, is bound to lack details; and rarely touches on the elements of experience which are actually fulfilling and rewarding. I will illustrate both points with a fictional resume I made when I was 19, a sophomore, which was meant to illustrate my qualifications for the NSA on graduation. Please note that everything after fall 2016 (and some undated items) are made up.
The objective states: “To contribute to a team of mathematicians working on difficult and interesting problems in cryptanalysis.” In point of fact, I had zero experience with ‘cryptanalysis’ at this time. I believe it was on my list because I knew of several graduates from my small school who had gone to work for the NSA and some related organizations; it was simply the most prestigious thing I could imagine doing. Perhaps surprisingly, I did go on to explore this subject area in college: I did a summer of funded research on some post-RSA encryption schemes, and I took a graduate class on cryptocurrencies (okay, the connection here is tenuous, but it does have ‘crypt’ in it!) In the end, I found the whole subject – cryptography, cryptocurrencies, the lot – to be dry and overly difficult, and I had no interest in pursuing any of it after graduation. I did not start a graduate degree in cryptography, and I did not apply to the NSA.
Instead, I joined a very small local company as a software engineer – a job to which no prestige attached whatsoever – which led to a couple years of intense personal growth, with such milestones as: building (eventually revenue-generating) software products from scratch; taking on my first intern, then leading a team; handling technical interviews for the company; and working with a whole host of interesting technologies that I’d never heard of before I started the position. I didn’t get rich, but the company was generous with me; when I left, they even gave me a gift! Words can’t express the richness of the years I spent at VisioStack, much better than the empty vision of prestige I had as a sophomore in college. (Of course, cryptography is still an amazing and by all accounts deeply rewarding career. It just wasn’t for me, and I was only interesting because it sounded cool.)
This is not the first time my plans went awry. From the ages of eight to fifteen or so, I was quite sure that I would be a civil engineer when I grew up. I thought this because I enjoyed drawing networks of roads – I really, really like drawing networks of roads – and I was told, upon inquiry, that this was the domain of Civil Engineers. (I still think that, if this could really be the sum of my job duties, I would have a tremendous time doing this.)
At other times I have been convinced, for periods of at least a few months, that I would eventually become a baseball radio announcer, a geneticist, or a missionary. By contrast, becoming a software engineer, as I have been all my professional career, sort of just… happened by accident. This is all deeply disorienting: Are my present plans and ideas any better than they were at 19? Here are some failure modes I see in my thought process back then:
- I focused on a future that sounded prestigious and/or similar to the work of my role models, instead of one aligned to my interests. In reality, I’ve always enjoyed building software, and I did this compulsively throughout college, sometimes to the detriment of my other obligations; my role models didn’t do this at all. So I probably should have identified different role models.
- That resume was created when I was at a personal zenith of academic performance. It was one of the only semesters where I earned all A’s. An academic future (which would be required by a cryptography career) seemed more realistic at that time, even though there were plenty of signs that I didn’t really enjoy school.
- I hadn’t yet done anything to validate this idea – no courses, additional study to see if I even liked it. This last seems like the biggest oversight.
I’m not going to be too hard on myself – I was young, fresh, I had lots of ideas, and I did go on to investigate the cryptography profession a bit more thoroughly. It’s not wrong to be wrong about this stuff. But I’m still writing future resumes, making fantastical five- and fifty- year plans, and I’d sure like to be right. These stories just seem like too much fun to miss.