Ceci n’est pas un success story

As a young boy the only thing I dreamed of was of becoming a philosopher. I became an engineer instead. It proved to be a shorter path to financial independence. I never shook my first dream though. We’re 30 years on and here I am, starting my PhD in philosophy. This is what happened. You judge whether it is a story of success or one of failure. I don’t know. Just comparing start and end it’s definitely a story of success. The lived experience is not as clear cut though. It rather feels like a mess.

Don’t get me wrong. I like what I’m going to do. I very much like it. That’s the point of this whole post: success and failure are separated (if indeed they are separated) by razor thin margins. It is not like these trendy failure fests where you blurt out what happened to get closure. There is no closure. Life goes on. What happened gets intermingled with what is going to happen. The present becomes a blur. So one paragraph down: here is my story. I fear it has no point.

I tend to rationalize things. Probably because they don’t make sense to me. Or because I frantically want them to make sense. So when young I devised life goals. There needed to be a point to me being, to me being me. I devised two plans: the little dream and the Big Dream (yes, it started by cowardly hedging my bets). The Big One was to save the world from nonsense. It involved philosophy and writing a book that would change the world. The small one was to have a family and live a life in which my being had meaning for the people around me. Almost pathologically (in any case pathetically) shy I despaired of the latter so I wound up, in the main, cultivating my delusion of grandeur deeply embedded in the former. It turned out that you had to convince others of your greatness. That was a non-starter so life felt like a sickness unto death. I guess you call it a delusions if you are overly self-critical, otherwise it’s just considered as being properly cool for your age.

Then life happened. I needed to make a choice. Study philosophy (or some such) or study the type of thing people good in maths were supposed to study to make good money. The money did not specifically tempt me. I was sensitive though to what people supposed the thing to do was. It always seems easier to go along with that. Still, I wouldn’t have gone in for engineering if it were not for my maths teacher telling my father that I didn’t have it in me. The challenge was set. I had something to prove. The deal was done. I became am engineer with zero interest in engines, be they real or virtual. I was good at it too, at least on paper but as it transpired paper engineers make for good managers who in turn make good money.

The Big Dream was put on the back burner (but never ceased to burn). My wife met me. I suddenly realized the little dream was right there before my eyes. She looked pretty. She would have loved me even if I were a philosopher (and, in fact, she does). Quite probably she only loved me because I was a non-engine loving engineer with built-in melancholy – little we knew how inbuilt it was. A new challenge was set (and met!). But being normal wore me out. Really, non-cerebral things don’t come easy to me. I’m all brain with a body dangling from it in multiply dysfunctional ways. It doesn’t look too bad, or so I’m told. It’s still a nuisance. It doesn’t sleep well. It aches. It can only shit in trusted places, and even then it shits irregularly. Anyway we made a family and, lovingly, we make it stick.

Things kept nagging though. Somehow it always was too much and simultaneously it also never ever was enough. Philosophy was a refuge but a lonely one. I wanted to break free. Believe you me: that’s as bad a sign as thinking you need to find your true self. It is a sign your delusion finally got the better of you. A sign you wear on your forehead, impossible to see for yourself and therefore most troubling for those around you. They try to tell you about it but you won’t listen. Every time they tell you the sign gets bigger, as does the gap between you and them.  Well, I broke free, became an entrepreneurial wannabe start-up founder. I sucked at it big time. Great ideas, but as short of follow-through as I am short of breath. Still, I had fun. It was a challenge, after all. We did it with a bunch of guys and the honest truth is that all the fun was in me for once not dreaming alone. That didn’t last because life goes on. Bills need to be paid. Certainty needs to be earned. Dreams are stuff you wake up from. Unless they are larger then life, then with some luck you can succeed in dreaming all your life if they let you (but they don’t, you’re supposed to get real as, you know, that’s life).

So tensions mounted. Luckily I am an engineer so I could find a well paid job. Still, being a paper engineer well older than 40, I could no longer find a job that felt well. One where I was in control (I really really like control). Besides, I didn’t feel well. I felt like my spine was broken and that was not only figuratively close to the mark. Still, I did find a job; one in which I could reconnect to this, my, little dream of normality. It felt like a challenge. I started all guns blazing. It transpired though that I was tired of behaving normally whilst not being normal. I just couldn’t connect to people anymore. They looked like cardboard characters of whom I could gain no insights. My body did not help. Pain became chronic. It came in various guises. I still performed. I always perform. Indeed, it has always been a challenge to keep on performing. Until I snapped. My mind snapped. My body snapped. To this day I don’t know which one went first (which is good evidence for them not being very different after all ;-).

Luckily there was my family and some friends. They had my back when I tried writing a book and wrote a (forever unpublished because unpublishable) book. They had my back when I tried studying cognitive science and graduated magna cum laude. They had it too at this point where I had no challenge except for finding a challenge that kept me in their midst. I wanted to get back to work but paper engineers need to look good on paper. I did not. Strike one: left a good job, failed and accepted a worse job. Strike two: mental issues. Strike three: physical issues that could not be mended but required employer adaptation. I was out. There is no place for weakness in the wondrous world of merit. Only strengths are allowed, no amount of bullshitting can cut through that crap.

I realized my normal days as the provider for the family were gone. I was dependent on them from now on. From asset to liability in one crash. It’s uncanny how one internalizes what one is supposed to do. It becomes an image you have to live up to even when it’s an image you always hated living up to. You see yourself as the prototypical dead weight on welfare who gets on everybody’s nerves. My family and friends did not see me that way. Then again, they were probably blinded by love. So why live on? The Big Dream was out, timed out more specifically. And as to the little dream: I subtracted more than I added. It was better to call it quits.

But I battled on. Battling on is what I do, not in the least because so many people keep on cheering me on. I devised a new challenge. Do philosophy and try to prove you’re not yet done (or at least that you could have done it back there and then). So I did and this time I graduated summa cum laude. It appeared I was as good at this shit as I always imagined. It does not pay bills though. So I was stuck between getting back to where they no longer wanted me and getting to something where it was unlikely I could still get. Meanwhile, in the house my wife was stressed out, having to suddenly earn it all. She’s a charm but also charms have limits. The little dream was still a dream but patches of nightmare that had set in long before became more frequent as well as more pronounced and prolonged. We endured (not I but we, there is a difference). I got an offer to do a PhD on a good grant, in an even better team and on a fantastic subject. Praise be.

Except my wife still does all the heavy lifting. I still don’t know whether I’m really lifting something or just hitching a ride as a dead weight. The story can be told as one of success but it will always also be tainted with failure. I have a challenge again. My real challenge though is to try to live laid back. To simply be as I’m always counseled. I do my best. After a lifetime of boxing above my weight it however feels like I’m punching at air now. That’s an uncanny feeling as it is uncanny to start again at the bottom of a food chain after fifty years. The only way I can do it is by keeping the Dream alive and realizing how much of a dream this life of mine was and is. I try to find myself so as not to let any love get lost. I know I am lucky. I know I did well. I can kiss and tell.

We would do well however to realize that others who do well as well sometimes feel shit out of luck. It is they who deserve more praise, not me.


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