Finding My Own Path.
I am not living the life that was planned for me. Upon showing some scholastic agility when I was a child, I began being told that I was fit for great things by a lot of people. Parents, teachers. I was a bright child, and I had accomplished progenitors, at least on my mother’s side. I was told from an early age that I would be following the path laid for me by one of two men, either my grandfather, the civil engineer and real estate developer, or his brother, the professor and mechanician. For some reason, their other brother, the physician, was left out.
But I never could quite live up to those expectations. I was good at math, but I wasn’t a prodigy. By the time I went to college, I wasn’t too keen on pursuing civil engineering anymore, a feeling reinforced by my mediocre accomplishment in those classes. I switched over to systems engineering in a fit of tears, certain I was destroying my mother’s dreams for me. She surprised me, supporting the move and being pleased I’d found a path I enjoyed. I think we’d have had a different conversation if I’d chosen, say, theater.
But in systems, I was still considered something of a high-potential asset. My advisor pushed me on toward a doctorate. He offered me a position as a graduate student in his lab. Columbia University, the school my great uncle taught at, did the same. I was offered a position before I ever even applied for one. The took me to a vast computer lab and told me it would be “mine”.
I had, apparently, chosen my great uncle’s path toward professorship and academic achievement as an adult. I accepted my undergraduate advisor’s position, and went to work on a doctorate. A year later I decided to quit. A year after that I decided to un-quit. I passed my qualifiers, barely. I had begun drinking in earnest now. I slowly made progress on my course work and research, gradually sinking further and further into suicidal alcoholism.
Just as I was ready to abandon everything again, my advisor wrestled a dissertation from me, and ordered me to defend it. I didn’t want to. I knew it wasn’t any good. But I did it. And I passed. And then I just sat down. I was ostensibly trying to start a consulting company. But I wasn’t really. I had enough money to live on, because I was highly privileged. And so I was unemployed, drinking as hard as I could, and married to a woman with a child who both deserved better.
No one believed in me anymore. Least of all myself. Not my wife. Not my stepson, not my parents, not my advisor. I didn’t even apply for any positions. Not that I’d have gotten one. I started a business and pursued nothing. I drank and drank and drank. Everything was falling apart. Until the day came that I couldn’t anymore and I had to let it all come apart and I left for inpatient rehab.
I was offered a job while I was in rehab, as a technician for the chief of staff of a small local hospital. At less than half of what I thought I “should” be making. But the good thing about alcoholism, and recovery from it, is that it makes you humble. I was willing to do anything to return to a state of dignity and value. So I took that job. It started after a bunch of paperwork snafus when I was about six months sober.
I was suddenly able to contribute. It was difficult and disorienting. I wasn’t good at real-world work, and my boss was sort of nutty. But I made it. Within 18 months, my salary had more than doubled, and I was made a principal investigator. Suddenly I was doing work I understood, enjoyed, and was good at. I learned a lot of things very rapidly, like how to write for medical journals and grantsmanship.
I got a couple of grants. I published a couple of papers. I did some things wrong, not understanding the IRB process and the internal rules about submitting manuscripts. I was censured, but not harshly. Luckily, my research doesn’t expose any human subjects to risk of harm. But eventually, my funding ran out and I needed to find a new position. I moved out to MECMC, and started building a different kind of enterprise.
Now I’m doing work I care about at an institution I love. I’m not a professor. I’m not a civil engineer. I do mentor students from time to time. I publish work that’s of no interest at all from a theoretical perspective, but is useful for learning to improve hospitals and the care they provide. As I’ve said many times: I’m not interested in convincing other engineers to do what I do the way I do it. I’m interested in convincing physicians and administrators that what I do exists and is a good investment.
I disappointed a lot of people to get where I am. I was expected to achieve in different ways. To make theoretical contributions. To be better at math or business. I was expected to be rich and renowned in my field. I’m not any of those things. I don’t mind that I disappointed people’s visions of me. And yes, I’d love to be rich and renowned. But I’m not and I won’t be.
What I am is a productive, contributing engineer. Mediocre but effective. With other dreams and aspirations now. That are not professionally oriented. Sunday, I compete in a triathlon. I am part of a flourishing relationship. I travel the world. My alcoholism disappointed a lot of people, and derailed my progress toward their goals for me. My recovery has allowed me to focus on what I want to do, what I want to build.
Today, I am a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 8.5 years of sobriety, I’ve built a life that may not be what I was launched into as a child, but it is one that I can accept for myself. I’m useful. I’m a taxpayer. I am functioning in a society that I no longer feel owes me easy success. I used to take two steps backwards for every step forward. Now, I take two forward for each step back. I’m not perfect. But I’m making progress.
I don’t know how my life is going to proceed. Maybe I change jobs again. Maybe I change careers. Maybe I get injured or sick. Maybe. Maybe.
I’ve disappointed a lot of people. And I think I’ll continue to from time to time. That’s what I’ve had to do to find my own path. Most days it’s a good path. Some days, not so much. But it’s mine. I am its author, and I am its only true reader. I have to be the one who can live with the story it tells. Today, I can live with the story I’m writing.