On Local Minima

“For what it’s worth…

It’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be.

There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or you can stay the same. There are no rules to this thing.

We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view.

I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rain is pouring outside to the cadence of a slow jazz that resonates from a Barcelona coffee shop. I can see it trickle down hats and umbrellas, along rooftops and onto cobbled roads. I can see people run from it and others sip beer while it darkens their hair, rolling off their cheeks. There is an inspirational beauty in rain. We can use it to justify a slow day, to turn on the fire and watch the steam from a teapot climb to the ceiling as droplets condense onto cool glass.

I wanted to capture a feeling, but I fear that it will come across as cliche.

In reflection upon why this seems so, I believe we’ve come to a place where abstract thought has become commoditized. We print pithy quotes on tshirts and have no patience for anything more than 140 characters. Profundities have been regurgitated in self-help books and we have lost the time to appreciate that an awesome view is made whole by a grueling climb. When we only see the view without the climb, read the conclusion without the story, we find that we know of a lot of things and very little about any. In this, the world of insight is bound to seem cliche in the same way that Google-Imaging cool views will get old

Anyhow, I feel a strange sadness heading back to San Francisco.

In some ways, I feel that I am periodically reminded of this elusive, moldable substance that underlies all of life. I think we are somehow aware of this when we are kids. I remember playing in mud, discovering a galaxy beneath the tree in my backyard, collecting roly polys. You are never alone. The world is full of imaginary scenes and make-believe characters. I recall having pirate battles with myself alone in my room and space-faring adventures on the playground.

As we grow, this substance is filled with and reinforced by structure. Your friends are determined by where you went to school and who lives nearby. Our lives happen on a 5 days per week, 9 to 5 schedule. I had this feeling before I left, standing on Twin Peaks in San Francisco at night, staring down the river of light that is Market Street. From this vantage point, you wonder how many times you went back and forth on that train every day at the same time. You can see your existence play out between two buildings, your office and your apartment. Magic, spontaneous encounters happen as small deviations from this path. Maybe it was a date, a conversation with an old friend, or a day when you took a different route to work because the metro was down. Over time, we come to believe that this structure is not just something that fills life — a system we use to direct ourselves in order to survive. Rather, we come to believe that this structure is life, all there is in an otherwise empty universe.

We forget that all of this was created by someone else. If we are not careful, even our moments of escape, those places where dreams are forged, are pre-formed in Netflix episodes. It’s scary to say that many of my great memories are the finales of Game of Thrones seasons, mornings with Scooby Doo before school, and long nights playing video games with friends. I wonder if we are coming to a world where we are the AIs in Westworld with pre-programmed pleasant memories and preordained character arches.

I am no luddite. The world has never had a shortage of change-resistance, writer’s who proclaim that we are losing ourselves and must return to the slow pace of old ways. It’s easy to condemn change and focus nostalgia on the never ending sequence of beloved traditions that inevitably do change. There is no doubt in my mind that here now is the best time to be alive. However, with all of this stuff — opinions, structure, information — finding out one’s own path has an unprecedented difficulty.

I met someone who described this difficulty as the discovery that you are in an oasis surrounded entirely by desert.

Sometimes, I believe we find ourselves in an empty paradise, some version of Odysseus’ island before he continued his perilous journey, a local minimum of sorts. Success is predefined in the stories we immerse ourselves in and structures we inhabit. In this place, our core needs are met. We may even feel successful. Life is comfortable. Over time, thicker and thicker walls began to form around our oasis and the thought of venturing into the desert feels unnerving. We eventually forget that the desert even exists. Maybe we place mirrors on the outskirts of our paradise so that any thought of leaving only triggers a reflection on why we chose it in the first place. In this oasis, life changes are constrained to minute, slow variations. We can converse with other people in the oasis but they may have also forgotten about the desert. Their opinions may just be the same as our own.

Let’s say that one day you decide to leave the oasis in full knowledge that no matter how hard you’ve searched, it does not contain what you’re looking for. Out there in the heat of the day and the bitter cold of night, sand tearing into every crevice of your body, your tongue swelling with dehydration, and the possibility that there are no more oases, you will most certainly fixate on the paradise that was. Alone in the desert, you will surely reminisce on more comfortable times — companionship, an income, validation. You may even decide to return to your oasis.

Don’t.

If we’re lucky, we will have a few moments in life where we can stand on a precipice and stare off into the desert screaming, “take me!” These moments are often the most painful. To jump into the unknown requires you to bear the full weight of life paths that could have been. We normally spend our lives tip-toeing only able to withstand rejection in small doses with calculated risks. We only deviate slightly from an otherwise known path.

Maybe you’ll fall in love and build a universe with someone only to find that it doesn’t make sense. Maybe you’ll get promoted to the highest ranks, working endless hours for a reward that is completely unfulfilling. The thought of starting over will seem utterly ridiculous.

Out there in the desert, you may come to find that all the truths you once held were just trees in a small oasis. Maybe you’ll find that the oasis was truly where you belonged. Regardless, the point is not where you end up, but rather the path you take. The desert, the unknown, whatever you want to call it, is a force for separating your dreams from those that were implanted. Only true callings can survive the test. It is a reminder that everything around you — traffic lights, social norms, career paths — were created by someone no smarter than you.

Life is fullest when we stand on the precipice, the edge of the known world, when we step into the moldable substance, and remember that this is one of many possible paths.

engineer, entrepreneur (@baton.io), distance runner.

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Andrew Berberick

Andrew Berberick

engineer, entrepreneur (@baton.io), distance runner.

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