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04 February, 2012

Revisiting influences from the distant past

I'm on my way to Chicago right now.

Actually I am not. I started this blog over a year ago, but it lingered, incomplete. But now I find myself inspired to finish pieces started previously, so let's just pretend.

It is "work travel," but there will be a very special non-work-related aspect to this trip. I'll be meeting with one of the people who had the greatest influence in my early-adult life. My first graduate school advisor, whom I have not seen since 1993, lives in Chicago. We're going to meet this evening. And I am nervous about it. Not sure why. We've had sporadic contact over the span of the 17 years that have passed. A few recommendations, a few emails, a Linked-In invitation, and some occasional comments about Microsoft Office, once he learned that I was a part of the development of that product.

The first thing that's weird about the transition of a mentor from youth into an acquaintance in adulthood is the change in nomenclature. When I was his student, he was always "Professor X" even though he is only 11 years older than I am, and he would have been perfectly okay with me calling him "Nick." But now, he's Nick, of course. I still feel like I should show him some more respect than that. But it's just a leftover.

We met at The Cheesecake Factory, in Downtown Chicago, which is not a place I would ever have chosen since I try to avoid major chains, and would prefer to go someplace with local flavor, and character. But that was his recommendation, and I was not going to reject it.

When I first saw him, it triggered strong emotions, because of how important he was in my life. In some ways, I feel like Nick contributed significantly to my general outlook on life, and he may have impacted subsequent choices that I have made. He looked much the same. His hair was a little thinner, he had gained a little bit of a belly from the years (he was 34 when he advised me, and now he is 52). And he no longer had the thick mustache that was one of his defining characteristics back then. But he's still the same Nick. Outspoken, opinionated, passionate, animated, and truly from the heart.

Our dinner conversation reminded me of everything that was great about him. We talked about his new business that he started, after leaving a major corporation where he'd led a research division for many years. We talked about the projects I was working on at my company. It turns out, there was a fair degree of overlap in the disciplines that we were both in, even though I had changed careers pretty far afield from what I studied with him. And we talked about the philosophy of science and life. I think this is the area where he influenced me the most.

At dinner, we were talking about making big decisions in life, and how to navigate the details and negotiations, particularly when they involve financial factors. He shared with me some advice that his father had given him. His father is a Greek man, still living in Greece, whereas Nick has been in the states since at least the mid-1980s.

His father had said "If it's worth buying for ten dollars, it's worth buying for eleven dollars."

I think it may be some sort of Greek proverb, but who knows. I keep getting words of wisdom from Greek people.

The point, of course, of this wisdom is that we should never make big decisions about our lives based on small differences in some tangible factor. Because, years from now, we will never remember that small difference, but the magnitude of the intangibles that we wanted will probably far outlast.

And it was a joy to have this connection straightaway with Nick. It was also a joy for me, and I must confess, a moment of pride, to know that he viewed my life as having turned out okay. He was proud of me, and he felt that my life is interesting, and that I've done well for myself. He is not the kind of person who would look at me and think "If only he'd stayed in his discipline, and become a professor." He was happy to see me happy, and he was happy to see me. That was almost a parental kind of validation.

Nick had shared many words of wisdom with me when I was his student, but two of those things stuck with me all these years, and have been formative in the choices that I have made in my life, and things that I have often called upon when trying to get through hard times.

First, he had said to me "If you want to get a PhD, the biggest thing is that you have to be willing to make sacrifices." He explained that you have to be willing to not have some things that you want to have in your life, whether it be money, or relationships, or free time to pursue your hobbies. At the time, I was about 24 years old, and I realized that I was not ready to make those sacrifices. I wanted to have money, and life, and things. And my passion for the degree was in no way solid enough to weather the absence of those things which I had never yet had. Years later, after working in industry, I went back and pursued a PhD in a different field. Although it was a long road (over 6 years), I did finish the degree. And what I realized were two things: First, he was right about the sacrifice. The hardest part of being a graduate student was just sticking with it, and being in that state of not really being anywhere, long enough to do the work and finish the degree. It was about patience and, I guess you could say, "delayed gratification." Of course, I spent a fair chunk of my graduate years obsessed with World of Warcraft, so I am not sure you could say that I was the picture of delaying of gratification. The second thing I realized was that the hardest part of graduate school was not the research itself. It was just the idea of not giving up and getting tired of being there.

Another thing he had said, when I had expressed some concerns and worries about security in life, was the following: "There is nothing more evil, more limiting, and more at odds with getting where you want to go in life than the notion of security." I'm paraphrasing, but it was a long rant, and I remember it vividly. I even remember being in his office for the conversation. He sounded like a wild man to me! It was the antithesis of my father. It was the antithesis of everything I'd ever been taught to believe. But it stuck with me. I never forgot it. And I realized, more and more, through my late twenties, and onward, that he was absolutely correct. Security is the antithesis of growth, self-exploration, evolution. If we only strive to maintain security, avoiding all risk, then we can't ever do something new. We can't ever become something new. We are limited. The first big risk I took was to leave my career on the East Coast, and move to Seattle. And to give up the stability of a well-paying job for the pauper-like state of graduate school once again. I remember my father saying "I support and trust whatever decision you make, but I can't help but ask you if it's really necessary that you make such an extreme change?" And the answer was "YES!" It was necessary. that move, that change, leaving all that was secure, opened me up to the idea that I could do anything, I could succeed, and I could grow. I could decide what I wanted my life to look like, and it didn't need to look anything like I had thought, or anything like anyone else thought it would look.

There's a sign on the wall at our yoga studio. It says "The best way to predict the future is to create it." And to me, this rings incredibly true. I still battle with the choice between security versus new possibilities. But, when push comes to shove, I always tend to go the path of the new. It is not just because I don't want to live the life my family led, though that is probably a part of it. It's because I don't want to have regret. And in this case, I think I can quote one of my mother's favorite quotes that she always used to say: "You will never regret the things you did in life. You'll regret the things you didn't do." Actually, that seems pretty ironic, because my mother didn't do a whole lot. But she was good at providing a Readers' Digest "Quotable Quote." That one probably came from someone like Erma Bombeck or Oprah Winfrey.

Anyway, this has gone on a sideways tangent.

It was good to see Nick. I do hope I'll have the opportunity to see him again, as he continues to be in my mind, and remain an influence and inspiration to me.

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