Day 28: Can I do it?
I ran through the halls an undergrad building yesterday. It had been years since I did this — years since my heart palpitated with the fear of walking in late to the disappointed stare of a professor whom I ever-so-desperately wished would approve of me. It reminded me of running through the Silver Center, which is NYU’s main academic building, cursing at the Neoclassic archetecture that split up two adjacent rooms with a 10-story wall. I remember how excited I used to be for class, and not just because I was learning about the dogmatics implications of wormholes for buddhists — but also because my best friend was in that class, and because there was a smarmy super senior who provided live comedy.
I jumped into the classroom, as if it was a finish line, and there they were: 20 kids, no older than 21, who were slouched in their chairs. I thought about what their lives might be like. Maybe they spent the early morning at the cafeteria with their roomates. Then they went back and studied in their room, and moved the activity to the library, where they met up with the girl or boy they secretly had a crush on (though not so secret, because they’d be spending virtually every day together.) From there, they went to lunch, sat around in the quad, because it was freaking beautiful and only undergrads can really do that and still feel productive. And finally, they came here, in this dusty classroom, only to have old me lecture them about data and journalism and storytelling and, frankly, how to approach life.
I felt so old at that moment. So creaky, so out-of-touch. It wasn’t so much a cultural difference or an age difference, or even a maturity difference. It was that, when I saw these kids, I knew it was unlikely they had to suffered through an existential crisis that could end with being unemployed, depressed and heartbroken. I knew they were excited, naive — in the best possible way — and big dreamers.
They were going to college in the middle of Connecticut, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that they believed they could do whatever they hell they wanted to do, and that made me excited. It made me want to help them make that possible — because I believed it. I told one kid: “Give me a week with you, and I can teach you how to program exactly what you want.” I told another, “Just focus on one dataset, and you’ll become an expert on a topic.” I told these kids that they could accomplish big things, because I knew they could. I knew that, with some guidance, they could do whatever they wanted to do. I could coach them, advise them, cheer them on. Whatever. It’s all possible.
I got back in the car. I felt good about what I had just done. I hoped I could come back some day and continue to help them.
But then I realized: I don’t believe these things about myself. I know I used to think I could do whatever I wanted to do. But slowly, things started become impossible. I couldn’t be a basketball player. I couldn’t be a baseball player. I couldn’t be an astronaut. I couldn’t be a psyicist. I couldn’t be an mechanical engineer. Whether it was money or physical limitation or intellectual limitations or time, things started to become impossible to be. And that was sad. So I asked myself why that was.
My first answer to myself was time. Those kids were so much younger than me. But I even told them that I was only six years older than them. That’s not much at all.
My second answer was that I was older and more mature. I was more realistic now.
But I’ve always believe the concept of “realistic” depended on where you drew the line.
So what was it?
The last post I wrote was about fear. It was the fear of failing, or perhaps the fear of not being able to support oneself. I think that’s a big part of the limitations we adults set for ourselves. But the other part, I think, is that it’s just hard. When we’re young, we have to do hard things. We have to push ourselves. But now, out of school, I find it difficult to challenge myself that much. I quit practicing piano when it gets hard. I don’t write a blog post when I’m tired. I go to bed, even though I should keep learning how to figure out a programming problem.
That’s a terrible excuse. I’m actually kind of angry that the difficult of a task had slowed me down so much. That anger used to drive me. I used to drive through the difficulty of a passage in a song or a concept in programming, and I’d learn it. Because I knew I could. Now, I keep wondering, “Can I do it?”
As I was leaving, one kids asked, “Everything you talked about today is so overwhelming. I don’t know if I can do it.”
And I said, “It’s not about whether you’re able to do it. It’s about whether you will. So, will you?”