Weird Pride

Why do we take pride in strange, often negative things? Why do we wear the day-to-day shit we hate like a badge of honor?

I just don’t get it. When I was in school, it was always a contest to see who had the most work to do, or who was so swamped that they were constantly behind and getting their ass kicked trying to play catch-up. You have three exams this week? Wow, you must be so cool. Two lab reports, a research paper, four problem sets, and a project due tomorrow? Seriously, you’re hot shit. Taking 24 credits this semester and you don’t have time for anything but school work? Damn, you must be amazing.

On any given day, a look down my AIM list at away messages would tell me of all the terrible things everyone was going through. And mine was right there with the rest of them.

What’s the deal? Is it a natural extension of the “misery loves company” line of thought? Is it a sick way of showing off, proving that you can handle more work than anyone else? Is it somehow cool to work yourself beyond exhaustion and depression?

Well, here’s my life now. I work a relatively moderate amount. Sure, sometimes I don’t get home until 7 or 8, and occasionally I have conference calls at night. But I make up for it by going to work later than most people, and I get to have some fun and down time while I’m there, as long as I get my work done. I’m well-liked and maybe even respected at the office, despite my relative youth and lack of experience. After work, some days I’ll go out dancing, whether for fun or to practice. Sometimes I’ll just go home and catch up on the TV shows I like, or work on some software I enjoy hacking on. Or maybe I’ll drive out to meet some friends for dinner, a movie, some ice cream, some gaming, or just to hang out for a while. Perhaps I’ll leave work a little early to shoot the shit at the bar with some co-workers, and then head back later to get some work done while the beer wears off.

My weekends are my own. From the time I leave the office Friday evening, I don’t even have to think about work until Monday morning if I don’t want to. I can sleep in as late as I want on Saturday and Sunday, and there’s no reason why I need to be up. I never have to spend time in the library studying (not that I did much of that in college). I’m never in the lab all night trying to figure out why my 32-bit asynchronous ALU suffers signal degradation in the most significant 4 bits. I’m never beating my head against a computer monitor at 4:30am, desperately hoping my semaphores will start working properly in time for the project turn-in deadline.

Do I have a perfect life? No. Are there things that could be better? Sure. Am I totally stress-free? Of course not. But I think I’m doing pretty damned well. And while I do work, I have free time, and I don’t have to feel guilty about other work that I could and should be doing. I don’t have problem sets that were due weeks ago that I haven’t gotten to. I don’t have lectures and sections that I’ve missed, and I’m not so far behind that I’m embarrassed to go to a TA and ask for help.

But even with all that, I can’t let it go. At any reasonable opportunity, I’ll point out that I had to stay in school an extra semester because I got so behind and was such a terrible student. I’ll joke about how I feel like I came somewhat close to getting kicked out of school. I’ll wax nostalgic over how I never really learned to study because I never had to in high school, and how that made college so much harder. If that stuff doesn’t seem to fit the conversation, I’ll try and work in how exhausted my job makes me, or how frustrated I am with certain people who make it hard for me to do my job. It’s always a contest to see who has it worst.

What’s wrong with being happy? What’s wrong with having down time, and fun time? What’s wrong with honestly not having anything more pressing to do than curl up on the couch with a good book? Why can’t life be about all the good things, instead of the crap we have to deal with? Why does being happy sometimes actually make me feel guilty? Why?

Maybe it’s just the people I talk to and hang out with. One of them works a full time job, and for some sick reason takes night classes. Another is still an undergrad, and she sounds just like I used to. Yet another is back in grad school at Cornell, busy all the time. Another is in law school: ‘nuff said. One is in grad school, and generally hates her life. Another is finishing up a master’s degree, and he’s constantly behind on everything due to other obligations.

How about people out of school, with jobs? One works 60+ hours a week, but still finds time to have fun. Another works a relatively normal work week, and gets out and does things as often as he can. Someone else gets to play with fun equipment at his job, and goes to bars and parties and plays gigs on weekends. One of my not-too-much-older co-workers recently bought a house with his wife. Another friend is living in another country to start a business doing something that interests him. Does everyone love their jobs? No, of course not. But at worst they can separate it from the other parts of their lives. It’s not always there, controlling, evoking guilt, demanding attention. And the bottom line is it pays. I don’t care who you are: getting paid to do something you don’t like is always preferable to paying to do something you don’t like.

My conclusion: education is a horrible, traumatic experience, though a necessary evil. I’m glad I got out of it when I did, and I hope I have the sense never to go back unless I have a damned good reason. And if I do, I hope I can take it a lot less seriously than the last time around. Life is too short to be hating it for any period of time.