What ignited the fuel

28 October 2017
28 Oct 2017
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

These days I find myself tracing back my life events to simple, watershed moments, that seemed trivial at the time, but without which my life would be drastically different. Almost always, these boil down to people — either something someone said, or an action they led me to take, that led me down a different path.

Four years ago, as a high school sophomore, I was a physics-math nerd just getting into blogging, seeing the preordained path for me that was a rigorous path through academia to a research position in theoretical physics.

But I write to you today not about a new formulation for general relativity based on a non-differentiable topology of the space-time continuum, and instead, about design and business. (The post on spacetime topology is coming, though. Don’t you worry.)

In the proceeding four years, I’ve discovered many other things I love doing, so much so that today, I work as a designer, software developer, and general startup-person at a professional capacity with lots of cool people around me. I often wonder what exactly happened that so dramatically changed the course of my interests. And besides the generous support of my family and friends, I can think of three people who have, probably unknowingly, altered the course of my life (for the better).

First,

the only reason — literally — that I got into graphic design is because of the incidental encouragements of my seventh-grade mathematics teacher, Mrs. Porterfield at West Lafayette High. Today, almost all of my freelance work is design — whether I’m creating digital interfaces, brands, or graphics. But at the time, I had never thought of myself as a designer or an artist. The extend of my “design” stretched just beyond the pencil scratches I made at the margins of my class notes while I was bored in class. But she gave me the job of “designing” the competitive math team’s shirt that year for the school. Designing for shirts eventually evolved into posters, into websites, into brochures and banners. Just two years ago, I was still uncomfortable marketing myself as a “designer” — sure, I knew how to blend layers in Photoshop and sure, I could click “merge shapes” in Keynote, but design? Nah. That’s the big boy stuff:

My first design, for a shirt

But apparently all those doodles were worth something. Without that initial push, my foray into design, if ever, would have been very different.

My early design work is also how I discovered that, even without a college degree, there were people who thought my work was valuable — so much that they would pay for it! What an idea that was at the time.

Second,

my high school friend Sam Craig is singlehandedly responsible for pushing me to learn programming in my underclassman years of high school. He briefly taught me how to script in Python in middle school, which I promptly gave up, not finding any use. But a year later, Sam pushed me to scrap together a little Linux server from an old desktop I had lying around my house. My curiosity for what I could do with that 2007-model linux box led me to learn web programming and get into web design.

My first websites were very, very terrible. I have a vivid memory of taking a literal three weeks to finally grasp how to create a row of content with three vertical columns. Let’s not even talk about vertical centering, which was, until recently, a surgical operation of keyboard ninja so delicate, it was notorious in the web design world.

As a point of reference and nostalgia, here’s the answer to my very first technical interview question:

function repeatN(n) {
    for (i=0; i<n; i++) {
        if (divisible(i, 15)) {
            console.log("fizzbuzz");
        } else if (parseInt(i / 5) == i / 5) {
            console.log("buzz");
        } else if (parseInt(i / 3) == i / 3) {
            console.log("fizz");
        } else {
            console.log("nothing");
        }
    }
}

But from there, I taught myself to learn how to program and build websites. And I built lots and lots of websites, very early on. All of them were terrible, and all of them were so simple I could probably replicate all of my programming work in my first year of learning the stuff in two hours, today. Nonetheless, my software development work today is the reason I’ve been able to take a break before college, to travel at my leisure, and to work with some cool people. Thanks, Sam.

Third,

my middle school social studies teacher Mr. Brian Fultz is the man most directly responsible for the fact that I’ve been able to justify taking a year off school working. We’d pretty consistently kept in contact before then, but I’m grateful that he saw something from the myriad of side projects I was working on and referred me to the people with whom I still work today (and who pretty much pays for my gap year shinanigans).

But for the bargain, it’s not just an income source that I got. This job is what transformed my keyboard mashing from barely legible spaghetti strips into pretty good, well-understandable code, and connected me to so many other opportunities in my local area that continue to broaden my experience and perspective.

Honorable mentions go to…

… my middle-school and still-today-girlfriend Abby, who has shaped my philosophy on life in so many ways over the last six years.

… Taylor Swift, who needs no explanation. I mean, come on. Jesus Christ.

… Rene Descartes. What a bro.

The Boy Who Lived

The Green Brothers and the first video I watched by John

But in all seriousness,

it’s so perculiar that the watershed moments in my life — learning to be a designer, learning how to program, getting my first job — were probably small, trivial things in the lives of the people who made it happen.

Are there anyone like that in your life?

and more importantly, who are those people, to whom your trivial gestures become their watershed moments, that ignite the spark that burns to something brighter in their lives?

I especially want to throw this question to teachers. Two of the three events I named here came from my middle/high school teachers. But they weren’t moments in class, and they certainly weren’t about the curriculum material. Nonetheless, I’m lucky that they both paid attention to what I was interested in doing, regardless of my work in class, and nudged me in the right direction.

I have no doubt that there are students today like the one I was four years ago, unaware of what they could do when given an opportunity and a chance to chase what they’re great at. And I think the wonderful burden of shining light on those hidden talents falls to the teachers, especially.

What small moments will you create that create something more?

Thanks for reading.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Do work that you are proud of.

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