Soul Searching #16: reflections on my journey so far

Hi there, and welcome to the latest installment of my soul searching series. The other episodes in the series can be found in this category. It’s been a few weeks since I last wrote a post, because I’m slowly getting to the core of things and I find it quite confrontational. In essence, I’m trying to figure out what I want to spend my time on in the near future. I realize that I have a choice in this, and I feel fortunate that I have this freedom. It is, however not an easy thing to do. I’ll try to explain it by reflecting on some core lessons that I learned over the past few months.

Curious, interested, or passionate? I’m a curious guy by nature, and I’m always triggered by things that stand out from ‘the usual’ or that seem to be different from what I previously knew. Sometimes I’m so interested in a topic that I read a book, do some research online, or listen to a few podcasts. Being passionate about a topic is, however, another matter altogether. The difference is most noticeable when shit hits the fan – when I’ really have to put in an effort to get to the next level. The funnel acts as an enormous filter for me: I’m curious about a lot of things, interested in many of them, but I’m only sure about one passion: building wooden ship models. Even the topic that I have a lot of knowledge of and experience in (data / data science / analytics / AI etc), seems to not have survived shit hitting the fan.

For me, this is a very difficult thing to deal with. My curiosity is unstoppable, but never leads to a passion. Should I invest a bit of energy and stamina to discover if a casual interest is actually turning into a passion? Or should I look at it differently? In particular, I recently heard somebody saying that a passion is the way you currently express your purpose in life. I like this thought, but I’m not at all confident that I can name my purpose in life. And what about Data Science? Is it no longer a passion? Was it ever a passion?

Let me just emphasize that I’m not too particular about words and phrasings and definitions. I’m simply unsure what topic I should spend my energy on, and I try to find the language to express that.

Internal motivation. In the last few months, I came to realize that a lot of the things I do in life are externally motivated. A quest for status, money, satisfying other people’s expectations, fitting myself to labels, etc. In my sabbatical, I had time to take all these factors out of play, and very little remained. What remains is my passion for building wooden ship models – and fear. Fear of losing everything, fear of being disliked, fear of wasting my time, fear of not being the best, fear of missing out, etc.

Deciding how to deal with this fear will provide my path forward. But this decision is not an easy thing. For instance, I’m not at all convinced that I will make a choice that will ‘get me most out of life’ (whatever that may be). I’m seriously considering choosing the path of least resistance, and retreating from society. No career, no admiration from others, no legacy: just honing my craft of ship modeling, and creating things I love and am proud of in relative isolation.

Dunning – Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the relationship between confidence and expertise. According to the theory, people with low expertise typically have high confidence in their abilities. They are too inexperienced to know that they are not experts. As expertise grows, confidence decreases because the richness of the field becomes clear. At some point, expertise reaches such levels that confidence start growing inline with it and restores the balances.

So, guess where I tend to be on this graph? Yep, mid-level expert who realizes how little he knows and has the lack of confidence that goes with it. Escaping this is easy: invest more time to become a true expert. And that is the difficulty for me, as described above: what topic is of sufficient importance (‘passion’) for me that I want to invest time and energy in it?

Intermezzo. As usual, I’m writing this blog without much premeditated thought. Whilst writing the paragraphs above, something occurred to me. I wrote them with the assumption that I’m structurally low on energy, and need to be careful with spending that limited supply. Perhaps I should not focus my sabbatical time on determining how to spend energy, but on how to replenish it. I have to let this sink in for a while.

Specialization / T-shape. Much of our labor market is centered around specialization. A left-over from the industrial era. These days, we modified it a bit to a T-shaped profile: a specialist with sufficiently strong secondary skills to work in a multidisciplinary setting. This is a bit of a challenge for me. (1) I have the potential to develop multiple specializations. I think people have the tendency to identify one specialization from my experience, and to consider the rest part of my secondary skills. (2) I may no longer like to do something that I once was a specialist in. (3) I tend to identify myself with the label attached to my current specialization. So I’m confusing ‘what I do’ with ‘what I am’.

Again, this is – in theory – easy to deal with. I can take the time to explain and demonstrate my expertises, and the skills that underlay them. Also, by looking for synergies between my current and future expertise, I can use one as an ‘arm’ of the T-shape of the next. In practice, my shortness of energy is hampering progress here. That is very frustrating. I’m quite able to estimate my own level of expertise (at least, rationally – there are other parts of my brain that keep reminding me of my own stupidiy), and I automatically derive confidence from that. But without the energy to invest in building up the expertise, I don’t derive any confidence.

It’s a lonely journey. My journey of self-reflection feels quite lonely. Not because I’m alone, mind you. It is lonely because I’m the only expert on me, and I’m the only one who can join all the dots. I talk to a lot of people about my ideas, and I get a lot of feedback and suggestions. I appreciate and need that, but the reality is also that 95% of what other people say I have already thought of myself or heard multiple times before. It is that remaining 5% of information that I’m looking for. What I have found most useful so far is when people provide me with language to express myself. A blog, a quote, a podcast – anything that helps me express my ideas. A close second helpful thing is when people reflect upon what I express, without injecting their own opinion. Let’s call it an observer’s summary. Pointing out the irrationality of my thoughts is, however, not helpful my friends 🙂

Being honest with myself. It is not so easy to be honest with myself. I have fears, worries, irrational thoughts and feelings, good days, and bad days. I regularly show off, crave attention, and elevate myself above others. I often have low confidence, and low self-esteem. These negative things are not the complete story. I have achieved things that I am proud of, I like helping people, I have enabled other people to grow, I have iron confidence in my ability to learn, etc.

I try to be honest about these aspects of my life. Both the positive, and the negative. I tend to drift towards the negative, but that is apparently how the human brain works. Deep in my heart, I want to fix all the negative things, but realize that I can’t. I’m human, and this is part of it. It would really help if I was more knowledgeable about the emotional state of the people around me. You all seem to live perfectly happy, satisfied lives.

Closing remarks. As you see, I’m still somewhat lost, but I have also zoomed in quite a bit compared to the earlier topics. There is something brewing in terms of ‘acceptance’, and ‘letting go’. The only thing that has me worried is my intensely fearful reactions to minor levels of uncertainty. Let’s see what happens. Well, that’s it for now. Ah, and this is the last episode of the Soul Searching series in English – I’m going to switch to Dutch. Thanks for reading, and see you next time!