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Five Years

Or, “A Few Career-Related Thoughts Related to My Impending Graduation”

Are you where you thought you’d be at the beginning of this year? A year ago? Five years ago? Are you who you thought you’d be?

Five years ago, my life went kind of like this:

MIT rejection letter

I was an ambitious (and somewhat delusional) straight-A student. I didn’t get into the schools I wanted. My faith in “the system” was upended. (Which, in itself, is worthy of it’s own long discussion some other time.) Dreams were broken. Plans were changed and tossed out.

Instead of following through with any of my original backup schools, I applied to the University of Missouri, to follow my friends. As a kid I’d lived in Columbia (before moving to St. Louis) and I guess in another little delusion of mine, I thought I’d come back to bring things full circle, so to speak. I’d spent years of my childhood wanting it.

(Funny side story about that: During my short photojournalism stint, I profiled and interviewed an award-winning professor who turned out to be the father of a childhood friend of mine, from the days I still lived in Columbia. Full circle, indeed.)

At the time, I was accused of merely settling for the “easy out.” But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the right choice — it didn’t make a lot of sense back then, but in hindsight the decision has panned out way better than I could have expected.

Around the end of my freshman year, sick of the computer science curriculum, I toyed with the idea of getting a journalism degree instead. On a whim, I went over to the student newspaper, the Maneater, and started taking photo assignments.

And while that didn’t quite pan out — I’ve since come back to tech and decided on a degree in Information Technology — the gut decision to get involved in the media industry has completely driven my career since then. (Oh, but my reporting/photographing days sure were something.)

Due to a couple folks working the ’Eater site my freshman year, I got acquainted with Python & Django early — an early draft of the new was written in Django 0.91, or pre-“magic removal”. (Not to mention the “Maneater lineage” everyone adored — co-creator Adrian Holovaty had been online editor of the paper, years ago.) I’d like to say I got into it, but I had trouble understanding any of it until a couple years later, when we buckled down and finally took the time to get a new site out the door. (Having started over twice, from scratch.)

But we finally got it done in Django, just as it was starting to become the “hip” thing. And after that launch, one thing led to another, and well… What started as a random major change (to journalism) turned back into a programming gig; what started as tinkering with Django over the course of a few months turned into a nice little career niche.

I’m lucky as hell for having been in the right place in the right time.

Sophomore year, I found my way out of my awkward, shy shell and worked as a barback for a couple semesters. Picked up another part-time job as a programmer at a great local startup. I was working hard and it didn’t feel like work — I honestly loved every minute of it.

I failed out of school on account of really terrible grades. By that, I mean impossibly terrible, are you actually trying to fail grades. After the initial shock, I took it in stride. I appealed and back in immediately, without having to take the requisite one semester off. I took responsibility for the mistake and learned to juggle a bit better. But also: I learned what it felt like to really pour myself into something I loved doing — the difference between a a job and an awesome job.

It may have set me back well over a year, but in hindsight, that year was one of the most fulfilling times of my life.

A quick aside: This article — “Many gifted children fail academically” — and the relevant Hacker News thread posted a couple days ago really hit home. Couldn’t help but get a wry smile when I read this comment:

…MIT alum here, but there's nothing all that singularly unique about MIT in my book. I'm glad I was able to go, but I also realize (claim?) that most people who would be successful at MIT will be successful wherever they go, and that MIT is likely a rounding error in their success. MIT doesn't turn lead applicants into gold graduates.

Today, I take my last final exams. (I really wanted to say “my final finals.”)

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I graduate on Friday. Pomp and Circumstance and all that — I will finally be done with my “formal education.” (And while I loved and learned plenty from it: good riddance, since high school I’ve always liked my way better.)

I’m so prone to hyperbole when I talk about the near-future, but to tell you the truth, I’m not really sure where I’m going. I’ve committed to going back to Spokane for the summer. (The joke I keep hearing goes, “it just wouldn’t be a Mike Tigas summer without Spokane.”) But after that? Who knows. And you know? It’s somewhat refreshing to have that clean-ish slate ahead of me. I’d put off the thought of “tomorrow” for so long that it’s simultaneously amazing and overwhelming to think about now. No more school. This is it. What am I going to do now? I’ve got my degree — what am I fighting for now?

My impending graduation and departure from Columbia feels like a breakup to me. I’ve mostly passed the sad, reminiscing phase for now, but now that I’m looking ahead I’m stuck in that now what? phase. Starting over fresh is, once again, amazing and overwhelming to think about.

(I feel like that talk would start with something like: Columbia, we’ve had great times together, but I don’t think it’s working out — not now, at least. I’ve had this on-and-off thing with Spokane for a while. And don’t get me started on how long I’ve been pining for New York. I’d love to see you again someday but, for now, maybe we should see other people places? Don’t worry, I’m not crawling back to St. Louis. At least, not right now.)

My biggest takeaway from the past few years: trust my gut instinct more often. As someone with an awful tendency to overthink things, my (at the time, half-brained and random) decisions to go to this school and get involved with journalism here are probably the most significant good choices I’ve made over the past few years.

Another takeaway: and don’t be afraid to fail. I’ve always been a supporter of the better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all mantra. (The professional corollary would likely fall along the lines of: “better to do something you love and fail” than not.) Crippling fear of failure in the past meant I’d often never give some things a chance, but I think I’ve gotten better at it over the past couple years.

I don’t know where I see myself in two months, much less a year or five years or ten. But so what? I trust myself enough to believe that I’ll find a way make things work out. I mean, the past five years worked out well enough on the fly.

Again, I’ve been lucky as hell; right place, right time.

I can’t wait for the next thing, whatever that may be.