Sunday, February 19, 2012

Amor Fati

I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.
        — Douglas Adams

Some people believe in destiny.  The idea that the threads of our lives are woven together in a tangled skein is an attractive one, and reappears throughout history: from the Moirai of the Greeks and the Norns of the Vikings to the Wheel of Time in Robert Jordan’s series of the same name, which gives us the quote “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are only the thread of the Pattern.”  The reason this concept is so tempting is that it accords with our experience of the world.  If you stop and think back on your life, you’ll see a hundred different coincidences, a hundred different times where, if one thing had gone only slightly differently, your whole life would be in a different course.  In fact, looking back on one’s life at all the little things that had to go just so to lead you to where you are now, it’s enough to make anyone ponder whether there might be something to this concept: call it fate, destiny, fortune, karma, kismet, call it random chance or divine providence, say que sera, sera, or say the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, or say the universe puts us in the places we need to be, but any way you slice it, it’s hard to pretend there’s nothing behind the curtain.

For instance, say I had not dropped out of college: then I wouldn’t have gotten my first job as a computer programmer.  I might have become one later in life, maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same.  Say I had not accepted the offer to leave that job to form a two-man company with one of my former co-workers, which only lasted a few months ... well, then, I might never have ended up going back to school to finish up my degree.  I know for a fact that if I had not accepted an invitation from a friend of mine attending college in the DC area to come spend a week with him that I never would have moved to our nation’s capital, where I spent 18 years of my life.  I know this because I had already applied (and been accepted) to another college; it just so happened that I had missed the deadline for fall admission at the college of my choice and I was going to have to wait until the following spring.  But this school my friend was attending still had spots open—not for freshmen, but, then, I was a transfer—and a surprisingly decent English program, and so it became my alma mater.

And that’s just the beginning.

Somewhere out there in the wide world is a woman whose name I can’t remember, born in Hawaii, with the dark skin and exotic beauty to prove it.  She went to high school in Los Angeles, and her sister (or her cousin, or her best friend—I forget) went out with one of the guys from Jane’s Addiction.  Somehow she ended up moving across the entire country, and wound up in Fairfax, in Northern Virginia, just outside DC, working at a cheesy little college pub.  And, if she had not come out of the back room that day, and had she not been so pretty, and had she not smiled just so, and had she not looked at me and my friend and said “two applications, then?” ... if all that confluence of chance had not come together at that exact moment in my life, when I was just giving my friend a ride around to various restaurants so he could find a job as a cook, since it just so happened that he didn’t have a car, and just after an exhausting two or three weeks wherein I learned that my experience was enough to get me any number of programming jobs, but there was apparently no such thing as a part-time programming job (at least not in that place at that time) ... if all that chaos theory had not converged on that exact moment in time, would have I cut off my friend’s “no, just one” with a resigned “what the hell, sure, two applications”?  Probably not.  And if I had never taken that job, I would have never engaged in the childish electronic prank that introduced me to the computer salesman who became my first business partner, which eventually led to my starting my first company, which eventually got me a consulting job at large corporation, where I eventually met the woman who is my partner to this day, and who is the mother of my children, who are essentially the entire point of my existence.

That’s a lot of “coincidences.”

When business for my company dried up, and my meager savings was running out, another friend of mine just happened to mention a job that he had interviewed for but had decided not to take, but mentioned I might like it there.  Turns out I did, and I spent three and half years there, meeting some folks who are still some of my favorite people of all time, and having a really great job where I got to learn a lot of stuff, and teach a few things, and have a great deal of freedom, which was important, because I was coming off of working for myself for 13 years, and I’d utterly lost the ability to wake up early (not that I’d ever really had it, for the most part), or wear shoes at work, and I had 13 years worth of ponytail between my shoulder blades.

The story of how I left that job and came to the great state of California is yet another of those sets of bizarre, interlocking coincidences.  Last week I told you what I thought of corporate managers telling you you must take PTO when you’re slightly sick and you want to work from home.  As Bill Cosby once said, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.  I’m not going use any names here: if you know me, you most likely know the person I’m talking about, and if you don’t know me, you most likely wouldn’t recognize the name anyway.

When I first started at this job I’m talking about, the first job after running my own company for 13 years, I had a boss who lived in Boston and showed up for a couple of days every other week.  Despite not being around very often, this person was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had.  I was given very clear directions, never micromanaged, trusted, encouraged ... the only criticism I ever got from this boss was to step up my game, to take more responsibility, to stop worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes and take the lead on things.  This company was a subsidiary of a larger, public corporation, but our boss kept us insulated from any politics and let us do our own thing.  There was only one layer between our boss and the corporate CEO, and that VP and our boss seemed to get along just fine.

Then the synchronicity dominoes started to fall.  The VP left, and was replaced by a real asshole of a human being, one of those corporate jackasses who believes that being a jerk is a substitute for leadership.  In less than a year, the replacement was gone as well, apparently unliked by everyone, including the CEO, but it was too late: my boss had also submitted a resignation, and I was destined to receive a new manager, who would end up being one of the worst bosses I’ve ever had.  And I once worked for a twitchy Vietnam vet with a bad coke habit.

This new boss was a micromanager, never trusted, didn’t understand how to encourage and pushed bullishly instead, had no respect for the culture of the company, and basically ticked off every mistake that a corporate middle manager can possibly make.  It was like this person had a manual to go by:  Sow distrust and dissension among employees? Check.  Freak out and yell at people in front of co-workers? Check.  React to problems by increasing the number of useless meetings? Check.  I swear, somewhere out there is a book that tells these people exactly how to act, because the number of them who all do the same stupid things over and over again can’t be explained any other way.

It was Memorial Day weekend of 2007.  I was feeling a bit under the weather, but there was a big project going on at work that I knew we’d all regret if I fell behind on.  This new boss wasn’t my favorite person, but I still loved the company, and I wanted to do my best to make the (completely artificial) deadline.  That Friday, I sent my email saying I wasn’t feeling well, but I was going to soldier on.  Then I got to coding.  When I checked again, on the holiday itself, I discovered a snarky email from my boss, advising me that if I was sick, I should take PTO and not work from home.

I promptly replied that I was deeply sorry that I had attempted to make progress on our big project, and I assured my boss that it wouldn’t happen again.

I then went to check my spam folder, because that’s where all the recruiter emails invariably end up.

If you’re a technogeek like me, you know that once that very first recruiter finds you, there will follow a never-ending stream of offers for jobs in your specialty, jobs not in your specialty, jobs nowhere near the vicinity of your specialty, and non-specific vague pretensions of maybe possibly having a job for you one day so they’d just like to stay in touch.  Mostly you just ignore them ... until you get ticked off with your current work.  Then you realize that you’re sitting on a gold mine, tucked away in your spam folder.

I had always lived on the East Coast: 22 years in Tidewater, on the VA-NC border; 1 year in Columbia, SC; and the aforementioned 13 years in the greater DC metro area (partly in Northern VA and partly in Southern MD).  But if anyone asked me where I really wanted to live, I always said California.  I later expanded to the West Coast in general: Oregon is lovely (although, as it turned out, practically impossible to find a tech job in), and Washington is not a bad choice either (lots of tech jobs, but perhaps a bit colder than I’d ideally like).  But really it was California that had caught my interest; two trips to Borland out in Scott’s Valley and a couple of visits to San Francisco to visit an architect-turned-tech-entrepreneur friend of mine had cemented Cali—and the San Fran-San Jose corridor in particular—as the place to be.  So when I went looking for recruiter spam, I figured I might as well find something that said “California” on it.

There were only 3 or 4 recruiter emails, as it turned out ... a light dusting compared to what I normally had.  One of them said “Santa Monica, CA.”

Now, I didn’t know where Santa Monica was.  And I was too much in a huff to look it up.  But I knew where Santa Clara was, and I knew where Santa Cruz was, and I figured ... how much farther away could it be?

Pretty far, as it turns out.  Santa Monica is in Los Angeles county, and is (along with Venice Beach and Marina del Rey) one of the beach cities of LA.  As it turns out, my partner used to live in (or just outside) Santa Monica.  All that I was to find out later, though.

It was Monday (Memorial Day) that I sent a random email back to a random recruiter that I plucked out of a spam folder; on Tuesday, I got a garbled message from someone with an unintelligible accent—on a hunch, I called back that same recruiter and it turned out to be him; on Wednesday, I was talking to the recruiter’s boss, who was telling me about a company which had very high standards and was willing to pay full relocation; on Thursday, I had a phone interview with the folks who would eventually end up being my new bosses—this was conducted on my cell phone, while I was driving through the middle of downtown DC, trying to avoid the hideous traffic on the Wilson Bridge; on Friday, I was talking to someone at eBay corporate about a plane ticket; the following Monday night I got on a plane; Tuesday, I had what was possibly the best job interview of my career (probably second only to the one at the corporation where I met my partner), and they made me an offer on the spot; on Wednesday, I received a signed offer letter in my email; and on Thursday, I handed my boss a brief resgination letter.  So, to wrap up the discussion from last week, that’s under two weeks from the time my corporate middle-manager boss pissed me off over something stupidly trivial until the time I had a better job for about 25% more money (although, admittedly, part of that was simply to cover the higher cost of living in LA), and my old company lost 3 and half years’ experience and half their tech department.  Something for you corporate folks to chew on.

But the real lesson is, as far as I’m concerned (and as far as my family is concerned), when something is meant to happen, it will happen, and often with blinding speed.  I could tell you the story of our new house, for instance, which includes passing on it when it was overpriced, it disappearing from the market and then, strangely, reappearing for a cheaper price, and even a prophetic dream ... but I’ve babbled on for quite a while already.  No need to beat a dead horse, I think.

I’ve long felt that whatever force runs the universe, be it divine, karmic, quantum, or ontological, be it moral, predestined, anthropomorphic, cyclical, or merely mechanical, has been quietly and efficiently doing His/Her/Its job for me, or on me, putting me where I am today and seemingly with the inexorable goal of geting me to where I will be tomorrow.  As you can see, I’m an epistemological conservative, but still I can’t help but believe: all that effort that whoever/whatever puts into seeing me to my assigned place ... that’s a lot of pointless expended energy, if there really is no purpose behind it.

Something to think about, anyway.

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