Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lots of time to think

The benefit of living for a while without a job or full time occupation is that you have lots of time to think. The downside is that you have lots of time to think.

When you aren't constantly strapped for time, its hard to hide from yourself, and all of the difficult life questions start coming up again. What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? What are my values?

I'm in the right profession

When I left for Guatemala, I was feeling pretty burned out. I was pretty sure I wanted to keep working at the same job when I got back, but some parts of me also wanted out. After a year and change, while I still loved the people and the goals of the company, sometimes the day to day was wearing. I think though, that this was just a result of working too hard for too long; while for the first few weeks away I was happy to not think at all about work, a few nights ago while playing the solitary card game free cell I was struck with a powerful urge to program.

Something about the constructing of possibilities within the game triggered some of the same mental processes that programming does, but it was a pale shadow of the real thing. I was surprised by how visceral it felt, this desire to once again create structures in my head and write them down in code. As much as I enjoy learning about history, investigating a new culture, and trying to write, there is some mental itch that programming scratches that these do not.

Unfortunately, as part of our attempt to take nothing we would mind breaking or losing along on our trip, I didn't bring a laptop, so I don't have a programming environment here. Internet cafe's, while fine for writing blog posts, don't work so well for programming. However, in our new living situation, I do have access to a shared laptop (a mac, so I can code a little on it), and if the urge gets strong enough I'll play.

I need to make a conscious effort for balance

Whenever I have time away from work, I realize once again how many amazing and wonderful things there are in the world that I neglect when I work. I have a tendency to dive into work, to spend nearly 100% of my energy and time upon it, and to resist interrupting it with other activities. And yet, every time I step back a little, I regret this super-focus, and I think that it is not only preventing me from experiencing other good things, but also harms the quality of my work as well. The burnout that I was experiencing towards the end of my time before Guatemala is a good example of this.

My wife T has been a tremendously good influence for me on this. Since we have been living together (for the last couple of years; longer than we've been married), I've had a second focal point to my life. Instead of just living for work, I have been living for work and for her, and thus to some extent my work-life balance instincts may have been stronger than many of my friends at the startup where I work. Certainly my schedule was more regular, both because I had the discipline of the train schedules forced upon me and because she was waiting for me at home.

However, as I started to take up meditation and paid more and more attention to my life and day to day experience, I began noticing more and more the unbalance in my work and living arrangements. For example, if I had a chore that needed to be done during work hours, I was far more likely to put it off, as I felt guilty taking time from work to do it. This resulted in such chores getting procrastinated far more than others, and caused all sorts of problems. Additionally, the sheer amount of time eaten up by commuting 3 hours a day and being in the office 9 1/2 hours a day meant that I rarely took time to exercise, or go dancing as I used to.

When we return, things will be in flux no matter what, as we will be moving for T's graduate school, and I will be attempting to work remotely. This will throw all sorts of things out of whack, and I will need to figure out how to be optimally productive working from a distance. Regardless, I need to make a conscious effort to balance this work with other parts of my life. I would like to take up Yoga, get back to dancing regularly, and perhaps get involved with a local political group or NGO.

Politics are important

As I got more and more involved in the Obama campaign during late 2007 and early 2008, I realized more and more how much of an impact politics has on every aspect of life within the United States. How important good governance is as a counterbalance to increasingly powerful global corporations, and how much of an impact an election can have on concerns as wide ranging and important as access to education, reproductive rights, marriage rights, health care, care of the environment, and many others. What I hadn't realized as viscerally, though I'd thought about it due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the life or death impact a U.S. election can have on other countries worldwide.

Coming to Guatemala, I have learned a great deal about a sad history that might have been avoided with a difference in U.S. politics. In 1944, the 'October Revolution' overthrew the ruling military dictatorship and in 1945, the first democratic election of modern Guatemala began what are known historically as the 'Ten Years of Spring'. This was a period of free speech, political activity, and a variety of reforms inspired by the great society of FDR.

Unfortunately, one of the reforms put forward, agrarian land reform, challenged the properties of the largest company in Guatemala, U.S. based United Fruit Company (UFC). The law allowed unused land to be bought by the government at its listed value, and then redistributed to the many landless poor. However, UFC had long listed its many idle lands far undervalued to avoid taxes, and objected to letting them go for the value they had claimed. After failing to convince the Guatemalan government, they took their case via lobbyists to the now right wing dominated U.S. government.

Using a series of increasing propaganda, and playing off of the communist scares (this was the McCarthy era), UFC and its supporters convinced the CIA, backed by the Republican Eisenhower administration, to administer a coup and overthrow the Guatemalan government. As described based on later declassified files in the book Bitter Fruit, the CIA recruited a ragtag band of dissidents, an exiled military Colonel named Castillo Armas, and with a mixture of propaganda, bombing from borrowed U.S. planes, convinced the government and the populace that an armed uprising was underway. With heavy intervention by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, 'Operation Success' was completed, President Arbenz was removed from power, and Colonel Castillo Armas was installed as dictator.

This operation kicked off a series of 13 consecutive military governments, often succeeding one another by coup, and a 30 year civil war in which over 200,000 people died, many of them community leaders or social activists who simply 'disappeared', to be found later (if ever) tortured and killed.

I don't want to detail Guatemalan history in this post; I'll have time to do that in other places, but this is a firm reminder that what happens at home in the United States has enormous and frequently grim impacts on the rest of the world. If we allow our government to be controlled by scaremongers and foreign interventionalists, we are responsible for the results upon the rest of the world. We must maintain vigilance over our government, and constantly strive to improve it, for as disgusting as politics can be, it's far worse to allow the only people involved in it to be those who are in it for power.

Living my values at work

A final point, and one that I think is not just important for me, but for anyone. I believe that it is an incredible source of problems when people leave their values behind when they go to work. The idea that there is one set of things that is okay for individuals and a different (usually broader) set that is okay for corporations is not only bizarre, its extremely dangerous. Why should it be bad for a person to rip someone off, but okay for a company? Or bad for a person to throw garbage in their neighbor's yard, but okay for a company to export toxic waste? Most people consider themselves to be good people, but somehow the bureaucracy of working for a company allows/causes them to do things or approve of things that they never would do at home.

When I first got out of college, I worked at a high performance computing startup. We helped make clusters of computers talk to each other faster, allowing people to create supercomputers out of groups of regular computers. This was used by a number of researchers to do good things, but the largest customer by far was the defense industry. I somehow did not let this penetrate my mind for quite a while, that what we were doing was helping design nuclear weapons, or to spy upon people, or model the next great airforce bomber. However, as I began to become more aware, this bothered me more and more. Certainly it is not cut and dried, there are important things that come from the defense industry, and we helped other researchers doing things like trying to cure cancer as well, but being pretty firmly anti-war it still bothered me.

I quit that job, though I cannot claim it was for those reasons. But since then, the jobs I have chosen have involved far less conflict with my value system. I have worked as a volunteer in the Obama campaign and at a startup attempting to engage people in political and social activism. Neither of these is completely pure of heart either; there are certainly problems with the Obama administration, and our company's product is used by people organizing for things I definitely disagree with. However, I believe that along with the problems, much good has come of both the Obama campaign and the actual administration. And I believe far more strongly in the importance of individuals becoming engaged in the things they believe in than that what they believe in should align with me, thus I have few problems with our product being used for both sides of issues I am opinionated about.

Being able to say, unequivocally, that I am working on things that I believe are making the world better has dramatically improved my happiness both at work and outside of it. I do not believe that I would be able to go back to working in a job where I could not say that. Now, I don't need to be on the extreme end here, trying to start companies that save the world. A company that does its best to do no harm, make its customers happy, and help its employees to grow, learn and live well is improving its corner of the world in perhaps a more profound way than one trying to make changes at a massive scale.

I also think, that no matter where you work, there is the opportunity to help create positive change within that workplace. No matter how bad, or how good, your working environment is you can improve it by bringing your values to work and trying to live them. Help implement a recycling program, or reduce power usage, or start a day-care for working parents. It's easy to get complacent, either because your workplace is so bad, or so good, and not work to create positive change. I think I have perhaps gotten complacent at work, because relative to previous jobs it is so wonderful, but I need to remember when I return to constantly work to make it a better place for me and everyone else.

Being a change agent can be as simple as starting a coffee break when everyone is overworked and overstressed. Or being willing to voice disagreement when a prejudiced opinion is voiced. When I remember that everything is interrelated, it helps me believe that these little changes not only help me to live in harmony with my values, but can also, bit by bit, add up to real change in the world.

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