Lessons from the 2010s

January 6, 2020

Reflecting over seventy years, I am tired of judging right from wrong. Faint traces of a path trodden in deep night snow. A stick of incense under the rickety window. — Ryōkan Taigu, “Sky Above, Great Wind”

It’s the end of the 2010s and, like many people, the new year inspired me take some quiet time and reflect on the past ten years. What happened? How have I grown? What lessons did I learn along the way?

I spent the majority of the 2010s as a thirtysomething, usually a period of life for growth and stabilization as one moves into “proper adulthood” (however you wish to interpret that). I started 2010 as an unmarried, relatively broke graduate student and ended 2019 as a homeowner, married, with two kids, managing an engineering team at a relatively large, open-source software company. Perhaps this means I went from a relatively carefree life to one with a lot of responsibilities, but I can honestly say I’m very content with how things have gone. Life would be easier without the responsibilities, but it would not be as rewarding.

During this decade, I ended up experiencing many major life events twice: I got married twice (divorced, then remarried). I bought a house twice (sold the first one). I became a dad twice.

There were plenty of memorable smaller life events too: I spent a week hiking alone along the Kungsleden in Sweden. I was fortunate enough to work on an interactive exhibit for SFMOMA that, to my great surprise, is still delighting museum-goers to this day. I had projects demoed on-stage at Adobe’s MAX conference. I spent quality time camping and hiking in California, Nevada, Utah and Oregon, as well as exploring Tuscany and Hawaii with my wife. I deepened my Zen meditation practice (which, unfortunately, has fallen to the wayside with the birth of my kids) by undertaking Jukai.

Through it all I learned, and continue to re-learn, that almost nothing ever goes according to plan, or the way that you hope, but that’s also what makes life beautiful. Reflecting on this, I often find myself returning to Buddhism:

The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. — Suzuki Roshi, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

This was also the decade in which I transitioned my career into management, albeit somewhat “accidentally.” As a programmer and engineer, focus came relatively easily, and I could focus for hours at a time on difficult problems. I often got lost in my work. As my work became more ambiguous and broken up into many competing, parallel projects, I found that I had to re-learn how to focus. I also had to do this twice, because in 2016 I left management to dive back into day-to-day engineering, only to return to management two years later.

Through all this, I came to more greatly appreciate focus (often because I had less of it!), and to better understand how to cultivate it. Much of this came down to managing things that attract attention, and removing all which I started to find non-essential — turning off notifications, paring down my use of social media (which I plan to mostly eliminate this year), creating rules for how I engage with communications tools, blocking time for solitude/thinking/writing on my calendar. I’m still refining and learning, but I feel more at ease amidst a multitude of competing time-demands than I did even a year ago.

Lastly, becoming a parent taught me how to embrace vulnerability and treasure presence. So much of parenting is full of self-doubt, guesswork, hoping you are doing the right thing when you haven’t got a clue and the world abounds with conflicting advice. There are no obviously correct approaches to many scenarios that children throw at you, but there are many wrong approaches, and sometimes you just get it wrong. But if you pay attention, if you are truly just present with your kids, you can usually figure it out. And that’s all children often want from their parents anyway: presence. To put the phone down and play, to be there completely.

…when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. — Suzuki Roshi, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

There’s more to unpack here for sure. Ten years is too much to summarize in a few hundred words, but this will have to suffice for now. Maybe it’s even too much. Perhaps one day, like Ryōkan, I too will have seventy years to reflect on, and only a few words to share.