Today I’m turning 40, a nice round number but a somewhat arbitrary one I have no special reason to celebrate in further earnest than years previously gone by.
It has far less meaning to me than, say, 42, but it is nevertheless a figure with enough symbolic weight to warrant more than a few words - partly because it’s what is expected of me, and even though I’ve always loathed doing what was expected of me or writing about myself as a matter of course, this time I’m making an exception.
I’m fortunate enough to have distinct recollections of events back when I was 2 to 3 years old - mostly a mashup of distinct viewpoints up from around ground level, and an amazing amount of detail regarding carpeting. I also have good memories of some specific “grown up” events from that era - my mother fretting in the kitchen while she listened to the radio on April 25th, miscellaneous family meetings, movie outings, the comparatively small amount of cars on the street, changes in landscaping and architecture, even language patterns as they shifted over the years.
The curse of this kind of memory is that everything feels relatively recent to me - I’ll just as easily recall events (but mostly faces and sentences) from thirty-odd years ago as from a few hours hence, and since it’s far from being an eidetic memory (if such thing truly exists), it’s often as much a boon as a handicap.
It’s a little jarring to, say, walk past a building I remember being built (or some piece of stonework I remember as being pristine or well cared for) and finding it shabbily maintained, or to recognize someone in the street and remember them from sitting in another table in a restaurant fifteen years ago - sometimes it feels like Memento, even though the overall sensation is of a continuous, low-key deja vu.
And yet, I often can’t recall the names of people I deal with every day. The brain’s funny that way.
But, by and large, I place the blame for my memory quirks squarely upon books, which have taken up all of the bulk storage, leaving little room for everything else.
I spent my younger years devouring books of all sorts, but my favorite ones were my dad’s Sci-Fi collection. Among other odds and ends, he bought a number of books from the ancient Argonauta collection - and even though he long got rid of most of his, I was lucky enough to find some in with the house we live in now, which made for an interesting couple of weeks wallowing in nostalgia and allergy to the dust therein.
After the dust (literally) settled, I started going through the list and tracking down the original works (in English or, oddly enough, French and the occasional German) and re-reading them, matching them up in my mind with the translations I then enjoyed, marveling at the amount of things that did not make it through language or censorship barriers.
Looking back, I can’t recall a month going by since my teens without my reading a single book, and today I read many dozens of books a year - enough that we worried about having enough shelves until my wife gave me a Kindle.
As a consequence, language in and by itself is one of the things I strive to immerse myself in the most, be it the SMS creole or the finer points of wordplay, and I expect the technology for displaying the written word to keep on improving, even if some languages don’t.
Portuguese comes to mind (since it is currently being reformed), but I blame my relative distancing from it (and, let’s face it, mainstream Portuguese culture) on my passion for writing rather than the Anglic hegemony underlying today’s culture.
I used to write short stories back in the noughties, and to my regret I’ve yet to churn out many that keep crossing my mind, while some of them are already underway under the guise of disorganized bundles of text snippets I poke at despondently from time to time.
Others have yet to fully take shape in my mind, but despite the length of this post, I seldom write as much as I would love to, and, sadly, currently have little (if any) opportunity to do it professionally.
Mind you, I’ve never really considered becoming a writer or any kind of professional chronicler - I’ve long outgrown the classic epiphany that invariably strikes in the early 20s - you know, the one that makes you feel like you’ll be able to spend your life loitering about coffee shops sipping lattes and frantically scribbling your oeuvre on dingy notebooks, oblivious to your surroundings, the need to shave or a decent haircut.
But I’ve come to amiable terms with it, and writing is as much a part of me as any of the physical bits I carry around when I walk by coffee shops spotting angst-stricken teens composing odes to their muses in SMS verse.
But, on the whole, I blame my current attitude towards writing on the English language.
My adopted tongue, for sure (my fascination with Mandarin persists, by the way, but I will likely never master it), and it has served me well throughout the years.
I have subtitling for movies and TV to thank for my learning it from a tender age, but the depths to which I’ve made it my own language have been a constant source of insight and gratification.
Despite having recently moved to a (wholly) Portuguese company, I still think and reason in English first and foremost for the sake of clarity - that’s par for the course in the technology business, but I’ve strayed a bit beyond - for instance, I haven’t bought a Portuguese book in years (maybe decades by now), and would rather read The Economist than any local weekly.
English just happens to be the perfect fit for the peculiar brands of humor and snarkiness which permeate my writing, as well as to my approach to endless, ruthless paring down of anything to the bare essentials. If coding can sometimes be thought of as yak shaving, then writing is my take on yak hairdressing. And for that, of course, I blame computers.
I’m nearly as old as the Intel 4004 (by a matter of a few months) but my first “real” computer was a Sinclair ZX81, which Dad assembled - his hobby was electronics, and I recall a few evenings of labor at a desk I wasn’t yet tall enough to reach before I saw the finished product.
As I was growing up I spent a good deal of time reading electronics magazines out of sheer fascination with the way components were assembled to varied - and sometimes whimsical - purposes, and I remember unwinding the thin copper from ferrite memories so that Dad could wind transformers for his other gadgets - an era of computing giving way to another as Apple’s put out ads in the hobbyist magazines Dad bought, which soon progressed to wondrous page two spreads on BYTE and other magazines I eventually started buying myself.
I won’t bore you with the sundry details of a hobby turned coursework and career, but it all mostly made sense for me. Having to settle for PCs (initially bought, but soon assembled by myself) during college was an itch I scratched by working where Macs were de rigueur, even as I paid for an MSDN membership and immersed myself into what I then hoped to be a career developing software on Microsoft platforms.
I’ve never thought of the Mac (or Apple, by the way) as being the thing, though. I still don’t - it just happened, for during all those years, I’ve never really found anything done better overall. It is somewhat disturbing that no one has been able to beat them at their own game yet, but more so that nobody seems to be asking the right questions about why.
But I find the status quo gratifying, given that I have come to value consistency and quality over the utterly disheveled mess of the “normal” PC world.
Oddly enough, I don’t blame the PC industry. No, I blame the real world.
I’m pretty sure (as such things go) the tablet computer is the future (or at least the immediate future for most mainstream uses), but sit comfortably in the camp of those who point out we’ve been neglecting physical, real-life integration between computers and our homes.
I don’t care one whit about home automation, thermostats and setting timers on heaters and AC (other than the obvious ecological benefits, which I’ve always been aware of), but cannot help but pine for the lack of low-power, affordable display technologies that would allow me to cover entire walls with pictures, illustrations and - of course - data from all manner of sources, including web pages.
People keep saying information wants to be free, and yet they still consume it through windows onto the data landscape instead of immersing themselves into it - and it doesn’t have to be tiresome, fully interactive immersion, it just needs to be contextual access - have data come to you during your day, Diamond Age style, instead of searching for it (or asking “intelligent” assistants) to do so.
And, for that, I blame the shortcomings of today’s networks.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to get into the (not social, physical) networking business by the time Ethernet switching was coming of age (and sold the first I remember to INESC a long time ago, back when it was little more than a glorified bridge).
I worked at two dial-up ISPs back when you stacked US Robotics modems in little piles with blinking LEDs, watched the portal bubble burst, laughed at the insanity of WAP, defied the wrath of the luddites who said GPRS data would never take off, and went through the whole rigmarole of 3G network buildouts, the completely unreasonable expectations around Wi-Fi and WiMax, and the marketplace insanity of the fixed-mobile convergence tsunami when every mobile operator wanted to go fixed and vice-versa.
Oh, and the bumbling attempts at getting a free ride off social networking that eventually drove me to greener pastures. I hate social networks with a passion, but not exactly for the reasons you might expect.
Looking back, the time when I was working on building out infrastructure (DSL, 3G, HSPA, etc.) was probably the most fun I’ve had so far because I was doing something literally world-changing - but it was sort of “rough” fun, and I consider myself pretty damn lucky I survived the experience (admittedly in more ways than one as far as the last sentence is concerned).
I eventually made a few friends along the way, of course, and I have only myself to blame for not keeping in touch with all of them (those few who really grok me know I place more stock on a physical rendezvous a year than in five years of tweets, but there are a few with whom I’ve kept in touch remotely for, well… decades).
I’m entirely too lucky for my own good as far as my immediate family is concerned. I’ve seldom had the inclination to share personal feelings online - at least real ones - but I dearly love my wife even if it doesn’t always show, and despite desperately needing some alone time now and then, I always feel guilty about not spending more time with my kids.
Looking back, having kids is something you want to do earlier in life than we did - they wouldn’t have been the same kids, hence my not regretting having them this late, but they are the Great Equalizer in terms of priorities: having them makes you re-think everything, and unimportant stuff you would otherwise have fretted about endlessly becomes just that - unimportant stuff.
I think they’d have steered me through some of the things I’ve been through in the past decade a lot better than I did by myself, but I’m still learning to cope with the whole thing, and I’ve probably matured more (at least for some people) in the past three years or so than in the three decades preceding them.
For instance, I will freely admit to having the damnedest time switching off from work and giving the kids my undivided attention.
Because I never have time to do everything I want, to read everything I feel I ought to, or because my inbox is overflowing and there is some deadline looming, I’m often too high-strung to step off whatever train of thought is racing through my head. When I eventually do so, I usually feel utterly lousy about it, sit them in my lap and read them a story, play a game, or tow them gently towards the rudiments of written language and the idiosyncrasies thereof whilst trying to avoid collateral damage to furniture from crayons.
But somehow it never feels quite right - or enough.
So yeah, family is one of the reasons I’m awake at night in more ways than you’d expect, and I keep blaming my career for the time spent away from them.
I’m going to toss you the spoiler right away: The only thing I regret was spending too much time in one place, and the only person I truly blame is myself.
After leaving the consultancy business and progressing from the ISP business to “core” telco, I kept telling myself I was terribly lucky to work with the same people throughout a decade (true), that I had the opportunity to watch the evolution from fixed dial-up to mobile broadband and FTTH from a front-row seat (also true, and with a breadth and depth of hands on experience to an extent which surprises me even today), and that it was just as good to move around inside of a big organization as it was to do so between companies (partially true, as it turned out), but in the end, it was a mistake.
A mistake I paid for in terms of frustration, health, and an overarching pessimism towards human nature and corporate ways that still taints my worldview in a rather ungentlemany fashion (or so I’ve been told).
The benefits in experience, (personal) networking and insight into what really shaped the telco industry in the past decade were priceless, of course, but you can, in fact, be worse off by knowing too much - which is why I’m doing a number of things differently nowadays.
Even though I have no illusions about the economy (it’s tanking slower than I expected, actually) and the constraints it imposes, I owe it to myself to never, ever again repeat the mistake of bequeathing too much of my time (and health) to someone else’s - or a corporation’s - goals.
Unless, of course, I share them. I’m told believing in things is good for your health, but I’m still having trouble believing in mundane things like umbrellas.
This isn’t exactly the best of times (what with the kids being through their first years at school, and bringing home new microscopic pets every week), but it’s far from the worst, and I intend to keep it that way.
Despite having had surgery a while back to attend to some ailments, I’m fortunate in that I have no significant health constraints other than what ought to have been common sense in my life until now.
But I’m well off in the sense that despite being slightly overweight at the moment I am not so in, say, the American way (bazinga!) and have very few other concerns other than recurring sinus trouble (a troublesome side-effect of today’s climate control idiocy, which is debilitating enough for me to have sworn off flying).
Of course I have all sorts of little aches and pains here and there (most due to ill-slept nights and overall stress), a reminder that there was a time when I moved around to talk to people a lot more and that the constant (if relatively mild) exercise I got made a significant difference. Ironically, these days I’m half an hour away from my office on foot, but daily logistics make it nearly impossible to take advantage of such an apparently cosy arrangement.
On the other hand, I can only blame myself for not finding the time to take a brisk walk now and then, something I’ve become acutely conscious of during the past few months as I endeavor to get a good handle on quality time as a whole.
It bears mentioning (as a sort of general wrap-up before moving on to the ending) that when I first got wind of Steve Jobs’ withdrawal (and, later, his passing, and again while reading through his biography), what went through my mind, time and time again, wasn’t about him as an industry leader or a technology visionary - rather, it was about him as a regular parent, and how I’d have coped (or, most likely, not) in similar straits.
Which is another reason why I’m writing this - turning 40 is as good a time as any to ponder what use you’ve made of your time so far, how you intend to make the best of it from here on, and what shape you want to do it in.
So, on to the not-quite-sage advice bit, which will (as such things usually are) be ignored by reckless youngsters, generate mild interest from my peers, and mocked by my elders as unconfirmed evidence of lingering hope of my ever achieving their degree of enlightenment…
I’m quite partial to the less is more motto, and it has served me well, proving itself time and again amidst the clutter of our everyday lives, although I honestly wish I could employ it with the sharpness of focus it deserves.
I hate doing too many things at once, both because there is in my frontal lobe an entire cluster of (probably mildly autistic and OCD-biased) neurons ready to take up torches and pitchforks at the mere thought of disorder, and because the only way to do something right is to do so with your full, undivided attention.
In case you find that stifling, the key is to remember there is a bewildering amount of stuff out there (whether in the personal or the technology planes) you can do, so there’s nothing to stop you from doing something else with your full, undivided attention once (and this is the bit most people don’t get) you’re actually done with the first thing you started.
So, in a nutshell, here are my five tenets:
- Do the stuff that you know how to do to the best of your ability (and then some)
- Never, ever, stop learning new stuff
- Devote more time to people than to technology
- Don’t spend any more time than you absolutely must working at places where you don’t share the ethos
- Switch off and be with your loved ones for as long as you possibly can
If I’m still around in 40 years’ time, I’ll probably make it a point of quoting the above and disproving each and every item with maniacal glee, but right now that’s the best advice I can give you.
Do try to make the best of it.