A couple weeks ago. It was Friday. I'd slept in my bed a grand total of two times since Sunday. I was dead, dragging tired, depressed, and wondering why I was still at Olin if I sucked so much at everything. I sat at the "I Don't Want To Talk To People" table - the single bar-like row of high chairs facing a wall - and poked at some carrots with my fork.
Ryan Hubbard popped his head over the wall. "Hey," he said. "Can I ask you some questions about education?"
Five minutes later I was wide awake, streaming author names and papers and pulling up diagrams of theories and going oh man, you should read this - oh man, you need to talk to these people - oh man, I wish you could meet this guy, he's awesome... and this school is right in Boston, want to visit it? You should come by and borrow this book...
An hour later our numbers had multiplied. Jon Stolk joined us, as did Chandra Little, and we were talking about - well, I was still sleep-hazed, and my eyes still burned bleary, and I swayed when I stood, but oh, I felt good!
Chandra grabbed me while Ryan and Jon went back to get food. "Promise me you'll work on something with engineering education when you get out of here?"
"I think I have to," I said.
It makes me come alive. But a lot of things do. It's not that I don't like engineering; I love technology, I like building things, solving problems. I'll cheer when lights blink, curse at code that won't compile, whistle appreciatively at the size of a FET package. I'll spend hours absorbed in math, working equations and drawing diagrams on a board. I'll forget to eat because I'm engrossed in Matlab. I think Feynman's lectures on physics are fantastical bedtime stories.
I skipped class because I was so enthralled with fluid dynamics that I... somehow lost three hours, just learning. And it's not just engineering. I love the cadence of classic literature, the mathematical intricacies of grammar, the overly polysyllabic vocabulary words in sociology theory, the philosophical aspects martial arts, the optics of photography, the aesthetic balances of brush painting. I get excited about most everything. When the learning is right - when I'm free to run around and contribute to a field of knowledge - it feeds my soul.
But it's also possible for the part of my soul that I love to wither; when I sit in a room with a piece of technology I'm not excited about, I sit and stare and work on it, something inside me dies. The prospect of long stretches of time in front of a project I don't think is useful makes me shudder. NDAs are not much better. When I sit in a room with a piece of technology I'm excited about but can't tell anyone about, I get antsy. This is wonderful, I want to share it! Come and see, come and help, come and play and learn! I need both independence and partners; I need to be free to draw upon and collaborate with whoever I run across, whoever I want to talk to, whoever wants to talk to me.
When I was writing the first chapter of my textbook, it took me a month to sit down and start typing. There was no direction, no inspiration, just a vague cloud of frustation. Then one day I wrote an entire chapter in less than an hour in response to a single student's single question; it catalyzed me to start and just keep going. I need short revision cycles directly inspired by close contact with end-users. I need to be able to create technology not so much in service to other people but in dialogue with them. Hacking, coding, designing, engineering, making stuff - it's another mode of communication, and I broadcast with it just as much as I convey things through hand gestures or voice inflection. I need to talk through technology and listen through technology. I need that feedback cycle.
Teaching gives me that input. Developing for education, for collaboration - it gives me that. There are probably other things as well, but I think they will share at least some these characteristics - open, useful, collaborative, user-driven, dialogue and feedback through prototypes and products. And bridging. Cultures, languages, disciplines. I'm an intellectual polyglot, and it's time I became a linguistic one as well.
Getting to know the kind of environment I need to work in isn't constraining. It's liberating. I can create my own oasis of happiness within any place I work, now that I'm learning how. Okay, it means I'll probably never be... say, CEO of a multinational corporation, or an engineer for top-secret CIA gadgets, or whatever. But it does mean that I will be happy. Happy and helpful. That I can find the best way to do what I am best at and what I love in the service of people whom I love and who love what I do.