A Significant Experience

James Owen, in his book The Barbizon Diaries, wrote the following about being involuntarily committed to a mental hospital:

“After it had closed behind me, I stood in the doorway, unmoving, for several minutes, a single thought occurring and recurring in my mind: I am definitely having a significant experience here.

James (author and illustrator of the Imaginarium Geographica series), who was one of the speakers at the Superstars writing seminar I’ve alluded to a few times, has unfortunately had a lot more of these experiences than most people would ever want. He talks about them and their impact on his life in the books Drawing out the Dragons and the above mentioned The Barbizon Diaries.

To me, the most inspiring thing about those books is that James never lets these things beat him. He takes his licks, learns from them, and springs right back up. Sometimes that means accepting that the path you expected isn’t the path you end up taking.

An example of this is from the talk he gave at the seminar (which I believe is also covered in Drawing out the Dragons), where he spent all of his money on a one way ticket to Ireland, where he’d just gotten a job at a film studio. On his first day, the studio announced it was having substantial financial issues and would be laying off most of its employees. That morning, he had been sure that the job was the one, the thing he was meant to do. That evening, all he had left with the change in his pocket and no way to get back home. I think most people would have been crushed.

Not James Owen. He went and called his wife, and told her he was going to be starting a comic book company.  The path he thought he was walking had been closed to him, so he immediately started walking another.

These stories got me thinking about my own significant experiences. I consider myself fortunate. Nothing particularly bad has ever happened to me. But I’ve certainly had moments where things didn’t work out, where my expectations were crushed, where I’ve had to reconsider what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.  The example that comes to mind is grad school.

I was in a math Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon (UO) for three years. I’d wanted to get a Ph.D. since I was in high school. It seemed like a natural progression: I loved math, and I was good at school. I went to a college (Harvey Mudd) which sends a huge percentage of its students to grad school. I did well enough there to get into a top thirty graduate program, one where I’d even get a lot of teaching experience in. “Perfect,” I thought, when I got the acceptance letter. “This is exactly what I want to do.”

At first, it seemed great. My fellow grad students were amazing, and still count among some of the closet friends I’ve ever had. As hard as teaching was, I loved it, and was willing to put my energy into becoming better. The classes were tough, but not unreasonably so. I was having fun.

The first semester ended. I hadn’t done quite as well as I’d hoped; in my three classes I’d gotten a B, a B+, and an A-. This, as it turns out, is considered much less impressive in grad school than in undergrad. I got an email from the head of the graduate department that said something along the lines of “We need to chat about your performance so far.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t having so much fun.

Now, those grades, while not amazing, were ‘good enough’. I was able to improve them slightly the next term, getting a B, a B+, and an A. One of my class mates wasn’t so lucky. He got a C. Really nice, hard working guy. He was asked to leave the program.

At Harvey Mudd, I’d always had a great relationship with my professors. I went to office hours often, and ended chatting with them casually as much as about school. The support I got from them was a big deal, and really helped bolster my confidence and get me through the tougher classes. At UO, I found myself unable to cultivate that relationship. I remember one of the harder classes I took, I went to the professor’s office and talked at length about my difficulties, various things I’d tried, and finally ended it with a request for advice. He put his hands together and bowed his head as if in deep thought, and then said “Yes. Perhaps, if you’d spend more time reading the text, you would understand more.”

Things, unfortunately, just got worse from there. I kept my grades barely above the minimum bar, for the most part, though toward the end of the second year I got a C as well (which is basically an F in grad school), in a class I found absolutely impossible in pretty much every way. Still, if I passed the qualifying exams, I could stay, the grades forgotten.

Quals are rough. You need to spend a good 3-4 months over the sum studying 10-12 hours a day to have a shot. It takes passion and commitment and endurance to get through that. Things I was pretty much out of by then. I’d stopped having fun. I was depressed (not clinically, just the vanilla variety), I ate too much junk, and I had a lot of headaches. Teaching was a huge emotional drain, as much as I liked it, and I often didn’t have as much energy for studying / homework afterward. I would describe my studying for quals as ‘tepid’, to say the least. I did a good amount of work, but it was more going through the motions. I took the exams. I passed one, failed one. At UO, they count that as failing both, and I would have to retake even the one I passed.

I decided then I was done. In hind-sight, I’d decided I was done at least a year before, but out of stubbornness and shame, hadn’t been honest enough with myself about it. I left the program at the end of that year with a master’s degree, and no idea what I wanted to do.

I got a job, a fantastic one, at a company called Palantir. One of the things I decided, in that summer between UO and Palantir, was that I was going to do the things I wanted to do. My motivations for going to grad school had been suspect. At least one person, my cousin Stuart, actually called me on this, but I didn’t realize that at the time. It had been an easy thing to do, but it hadn’t been the right thing, and I should have known that.

James Owen says, “Never, ever, sacrifice what you want in the long term for what you want most, for what you want most at the moment.” My choice to go to grad school was based on convenience and some short term gains and stuff like “finding a job seems hard”. It wasn’t based on my dreams or aspirations beyond vague thoughts like “it’d be pretty cool to have a Ph.D.”.

I had dreams, too. I wanted to write even then. I wanted to design games. I wanted to play high level poker. For various reasons, I’d discarded all three as possibilities.

Grad school taught me how important it was not to do that. You’ve got things you want to do? Only way they’ll get done is if you do them. Sometimes that’s as easy as deciding to act. Other times it means beginning a very long process with uncertain results. But the only way you’re sure not to get there, is if you don’t even try.

A month after I started at Palantir, I began figuring out how to write novels. That was a long process – took me about 15 months before I wrote my first one. The next spring, I went to Las Vegas and played in the World Series of Poker for the first time. I started taking piano lessons again. I adopted two awesome cats named Sabin and Edgar. I competed in some major StarCraft II tournaments. Game design has been deferred but not forgotten.

Anyway, James Owen says all of this a heck of a lot more eloquently than I. The two books I’ve mentioned, Drawing out the Dragons and The Barbizon Diaries are available digitally here: http://coppervaleinternational.com/ebooks/.  Take a look – they’re short reads, very well-written, and I think, quite profound.


9 thoughts on “A Significant Experience

  1. Martín says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience!
    I think you are in a good path now. Hope you continue your journey to the things you love.

    One of the things that inspired me a lot was a movie called “Peaceful Warrior” (2006).

    Have beautiful day!

  2. […] on to the Ph.D. in mathematics program at the University of Oregon (which I talked about in my last post). There, I started to play a lot of online poker. Sean had picked up poker too, and was doing […]

  3. Matt Edvalson says:

    Two things: 1) Very inspiring and motivating. Thank you. 2) Best cat names ever.

    My proverbial hat is off to you, sir.

  4. Marjorie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post, it is exactly what I needed to read right now. I’m in my final year of an undergraduate degree and once I am finished I face the prospect of finding a job, most probably one I will not enjoy and that I will accept out of necessity. But that doesn’t mean I will forget my dreams about what I really want to do with my life. I will keep on trying. One line in particular resonated with me: “the only way you’re sure not to get there, is if you don’t even try.” Thanks for reminding me that the most detrimental thing I can do is not try. 😀

  5. nerdbaer says:

    awesome how much i could transfer to my own situation in life right now.
    good and motivational read 🙂
    due to the #poker tag i would’ve loved to read more about your WSOP experience but that might have been in one of your older blogs!? i just started reading at this page (coming from seans twitter post :P)

    • I haven’t written about my WSOP experience in detail, as I think it would be so poker-heavy that people who don’t know the game would find it untinteresting. Good to know there’s at least some interest though, I certainly enjoy talking about it 🙂

  6. […] Owen, who I’ve talked about before ,  has continued to inspire this type of thinking. He gave one of the most inspirational talks […]

  7. I’m going through EXACTLY the same thing atm…
    I signed up for a masters degree and started last autumn (for more or less the same reasons you did for your Phd, I realize). It started out alright, but now I’m half-way through it and I’m starting to get all my essay results back, one by one and they just keep getting worse and worse. I suddenly realized that all those hours spend in the library – after 8h classes, each day, almost – working, skipping on meals and sleep, skipping on exercise, consuming myself just to figure out what I got to do and how to do it. Skipping on times spent with friends – some great people I meet here, indeed – because I was over-due with work….
    The sad thing about it is I like what I do and I would love to do it after (Sustainable Crop Production), but with the grades I got, my chances of continuing only get amputated before my eyes.
    I can’t rise to the standards and I’ve never been in a similar position ever before. I’ll continue doing my master until the end of September, when it’s done, but I feel like I wasted an opportunity that was unique and I don’t know what I’ll be doing next.
    I remembered reading this article when you posted it and now I read it in a totally different light (one more familiar), but I still don’t know how to get over it. Also, you described it much better then I did with this comment. If you got any tips, please let me know!

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