Queer of Swords: An Obsessive Engineer’s Apology

I am someone with way too many projects. Putting it another way, I have way more projects than time. I can also say that I have more money than time.

Conventional wisdom has it that I should really feel guilty about this. We’re not supposed to start things and not finish them, but this is an inevitable consequence of having more projects on the go than there are hours in which to finish them. Digging deeper into the reasons for this is that it’s all really a consequence of having more interests than projects, coupled with an obsessive personality that requires me to push myself to achieve some level of mastery of everything I do.

It would probably be more psychologically healthy to get better at being bad at things. Being good at things just breeds more work. It sets standards that obsessives like me have to match somehow on every new thing we try. But if I could actually live with being bad at something, then perhaps I could just enjoy doing it, and leave it at that?

Unfortunately though, if you’re not of-the-most-privileged-caste, i.e., if you’re not a straight white male under the age of 30, you pretty much have to be good at everything or people (of all castes, not just the most privileged) will take pot shots at you, figuratively or even literally. It would be nice to just be able to screw up sometimes, to just be able to admit for once that, look, I just have no idea how to Do That Thing. But no, to stay employed I’ve always found I’ve had to be better than just adequate, better than good enough. I avoid competition wherever possible, because ultimately I always am forced to live with either losing or utterly destroying the opposition, neither of which is acceptable to me. To lose, if you’re not of that privileged caste, is all too often to lose everything — something that can not reasonably be risked if you have any responsibility for your own well-being or that of anyone else. To win can be even worse, because being seen to win can make people hate you more than anything you could imagine. I have way too many examples of this from my own life. If I’m forced into a fight, I’ve usually walked away, wherever possible, but sometimes I’ve had to become the warrior that isn’t really the me that I want to know.

So sometimes the way to survive is to accept the need to walk away. The need to leave things unfinished, to grieve their loss and to move on to the next thing.

Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to stand and fight. When someone wants to hurt you and yours, who is prepared to stand between you and your dreams, who will seek to drive a wedge between you and your principles, sometimes it is necessary to embrace the warrior-self and do what’s necessary to not-lose. All this talk of winning and losing grates on me — I don’t really care about winning. All I really care about is compassion and being allowed to extend compassion to others, so when I’m forced to fight I get upset and angry mostly because my ability to be compassionate has been curtailed. I’d rather be a pacifist in all things, but life has never allowed that.

What this ultimately means is that I always have several ‘things-I-could-be-doing’ stacked up, so at any time all I can really do is choose which one to be getting on with. These things, for me, are usually either paying work, creative projects of my own, projects that let me increase my capability of doing something, or self-maintenance. I’m not that great at prioritizing the last of those. I’ll admit — I’m messy and I’ll often leave domestic things undone longer than I should. I tend to prioritize paying work and then things I need to put in place so I can continue to do my paying work. Personal projects kind of slide into the gap. I don’t get as much done in that direction as I’d like, but I suspect I’m not alone in that. I can only pull this off by not finishing everything I start — I don’t typically know at the start of any project where it’ll go, or whether I’ll have the emotional energy necessary to move it forward.

I know that I’m judged harshly for this, but I’d be judged harshly for not doing it anyway, I’m sure. I could have a perfectly neat house, but that would mean giving up on some of my projects that help keep my skills up to the point that I can stay employed. This might sound ridiculous, but it’s fair to point out that, despite decades of experience, several NASA awards and a Cambridge PhD, I’ve been laid off twice in the last year. If I’d not been prepared to go way beyond the call of duty, I’d not have been rehired either of the last couple of times. I survive on the ‘oh-and-can-you-justs’ of managers — I don’t really feel I have the option of not being able to do anything, even if it’s outside my field, even if I don’t have the resources to do it. This is why I have my own electronics lab and machine shop — technically I shouldn’t need either of those things in order to be able to stay employed, yet rarely a couple of days have gone by in the last couple of years that haven’t required those facilities. Consequently, I have to put huge priority on being able to do just about anything related (however vaguely) to my job. Of course, theoretically I should be able to move sideways into another job in the bay area, but doing that would require giving up the one thing that was important enough to me to make me prepared to give up my whole life and move to another country, nearly a decade ago.

I apologise, therefore, to everyone close to me.

This can’t be easy to be near.