It seems fitting to title this with a cliché, in conformance with the entire genre of essays like this one: the self-indulgent end-of-year reflections on the things you chose to do, and the things you chose not to do.
I’m currently in my second year at UC Berkeley as a Linguistics major, and next year will be my last. As I am drawn nearer to the point at which I likely leave academia (and linguistics) forever, I realize that over the past few years, I’ve had a lot of little turning points which have marked changes in my life which can’t be reversed. Each of these aborted paths is, however, but a siren along the route toward what I really want out of life.
When I was in middle school, I played piano in the “Jazz” band there, and I thought I was some pretty hot shit. As I learned when I entered high school, I was quite the opposite. My brother was the guitarist in the Jazz band there, and my family had developed a relationship with the director. I suspect that when I auditioned to join the group, I was admitted not because I was any good (for I wasn’t), but because the director saw my brother’s talent and had high hopes that I was capable of being coached toward an equal level of skill.
The story from there is one that is often repeated in trite sports sagas: this awkward and incapable one is thrown into the “big leagues” and makes a fool of himself every day and at some point finally starts to get it. Not to say that he had become adequate; rather, he had grown enough that his teammates gained some level of respect for him, and his coach treated him like family.
Then came Junior year. Most of the kids who were better than me had graduated, and I had been promoted to rhythm section leader. I was starting to come into my own. The veterans in the group looked at me in a way that lacked their accustomed disdain, and, even though I knew that I was no more than OK, I started to think that I was pretty great. On a few occasions, my real inadequacy surfaced; the problem was that a lot of people sucked even more than I did, so they mistakenly looked up to me.
Senior year, I really had become quite good. I was the assistant director of the band, and the director of the quintet. Whereas in previous years, I had the dubious honor at all the festivals of winning “soloist awards” (which were basically given to anyone who got up and played something, no matter how poorly), this year I was getting recognized as best pianist in show, or best rhythm section soloist, and so forth. That was actually pretty neat; it tickled my ego to be distinguished among young musicians who have today gone on to accomplish great things.
The last time I played piano in concert, I was accompanied by Mel Brown himself, the grandfather of the Portland Jazz scene; during my solo on the Dexter Gordon tune, he smiled at me in surprise, and afterwards he shook my hand and told me how proud he was of me, how far he knew I had come. And then I was done with that part of my life. I was going to college to study something entirely different.
Linguist, Assyriologist, Classicist
I didn’t apply to enough colleges, because I was overconfident that Harvard, Yale, Cornell or Berkeley would admit me. Though the latter two were afterthoughts, they were the only ones to offer me admittance. Cornell seemed like a bleak place that would make me insane, and I’d had my heart set on Boston; I ended up “settling” for Berkeley.
As soon as I got here, I dived into things that I consider awesome: I became the only undergraduate to take Sumerian, for one. And the story repeats itself: my professor nurtured my interest in the field of Cuneiform languages, provided me with research opportunities, and did everything in his power to help me progress in my path to graduate school.
Next semester, my Sumerian professor goes on sabbatical, but he has invented a cuneiform reading group to essentially keep our class going; I suspect that he did this at least partly in order to help me continue in my studies.
I also took Attic Greek, and was distinguished as the best student of elementary Greek in that year by the man who wrote the textbook. This year, I continued my Greek education with mostly the same group of Classics comrades in reading Plato’s Apology. And as the rest of them move on next semester to read Homer, I abandon them for the purpose of knocking out school requirements so I can graduate early. And because I simply won’t take a class that goes past 4PM.
So, I bade my Greek comrades (τοῖς τε Ἑλληνικοῖς ἑταίροις καὶ ταῖς Ἑλληνικαῖς) farewell after exams, and went on my way. Next year, I shall have to do the same to the graduate students and geriatric auditors in my Sumerian group, of whom I’ve grown quite fond in the past few years.
λx. Software Developer x ⇒ Landowner x ∧ Retiree x
I’m graduating school early (and probably not doing graduate school) not because I don’t like it, but because I cannot justify going into debt tens of thousands of dollars every year, when I could be making tens of thousands of dollars every year. The life of the starving academic is not for me: by the time I would be experienced enough to deserve tenure, I doubt that the construct will even exist. The way things are going, after all the real professors die, I should think they’ll be replaced by streams of graduate students who are used until exhaustion, and then replaced.
I’m also not leaving because I think that software development is terribly more interesting than Linguistics.1 In fact, there are many aspects of it which I find dull, and even irritating (such as dealing with clients, who will always be several years behind in understanding things). But I’m pretty all right at software, and at least for now, that profession commands high wages.
Mike Monteiro says that when faced with a life decision, you must always choose the path which will lead you to your ultimate goal; and whatever that ultimate goal is, you must own it entirely. My goal isn’t to be a software developer living the startup high any more then it is to be a starving academic, or a starving musician: my goal is to be a landowner with a respectable income, who can afford to have a nice house, clothes made for him, a few dogs, and some sheep and goats.
In the meantime, I’m happy to be whatever kind of software developer people are paying for. If that means writing soul-crushing apps for clueless clients, and having to use the word “gamification” with a straight face, then so be it. When I’m seventy, I doubt that retirement will even be “a thing” anymore for most people; I figure I’ll have won the game if I can build for myself a life full of my favorite anachronisms: savings, land, and my own quiet house.
I’m often asked to comment on how similar software development and learning languages are to each other, and how each must inform the other in my mind. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth; in fact, I would go as far as to say that studying languages is vastly more closely related to studying music than it is to programming computers. A common misconception which has been driven so deeply into popular opinion that resisting it is almost futile. (Certain subfields of linguistics proper which are so far out of the intellectual reach of the layman as to be irrelevant to these conversations, such as syntax and logical semantics, however, do have a great deal to do with certain formal aspects of computer science.)↩