Documenting A Modern Middle Class American’s Pursuit of Excellence

Recently, a coworker introduced me to Buckminster Fuller.  I don’t know how I’ve managed to live as long as I have with as much reddit exposure as I have amassed (though I haven’t been on that God-forsaken site since April 2013 – clean two years from the heroin of the Internet!) without coming to more intimate knowledge of this man.

One aspect of him which interests me greatly is that he compiled such extensive documentation of his life after a goal similar, if not equivalent to, that of the Engineering Walden project.  I am in the midst of compiling documentation regarding not only my IT studies but also my liberal arts studies in the hopes of producing a sort of self-cultivation map which provides others with at least one example of the work which has been performed in pursuit of common goals.

When I was younger, I was fascinated with the manner through which the adults around me had become adults.  Their lives seemed so mystical, as they were often capable of regaling me with fantastic stories at a moment’s notice; “What storied lives they had lived,” I thought, “in comparison to my drab, colorless behavior.”

And of course, as life progresses, one amasses one’s own stories which are perhaps as often foisted upon oneself as sought out and engaged on a voluntary basis.  Now, having lived what I might consider against my former expectations to have been a high quality life up to this point, I feel the need to put documentation out there to answer those burning questions I myself once posed without clear answer.

How much reading and other training is really required, for example, to attain the level of mastery associated with the heroes about whom we read so frequently?  What projects did they engage?  How were their skills developed?  What sort of life sacrifices have been made in the name of their intellectual and physical development?  What mistakes were made that could have been avoided?  What pursuits do they feel they should have engaged which they did not?

Sure, I’m no amazing kernel developer (for example), but I do believe I have reached a level of competence in a few areas that was at least at one point the stuff of fantasy.  Maybe I set my fantasy bar low, but regardless, after seeing the sheer volume of work required to reach this point in my life, I want to convey to others who find themselves in those shoes I once wore myself one fundamental point:  In my experience, consistent and continual work over the course of as much as a decade is that which was required to bring me to a merely acceptable state as a 30-ish adult male in the American middle class.  To reach beyond acceptable and into excellence, one must truly devote oneself fully, and I want to remove the common veil of ignorance regarding the methods through which such devotion is accomplished and make said devotion more accessible to anyone who inquires after it.  One of the main hindrances to my own pursuit of excellence, I have found, is the suspicion that it should never be attained.  If I can reach a lofty point and provide to others a map of how I got there, hopefully I can at least help to assuage such suspicions in others.

It’s hard to comprehend the path before you when you have yet to walk a path at all.  At 18, I truly had no concept of the complexities of life’s actual problems.  High school was a breeze for me, and I had barely ever expended significant effort in pursuit of anything other than, surprisingly, video gaming accomplishments (and those pursuits can hardly be considered arduous).  Nonetheless, I easily achieved the highest marks in school when I spent an absolutely minimal amount of time.  I was the top of my fencing class (my sole extracurricular sporting activity at the time aside from weight lifting), again without much effort, and I truly held the unspoken (to myself, even) opinion that I didn’t need to work hard at anything in life, because hard work was for people of lesser constitution.

My view was reinforced by society’s general representation of genius and capability; far more frequently are these individuals portrayed as simply being born into possession of naturally-endowed gifts rather than coming to bear their skills as the result of years of effort.  I was greatly harmed by this, as I felt that my effortless academic and athletic prowess meant that I was part of an elite subsection of humanity destined for a prosperous but frustrating coexistence with the plebeians.  Sure, I didn’t characterize this view as such in my mind at the time, but it was there as the cosmic background radiation of my intellectual life.

It wasn’t until college when I attempted to carry this theory forward that I was smacked down hard for the first time.  My first semester was an utter disaster.  While I was more than sufficiently capable of dealing with high school in an off-handed manner, academically, I was very much ostracized socially (gee, I wonder if that background radiation had anything to do with it..).  When I reached college, I had taken on the pessimistic assumption that it would be “high school+”, as I called it, and it would be no different from high school insofar as my social or academic life would be considered.  Somehow, in a manner not entirely understood by me even to this day (other than the explanation that everyone in high school really was an asshole, which I avoid if not purely on account of its ego-fulfilling nature), I became quite popular and very much liked in college.  I had never had more than a few friends with whom I hung out constantly up until that point, and soon I found myself playing football with twenty or thirty friends in the snow between games of Starcraft and Goldeneye.

I was in a rapturous state for my first semester, blowing off class because I had been conditioned to believe it was unnecessary for my academic success, and enjoying my newfound circle of friends.  When I saw my glorious 1.47 GPA after my first semester (largely on account of failures to do my assigned work, but also out of a reluctance to do so much as attend class; one of my classes actually ended with me having a 98 average, but I received a D- because I missed too many classes; my professor asserted that she was being kind to me because she technically could have failed me according to her attendance policy, which I overlooked), I was literally nauseated.  I had never been so academically humiliated in my life, having received at worst up until that point a C+ for a class where I may literally have done zero work outside of class hours.

So I began to actually care about school, and I wish I had done this far, far earlier.  If I had known, for example, that Classics was an actual major – that I could actually have spent my time studying Latin and Greek and reading about the heroes whose lives I worshiped with such fervor in my youth (I was a huge fan of everything Greek and Roman), I would have done that in a heartbeat.  But I didn’t even know it was there.  In fact, I didn’t really have any suitable concept of the potential paths forward for myself as an adult in this world.  I had expressed before attending college my extremely cynical view that I was there merely to acquire the piece of paper that would grant me access to jobs.  Of what job I might have or in which I might be interested, I had no real opinion.  I had then the opinion that, being necessarily subjugated by the economic machine, I would wind up having a job I hated, but which granted me a relatively comfortable existence on account of my superior intellect.  My parents, after all, whom I greatly love and respect, are very intelligent and my father had walked roughly the same path I foresaw for myself (he had a “C / no study” method in school, as he referred to it).  He was a very talented artist and his extraordinary intelligence and curiosity granted him a powerful, albeit armchair, philosophy, but he lacked any desire whatsoever to excel professionally, and this influenced me greatly.  I viewed his learned lack of desire in this regard as a powerful, authoritative judgment on the condition of society, and I accepted it unhesitatingly.

But then I found the philosophy department at my college, and my life was fundamentally changed.  I had developed what I felt to be a bulletproof philosophical combination of relativism and skepticism which I believed, in conjunction with almighty Science, rendered the entire philosophical enterprise moot.  Fortunately, I inherited a healthy respect for spirituality (which I divorced from “religion” in my mind, using the latter label for anything I found stupid, and the former for anything I found insightful) from my father and that kept me from being completely asinine.  Nonetheless, I regularly thrashed mindless theism from a public stance of atheism adopted purely as a method of excoriating easy targets who parade themselves around as men of God when they are no such thing.  I considered this to be evidence of my philosophical superiority, for I could utterly destroy the arguments of those who allegedly devoted their lives to those positions expressed therein.

And so it was in the philosophy department that I met some serious intellectual opposition.  I will forever remember the first day that I followed my professor back to his office, challenging his positions, thinking that surely he would join the wake of destruction I left in my philosophical past.  In no more than 20 minutes, he utterly destroyed my entire (silly, skeptical, relativistic…) worldview with simple, obvious questions that I had overlooked, having been exposed only to the weakest of intellectual counterpoints.  I remember calling my mother (much to her delight) and asking if she was aware that I was dangerously moronic.  She attempted to assure me that I was not, but I was almost giddy with the discovery that had so opened my eyes and would have none of it.

I reveled in the new challenges.  I loved reading and discussing just about everything I encountered, and for the first time in my life I had found something truly important about which I actually cared.  It didn’t matter if this would become my job because it would become my life.  I was riveted by Stoic philosophy, and I yearned to live the life of the philosopher championed by my Greek and Roman heroes.  I could see no alternative to an ultimate goal of becoming Heracles himself, and I was invigorated with eudaimonia.

It was this newfound resurgence of youthful reverence and awe which brought about a pivotal respect for the pursuit of human excellence in my life.  My life now had a goal beyond the mere cynical survival of society’s idiocy.  Further, I developed an understanding that the outcome of excellence in life is a matter which is relative to one’s own circumstances and capabilities.  If a man, by herculean dint of effort, should accomplish some end which would be trivial to another man by virtue of his innate qualities or circumstances of life, the former man’s wondrous accomplishment ought not to be slighted in any way by comparison with the latter.  Though my extensive and accomplished video gaming history had led me to the precipice of the conclusion (I had reached #1 world ranking in a few games, and I had wrestled with the emptiness of the matter), it was in college that I first realized what it meant to take satisfaction in the pursuit of human excellence itself.

The observation that self-cultivation is the path of life, and that an apathetic slave’s march is virtual death, has guided me since.  To relax into virtue, and find the peace of righteousness in its actualization is the essence of enlightenment.  It is its universality as method, and not its particularity of outcomes, which renders virtue sufficient for happiness.

And so here, I want to lay out those documents which might reveal the hours devoted and the materials with which I worked in my pursuit of these ends.  Cutting away even a mere few options as inferior and promoting the best as superior seems as though it could save years of effort in the lives of others.  Mayhaps young readers could achieve what I have attained by the age of 30 at the age of 25, and these effects could reverberate throughout their lives most positively.  If not directly pertinent to the ends of others, perhaps the methods displayed therein will at least be applicable to a variety of pursuits.

Navigating the standard-issue hurdles of life might be made a bit easier if templates for its accomplishment are readily available.  In short, I intend to develop the resources which I myself wished I had.

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