The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually, we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land. T. H. Huxley, 1887
To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated. Paul Graham, 2006
I always wanted to be a scientist as a kid. In the good days, before I realized being a scientist would require extensive courses in chemistry, I carried around little notebooks and set up experiments in my bedroom to figure how the world worked. I made volcanoes and rockets and speculated significantly about dinosaurs.
The decision was tough, but I was generally torn between a career in astronomy or forensic science. Aside from a brief stint of being afraid of the dark, I’ve always loved the night, especially the sky and the stars. I leaned toward the former.
I can’t explain why the sky was always a draw, but I don’t usually need to; most people who feel the same tend to understand, like people who speak a secret language. It’s always seemed like a place of such possibility; a reminder that human beings are both incredibly complex and woefully simple in our understanding of the world. This has always been reassuring to me. It means there is more left to do.
The sciences are amazing that way; they remind me of the intricacies of life and the universe in a way nothing else does, even history or literature. As an elementary-school practitioner, I wasn’t worried about college choices or publishing or succeeding in advanced math. I just did it because it was fun.
Sometimes I miss that; not the naivete of my attitude, but the confidence of being a kid. Back then, I never questioned what I was good at. I hadn’t learned how to overthink every interaction, to stay up nights listing my inadequacies or playing conversations over in my head. I was surely more foolish, but I was happier.
I didn’t end up becoming a scientist, not because I stopped loving nature or asking questions, but because I’m more suited to writing and analysis than chemistry and calculus. Sometimes I wish I had thrown all that to the wind and pursued something impractical just because I enjoyed it.
At some point when we’re becoming adults, we stop enjoying things and start calculating them. Or at least, these become separate things; the enjoyable and the calculated. Our identity becomes something outside, defined by quantifiable achievements, relationships with other people or career advancement.
Even enjoyable things are often things we show other people as trophies, rather than hobbies or things we like simply because they exist. These things can be wonderful additions to our lives, but are not, in fact, our identities.
“Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do?” Paul Graham asks in his 2006 essay on work. “If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do.
“Just as houses all over America are full of chairs that are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of chairs designed 250 years ago for French kings, conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things.
“What a recipe for alienation. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking ‘I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.’”
Many of us, living in this world of identities often separate from our daily lives and activities, feel a bit stranded on a regular basis. Some truly do love what they do, but most people make a living. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it’s arguable our identity shouldn’t be so centered on work in the first place.
However, as Annie Dillard says, how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. It’s worth thinking about how our identities and values are connected to our daily activities, if they are connected at all.
Every year I watch the Perseids meteor showers (and the Leonids if I’m feeling brave against the cold). Most nights I walk on the bluff near our house and search for stars or read about astronomy to get my night sky fix. We’ve put a (theoretical, but it’s there) date on our Google calendar to watch the next arrival of Halley’s comet in 2061, like good star nerds.
It’s good to get outside and remember, on the days that seem a bit dark, that darkness is also beautiful and full of galaxies. Sometimes I write about what I see. It’s a good balance for now.