I Choose, therefore I am.
“Could I have been a parking lot attendant?
Could I have been a millionaire in Bel Air?
Could I have been lost somewhere in Paris?
Could I have been your little brother?
Could I have been anyone other than me?” — Dave Matthews Band. Dancing Nancies.
Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, asked himself: How do I know I even exist? What if everything I’m experiencing is just a figment of someone else’s imagination? What if it’s all just a dream? His response, famously, was: I think, therefore I am. Cogito ergo sum.
The pronouncement was the only thing standing between him and the abyss. It was a profound statement, one that has been analyzed to death ever since, and one which I don’t intend to analyze here. By comparison, my mantra, my pronouncement if you will, is nowhere nearly as profound: I choose, therefore I am.
It’s a simple observation that we are the sum total of our choices in life. Every minute of every day, we get to make decisions. And those decisions, whether we like them or not in retrospect, are what define who we are.
Some are good, some bad. Some are made by gut instinct, others after long deliberation. Some are life changing, others irrelevant in the long run. Some are distasteful, others spell sweet revenge. Some are born of sheer stubbornness, others of pure naïveté. Some are just run of the mill while others are transformational.
A long trail of choices follows me wherever I go, a series of forks in the road I’ve traveled. For better or worse, I am the sum total of those choices.
As I write this, I’m sitting alone in an AirBnB in Central California, sipping red wine, listening to Amy Winehouse on my Bluetooth headphones, trying to tune out the dog barking next door. The world is at my iPhone-enabled fingertips while the unwashed masses are a safe distance away.
I choose to be alone, to the extent that any of us can ever be alone now that we have the internet two feet away from our eyeballs at all times. I choose to write. I choose to remember.
I’m a software engineer at Silicon Graphics. It’s the heyday of the company in the early ’90s. I’m standing on the factory floor with a dozen other engineers and company executives. It’s almost midnight on the last day of the quarter. We’ve just finished building the biggest baddest ass supercomputer in the world. We just need to ship a few more units before the end of the quarter, so it’s “all hands on deck.” We’re giving Cray Research a run for their money but every quarter is touch and go. We badly need the revenue. Customers can’t get enough of what we’re selling but, unfortunately, we also can’t ship ’em fast enough. The system is incredibly complex and every part is brand new. There are hardware bugs, there are software bugs, there are process issues, there are alpha particles… We’re doing everything we can, from soldering parts onto motherboards to debugging failures in burn-in tests to fixing kernel bugs. I choose to be here on the factory floor at midnight. I choose to believe.
I’m standing up on the bike in an attempt to crest the hill, to reach the top of the mountain, trying to reach my goal of 700,000 feet of vertical ascent for the year — the equivalent of 24 times up Mount Everest! I’m huffing and puffing, pushing as hard as I can, while my fingers and toes freeze in the cold weather, while rain pelts my face. Why am I doing this?!? What the hell is wrong with me? I choose to keep pedaling. Stubborn Me is now in full control.
I’m a fourteen year old immigrant “fresh off the boat” and with no immediate family anywhere on the continent. I’m free to do whatever I want! I’ve just arrived in Boston and am drinking cheap peach flavored Brandy in a seedy hotel room. Brandy that I bought at the store, where no one asked me for an ID. It tastes like… freedom. I choose to take another sip.
I’m standing on the main stage at Moscone Center, delivering a speech to 23,000 people. And my jaw is doing its thing again; refusing to cooperate. I can feel it coming on. I start the talk just fine but within minutes, my jaw starts tensing up, my speech is slurred, and it’s getting worse. Every minute that goes by suddenly feels like an hour, the universe slows down to a crawl, 46,000 eyeballs burrowing into my soul, and still my jaw refuses to cooperate. Stage fright. It doesn’t help when I turn around and see my image projected on massive screens behind me. But, wait. I know this stuff. I can do this. I choose to open my mouth and speak. One. Syllable. At. A. Time. After the talk, they tell me no one noticed anything wrong. How is that even possible? Time almost stood still and no one seems to have noticed.
I’m standing in the kitchen at Newbury Steak House in Boston, washing dishes as they come in on the conveyor belt. At $2.60 an hour, a twelve hour shift brings in maybe $25 — after they charge me for dinner. It’s 1980 and the minimum wage has just been increased to $3.10 an hour but I’m still getting paid at the old rate. It’s not like I can complain. I’m on a student visa and not supposed to be working in the first place; this is all under the table. Twenty bucks won’t help much but it’s better than nothing. Twice a week and four weeks a month, that’s almost $200. It pays the rent. I choose to reach for the next plate and scrub it.
I’m arguing with a test manager in the daily release meeting. I’m managing the Core OS development team responsible for delivering Windows 7 and we’re nearing the end. We’ve spent the last hour arguing about the damn memory manager bug that has only been seen twice after running stress tests for three days. Do we ship or not? We’ve already fixed so many things. We need to get this release out the door to recover from the disaster that was Vista. We see that we’re slipping, we see Apple coming up from behind. We all agree we need to ship this thing. But. Then again. What if it causes corruption? What if it causes customer data loss? Can we patch it in time? Is it specific to a known hardware config? We spend hours, days, weeks wringing our hands. “Is it good enough?,” we keep asking ourselves and each other. But compared to what? At some point, we’ll have to choose to let it go out the door, warts and all, but we’re not there yet. It’s orders of magnitude harder to decide as a team than it is as an individual. And still too often based on emotions instead of data. Admittedly, the stakes are high; the product will eventually be used by billions of people!
I’m staring at a blinking LED while hunched over a motherboard on a workbench in the lab. It’s 2 AM and my eyes burn from lack of sleep. One Zero One One. Hex Eleven. Reading wrong data back from primary cache. No, wait. That wasn’t 1011. That was 1010. Hex Ten. Primary cache initialized, bootstrapping next level of kernel. We never saw 1011. The problem is right here in this piece of code. But this code hasn’t changed in ages. I can’t trust the processor, it’s brand new and buggy. I can’t trust the compiler, it’s also new and untested. Worst of all, it’s a Heisenbug that only shows up on Tuesday nights when the moon is full. I choose to do what every self-respecting software engineer would do. I reset the system to see if it happens again.
I’m driving from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, where I’m going to sit — alone — in a medical laboratory for the next twelve hours. It’s a Sunday morning in 1985 and I have nothing better to do for the next few hours than debug an arcane piece of software written on a DEC-10 system while sitting in a medical clinic surrounded by syringes and medical insurance forms. It’s my third job. I already have a full-time job writing UNIX kernel code on a multiprocessor real time system. But that wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Being that I’m now married and have a newborn child to support. So I also signed up for a midnight to 9 AM graveyard shift at another company, Friday and Saturday nights, doing system administration, backups, and network troubleshooting. If things are quiet, I can get a couple of hours of sleep at about 4 AM, half reclining on two chairs and covered by a jacket. The second job helps but it still isn’t quite enough to make ends meet. So I take on a third, this one in Providence, to help rewrite some software for a medical clinic. Every Sunday morning, I drive down for the day and sit there all alone, surrounded by test tubes and alcohol swabs, fixing code that should have been retired a decade ago. No time to stop for coffee. I choose to crack open the window and let the cold air slap my face. And I keep driving.
I’m raising my right fist and chanting. It’s September ’78, I’m thirteen, school has just been closed due to unrest, and I’m walking the streets along with thousands of other people. The Shah is on his heels and rumors abound that he’s on his way out of the country. For the first time in decades, the censors have loosened their grip on the media. The streets are filled with newspapers denouncing the regime; TV stations are broadcasting live reports of the fighting, complete with burning tires and tanks in the streets of the capital. I hear the name Mossadegh for the first time, in hushed tones, and can’t believe that I’d never heard of this popularly elected prime minister who was ousted by a US-backed coup d’etat only a quarter century ago. His name has been wiped from Iranian history books as if he never existed. I feel betrayed. I feel hoodwinked. What else don’t I know? I choose to raise my fist and march, even though I don’t quite understand the intricacies of what’s happening around me. That’ll come later.
I’m sitting in a conference room with two dozen Japanese executives, all dressed in identical suits and ties, the only choice seemingly that of color: pitch black or navy blue. I say something, then wait for it to be translated. They stare blankly and speak among themselves. I have three more meetings to look forward to, and that’s just today. Two more days of this and then I hop on a plane to Beijing. Rinse and repeat. I’d like to think I’m choosing to board that plane; but do I have a choice, really?
I’m kneeling next to my daughter, looking at her big brown eyes, scared out of my wits as the teacher explains how she’s been rubbing her eyes off and on for the past few hours, ever since they visited a petting zoo. One of her pupils is clearly misaligned, pointing in the wrong direction. What. The. Fuck? How is this even possible? And what were you doing the whole time when she was scratching her eyeballs out? And what now? How can something as trivial as a visit to a petting zoo have such an impact on a life? It takes several days for the swelling to subside and for the eyeball to go back to normal. Meanwhile, I feel helpless as I imagine the worst possible outcome. What is parenthood if not one protracted out of control plunge, heart in throat at every turn? And yet we choose to be parents.
It’s 3 AM in London and I’m staring at my laptop. Jet lag, combined with exhaustion and a few too many glasses of wine at dinner, is conspiring to keep me awake as I scan the screen for news of our cloud outage. It started with a BGP hijack in Asia, caused by operator error at a partner’s data center, was exacerbated by a simultaneous DDoS attack on one of our customers in South America, and is threatening to bring down the whole network. If the public just knew how fragile the internet really is, there’d be riots in the streets! And yet, it seems to hold together as servers scattered around the globe take the brunt of the attack, just as designed. Anycast to the rescue! We work with partners late into the night to fix the BGP routing issues around the internet. Thankfully, the folks in the US are still awake and monitoring the situation. I have to get some sleep if I expect to be coherent at the 8 AM meeting. But sleep is elusive. My body is still on California time and the alerts keep firing every few seconds. I choose to click on the next email instead.
I’m limping to the finish line at the Vancouver Marathon, miserable yet refusing to give up. It’s been raining steadily for the past three hours and the temperature is in the low forties. I’m soaked to the bone, miserable, cold, shivering, and in pain. I started feeling a sharp pain in my hip at mile 15. Nothing new, what I’ve been running with for years. But it’s been going on for the last hour and it’s not getting any better. At this point, I know I’m doing permanent damage if I keep running. But I keep running. Tears are uncontrollably falling down my cheeks as I round the last corner and see the crowds at the finish line but they’re mixed with the rain so no one can tell. Thankfully, my masculinity is still intact. They’re not tears of pain or sadness but of joy. I choose to sprint the last few hundred yards. Suddenly, I feel no pain in my hip.
“I think, how innocent we are of our mistakes and how responsible we are for them.” — David Sheff. Beautiful Boy.
I’m back in my AirBnB, all alone, sipping wine and typing on my iPhone. I’ve been here all along. Choosing to write. Choosing to remember.
As I sit here, in my hermetically sealed universe, simultaneously in touch with and as far away from humanity as possible, I think to myself: I’m all of those things. I am the sum of all the things that have ever happened to me and all the choices I’ve ever made. If I’m not that, then what am I?
Every fork in the road brings with it not just an opportunity but also a conundrum. What if? Why did I make the decisions I made? What if I’d chosen differently?
For make no mistake. We choose every minute of every day. Every one of our actions is a decision. To do something or to not do it. Free will may be an illusion but it sure doesn’t feel that way in the heat of the moment.
You choose to go up onto that stage at Moscone Center, in front of 23,000 people. And you do it knowing full well that you will fall short. Yet you still choose to do it knowing that you’ll learn from the experience and do it better the next time.
You choose to bite your tongue, drop your head, and take your daughter home instead of arguing with the teacher, not knowing whether her life, and your life by extension, has been altered irreversibly.
You choose to ship the product knowing full well that there are still bugs in there. As long as there’s code in there, there are bugs in there. And, trust me, there’s plenty of code in there.
You choose to finish that marathon, knowing full well that your hip pain will be back after the euphoria of the finish line wears off, that you’ve probably done permanent damage.
You choose to work three jobs and miss your daughter’s childhood, knowing full well that you won’t get another chance at it but also feeling like you have to.
You choose to participate in a revolution, even if you don’t quite understand the two opposing sides, their histories, or their grievances against each other. Even as a thirteen year old, you choose. The circumstances may be beyond your control but the choices are not.
The truth is that your decisions are more often dictated by gut instincts, by necessity, or by happenstance, than they are by reasoned logic. You make a choice, barely understanding the alternatives or the repercussions. It’s only later that it all makes sense. In retrospect. But it’s not like you could have done any different.
I am no more, and no less, than the sum total of my decisions in life. For better or worse. But, the key question is this, as Dave Matthews so wisely asked: Could I have been anyone else? Could I have been anyone other than me? Could I have ever chosen differently? The answer to that, my friend, is an emphatic No! Not a chance in hell.
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