Thursday, July 19, 2007

Нити (threads)

The other day we visited St. Isaac's Cathedral, which has a majestic collonade overlooking the entire city, offering a fantastic view of the entire skyline (we also visited the interior of the cathedral, which is equally incredible). Anyway, while walking around up on the collonade, the attendant (a guide/guard, who I suppose was there to make sure people who were taking pictures had an appropriate ticket, and to offer help / information to visitors), began chatting with me, asking me where I was from, what I studied, and so forth. He seemed somewhere between 50 or 60, and of Eastern descent (in that I mean: remember that Russia spans all of Asia as well). As we concluded he offered to sell me some playing cards as a souvenir, but I said "no thanks" and continued to amble around.

The previous day at the university, I was chatting with another member of the program. She was asking me about what I was studying back home, and so I had mentioned that I had just finished my degree in computer science / applied math. Naturally, she asked me what I was going to do upon returning home, and I told her the whole story about Microsoft, Applied Visions, and so forth. We didn't get to finish, because we needed to go to a lecture or something of the sort.

I continued to walk around the collonade, and happened to meet up with her again while there. I continued our conversation from yesterday, and asked her of her plans and such. She hadn't been able to make it to the orientation in Manhattan because she was taking her doctoral exams, so I asked her how that went, and was surprised when she said she hadn't passed them. She said she didn't think she would continue and try again with it, but wasn't sure what she wanted to do (she was studying economics). She said although she could find a good job in statistics or something of the like, she didn't know if she really wanted to, but said at this point it was really too hard to change her mind. I disagreed, saying that although it may be harder, it only gets harder still with the passing of time.

At this point, the attendant, who had been walking around, ended up coming by and began chatting with us some more. We learned that he had studied English for 5 years, and German for 12, but had never traveled anywhere to use either. He was working at St. Isaac's for the summer, but come September he would look for a new job, as he had been a coal miner up until this point. I regretted not buying his playing cards.

As I sat in the hotel in New York, debating what to do about Microsoft's offer, the main issue that drove my decision was the flexibility afforded by continuing to work close to home, such that if I decided to change my mind and profession, it was a simple matter of giving notice and saying my goodbyes, without the minor inconvenience of moving back across the country. The day of the flight I called Applied Visions from the hotel, and said I was in: I'm going to stay.

While at the airport, I called Microsoft, with my whole batch of scribbled notes outlining why I had decided as I did. A very effective recruiter, she had my head spinning as she effectively discussed and tried to assuage each of my objections. Of my newfound interest in the State Department: she said that as an international company, Microsoft could offer similar opportunities to travel. Of moving: I said that moving across the country was a somewhat different animal than a closer state. She parried by saying she'd try to set up something in Massachusetts and that we'd talk when I was settled here. Mentioning that I'd agreed to work for Applied Visions had slipped my mind; I was so mixed up at that point she could have had me believing my own mother was a turnip. So we agreed to be in touch.

What ties all this together are the contrasts of choices. I had a difficult time deciding what to do about Microsoft. A few years ago I would certainly have labeled it my dream job. But now I'm not sure what to do: keep programming? Pursue psychology? Foreign service? Math teacher (hence the applied math degree)? Police officer? All of these are opportunities that are reasonably available for me to pursue.

So choosing was difficult, but is it that difficult about choosing among a half dozen paths just out of college, compared to pursuing a Ph.D in a field, but not succeeding, and then deciding maybe you don't want to continue? And what is difficult about either of those situations when one is a coal miner, having studied languages for many years with little opportunity to really use them, when all of us here have a golden ticket to use our (widely varying) Russian skills for which I've paid in the neighborhood of, oh, nothing at all.

I feel spoiled. Either alternative is a relative luxury, and yet how can it be any less difficult than anything else? Even this coal miner's life is a relative luxury compared to those whose lives have been destroyed in New Orleans where we tried to help by a miniscule amount (or the Kansas tornado, the 2004 tsunami, the Iraq war, or any of the other innumerable catastrophes). It's all relative. Everyone just wants a satisfying life: for the less well-off, they might aspire to that which I have already achieved / been given, and would find satisfaction in accomplishing this. But what does that mean for me? That I should just be satisfied? Regret is just as strong as any other emotion, isn't it? I think it comes back to Maslow's hierarchy, wherein you can't satisfy higher needs (emotion, esteem, etc) until the lower ones are met (food, shelter, etc). But all the same, everyone wants to fulfill the entire pyramid. It's just that you are only looking up one level at a time.

So in the end, I finally responded to Microsoft's email. I said that I'd decided to stay on with Applied Visions for the time being, splitting my time between there and working with my psychology professor in her lab, getting experience lest I decide to pursue that direction. And if I decided I really do what to be a programmer, Microsoft will still be around (well, unless everyone keeps buying Macs). I am already having second thoughts about the decision, but I know that either alternative would have resulted in a little regret. So who knows. We'll see what happens.

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