by Rob Kolstad
Dr. Rob Kolstad has long served as editor of ;login:. He is also head coach of the USENIX-sponsored USA Computing Olympiad.
It's graduation season: proms, choosing colleges and jobs, and commencements.
I delivered a commencement speech five or six years ago to a rural high school in Colorado. I fear it wasn't well received. For one thing, I was scheduled after an emotionally wrenching candlelight ceremony in which the seniors presented each of their parents with a rose that symbolized their thanks for their upbringing, and for another, I didn't mouth the standard platitudes: "The world is your oyster." I couldn't even give them unconditional hope for the future; I'm too much of a student of statistics.
I understand that one of the successful West Coast techies gave a commencement speech that same year at some university. He told the students to ignore their parents' advice about hurrying into job, career, family, and life. He is said to have suggested taking that year off to tour Europe or otherwise delve into your psyche. Once you're immersed in what we call "adult life," it is difficult to get off the merry-go-round even for a few weeks, much less for a month or a year. Right after graduation is, arguably, an excellent time to try such a quest.
The Sunday supplement to our newspaper (Parade magazine) sported a brief article this last weekend. Over one-third of the teenagers interviewed professed that they would be earning a million dollars by age 40. What career would yield that million? "Professional athlete, doctor, lawyer, computer programmer, independent businessman." The average salary for those professions, all in all, is around U.S. $75,000/year.
If I could give that commencement speech again, I'd try to preach (I think that's what you do at commencements) about "balance."
Balance is so important, and it seems that so many adults (others, too) are bad at it! Almost everywhere I look, I see people with all sorts of monomaniacal preoccupations. For some, it's programming and computing. They program, play games, surf the Web, chat, and so on, to the exclusion of other parts of their life. Sometimes this single-minded energy is devoted to the job: stories of start-ups where people work dozens of hours more than the standard 40/week are legion. For others, it's spirituality, a hobby, being a fan, etc. etc.
Is this a good thing? I think it probably is for a short burst. I don't think it's good to sustain it to the exclusion of social interaction, cultural dabbling, and a large set of other activities.
It seems that balance must be hard to achieve. After all, parents have to devote untold hours to rearing their children. "Internet time" places great demands on technical workers. Interpersonal relationships can eat up inordinate resources to maintain, especially when any other part of life is not going well.
I've been off-balance at many (most? all?) times in my life. Recently, I was devoting what I perceive to be too much time to work. I'm trying to redress the balance now by spending very little time at work.
My stress level is way down, I think. I am, however, still spending all of my time every day (as if something else might happen). The USA Computing Olympiad is currently more than a half-time job. Spring has sprung in the Rockies, and the lawn/garden need attention. I even wasted a whole day last Sunday just to see what it was like. It's weird.
I'm going to try to balance my life. I'll let you know when I achieve that sort of Karma so many have celebrated in words and song.