May 12th, 2021

Funny things, birthdays…

May 12th, 2021 indeed. Just another day of the year, you might say. But not for me. Today is the day that marks another complete orbit around the sun since my life began – although the exact meanings of ‘orbit’ and ‘life’ are actually surprisingly vague and controversial. For example, was I only alive the moment I was ‘born’? I’m pretty sure I was already alive before that. My parents report that I was kicking, moving, etc. months before I actually popped out. So maybe life starts earlier. I won’t go into more speculation about this right now, for fear of tickling the pro-life/pro-choice debate, and instead move to the other problematic word here: orbit.

What with orbital precession, gravitational interference from the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn and whatever else, even the orbits we use to arbitrarily define our years are flimsy at best. For example, the original definition of a year was from one point in time to when the Earth next reached the same position in its orbit. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Earth actually covered 360° around the Sun, because the orbit itself has turned. And we measure that from our frame of reference, not that of the Solar system as a whole. I’m not about to go into an astrodynamics lecture here.

Anyway, where was I? Yeah, my birthday. A social construct designed to celebrate the fact that in the last full orbit of our planet, we haven’t managed to die yet despite all the crap Mother Nature throws at us (what does that say about her mothering skills BTW?). An excuse for partying, drinking, having a good time (at least when there isn’t a pandemic going on to ruin most social experiences). One of those moments to fully realize where you stand, how much or little you’ve achieved, and how much there is left to achieve and experience. A moment for introspection and evaluation.

It’s this last one I’m going to dwell on here. Because today isn’t just any birthday. Indeed, though numbers themselves are representative of a universal concept (universal as far as we know) called math, and their exact nature is also the subject of a whole lot of controversy and debate that I will also not go into here, one thing that isn’t a natural universal truth is how we tend to break down the number line into more manageable chunks. We have 10 fingers, and that has led us to (nowadays) arbitrarily decide to count in base 10 even though it can be argued that other bases would make more sense. But this means that 10 and 5 have become kind of special, and multiples of either in many areas, including age, have taken on a kind of extra importance.

A relatively grim look back

So yeah, this birthday isn’t just any birthday. Today I turn 35. Starting today I’m closer to my 40s than my 20s. And today I reflect back on the last five years. Why five, you ask? Oddly it has nothing to do with the arbitrary mathematical point I just mentioned. It’s just a coincidence. I knew I was bound to come back to this at some point but it just happened to be this year.

A Series of Unfortunate Epiphanies

Five years ago, as I was just turning… 30, good, some of you are keeping up, I had just barely started my last proper job at Altran in Portugal, and already back then I had put together a short introspective piece about how finally that time I was likely to move ahead in life a bit, about how I was excited and nervous all at once, about how this was going to be yet another new adventure. Some of you might remember that from my Facebook posts.

Boy, was I a naive idiot back then, even with more experience at 30 than most others have. Indeed, the last five years absolutely DIDN’T go as planned, or even as hoped. Sure, I achieved a few things, learned a lot, met cool people, but when I look back at my general life path I feel like I essentially stayed put.

I took that job at Altran expecting it to amount to the career progression I’d given up on at Fujitsu because my sense of dignity prevented my lips from making contact with my bosses’ rear ends. As it turned out, it was a kind of a bait and switch. The office I was in was basically the depository of all the lowest-value IT consulting services the company offered in Portugal, so I was stuck in two boring projects. The first one didn’t offer any prospect and the second one offered it but never delivered. Worse still, out of 2 years spent there I spent literally 8 months sitting on my ass because my clients (both of them) couldn’t find it in themselves to take less than several months to give me the accesses I needed to… well, to do the job they were already paying me for in the first place. So yeah, that didn’t go as planned.

I then had a bit of a realization about some of my failures, namely procrastination issues, a general inability to be proactive and an ever growing, ever more crippling sense of self-doubt, mostly when looking back on my entire life since middle school. In order to try to shake myself into being a more reliable, productive human being I decided to try my hand at actual freelance work, figuring that it would force me to be serious and active if only to survive. So I moved to Madrid and joined a friend’s project there. But after two more years of still passive apathy and procrastination, getting only very minimal amounts of work, I realized this wasn’t the way to go.

The Very Painful Reckoning

Last year everything came to a head when the accumulation of realizations of the past couple of decades hit me full in the face. My weaknesses suddenly resolved themselves into the ominous specter of a tendency to self-sabotage myself in everything I did once there were any sort of stakes. That was a real blow, and I got completely desperate and despondent. What’s more, that was at just the moment when I had just decided to start looking for other opportunities (namely, a job in a German-speaking environment), so of course that slowed almost to a halt as well, only to pick up again… a full year later.

I then figured I should change surroundings and go onsite, and moved to Dusseldorf. But unfortunately that didn’t help, as I was still sending on average about half a job application a month or so. It’s not that there weren’t jobs available, it’s really that in my somehow counterproductive mind, I couldn’t get around to sending in applications. One theory on that point is that I have some degree of perfectionism that makes me reluctant to even start something if I’m worried how it’ll turn out or what the stakes are.

Confidence Wars Episode XXXIV I/II: A New Hope?

Then I came back to Switzerland where, with my family’s precious support, I was able to get back on my feet somewhat. My sister and I worked together on finding a job, my parents helped encourage me, and it’s going to sound weird but Swiss bureaucracy is actual greased lightning and took several administrative weights off my shoulders like nothing else did. Until eventually I finally found a job. In a German-speaking location, the way I wanted it. Granted, the company’s full of Italians so that’s what I speak most of the week, but it’s a start.

What’s more, this job is looking on course to give me exactly what I was hoping for five years ago when I started in Altran: some career progression and a chance to develop from basic pawn following orders to more of a coordinator and maybe even a manager. In fact, my boss made his intentions quite clear: he wants me to progress to team leader within months, even by the end of summer if possible. He’s been asking for my suggestions and recommendations based on my past experiences and valuing my inputs and initiatives. He’s been encouraging me to share my vision and experience of the sector with my two green colleagues. And I’ve been coaching them and seeing the results start to take shape. And yesterday in particular I had a pretty revealing experience in that sense. I wasn’t merely handling IT support tickets, I was actually involved in negotiating everyday work aspects of the new support contract set to begin soon. I’m realizing that I’m already transitioning, and that it seems easier than it felt at first, when I was intimidated at the mere prospect of how fast I was expected to rise.

A New, Positive (so Obviously NOT Microsoft) Outlook on Life

And now I look back on my life with slightly different eyes. It feels weird. I guess I still need to train to look back in this way. Up until a mere few weeks ago I doubted everything. I knew I’d accomplished some things, but always managed to rationalize them down to essentially failures in some way or other. I knew I regretted some choices, some decisions, and still beat myself up over them even after all these years. I still felt the twinge of embarrassment or frustration or anger at myself for those. And honestly, I still kind of do. But now I feel like my outlook is changing. I feel like I’m regaining my optimism. Not my general happy-go-lucky, superficial optimism on easy fun things. My deeper optimism about my life choices and my life in general.

And without falling into the cliché of saying “everything happens for a reason” because to me that’s either a basic, meaningless tautology or fatalist, hopeless junk, the fact is that I now feel like all those events from my past, productive or otherwise, helped get me to where I am. I’m starting to learn not to regret them but to embrace and accept them as stepping stones in my life. But that’s a story for another post because this post is already plenty long enough as it is.

Conclusions, Realizations, Acknowledgments, Gratitude

But ultimately, I haven’t forgotten that age is just a number anyway. Granted, a slight indication of overall physical fitness and vitality, but barely more than that and not even really reliable in that sense anyway. I ultimately don’t care whether I’m turning 35, 53 or 97 today. I don’t even set much store by the human social construct of years and age in general anyway, as established in the introduction above. However, it does make for a convenient excuse to do some introspection and reflect on how I got here, who I am now, who I want to be and how I want to get there. And you know what? For once in almost fifteen years, I’m learning to look on that with optimism and to set aside the fear and concerns. I’m learning, guys. Better now than later. Can’t say better than that.

A day without learning is a day wasted.

Albert Einstein – or so the page on which I found this says

I’ll close on this note: I want to give my truly most sincere, heartfelt thanks to everybody who’s helped and supported me and taught me important life lessons, good or bad, not only over the past five years, but my entire life. I’m starting to realize now the full measure of the value of all this support, and how much all of it contributed to my life today as it is. I know one’s birthday is socially constructed to be when one is the star of the show receiving attention, but today I want to pay all of you the attention you deserve and I feel maybe I haven’t always properly reciprocated. It’s too little too late, I know and I’m sorry, but it’s a start.

Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.

2 thoughts on “May 12th, 2021

  1. You are indeed one of a kind… In all the possible levels, both professional and personal! You are an example of resilience; also, I enormously admire your will in exploring new things, cultures, and environments. Maybe, your path wasn’t as planned at all. However, it brought you directly where you are today and make you the excellent human being you are today!
    So, congratulations for never given up and for all you achieved in the last few years, and I couldn’t be more grateful to the universe because your unexpected path led you to me.

    With love from your sister at heart, Filipa….

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