The Island of Misfit Ideas

I’ve discussed previously my occasional habit of purchasing electronic “toys” for which I later discover I have little use. Being a bit of a scatterbrain, I’ve also had similar interactions with plans and ideas. Some come to fruition (moving to Florida, getting a master’s degree, working for NASA); others do not (going back to school for an engineering degree, working overseas, playing the piano). Today’s post is to console my fellow scatterbrains (life experimenters might be a more forgiving description) and to suggest ways of differentiating good ideas from bad ones.

Experiments in Living

Personally, I don’t believe it’s a sin to keep trying new activities or new directions in life. It does help, of course, if you start by just dabbling a bit–experimenting with new ideas in ways that won’t cost too much or create too many problems if you get in too deep before you discover the idea is not for you.

Engineering school

For example, I spent a great deal of time on the Khan Academy website for a couple months relearning trigonometry and other forms of math as preparation for potentially pursuing a master’s degree in systems engineering–a course of study that would require one course in calculus, of which I knew practically nothing. The great virtue of Khan Academy learning was that it was free. I spent a little money on some graphing paper and #2 pencils, that was it.

I managed to complete the full course on trigonometry and was starting to work through statistics when my studying came up against a vacation. I took time off from my “studies” to relax, and when I came back, I found that I’d lost my enthusiasm for the venture. It was probably good that I did so before committing to another full course of study.

Literacy tutor

Other projects or directions have caught my fancy over the years. When I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, I took an interest in becoming a tutor for Adult Literacy. I was assigned a student, a nice lady who’d immigrated from Taiwan and was working on improving her English. Working on the rudiments of English, I soon discovered, was not my thing, but I’d made a commitment, so I stuck with it. Fortunately, my student was interested in writing stories. That I had an interest in, and so I was able to shepherd her progress through a couple of novel-length stories. My former student is still writing.

University instructor

I had similar misgivings about teaching business writing at University of Alabama-Huntsville. While I thought teaching was something I wanted to do, I discovered that the process brought me little joy. But I stuck with it because, again, I’d made a commitment, and taught a single semester. I didn’t make any major errors in that single semester, but I’d learned enough about myself not to sign on to do it again.

Conference chairman

In 2009, I got the crazy idea that it might be fun to organize and chair a space advocacy conference. I’d been to plenty, knew what I liked about them and what I’d like to see done differently. I agreed to volunteer to lead the local National Space Society chapter’s efforts–proposal, presentation, and conference–as long as I got to organize it (more or less) my way, which included bringing in more aerospace companies and having a strong practical emphasis to the conference tracks and networking activities (we even included a job fair). The event went quite well, so I’m told–I spent most of the time running around solving problems instead of participating–but that conference cured me of ever running another one, seeking public office, or doing anything that might put me in a position of leadership. I’d learned, over the course of two years, that I didn’t want to be the boss of anything but myself.

Aerospace reporter

From 2016 to 2018, I worked as a freelance reporter for Spaceflight Insider, a space news blog dedicated to presenting space-related information in language that would be understandable to people who were not space professionals. The pay was low, but the work was fascinating and it kept my name “out there” in the public view at a time when I was not otherwise getting paid to do space-related work. Eventually I did get hired to do more professional technical writing for space companies, which created too many conflicts of interest for me to report fairly. If the industry work hadn’t come along, I might still be writing for them.

Bottom Line

If you can find the time, it’s worth it to pursue your interests and experiment with your life. Like I said, it’s better if you can start small and inexpensively before you commit to a multi-year or otherwise life-changing project. Otherwise, some of those experiments can make life much less fun than you thought it would be otherwise. If you start small and dig more deeply as your interest moves you, however, you might find a life-changing activity or even a “calling” or mission in life. And yes, you might end up with a history of incomplete projects behind you, but all of those efforts to grow and change help you grow as a professional and as a person.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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