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I get nervous whenever my ratio of success to effort gets too high. Flight: it’s not actually all that hard, or at least, I keep getting graded better than my peers at it. Principles of Aerodynamics was a downright trivial class. It didn’t even have any math! But over 16% of my classmates outright failed the test on their first attempt. At most these days, I take an hour or two a night to study, but that only happened twice this week. There are other people in my class who seem to be breezing through as easily as I do, but the majority are showing visible signs of of struggle.

I naturally think in terms of narrative. There is a logic to stories that I understand very deeply; perhaps more naturally even than, say, the rules of social interaction. For the past week or so, every time I think about flight school, giant neon signs have been flashing “HUBRIS ALERT” in my head. Any character who thinks about themself the way I have been, or worse, dares to vocalize such autocongratulatory thoughts, is just setting themselves up for failure later on.

It would seem silly to get worked up about this–there’s no logical reason to assume that my life will follow the dictates of story logic–except for the fact that the overarching goal I’ve worked toward since entering college was to live a life like that of the main character in a story I would want to read. So far, that’s been surprisingly easy to accomplish.

Today I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is a nonfiction work about Ken Kesey. The first reaction upon finishing the book is that it would be interesting one day to try LSD, but that’s to be expected. The important reaction was that this was also a man who saw the world in narrative terms: he got away with an astonishing amount of more-or-less-harmless illegality because he thought in terms of drawing the world into the story he wanted to tell instead of simply following the script the world gave him. In the end, the problem with changing the world is that you have to change all the people in it, and too many of them have agendas of their own to advance; it was a tale of hubris after all. His influence was nontrivial; he did manage to invent and spearhead the entire psychedelic movement, but a decade after he started, it had spiraled out of his control. His band of Merry Pranksters disbanded, and he never again accomplished anything of significance. His story was over, and he spent the rest of his life re-telling it.

I see too many parallels between his own early exploits and my own situation to be entirely comfortable with the way the story ends. Then again, I don’t expect to try to change the world. It’s a good solution, if drab: mediocrity doesn’t sting unless you aspire to something greater. So long as I attempt only projects an order of magnitude smaller than his, I can achieve wild success at each of them without hitting the same sort of obstacles that eventually brought him down.

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Comment by anonymous
2008-02-16 07:42:32

The casual remark above about LSD is, to me, the most frightening thing you’ve said in a long time. Do you really want a classic story arc about potential greatness derailed into delusion and tumbling into cliched squalor? Come on, that’s hardly unexplored territory. Open any magazine. I thought you said you want a story you’d want to read.

Comment by anonymous
2008-02-16 08:36:48

Your natural morality is alive and kicking–pride is a DEADLY sin, so listen to what that inner voice is telling you. Use your gifts well–offer to study with those struggling, and do it humbly. What goes around comes around.

Comment by anonymous
2008-02-16 09:40:52

Way to have actually interesting stuff to blog about. Most people are all like “I ate an orange today but the orange was SPOILED!”

Comment by kadath
2008-02-16 11:58:39

Dude, it’s the Army. Lowest common denominator, which you are not.

Also, be careful if you decide to experiment with hallucinogens. It is very hard to get high-quality LSD today.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-02-16 16:24:14

It does not do to underestimate the trauma of a moldy orange.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-02-16 16:38:37

It’s the Army, but it’s also the officer corps. Regardless of the reputations that young Lts have for being clueless, I have yet to meet an officer who seems like they are actually below the national average in intelligence. My peers these days aren’t all up to the same standard I saw in college, but they were selected by a broader set of criteria than WPI’s students were.

I’ve heard about the growing unattainability of actual LSD. Given my utter lack of drug contacts, it seems almost as though the most surefire way of getting some would be to get some chemistry texts and precursor chemicals and synthesize my own.

Comment by kadath
2008-02-16 19:16:17

It’s the Army, but it’s also the officer corps.

Yeah, and? You are easily in the “two to three standard deviations above the mean” range. (Assuming normal distribution, blah blah.) You are are a quicker study than a substantial percentage of the population–recognizing the truth is not hubris. You are not being judged against a narrative standard. You are being judged against what the Army believes to be reasonable progress. If you are meeting that standard easily, then it becomes your call as to whether you want to coast or push yourself. Perhaps you could volunteer for peer tutoring, assuming your classmates would be receptive. I guarantee your instructors would notice and appreciate you taking initiative.

I’ve heard about the growing unattainability of actual LSD. Given my utter lack of drug contacts, it seems almost as though the most surefire way of getting some would be to get some chemistry texts and precursor chemicals and synthesize my own.

Yes, you would be much safer making your own, though it’s not Chemistry 101 by any means.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-02-17 00:26:26

I suppose that the biggest challenge to be overcome in peer tutoring is logistical: with the amount of time we spend at work, it’s hard to gather more than a few people at a time for study. It is worth looking into, though.

Comment by anonymous
2008-02-22 00:39:10

It’s good, at least, that the hubris alarm bells are ringing. In most of those stories you mentioned, the worst fates go to the people who ignore those alarm bells completely. And I have to agree with the above–you *are* really smart.

I have to agree, you just casually mentioning LSD takes me by surprise. Imho, it’d be a bad idea. But I’m not gonna bug you about it, because I understand it’s just a flippant remark without much intent…right?



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