Be What You Must

…even if it’s what you never imagined.

Only on a wind of hope my heart sailed Braving mystic oceans to arrive Those who do not leave And choose to stay, Barely survive

Be you dust, or be you star To be what you must Just reach out for what you are And though you’ve traveled many roads There’s but one way, and that’s the one you chose

- Yusuf, “Be What You Must”

My household received its first computer in the early ’90s, although I was too young to remember the exact details of how it arrived there. A monstrous IBM box, it had Windows 3.1, although I had no idea what that meant. I only knew the simple joys of drawing masterpieces with Paintbrush, and of hearing the alien yet comforting sounds of our modem dialing in to the internet to visit the few major web pages around at that time.

The machine was an amazing new source of entertainment, but I didn’t understand enough to create my own web content until the late ’90s, on a different computer, when I received a kids’ book about building a website. At that age, I was impressed that the complex-looking expressions between <HTML> and </HTML> could be understood by anyone, let alone children. It was another language entirely, and I delighted in learning it. Although my creations, full of <CENTER> tags, never reached the internet, it was enormously satisfying to see something I had typed come alive in a browser, just as all those other big-people websites did.

Years later I was still interested in the web, now working from another book which featured HTML and a new-fangled technology called CSS. I was designing and coding real sites now, including a Paint-drawn murder-mystery featuring stick people. I bought my first domain, a .com, with my mother’s debit card. It hosted a site I called the Lave Police Department, where I collected pictures of local police cars and equipment, radio codes, and anything police-related. Let me tell you, nothing compares to the thrill of seeing something you created made available at a real domain name for (in theory) the entire world to see. The page counter probably never exceeded 10 unique visits, but that joy settled somewhere inside me and never left.

At various times throughout my childhood, I wanted to be a zoologist, police officer, writer, or perhaps all of them at once. Nothing lasted, however, as I would float from interest to interest like a feather in the breeze.

I did well in school, but I never had any end goal in mind. After a weak grounding in mathematics through high school, I was re-introduced to it in college and fell in love. The act of learning the rules and applying them to solve problems methodically was really exciting. My experience with physics classes was similar. The chance to understand and apply the rules of the universe, the greatest of all systems, was enticing!

Because I didn’t have any other plans and it seemed like a field just technical enough to perhaps get a job someday, I continued on to get my bachelor’s degree in physics. One thing led to another and I entered a physics PhD program. Having a higher technical degree couldn’t hurt, right? Wrong.

Graduate classes decimated me. The material was so abstract that I had trouble even understanding what to learn and why it would ever be useful, never mind learning it. I quickly fell behind and studied long hours for barely-adequate grades. Eventually, I became depressed and stopped trying altogether. Often, I escaped my required physics work by programming cool simulations and visualizations of physical systems. Coding served as an escape.

After one year of trudging through a program that wasn’t right for me, I made a crucial decision: I would stop doing what I imagined I had to do, and start doing what I was doing anyway — programming. So I began taking computer science classes in algorithms and user interface design while finishing up the physics degree. Although they were also difficult, the material was much more manageable and enjoyable. Even though I didn’t have the formal background the department recommended, I took a risk and applied.

I was accepted!

For my classes and in my spare time, I began programming for the web again. All the long-dormant, simple joys I experienced building sites as a kid came rushing back, and more. Archaic HTML tags and cryptic JavaScript (JS) had given way to sleek, mature versions of themselves which now allowed me to build things that were unimaginable all those years ago. Web development was even more fun than I remembered.

In the span of about 18 months, I soaked up everything I could about JS, its many frameworks and libraries, and about best practices, professional workflows, and build tools to more easily manage complex apps. Some days were easy, some frustrating, but I continued coding and loved it. Could this become a career, I wondered? Judging by the experiences of FreeCodeCamp users, development can be an enjoyable, well-paying career.

This summer, my coding experience and connections with my CS department have given me the opportunity to develop an online vehicle counting portal for my state’s department of transportation. I’m designing and developing the interface single-handedly and, though it can be terrifying at times, I love the challenge and look forward to seeing the project evolve. Afterward, I hope to start applying to full-stack JS developer jobs in my area.

My life has improved considerably since I gave up the illusion of having to take a particular course through it. For years I drifted aimlessly and ignored what my true calling was, following my momentum into physics but not thinking too deeply about why or where the path would lead. while being dreadfully unhappy about it.

The lovely song at this article’s beginning contains the lines, “To be what you must / You must give up what you are.” This is incredibly powerful and useful advice. No matter how much time and effort you have put in to get where you’re at, if you’re unhappy with your situation, it was all in vain. With the limited time we have in life, it’s far better, I think, to put in a bit more time and effort to love the time you’re spending.

Never stop yourself from taking a different road simply because it’s easier to continue down the one you’re on. You may need to backtrack; you may need to spend more time examining a map; but the other road may underlie the trip of a lifetime.