A Very Particular Set of Skills

I’m not really good at basic things. Complicated things are fine for the most part. I can do some pretty complicated things that most other people can’t. Programming computers comes to mind. It requires very specific knowledge and is entirely useless in almost all situations, except of course for the few in which it’s very useful and people will pay me a decent amount of money to do it. I started programming fairly young and managed to get good enough that I could put some fancy words on my resume and convince people that I actually know what I’m talking about. I knew what I was doing. I was ahead of the game. Way to go, Julian. You’re gonna go far, kid. But every once in a while, it comes to my attention that I may have erroneously placed out of a prerequisite — not for programming, but for being a functional adult. I’ll call it WRLD 110 — Fundamentals of Life. It’s not a biology class, although it has that ring to it. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the syllabus contains, because I have learned about it only through coming across its topics elsewhere and being expected to know the material already.

The summer before I started college, I worked at a tech startup in New York. I was a software engineering intern, which means a few things. The “software” part means I was working with computers, which is something I’m claiming to be good at. The “engineering” part means I was not just typing on a screen, but rather I was building solutions to help make the world a better place; I was applying my particular set of skills to further humanity’s impact on the world; I was using my vast knowledge to make a difference. The “intern” part means I was doing the work everyone else was too busy for.

Now, I’m not sure what you’ve read about the culture of tech startups, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that it’s probably true. Someone who worked at Google decided one day that on the spectrum from gray cubicles with staple removers to playgrounds designed for toddlers, engineers work best in environments closer to the latter. This trend took off, and so I found myself sitting on an exercise ball in an open-concept office, eating company-bought Slim Jims, and talking to a guy who grew up in India about the conceptual relationship between monads and applicative functors. Google is now a giant behemoth of a company, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, but they left behind a legacy of corporate culture. I think their offices still have Razor scooters.

The strange world I had stumbled into seemed perfectly tailored to my particular skillset, at least at first. I was treated like either a postdoc or a preschooler, depending on the situation and time of day. I’d wake up at 8:00, get ready, ride the subway to work with the rest of the busy, important morning commuters, and get there at around 9:00. Then I’d have coffee and breakfast — I always put in a special request for Frosted Flakes in the weekly food order — and work on whatever my current task was until I decided it was time for one of a few daily foosball breaks. My mentor, Jacob, always had something for me to work on. He was a short, soft-spoken Orthodox Jew who enjoyed coding immensely and didn’t feel the need to make time for much else. His standards of quality were high, which made working under him very rewarding, even though a successfully completed task was usually not greeted with much more than “cool,” and something to do next.

Every day at 3:30, everyone in the office would stop what they were doing and do planks. It wasn’t exactly everyone — I’m positive I never saw Jacob plank a single time — but it was certainly a group experience that made for good office bonding. Planks were led by Patrik, the resident fitness expert among the engineers, who hailed from the Czech Republic. He was twenty-six with a buzz cut and a giant smile, and at first glance, I would have expected to see him on a soccer field rather than in front of a computer. “Plank o’clock,” Patrik would announce, as we all groaned, left our exercise balls, kneeling chairs, or standing desks, and hobbled to the center of the office for our workout. I actually got more exercise during my summer as a software engineering intern than in my previous summers of more traditional carefree childness. “It is through strength of body as well as strength of mind that we will overcome our competitors,” Patrik would say after having finished planking and moved on to Ukrainian Twists. The rest of us shuffled back to our desks. Even though planking wasn’t quite like programming, I could still mostly do it. The full routine was originally five minutes, but it was extended to five and a half, and then later six after being deemed too easy. By the time it was at six, I could almost make it through five.

One morning, maybe my second week or so working there, I was given my first non-technical assignment, which involved a different sort of plank. Jesse, the CTO, came up to my desk and told me that he needed me to do some “mechanical engineering” today. Jesse was pretty young — though older than me of course — and had a chiseled, pretty-boy face with big, green eyes. He spoke kind of like a chill, California surfer dude even though he was from the East Coast and wrote code for a living. I looked at Jacob, who gave a nod, and then I followed Jesse into the room where the foosball and ping/beer pong tables would soon go. We had just moved into a new office, so many things still needed to be unpacked or built. My task for today concerned the latter.

“These are wooden boards,” said Jesse, gesturing to the four wooden boards lying on the floor. “This is a saw,” he continued, handing me a thin, somewhat primitive-looking handsaw. I was hoping for something more of the power tool variety. “I need you to cut these boards so that they’re fifty-eight inches. There’s a tape measure in that drawer, and here’s a pencil. You can go out onto the fire escape there and lay them on top of that bar with the part you’re cutting over the edge.” That was it. That was my task. That was the first basic thing I had to do for my job.

“Yeah, sounds good. Fifty-eight inches, right?”

“No more, no less.” Jesse left and I got to it. I was alone with the wooden boards. The first thing to do, obviously, was to measure the board with the tape measure and then mark with a pencil where to cut. I had to measure from both sides of the board, of course, and make two marks, which I would then connect to make a line. I did this with relative ease, and the marks even almost lined up. Next step was to get the boards out onto the fire escape, which was through a window. It made sense to take the boards out one at a time, since it was somewhat cumbersome to get them through the window. There was a man on the next fire escape over painting the side of the building. The warm summer air hit my face. How nice, I thought, to get to break up the monotony of coding with a little good old-fashioned manual labor. I positioned the board appropriately, sat on it with the marked side over the edge of the bar, and pressed the sharp end of the saw into the side of the board. I moved it back and forth in the traditional sawing motion, pushing as hard as I could. I sweated and panted and my arm began to ache. I lied and told myself that there was no way I was experiencing physical pain from this, but it was proving to be more exhausting than I had anticipated. After about five minutes, I took a break and examined my handiwork. There was a tiny little slit in the side of the board. About 2% of the board’s width had been sawed away and about 98% remained.

If I were telling this story the way I like to think about it in retrospect, I would say that in that moment, I had a powerful revelation about the importance of working with my hands or something like that. I’d frame it in such a way that doesn’t leave me looking incredibly pathetic. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I sat there and cried. Actual tears slowly eked their way out of my eyes and down the sweat and sawdust (of which I had not produced very much) on my face. The guy painting the building laughed at me. I would have laughed at me too, had I not been busy crying. How the hell could I not saw a goddamn wooden board? How the hell was that fact causing me this much emotional distress? How the hell would I have survived in 99% of the possible time/place/circumstance combinations that I could have been born into? I had never felt so weak and pathetic in my life. I wondered what entitled me to spend the day getting paid to sit at a computer, play foosball, and plank, when I couldn’t perform such a basic task. I wished desperately that Jacob would appear with something urgent he needed me to work on and say, “Someone else take over, someone who’s not doing anything important right now.” Whatever urgent programming matter Jacob hypothetically had for me would be a hundred times easier than sawing a wooden board. But it was just that, a hypothetical. There was no one coming to bail me out. I was alone, sitting on a slightly scathed piece of wood, feeling sorry for myself, and feeling sorry for feeling sorry for myself.

A friend of mine once told me that I stand like a serial killer. It wasn’t entirely random and out of context. I wanted a new Facebook profile picture and it was a nice day out, so I asked her to take a picture of me.

“Stop standing weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just stand normally.”

“Like this?”

“No, normally. Not like a serial killer.”

I wound up using a picture of me sitting down instead. It was easier than coming up with an explanation for why I, a relatively high-functioning human adult, can’t seem to stand normally; or walk normally; or saw a wooden board; or drive a car; or cook; or successfully follow verbal directions to a place given by someone on the street; or have a proper, non-stuttered answer to “How’s it going” when I pass someone I know; or color inside the lines at a Kindergarten-level. This list is probably much longer and I just haven’t realized it yet.

I did cut the boards eventually. I even made it back in time for plank o’clock, which apparently had been doing absolutely nothing for my arm strength. Then I proceeded with the duration of my internship as normal, gaining lots of practical programming experience and whatnot. But I still felt the need to have learned something from my wood-sawing fiasco, because otherwise it would just be an embarrassing blot on my life’s record that I’d have nothing to show for. I yearned for meaning, something that would let me remember this brief anecdote without hating myself and feeling hopelessly incapable. Perhaps I learned a new topic for the syllabus of WRLD 110. That’s the best I can come up with, but it doesn’t even help, since I’m probably the least qualified person in the world to teach it.

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