Pursuing Childhood Dreams

Me at the age of 3I originally wrote this post almost a year ago, after a friend of mine gave me a copy of Randy Pausch`s book “The Last Lecture”. I never met Dr. Pausch, although I heard a lot about him from Jesse Schell, the current co-director of the CMU Entertainment Technology Center. In the summer of 2007, while researching virtual worlds and avatar technologies for a work-related project, I came across Alice [www.alice.org] (an interactive game and story-telling development environment created by Dr. Pausch and his team) and subsequently, Randy’s website. That is when I found out about his ongoing fight with pancreatic cancer and the upcoming Last Lecture. Unfortunately, I could not make it to the actual lecture, but I watched it from start to finish as soon as it appeared on YouTube. I kept meaning to read the book, but things kept coming up and I did not get to it until a few days ago. After I turned the last page of the book I found “The Last Lecture” on YouTube and watched it again. Reading Randy’s book and watching “The Last Lecture” again was both inspired and depressed me. Randy’s lecture deals with achieving your childhood dreams; reading his book and listening to his lecture made me realize that I am 32 years old and very few of my childhood dreams have come to fruition. I could not get Randy’s words out of my mind; I kept thinking about my life so far, about all the dreams that I had and how few of them I actually followed through on. I took out a notepad and a pen and wrote down the most important dreams of my childhood. Here they are in no particular order: Becoming a National Geographic photographer I got my first camera for my 8th birthday and have been obsessed with photography ever since. In my teens and early 20s I freelanced for a bunch of small newspapers. For the past 9 years I have been running a successful wedding and even photography business. Alas, I never became a National Geographic photographer. I never had the guts to sell my possessions and move to India like Steve McCurry or go into war-ravaged countries like James Nachtwey. While I was always able to capture fleeting moments with my camera, my captured moments were never even close to the perfect shots of Vincent Laforet. When I graduated high school I wanted to go to college to study journalism. My father kept telling me that it would be a waste of my time and that I should pick a real profession, like a doctor or a lawyer. I spent 4 years studying biology as a pre-med major at the Old Dominion University, hating every minute of it. I guess no matter how much I dreamed about becoming a National Geographic photographer I did not want it badly enough to make the necessary sacrifices. And that is one of my biggest regrets in life. Teaching my wife to rappell at the McConnel`s Mills Climbing the “7 summits” – the highest mountains on 7 continents (Kilimanjaro, Denali, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Carstensz Pyramid, Vinson & Everest). I caught the rock-climbing bug when I was 13. My best friend joined a rock-climbing club and convinced me to do the same. At first I was a bit skeptical because I wasn’t a very athletic kid, but after the first trip to real cliffs I was hooked. Ever since then I have been climbing on and off, scaling cliffs, falling down, getting hurt, getting up and climbing again. I did climb on of the aforementioned 7 peaks when I was 16 – I was part of a group that attempted Elbrus in 1993. I never made the summit and after immigrating to the United States in 1994 never had the time or the money to try again. About 5 years ago I decided to resurrect that dream and began saving money and training for a Denali climb. However, 6 months into my training I met my wife and all of a sudden the possibility of getting hurt or dying became pretty scary. Now I have a beautiful daughter. I’d love to be with her as she is growing up; as a matter of fact, my new dream is to walk her down the isle on her wedding day. I do not want to do anything that might jeopardize that particular dream. Writing a book My grandfatherEver since I learned to read at the age of 4, I have been an avid reader. Even now, when I have a family, a full-time job, a part-time business and grad school I still manage to read at least one book every week. I’ve always been envious of brilliant authors such as Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville who can create entire worlds out of nothing and weave an intricate story that never gets boring, no matter how many times you read it. For the past 6 years I have been working on a book about my grandfather. He passed away in 1999, after battling lymphoma for over 10 years. My grandfather played a huge role in my life – he was my male role model. Even though we were very close, he never told me anything about his life before he met my grandmother. After his death, I was going through his papers and found documents and letters that made it clear that my grandfather spent 11 years in Soviet Gulag. After grilling my grandmother and my mother about this find, I began doing research. I found people in Germany, Israel, United States and Argentina that new my grandfather in the labor camps. I wrote over 200 pages of my grandfather’s life story. All I need to finish this book is a trip to Poland and to Russia, something that I will hopefully be able to do next year. Hopefully, I’ll be able to achieve my childhood dream of writing a book. Playing guitar in front of a huge audience This is one dream that I actually managed to fulfill. I never opened for a known band, nor have I ever played in an arena in front of thousands of people. However, when I was in high school, a few friends of mine formed a Beatles cover band and I played rhythm guitar. We played in front of our entire school and even played a few gigs at other schools. Writing a computer game I have never been an avid game player, but I am (and have been for a long time) fascinated with storytelling, graphics and the incredible amount of technical knowledge that goes into developing a game. Take Second Life for example – over the last few years that game has really lived up to its name and became very close to Neal Stephenson’s idea of Metaverse (if you have not read Snowcrash, drop whatever you are doing and get that book right now). I have no interest in developing yet another shoot-them-up game. Instead, I’d like to take something like Rosetta Stone language teaching software as my baseline and turn it into a game to make education easier and more interactive. I have a notebook full of ideas and would like to at least get started on a computer game project once this year’s wedding season is over. Really teaching someone That one is not really my childhood dream. Over the years I have had a lot of crappy teachers in both high school and college. I did however have two professors who were truly excellent – Dr. William Chase (University of Pittsburgh history department) and Dr. Catherine Duane-Lennard (University of Pittsburgh mathematics). Those two professors did not just teach – they inspired. A few years ago a good friend of mine taught a computer science course at a private middle school. To make his students more interested in the subject, he invited a couple of guest speakers to give lectures on various computer-related topics. Because I used to work as a systems administrator for a government contractor and have some background in network security, he asked me to lecture on the topic of “hacking”. I took his request very seriously – I prepared slides, sample code so that students could write a rudimentary brute-force password generator and some handouts on basic network security. I did my best to make those lectures interesting and interactive, but students did not seem to be interested. There were a few people in the class who genuinely wanted to learn, but for the most part my lectures fell on utterly uninterested ears. I really wanted to give those kids something useful and I failed. Since then, I have spoken at various software conferences and overall, I am not a bad speaker. However, just once in my life, I would like to give a lecture that would not simply convey information. I would like to give just one lecture that would inspire everyone in the room, just like Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” had inspired me. I guess what I`m trying to say is that most of us continuously postpone our dreams - I can take that trip next year, I`ll work on my book whenever I retire, I`ll try skydiving once the kids are out of the house. We postpone the things we want to do until there is really no time to do it. And even though some people will keep repeating the mantra of "it`s never too late", sometimes it is. The bottom line is that if you don`t do it today, you`ll regret it for the rest of your life.