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Losing My Hands Pt. 2: The Two Jasons

This is part of an ongoing series that discusses my experience of suffering an RSI during the COVID-19 Pandemic and the ongoing struggles and disruptions it still causes. You can read part one here. My goal here is to interrogate how the injury affected my values and my approach to life. You'll probably be disappointed if you're looking for a detailed medical report.

This comment partly inspired this installation of the series. This article isn't meant to be preachy but rather introspective of the value systems that shape me and many other men.

Growing Up With The Internet

The Internet is a vast ocean that opens up to us as we explore it. Unfortunately, some of what is revealed to us is antisocial, sometimes dark, and almost always negative. I once wrote a blog that received far more attention than I anticipated. While most of the feedback was positive, a handful of outliers accused me of being a stereotypical out-of-touch tech bro. They assumed the perspective outlined in the blog must have resulted from some incredibly gifted, precious upbringing free of the daily trials and tribulations the median person experiences. And I get it to some extent. Although the article was upfront in the title and repeatedly alluded to throughout the text as 'these are lies I tell myself,' there will always be some contingent who will find fault. Call it an occupational hazard. You're never going to please everyone, and something I've been trying to do more and more is worry less about the things and people outside of my control. But that comment struck me.

My Upbringing and Values

The truth is I didn't have some gilded privileged upbringing. There was no silver spoon. Although I'm of Canadian extraction, I didn't grow up in Rosedale, Westmont, or West Point Gray. I'm from a village in China. My parents were among the first to leave the village, leave the country, and scrape out an existence in Canada for me and my sister. This story is familiar to many children of immigrants. Your parents leave everything they know for a chance you will have a better life. A friend once told me it's the first generation's job to survive and the second generation's to live, and maybe only the third gets to thrive. To try and honor the sacrifice your parents made. With this journey also comes the value systems and particulars of my birth country, specifically how a man ought to act and what a man ought to be. Reconciling this in an accelerating culture isn't always easy. The duality of being an immigrant is you belong, but you also don't, if that makes sense.

Accelerating Culture

"All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values.

All meaning alters with acceleration, because all patterns of personal … interdependence change with any acceleration of information."

Marshall McLuhan 'Understanding Media' 1964

If McLuhan is correct, then societal values will update at an unprecedented rate as technological development occurs faster and faster. Trying to keep up and maintain a sense of identity in these conditions is a tricky balancing act and something we all have to contend with.

Stories That Shaped Me

When I say the particulars of my birth country, I don't mean that these aspects of masculinity, i.e., men must provide, men must be tough, they must be stoic, etc., are particularly unique to China, but rather the particular nuances that shape these values are unique to me and my birth country. To better illustrate this, I've held onto two stories from my childhood.

I place an incredible emphasis on my brain and my hands. Growing up, I was taught that these were men's greatest gifts. From these two places, everything is possible. You can build anything with them; if you can build, you can generate 'value.' In the previous chapter of this series, I mentioned that as long as I have a laptop, my hands, and my brain, then I will be fine.

The second story was about a bull and a cart. The bull pulled the cart across rocky crags, through fields and heavy rain, anywhere his master demanded. After years and years of this duty, the bull tripped and broke its leg. It could no longer pull the cart; in turn, his master slaughtered him because he could no longer fulfill his duty and was thus no longer useful.

It's a brutal and recklessly utilitarian story, but it makes sense in the context of ancient rural China. If you were to internalize this story and end up living in a 21st-century megalopolis like New York and being unable to fulfill your 'duty' due to some unforeseen incident, like losing the use of your hands, you might tailspin into despair.

Defining Value

I was a very black-and-white thinker, and these stories help illustrate where that facet came from. They're just a snapshot of my upbringing, and it would be impossible (and far too lengthy) to translate my upbringing entirely. However, they offer a glimpse of why I think the way I do and explore the tension between my past and where I'm going today.

Something that was always conspicuously missing from these lessons was the definition of 'value.' I had always felt that it was implicitly financial; you go to college to get a better job and care for the people around you better. My upbringing was strictly defined, and the paths laid out for me were clear. I mean, at 12, I wanted to win the Nobel Prize. There was never any uncertainty about what I wanted to do in my future, which was a fundamental bedrock. As I grew older, I took on strong ideas about self-improvement and trying to be more balanced, which is sometimes at odds with my childhood values. Money is now a measure of how well I'm doing certain things, not the be-all and end-all. To reiterate, the skills that bring you to the dance are not the ones that will keep you happy for the rest of your life.

Permission to Just Be

During my hand injury, one of the most significant learning points was giving myself permission to just 'be.' That I, as myself, was enough. I didn't need to be coding 12 hours a day to be valuable or useful. If I stepped away and never built again, I would probably drive myself insane. However, my value as a person isn't dictated by the things I build but rather by the relationships I've been able to build and maintain. My connections with people within and without the tech industry matter to me. While my ability to solve complex problems is an essential part of my identity, it doesn't encompass the entirety of who I am. At one point, I thought, "Why am I doing all of this work if I can't do the other things I enjoy? If I can't go hang out with my friends, enjoy their company, and connect with them on a more human level?" Don't get me wrong; I love my work, but it's what allows me to do everything and see everything else.

Take Time For The Little Things

I recently had a conversation with someone younger than me, and they asked me if there was anything I could be working on that would make me want to sacrifice as much as I used to.

My overall conclusion was: "Taco Night with my friends is probably more important than anything else I can imagine right now"

Existentialism and Self-Improvement

I have a strong interest in existentialism for those more familiar with my writing and Twitter. For individuals looking to improve themselves, pragmatic existentialism, which Camus and Sarte discuss, is an effective way of taking control of their lives. While none of us are free of the structural processes that shape us and the pressure they impose on us as individuals, there are still ways to try and better ourselves.

One Must Imagine Jason Happy

"For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death."

Albert Camus 'The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays' Trans. Justin O'Brien 1955

The Myth of Sisyphus describes a man forsaken by the Greek gods who pushes a boulder to the top of a mount every day, only for it to roll back down as he approaches the top. In the above quote, Camus argues that although the task is absurd, Sisyphus finds meaning in it and takes ownership of it, making it his own end.

In modern times, embracing the absurd is as much as anyone can do. We must find new ways to push our boulder and grasp what's near us to take the bull by its horns.

None of us can predict the future or what it might hold, but we can take control of what we have and what we can change. I channel the pressure of what it means to be a man and guide it positively. But the world is chaotic and messy, and I don't always succeed. My black-and-white mind sometimes tries to quantify my actions, which doesn't work for living, breathing organisms. If I just give someone three compliments and follow up two times a day, they'll like me, and I'm a good person, right? Even as I write, I crack up at how silly it is.

The Pitfalls of Treating Life Like a Video Game

There is this tendency or stereotype amongst left-brained people to treat life as if it were a video game as well. It is like we can min-max our personality and hack our behavioral traits. I think it comes from an oversimplified understanding of how to get better at things and what self-improvement looks like. Recently, I put out this video where I talk about going to the gym and getting 1% stronger every three days, which is true to an extent, but the oversimplified version of this is that everything we do is identical to going to the gym. By doing a set number of reps of leetcode, or reading books, or whatever, we're just going to progress linearly forever until we max or something. Which by itself is absolutely not true! A huge part of it is overcoming the mental barriers and plateaus we must work through.

Reconciling Past and Present

My desire to self-improve is… not hampered… but challenged by the value system and black-and-white thinking that put me on the path to being extremely successful. It feels like I'm stripping away the part of me that put me where I am, but I remind myself this is a continual growth process. Even though I tend to revert to certain patterns and behaviors, constant growth may be the most important thing to commit myself to. To continually strive to improve and evolve, not necessarily in a monetary way but in a personal way. I want to be a better person and be the best version of myself, no matter how cheesy that sounds.

Finding My Voice Through Writing

My attempt to resolve the two Jasons, the Jason I was and the Jason I am now, led to my writing in the first place. When I was injured, I realized the work I could produce with my hands became so limited that anything I did with them had to make something of greater value. Everything I did had to have more impact because it came at a much greater cost. Thankfully, I could get my thoughts out and share them with more people due to the mass adoption of LLMs. Text-to-speech became very affordable, so I started recording voice memos to myself and then running the audio through TTS and later chatGPT to clean it up. Being injured meant I had a surplus of free time from not being able to work the way I was used to, the way that was harming me. As I changed how I worked to be more sustainable, I had no excuses for not putting the information in my head into the world. Although my injury has subsided somewhat, and I can return to work in various capacities, it is always in the back of my mind and affects how I approach everything. I spent all of my life learning things, and I think in my thirties, my goal will be around sharing the thoughts and stories I've collected.

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I write about a mix of consulting, open source, personal work, and applying llms. I won't email you more than twice a month, not every post I write is worth sharing but I'll do my best to share the most interesting stuff including my own writing, thoughts, and experiences.