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Losing my hands

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.

Losing my Hands, Advice and Tips for RSI

This is the final entry (for now) of a series I wrote about my experience with tendonitis in both my wrists and thumbs during COVID-19. The injury occurred in 2020 due to overworking at my previous job, where I would put in excessive hours for weeks on end with minimal breaks. The debilitating pain prevented me from eating, dressing myself properly, and programming, leading to a significant disruption in my work and personal life. Ultimately, this experience led me to make three major changes:

  1. Consulting full-time: Sometimes, you need to take a leap of faith; other times, you need a swift, firm shove in the back to overcome your limitations. The RSI was the latter that lead me down the path of higher leverage.

  2. Revaluating my values: This doesn't necessarily mean discarding the traits that led to me getting an RSI, but it certainly made me rethink what is actually valuable and what I am trying to do with my life. Sorry to disappoint, but there has been no 'epiphany'. I am not discarding worldly possessions and pursuing a spirit quest to find 'my true self'. My hands are now a limited commodity, and I fear reinjuring myself. This means if I'm going to use my hands, it must be purposeful and deliberate.

  3. Writing: Thankfully, we live in an era where you no longer need hands to express yourself through text. Writing helped me realize that I have spent my first three decades learning and absorbing knowledge and information. Now, in my thirties, my goal will be to share the thoughts and stories I've collected.

You can read the previous two entries here: Losing My Hands, Losing My Hands Pt. 2: The Two Jasons.

Losing My Hands

The world was ending, and I couldn't even put my pants on. My hands had cramped up so badly that I couldn't grip a water bottle or type and could barely dress myself. A few weeks earlier, I had been riding the greatest decade-high anyone could have dreamed of. I was moving to New York, making 500k, working for an amazing company, and was engaged in what might be the most lucrative field on the planet. I was doing what I loved, getting paid well, and feeling like I was making a difference. Life was good. Well, as good as it could get during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. My name is Jason. I'm a machine learning engineer. And this is how I almost lost my hands.

When COVID-19 hit, I was a Machine Learning Engineer at Stitch Fix. Being remote meant avoiding the worst of the pandemic, which made life easier for me than most. However, as with many others, COVID-19 brought with it less-than-ideal coping mechanisms. While the world was falling apart outside, I was in a cocoon. I felt like I was just locked in and taking my job seriously because I enjoyed the work so much. What I didn’t realize was that I was seriously harming myself. The idea that value was a measurement of the function of hard work, length of work, and economic activity became a madonna that consumed me.

The Aleph and The Zahir

The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges wrote of two interlinked concepts, The Aleph and The Zahir. The Aleph allows the observer to see all things, while the Zahir gradually becomes the only thing the observer can see. Not to be too melodramatic, but in a similar motion, work was what allowed me to see the world differently and opened me up to an entirely different library of experience, but eventually became the only thing I was doing.

There would be ~6-week periods where I would wake up and start work around 7 am every morning, then code with few breaks until around 2 am, followed by long rest periods. Even to hardened engineers, keeping up this work rate and style of work is unsustainable, but what else are you going to do during a pandemic? When you’ve been conditioned to believe rightly or wrongly that your value as a human being is derived from the economic value you provide to those around you and all barriers to producing work have been removed by an unprecedented upheaval to social norms, it felt like there was only one path forward and that was working as hard as possible every day. This rat-brained mentality, combined with my binge work style is ultimately what I think led to the severity of my injury.

Another aspect that led to this insane cycle of overwork was that the team I was a part of was going through a lot of upheaval. Teammates were leaving, and I felt like I was left to pick up the slack. I’d like to think I was in control of my work, but consistently logging 12-15 hour days for weeks on end took its toll. At one point, my manager saw my commit history and took me aside, asking me what the fuck I was doing working this much. Imagine that. Your boss telling you that you’re working too hard. Ultimately, it came down to outside of pottery, BJJ and programming; there just wasn’t much else to do. My lifestyle had become a bubble, and when it burst, I came tumbling back to earth.

The loss of my hands came on suddenly and without much warning. One day, I woke up and realized I couldn’t hold my phone properly. I tried to get a glass of water but had the same issue. My hands were stiff and had a restricted range of motion; it was difficult to perform basic tasks. At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal; I just took a few hours off and rested. Maybe I had slept poorly or in an awkward position; maybe I had played too many video games that day. It’s not as if I was the first engineer ever to get pain in their hands, right? But things didn’t get better. Not that day or the next or even the next week. A sort of dread started to creep in as I realized most of the tasks I performed daily were becoming increasingly impossible for me to complete. This dread eventually transformed into an existential one.

The first fear was whether I could ever code again. If I can’t hold my phone, I can’t type. If I can’t type, I can’t work. Which quickly collapsed into If I can’t work hard, where do I derive my value from?

Patriarchal Values and Self-Worth

I've touched on how severely patriarchal value systems affect me and my worldview before, but even being aware of this facet of myself isn't enough to overcome it. It's something that I and imagine many others struggle with constantly. Where do I derive value from, not just as a person, but as a man, if not my ability to work and thus provide for my loved ones? What am I here for if I don't have value?

I slipped into a kind of depression because it was a listless kind of existence. I wasn’t sad per se, but I felt like my course had been rerouted, and I wasn’t sure where I’d end up. I would kind of just wander around New York, coping by going on dates or surrounding myself with non-tech-related people as I tried to get back into a normal routine. This was interspersed by periods of what is, in hindsight, less than optimal behaviours. I would do really stupid shit like go alone to Michelin-star restaurants for lunch or waste my day smoking a bunch of weed. It wasn’t quite a spiral as my life balanced itself out by diving into non-tech hobbies like spending 6-7 hours in Bryant Park playing ping pong, training BJJ, swimming a mile every morning and ultimately learning how to free dive, which helped me for a while to keep my mind off of not being able to work.

I went through acupuncture physiotherapy, tried anything that might work and threw as many resources at my hands as I tried to work through not being able to use them. I even considered peptides, PRP, and stem cells, telling myself even if it was a small fortune, it would be worth it if I could make a living again. All of these therapeutics and treatments helped to some degree, but I still deal with pain and stiffness even three years later. To this day, it affects my ability to cook, eat, get dressed, and say nothing about my hobbies. Even swimming would aggravate my wrists without treating them immediately afterwards. The whole experience of being this helpless is just insane to think about. Since being injured, I’ve hesitated to take on a lot of work despite enjoying it. Which has been the major push for me to shift roles slightly. I’ve turned down basically every offer to join a startup because I’m worried about reinjuring myself. And to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what it all means. I don’t know if there is some moral or epiphany for me and how I approach work other than trying to be more purposeful with my work. Every time I code now, I have to weigh if what I’m doing is a valuable use of my time and resources. If coding adversely affects my health, it would be better for me not to do it.

I took roughly two years off of work. I wasn’t making much money or doing much programming. What helped was reminding myself that the skills that took me to ‘the dance’ are not the skills that will keep me happy for the rest of my life. You must keep moving and learning new things; otherwise, you will get left behind. In this current wave of AI optimism, I found myself enjoying things again and adapting. Again, I’m still trying to figure out what my injury means, but at any rate, I’m much more resilient now than where I was 3 years ago.

Focusing on Open Source and Consulting

Two things I've done specifically are: 1. Focus more on open source projects so the code I write has more leverage. 2. Pursue consulting as a way to scale myself as an individual while still being able to work with and help founders build exciting new solutions.

This idea that you have control over yourself and your actions and choices and can in some way shape your outcomes through nothing but your own decisions may sound haughty and full of myself, but I really do think it’s important to try and frame things in terms of what you’re able to do. Stop worrying about everyone else and things that are out of your control.

Existentialism and Personal Responsibility

Jean-Paul Sartre said, "The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his' own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality but that he is responsible for all men."

I think the first time something really good happens to you—I mean really good—like when you can take a step back from life and breathe and look at it and go, ”Hey, I have it pretty good,” you tell yourself you got lucky. You met the right person, went to the right school, and landed an internship at the right startup; whatever it is, there's a feeling that it's out of your control. But, when you don’t understand nature or luck, you feel it’s impossible to reproduce it again. This was part of how I felt initially, but having gone through everything I’ve gone through over the last ten years or so, I don’t just mean a struggle, but all of my experiences have placed me in a position where I’m much more confident even though my hands still hurt and bother me to this day.

Byung-Chul Han's Insights on the Burnout Society

I've been reading a lot of Byung-Chul Han recently, specifically The Burnout Society; I'll spare you the lecture and just give you the Sparks Notes version graciously provided by Boris Smus.

Byung-Chul Han views contemporary society as no longer a disciplinary society but rather an achievement one. Within this, there are plenty of parallels to ideas like the panopticon and technology being an extension of man ala Marshall McLuhan mediating human behaviour and potentiality, however the ideas I found most relevant to my situation are:

  • Achievement society is a society of self-exploitation.
  • The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out.
  • The achievement-subject that understands itself as its own master, as homo liber, turns out to be homo sacer.
  • The achievement-subject is simultaneously perpetrator and victim, master and slave.

Emphasis is mine, and it's because I think this idea is the most impactful of the summaries Smus provided. Am I just my own subject exploiting myself till there is nothing left but a husk where Jason once stood? Again pardon the melodrama, but this injury forced me to re evaluate my entire value system.

Byung-Chul Han's Insights on the Burnout Society

Despite my injury, I still try to maintain a bulletproof growth mindset. I constantly ask myself why I shouldn't make more money every month. The worst part is I truly do not know whether this is a ‘good’ mindset to have. Should I abstract to something like ‘focusing on the process’ and results will come? Should I be working with new clients to solve new problems? Maybe this is part of what caused my injury in the first place and the poison I was leaning into. I truly believe all I need to succeed is my hands, brain, and laptop. As long as I have these three things, I’ll be fine.

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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.