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What are your 3 worst mistakes? Would you fix any of them if you could go back in time?
A2A Habib le toubib qui demande les questions difficiles.
I’m in a kind of strange place with Quora lately; I’m going to talk about it in another queued up A2A. As part of that, I’m going to be talking more personal stuff; and I’m going to resent myself for not talking enough sciencey stuff. Anyone with questions with the words Greek or linguistics in them, please A2A them to alleviate my guilt.
Mistakes? I’m going to skirt close to McKayla’s answer on this one. I wouldn’t redo them, because here I am. I’m not really happy about where I am, but they were all difficult situations that I could only make the best choice I was equipped to at the time, knowing that I’d have regrets either way.
I can second guess my past self about them, but I choose not to. I’m hard enough on myself already. A Hungarian saying I picked up via Esperanto has stuck with me, from the time of the first set of choices: bedaŭroj estas hundaj pensoj. Regrets are a dog’s thoughts.
(No, it doesn’t make sense in Esperanto either. It just means regrets are pointless.)
Or as Cavafy put it: C.P. Cavafy – Poems – The Canon
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
undermines him all his life.
1. Asking my parents for permission for things, way past puberty.
I was sheltered. My parents felt under siege in a strange land with strange mores. I was a good kid, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I was brought up in filial piety; I smarted at it and kicked back at it plenty, and I’ve had twenty years of extended (though rather sedate) teenage rebellion to compensate for it. My mistake wasn’t getting my rebellion done, when it could have done the most good for my personal development.
Asking if I could go to Madagascar for the World Esperanto Youth Congress: no, you’re fifteen, what nonsense is this. Asking if I could be a composer when I grew up: no, we’ve seen films, they all died paupers. Asking if I could date at 15: no, you have your studies to attend to.
I don’t blame them: they were doing the best they knew how to in a strange land with strange mores. I don’t blame them for wanting to pass on their mores, and I don’t blame them for looking out for my interests the way they knew best. I don’t blame me for acceding; I didn’t see a real alternative. Not the way I understood the world.
But yeah, it stunted me. Lastingly, I guess. Yeah, it was a mistake.
2. Not following all the way through with academia.
I sleepwalked through my undergrad in engineering, spent at least a year on Internet Relay Chat (yes, I am that old), and then stumbled on linguistics. There weren’t enough movies out about linguists, let alone them dying paupers; so I didn’t get critical mass of objections about enrolling. I finally had something that gave my life purpose. I finally had something I could invest in and dedicate myself to. I finally had a community around me; in fact, I finally had friends. I also finally ran off to join the circus.
I got the PhD, and then I got the heartbreak.
I’ve posted about some of the heartbreak at What is your personal experience with obtaining a linguistics degree? The mistake was, I loved linguistics, but I made the choice not to continue it as a profession.
Was it a mistake? Well, not really. I saw people being strung along as Teaching Assistants for decades. I saw that my earlier mistake, studying what I cared about rather than what was fashionable, guaranteed I was unemployable. (Yet that was no mistake either: I wasn’t going to give up four years of my life to follow some other bastard’s passion.) I saw that the academics all around me were miserable, treating research as drudgery, had no life and little passion, and were looking for a way to get out.
And, perhaps most critically, I wasn’t prepared to leave Australia and spend the rest of my life hunting for the next tenure-track gig, like some modern day wandering minstrel. I knew myself—not just what I’d been brainwashed to be: what I actually was. I needed to lay down roots. I needed a sense of place.
That broke my heart. That delayed me entering into something like a career by a decade, and it took maybe another decade for me to make peace with it. (By which time half the peers that stuck with it either got out or were kicked out.)
That Cavafy poem? He titled it Che fece… il gran rifiuto.
He left out two critical words in the Dante verse he was quoting. Che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto. He who made the grand refusal—through cowardice.
Was I a coward? Yeah. But I was also being me.
3. Standing on principle, and losing everything.
I have not really spoken publicly on this much yet, out of a vanishing hope it might yet be reversed. It doesn’t look like it, but I’ll still be a little cryptic. Those who know me know exactly what I’m talking about.
I did the grand refusal, but I kept going on the side with something related, that maintained a sense of mission for me. It made me a world expert, though few knew about it, because of the circumstances. It gave me a body of work to take pride in. It gave me meaning.
But it was work for hire, and work for hire is always at the discretion of the hirer.
After close to two decades, I was unhired a few months ago. I relinquished the body of work, and my body of work is now being unravelled, strand by meticulous strand.
I was unhired, so far as I can tell, because I stood up for myself for a change, and wasn’t a coward, and produced charts and worksheets to defend myself. And escalated my complaint as far as I could. Which never is that far.
Was it a mistake to not be a coward? Yes. There’s a gaping hole there, 17 years’ worth scooped out of my chest. I’ve been malingering here on Quora to make up for it, but that’s not how you make up for it.
And yet again, no, it wasn’t a mistake. I made, again, an impossible choice, and made the best choice I could. I chose 14 years ago that I’d rather have my heart smashed into pieces, than be someone’s bitch. I chose this year that I’d rather have my heart hollowed out, than be falsely terrorised.
But spare your slaps on the back, guys. No, I don’t feel happy about it. That poet from Alexandria was right, even if he messed around with Dante to say it.
Yet that no—the right no—
undermines him all his life.