This page is dedicated to the biggest mistakes that I've made over the years--and there have been plenty. It's supposed to partly counteract the overly positive tone of the rest of my personal Web site, but even with that objective it's a tad hard to write with a balanced perspective. Part of it is that when these things happened they seemed pretty nasty, but looking back I tend to just dismiss them as learning experiences that led me to where I am now.... And I bet a dollar to your donut that I'm not the only expert at that kind of rearview rationalization. But more than that, IMHO most personal Web pages are just a new kind of vanity press--and where's the 'balance' there? I think if we wanted realism in home pages we'd need to have our own made by a committee of friends and enemies. It's between hard and impossible to take a really balanced look at yourself from the inside.
So trying to pick out some of the biggest mistakes.... Now it seems really hard to define 'biggest' in this context. The mistakes that wasted the most time and money are pretty easy to start with. Getting a pilot's license and leaving KIFL probably qualify there. I suppose I should quantify those, but KIFL is too embarrassing--too much money and too few working hours. The pilot's license is at the tolerably embarrassing level--only a few thousand bucks and a big chunk of my free time for about 10 months. Never used the license for anything practical, however, and lost it in a near disaster at Bird's Nest a couple of years later. Just luck I only took out a couple of landing lights.
So how about mistakes that came close to getting me killed? But most of those were just relatively 'minor' driving errors, which mostly reminds me of my wacky theory linking body size to cars and displays of apparently typical American stupidity. Or how about the mistakes that most harmed other people? Probably the most painful and the hardest type to 'discuss' in public. The one that leaps to my mind was accidentally flunking a student who didn't deserve it during my apprenticeship as a teacher--an apprenticeship that never really ended. Or maybe I was at journeyman level after eight years... Anyway, the rationalizations and excuses already leap to mind for that grading foulup.
Oh, yeah. The wacky theory? It has to do with why elephants aren't in charge, even though they have big brains in absolute terms. The problem is that they also have big bodies, and most of their big brain is just controlling the bulk that follows along behind. However, many Americans spend a LOT of time in their cars, and my theory is that big chunks of their brains get dedicated to controlling their large 'extended' bodies, with the results that a lot of them wind up acting like crazed rhinos. Road rage incidents are probably the ultimate examples, but fortunately that appears to be a faded fad.
Back to the stupid main theme. Hmm... This is pretty tough sledding. Guess I'll have to think about it some more...
After some more thought, one of the largest mistakes looms clearly out of the gloom. However, it's one of those pretty complicated ones, a combination of sins of commission and omission, coupled with various external factors--after all, it isn't one of those things you can do alone. But the result is clear enough to see: I never married. Yes, many people question the value of marriage--especially people who are in a bad one--, but at this relatively advanced stage of my life, I think I have enough data to clearly see that there are many advantages of a good marriage, and you can't do all your planning on worst case scenarios. It sure seems to me that the people who celebrate more than 20 years of a good marriage are greatly to be envied. And even when a marriage doesn't work out, it's surely an important learning experience.
Can I focus on the main thing that went wrong? Tough, but it may just be a matter of twisted priorities. Let's call them the three Cs: cuddling, cooking, and cleaning. Actually, that's probably the average male ranking, too. My priorities aren't so different, except that I suspect I'd move cleaning to the front of the list. That priority shift in itself doesn't seem like such a big problem, but I'd hate to just blame my bad luck with women on my big nose.
There's also the historical part of it, but that's hard to figure out, though a few items do stand out. One is that I wasn't allowed to do any dating through high school--with one exception that mostly qualifies as a mistake of its own on several counts. Funny that I still have positive feelings about the rather meaningless movie we watched. However, lots of people start late and manage to catch up on the social knacks of dating, etc. Of course, during many of those potentially remedial years I was working my way through school, and the social stuff pretty much fell off the list of things to do...
Another candidate is excessive pickiness on my part, starting with a basic lack of interest in women of average or below average intelligence. That would already unreasonably and unfairly cut the social candidates to a minority, but it was exacerbated by applying unrealistic scales of intelligence. Women on the average rate lower on the kinds of intelligence scales I was indoctrinated to respect in those days... Displace the candidates by another big chunk of a standard deviation, and the group shrinks really quickly as you move into the narrow tail of the old bell-shaped curve. Too bad I didn't read Gould'sThe Mismeasure of Man many years earlier... It might have helped--but at the actual time I stacked the odds against myself. Yeah, I suppose I still could have been lucky, but stacked odds make it harder.
Another big mistake would be my checkered career. For that one, the causes seem more obvious and historical. Mostly a matter of bad timing. When I graduated from Rice, I was ready to tackle big targets, but I didn't have any in mind, so I just drifted into graduate school. But in spite of the momentum I had coming in, I couldn't drift all the way through to my Masters in sociology, so I eventually drifted through the math department and into the computer science department. At the time I didn't realize what I drifter I was becoming, so I wasn't worried when I graduated from UT, but instead got fixated on and obcessed with getting a job with the best computer company, which, in my youthful ignorance and enthusiasm, I believed to be IBM. (Looking back now, I'm convinced that IBM was already well past its prime, and I ought to have been fixated on H-P, though it probably wouldn't have changed the outcome--and now H-P looks to be on the way down and Cisco on the way up.) Maybe it came out well in the long-run, however. Still, it seems really weird that I may wind up my belated 'real' career as an employee of an IBM subsidiary--generally I've done very few things that could even vaguely be interpreted as moving backwards, though I've obviously spent too much time looking backwards and pondering the past... Now I'm in the position of trying to help rejuvenate the old company. Possible, but not easy.
Careerwise, the correct thing to do at that time (ca. 1981) was to take any entry level programming job to get a couple of years of solid experience on my resume, but instead of doing something so practical, I spent several years in a fixated quest to get a job with IBM. To keep on eating, I kept on doing the kind of very short-term secretarial temporary jobs I'd been doing at UT as I neared graduation. As a student, that wasn't too inappropriate, but it didn't add any 'market value' to my resume at the critical time... I finally gave up on IBM after my longest contract there failed to lead to a permanent job, but it was too late. I was already past the prime age for entry level work, and my recollection is that economic times got pretty tight around then, too. It was easy and felt natural enough to drift into short-term programming jobs that still didn't lead anywhere.
Now I get to look back at my resume, and I can't even figure it out, so what can I expect from a prospective employer? Not much, since the main thing they use resumes for is to decide who they don't want to talk to. Whatever 'danger signals' the personnel 'experts' look for, they're pretty sure to find some matches in the motley collection that constitutes my resume. Knocking on wood, but from my current perspective I feel like the aforesaid experts couldn't recognize an obvious editor when they saw one...
Another major and non-singular mistake was my failure to make any friends at Rice. I'm not joking--in four years among a bunch of very bright, friendly, and even illustrious people, I failed to form anything that might be mistaken for a close friendship. Actually, even to me it seems a bit incredible in retrospect. This is a pretty major sin of omission, and one that really calls for an apology to all the friendly people who probably tried to be nice to me, without my even noticing.
This is also a pretty hard one to rationalize or excuse. Sure, there were some mechanical problems, mostly due to my arduous schedule. During most of my time at Rice I was also working nights, mostly proving my financial independence, though I needed the money, too. My family wasn't a resource in that regard...
Perhaps the Honor System also exacerbated the situation a bit, since I'm inclined to take such things to extremes. There were lots of times when joint study would have been a good and friendly thing without jeopardizing my precious honor. But the main problem was simply that I didn't value friendship--I mostly perceived my fellow Ricepeople as part of an essentially hostile environment. They were helping to make Rice the academically competitive place it was. I was mostly aware of their above average competence as a threat without noticing how many of them were unusually nice folks, too.
Since coming to Japan, there are a number of things that I've learned. The importance of friends is certainly not the least important. The Japanese really carry friendship to extremes, at least as it looked to me in my early days here. To explain much more would call for a lengthy essay of its own. Not exactly fitting as an apology or rationalization, but more as a measure of the depth of that old mistake. Sadly not the only one I made at Rice... So much to have learned, and I feel like I came away with so little, though that little has served me well.
Must be a very reflective mood this season, but here's a beauty I've done some thinking about... But it's kind of hard to classify it. Anyway, I don't feel like it's my mistake. I wasn't even asked if I'd like to spend another year in first grade. However, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Ladd, recognized that my social skills were greatly deficient, and years later I learned that her recommendation was that I spend another year in the first grade. My parents refused to accept that idea, and so... This is one that hindsight can't really help with.
One thing that seems very likely is that I would have developed a very different self-image. In my youth I always perceived myself to be small and weak, but clever. With another year's growth, I would have suddenly become relatively big and strong, at least for a couple of my earliest years. I would have been a valuable asset for the team sports, not the last kid picked. The clever part would have taken a hit, but perhaps that would have been the kind of hit that I would have naturally recovered from--or perhaps it might have led to real wisdom rather than continued cleverness...
[Thinking about those days, even as a possible junction point, certainly brings back lots of nostalgia. It surprises me that I still remember so many of my teachers' names: Ladd, Norton, Gibson, Rizzari, Clark, Pope (Elementary 1st-6th, respectively), Culp, Simermeyer, (Junior High French and English), Wood, Christianson, Peterson, Sharp (Senior High School history, chemistry, physics, and debate, respectively)... Strange that the names seem to get fuzzier as it gets to high school. I guess it mostly proves that the younger learning IS the most important. Sad to think that many of those older teachers of my youngest days are probably deceased by now...]
Finally, I guess I should close with an apology to Plato for using the title "Apology" for this. The original "Apology" was a weighty philosophic work, not a string of rationalizations. [Various mostly minor changes on 3 September 2000 en route to Tripod.]