March 9th, 2005

Unremarkable, Comforted and Melancholy

The people around me at work are to a large degree the embodiment of what I've always assumed I wanted to be. They're mostly hard-working, self-improving, intelligent, achievers. In this group, I have absolutely no skills or characteristics that distinguish me in any way. The disturbing part is that I find myself increasingly comfortable with my limitations.

I was talking to someone who is more well-read, well-educated... well, better than me. I mentioned that I've always wanted to learn to weld. He told me to take a class, in that tone you'd use to say "well, take the lid off" to someone who was complaining that he couldn't get to the peanut butter in the jar because the lid was still on. I tried to explain that since I moved from my house into an apartment, I couldn't really use the skill for much. I found myself getting a little defensive when he asked why I didn't want to know, just for the sake of knowing.

That was a few weeks ago, and it's been haunting me. I've always wanted to know just to know. But he's right. I have no use for it right now, so I don't really care to learn. I could say my time is limited and there is so much more I could learn that's more interesting and immediately useful, but I know that's bullshit. I have at least a few hours every day to sit on my ass and stare at the floor while I listen to music or to reload the same six damn websites I don't even want to read, or to do whatever it is I do that leaves me wondering where the hell the weeks are going.

I had a bit of a dark epiphany today when I started asking myself what good it is to seek knowledge for the sake of knowing. The epiphany? There is no good. My personal collection of trivia, education, knowledge and experience will die with me, and in no more than a few decades. Nothing I've crammed into my brain will make the slightest impact on the world. Does it matter that a man who died yesterday knew how to heel-toe downshift? Would my life have been different if someone in the 19th century had learned Latin or studied physics?

Sure, if I had the capacity to be an expert on something, I could contribute to the world, I could spread my knowledge and help others, but in 25 years I've managed to be an expert on exactly nothing. Newton saw further by standing on the shoulders of giants, but for all my climbing, all I can see is more giants.

Obviously, the quest for knowledge betters the world. Almost without exception, every meaningful contribution to humanity has been made possible by someone applying knowledge. Joseph Lister, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, the Wright Brothers -- absolutely, every bit of knowledge crammed into their heads helped us all. I'm obviously not going to be on a list like that at any time, ever. The best I'll ever manage to leverage my knowledge for, the most meaningful contribution I'll ever make to the world is a conversation that starts with "hey, did you know...?"

Then I think back to my coworkers, their expertise, their honed skills, their years and years of education, and I realize they'll probably contribute about as much as I do in the long run. Their conversations are much deeper and more challenging than mine, but those conversations will hang in the air momentarily, dissipate, and leave an unchanged world behind.

While this takes the edge off of the insecurity that comes along with my education and knowledge being utterly unremarkable, it casts an ominous shadow over one of the brightest and most exciting aspects of life. The thrill of learning is futile, and knowledge is ephemeral.

I can't believe I feel that way right now, but I'm even more surprised that I'm okay with it.