Shrinking Authority
(Back to School: Notes from the Trenches)

My return to school for the last 2 months has been a rather interesting experience, to say the least. There are a good many things I could talk about. One point I’d like to focus on right now, though, is a nice little loophole in life I have found, which I shall call shrinking authority.

This concept won’t sound very surprising, though it is easily and often forgotten (especially by pre-2016 Kim). The idea is this: external authority expands in direct proportion to your recognition of it. This means that the more you choose to see another person as being an authority over you, the more you will experience them as such.

It is quite simple. You’re not the boss of me unless I say so. Yet, the implications are profound.

One of my primary concerns with going back to school, after taking a semester off, was throwing my life to the control of other people. People who would dictate what information I was to learn, what assignments I would carry out, when I was to be on campus, what sort of exercise I was to do for the day… it just sounded gross. I don’t even consider my running to be some sort of workout. I just run. Same with writing and reading. I don’t do these things to cram information into my head or to please anyone in particular. They’re just things that I do.

Staying in Your Element

Rather than live in constant conflict over this, however, I decided to take a different approach. I outlined the basic idea in A Return with Love, which I wrote just before the semester began. I decided that I was not going to consider myself as a college student at all. As far as I’m concerned, my days as such are over. In fact, I’m not even a human. I’ve already passed on. I’m just a ghost, hangin’ out, eatin’ bananas, revisiting an old experience to see further into the truth of the situation.

What this meant was that I had no one to answer to at all. How can a human have authority over a ghost? Ghosts are gangster. They do whatever they want.

Everything I would do, this semester, would be by choice. I would not allow myself to act out of fear. I was not going to do anything simply because “I had to do it.” That’s pure BS. Writing a paper on the LAN-to-WAN domain makes no difference on whether I live or die. Besides—that doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m already dead. I’m just chillin’.

The perspective of being a passed-on visitor to this reality is part of a 30 day trial that, as of March 14th, I am nearly at the end of. I’ve since created some “specs” for, or a basic outline of, this perspective. They are as follows:

If I’m dead…

My path is unprecedented. There is no telling what I “should” do.

Rules either don’t apply to me or are merely imagined.

There is no substantial reason to prove anything.

There is nothing in or of me that can be threatened. I am perfectly safe.

Time is but a plaything. It can become totally irrelevant at any point that I choose.

I have no needs.

Objective achievement in itself is uninteresting and insignificant.

I can recreate my story at will (or dump it completely).


With this viewpoint, returning to school stimulated in me much more curiosity than dread. I was excited to see how this section of reality would present itself now that my perspective had changed.

The first four weeks of school were exciting, indeed. The first week and a half basically flew by, due to signing up last minute, all the change from how I had been living for 8 months, and the x number of schedule changes I went through (x because I really have no idea). That first week was about wading through bureaucracy (what can I say?) and figuring out the basic gist of each class and of the track season.

This adjustment was so dragged out because I added classes as late as the 2nd week of the semester. I had to devote a good chunk of time to playing catch-up in both classes. Honestly, I’m glad it went that way. That was far more engaging to me than spreading the material out over 2 weeks. I have fun, and what I learned has stuck with me just fine.

Playing that game of catch-up made me wonder: why don’t I just go at my own pace for the whole semester? Such an obvious way of doing things… Yet, I’m not sure I had ever considered it before.

That question soon lead to another: why don’t I just learn about what I’m interested in learning about? Indeed, that has meant reading about and doing some things that have little to no appearance on homework or tests. But that question, in turn, sparked an overall attitude of curiosity.

I returned to school simply because I wanted to run track races, and this appeared to be the best way to do that (no costs, 5-8 meets per season, and I don’t even have to drive… sounds good to me!). I was very resistant to the whole school part of being in school, at first, but I felt compelled enough to go back. So I then became curious about the experience of school in general (e.g. how I would relate to people and to schoolwork). At that point, it made no difference to me what I studied—all the classes of the major I left off (cybersecurity) were closed anyway.

Within a few days, as one ought to expect, many of those classes opened, and I got into the others simply by talking to the instructors. As with school itself, I was hesitant, at first, to study cybersecurity again. But, I felt compelled enough to sign up for those classes. And as I did, I was surrounded by an air of curiosity. As I thought more and more about computers, it seemed I had come upon a “hole” in my reality. This was a piece of my world that I did not understand. I had already studied cybersecurity for a semester, but for the most part I had just picked up some word salad and gone through the motions. I didn’t really “get” it.

I did become interested in improving my technical skills, but that wasn’t where I started. My curiosity began within its usual domain—exploring and understanding reality as a whole. One question that struck me in particular was, What exactly are we securing? The need to secure information seemed antithetical to my conviction, stated earlier, that I am fundamentally safe here. Yet, I couldn’t discount the idea completely. I was in no place to draw immediate conclusions, so the most intelligent option, it seemed, was to explore. And I was happy to do so.

Other questions came up as well. Where is all this stuff happening? For some reason, that’s one of my favorites. Why do people care so much about this stuff? I’m still not sure I’ve gotten to the bottom of that one. J

The point is that my desire to explore has made the semester much lighter and easier. In the past, my attitude has been something like, Well, I’ll just let the teacher hit me with whatever material they want to hit me with, and then I’ll do my best to learn it and churn out assignments that will be to their liking. This semester, my attitude has been more like, This stuff is so interesting… Each piece of information is another piece of the puzzle. Oh, yeah, that homework stuff—that provides another piece, too. And if it doesn’t, then I just get to have some fun thinking about computers and using the skills I’ve developed up to this point. And if all else fails, I’ll just go fast.

Periodically, from week to week, class to class, and assignment to assignment, I make a new decision for why I’m doing what I’m doing. Sometimes, it’s simply to explore. Sometimes, it’s to consider how the class material I’m working with fits into my reality (or defies it!). Sometimes, it’s to see how I can mess with people—and, with that knowledge, how I can protect them. Sometimes, it’s to gain skill, which I can use for my own benefit. Sometimes, it’s to gain insight to the potential of information technology, and what I might do with knowledge and skill in this field. Other times, it’s just to have fun. While all those reasons can come into play at once, there’s usually just one that I’m focused on. I find that when I start making a list of reasons that justify why I’m doing something, that’s usually a sign that I don’t actually want to do it. Nassim Taleb said something to that effect in Antifragile: if you need more than one reason to do it, don’t do it. One, or none.

Whatever the case, it’s most effective to make that decision just before diving in to each individual class, homework assignment, or programming session. That way, I can be sure I’m making the decision consciously.

Authority Shrinks, You Shine

So, one way in which I have effectively “shrunken” authority this semester is by leading myself with my own curiosities, questions, and purposes. I also mentioned that I decided to learn and to work at a pace of my choosing. Making my own projects and explorations (e.g. a small role-playing game, in order to develop my programming skills) has sometimes led me to get several days to several weeks ahead of the class in some regards. On a particular skill or subject, I may go far deeper than the class ever will for the remainder of the semester. There may be others, however, that I don’t touch upon independently, and I learn no more than the rest of the class does.

When I work on my own explorations and projects, and at my own pace, the way I relate to class periods and the people teaching them from day to day varies. Sometimes, I regard them as helpful ways of reviewing the material. Sometimes, I’m totally open-minded, and I let them guide the next steps of my exploration. Sometimes, I see class as a time to learn material I probably won’t learn otherwise. Sometimes, class is a time to ask questions. And still other times, class is a time to pay almost no attention and to get some work done (which may be for that very class, by the way). I’ll lift my head up to listen if my ears pick up on a particular insight or piece of unfamiliar information, but that’s about it.

There’s no need to give the same amount of attention and effort to each class. I’m taking one class that is fairly intense, interesting, and new to me all at once. I give that class my attention almost 100% of the time that I’m there, and I’ve put in plenty of time outside of class both exploring independently and preparing. I have others that occasionally present an interesting challenge or piece of information, but for the most part are unengaging. Generally, I give those classes as little time and attention as possible. When they’re fun, I let them be fun. But when they aren’t, which is most of the time, I just go fast. Good thing most of my classes are Internet-based. J

Here’s where things get really interesting. The demands of any class shrink or expand in relation to how much attention I want to devote to them. I’m serious. That one sentence is the tipping point of this article. You can go run off excitedly with your golden ticket now. This is where things get spicy.

I’m taking 7 classes this semester. Two are athletic-coaching classes. The other five are related to cybersecurity. Because I’m still in school, I don’t want to say anything about any specific class—that would be unfair to the people involved. So, I’ll keep this general.

There’s been a pretty consistent pattern over my 3 semesters at college: the first 2-5 weeks of class are the most intense. More work happens before mid-term than after, and the most work happens in the first 4 weeks (barring final projects, depending on what they are). Weeks 2-5 are when you really have to buckle down. That’s when the most learning happens.

Obviously it’s not the end of the world if you miss week 1, since I did and suffered nil for it. In fact, it might be better if you do, since you’ll miss out on what is normally a week of slow introductions.

So, for about the first month of school, I felt fairly engaged with all of my classes. Some more than others, to be sure, but all had their place. As I said, the first 4 weeks of school were pretty exciting. Things were new and felt fast-paced. I was content to let the class material guide my explorations, for the most part.

However, not long after that point, things started to get stale. Some of the textbooks seemed to say the same things chapter after chapter, and classes dragged along slower than a knuckle-dragging ape. It was at that point that creating my own projects to fulfill my purposes seemed like a darned-good idea.

But that wasn’t all. I went out on a limb, and decided that I was simply going to give less attention to certain classes and assignments. I would not allow them to have a substantial presence in my life anymore.

You know what happened? Exactly what I wanted to happen. The demands of those classes became punier. Their presence shrunk. Assignments were handed out less frequently. Tests were online and open-book. At this point, final projects are up in the air. Maybe they won’t even exist.

Those classes each get about 1 hour of my time per week on Sunday nights. And that’s it. That homework waits until the last minute, because “last” is where it falls on my list of priorities.

Much the same happened with track this semester. I decided that I was not going to run simply because someone told me to, nor to impress the pants off of anyone. I tried that in the past, and eventually it started to fail miserably. And I allowed it to continue failing miserably. Every. Single. Day.

Last year, I ran scared. I would walk into the athletic center every day filled with dread, terrified of the workout that awaited me in the afternoon. The pain… the desire yet chronic inability to prove myself… it was torture.

This semester has been quite different. For 8 months, I did not do a single speed workout. When I started school again, I decided I still didn’t want to do them. When I did them last year they not only hurt, exhausted, and mildly embarrassed me—they did not benefit me in any way, shape, or form.

What has resulted? I’m given two workouts a week. I do them at whatever pace I feel like. Sometimes, that means that I’m way behind everyone else. Other times, it means that I’m close enough. But either way, it doesn’t matter. I used to think it was so horrible if I fell behind. Obviously, that’s silliness. Somehow, I can run faster than I did last year, and much more easily… and yet, I don’t care as much whether I do. Interesting…

The rest of the week, I do whatever I want. I was given general expectations for how much I am to run each week, but they basically aren’t enforced. Somehow, I always far exceed those expectations—even though I barely think about them. Somehow, I am the fittest I’ve ever been in my life.

Somehow, when I decide to view external authorities as guides, rather than merciless bosses, they ask far less of me. They chill out. They drop their neediness. And yet, I do far more for them—and I do so gladly. I do everything that they ask me to do, and more.

The “more” part may defy their expectations. They even might dislike it in the short-term. They might see it as a misuse of my time, or as pushing myself too hard (and in the wrong direction). But in the long-term, it makes me more capable as a student and an athlete, and, ultimately, it serves their interest.

Of course, their interest isn’t really of my concern. I can’t really know what it is anyway, since I’m not them. If I were to get kicked out of a class or off a team it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But I can’t say I expect that to happen.

Choose Your Own Pace

I’d like to expand more on the way I’ve paced things. When it comes to taking authority over your life, the way you schedule your time is crucial. If you leave your schedule open-ended, it’s a safe bet that someone or something will fill that timeslot for you, whether it be excess food, sleep, or mountains of homework.

I spent the first 3 weeks basically getting adjusted, going to track meets, focusing on schoolwork, and overall soaking in my curiosity (does that sound weird?) and enjoying myself. I wrote here and there, but other than that, I largely handed my time over to school.

Since then, things haven’t been nearly that chaotic. I’ve planned my time much more deliberately.

The 4th week, for instance, I focused on writing, and I put school on the backburner. Interestingly, as I recall, school asked quite little of me that week.

Week 7 was much the same, when I decided to run the farthest in a single week that I ever have in my life. I went to class, I soaked up midterm review, and I did what I had to do. Somehow, when I showed up late for class, I didn’t really miss anything. Likewise, other classes ended early or were cancelled. I was thus left with plenty of time to run, eat, sleep, and socialize—just as I intended.

Basically, what I do is set a priority for the week. Whatever my priority is, I get to work on it immediately after waking up. If my priority for the week is running, and I want to run 15 miles before class starts at 11, I could wait until 4, when class ends. But I don’t. That’s silly, because class isn’t my priority. Running is. So if I have to wake up at 5 to finish running before class starts, that’s what is done.

Of course, I’m not really that perfect and upright. It’s much easier to wake up early for a long run than it is to do sedentary work, such as writing or programming. I’ve generally gotten better at this over time, but I am far from ideal. This is why it’s important to have a strong, clear purpose, and to throw away any silly ideas about how you “should” do things. Otherwise, you will avoid your work like the plague. It will feel like a burden.

Generally, I alternate my schedule on a week-to-week basis. The basic mantra is one week on, one week off. Because I have more than one point of focus in my life right now, “on” and “off” aren’t the world’s most effective terms, but they form a basic idea. This week, this one activity is totally turned on—the volume is up to 11. All the other activities, I have turned off.

“On” and “off” aren’t perfectly clear-cut. If I turned running down to 0 every week that I focused primarily on something else, I would be running 1 week per month. I can’t imagine that’d be very effective.

Some activities ask for your attention on a weekly basis. Physical activity is one of them. School is another. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t vary the amount of attention you give to these things from week to week. When you are firm that another activity is to come first today, the other, lower-priority activities will shrink. Besides—even weekly activities open themselves to a vacation every now and then. Thank you, Spring Break. :)

My focus from week to week depends on the plans, intentions, and overall focus I’ve set for the current month. That is dependent on my plan for the year—and that, on the purpose and goals for my life. Well, and whatever I feel compelled to do at any particular time…

My plans do follow a hierarchical structure, from my life as a whole, down to the decade, the year, the month, the week, and the current day. These plans are not executed with perfect elegance, nor are they as detailed as they could be. But I do find that my life unfolds with a high degree of elegance, and I usually end up meeting the strongest and most basic intentions of my plans anyway.

Inflated Intentions...

There is quite a lot of “froth and bubble” that arises in both plans and in the events of life. We say we’re going to do certain things, and those things are going to be noble and awesome. But in actuality, those intentions bear little substance, and they fall away before long. Likewise, apparent opportunities and obligations spring themselves upon us, and it seems that they ask quite a lot of us—may even eat up all of our time… Then, we remember what we really care about, and these activities miraculously disappear.

I said I was never going to go back to school. Ever. Not even as a ghost. But I did—and not at all by force, mind you. Everyone else seemed likewise convinced I was never going back.

With that decision, I set some intentions. I intended on becoming certified to coach high school sports. I thought, I don’t know when I’ll do this, but I’m sure I’d like to someday… maybe I can even start sooner than later. Boy oh boy! My mind raced off in 50 directions, fantasizing about what I might do as a coach.

I thought that was one of my primary reasons for going back to school, behind only being an athlete myself. It was only several weeks in, of course, before I got knocked off that high horse. Initially, the coaching classes were most important to me, and I was most excited about them. Now, well, let’s just say that’s not the case.

I went into school thinking I didn’t really care about cybersecurity. Then, once I got there, I did care, and I devoted a good chunk of my time to exploring it—even in ways beyond what was asked of me. I got on something of a high horse in that regard, too. I’ve never been deluded by the idea that I will someday become an IT professional. I still snicker when people assume that. But I got to thinking that IT would become a closely-integrated part of my life. Maybe I would even become a master programmer with enough time and practice. Such is the mania of beginnings.

But, again, I believed I was more excited than I actually was. I’m halfway through the semester, and I feel I’ve taken this exploration most of the way that I’ve wanted to. I’ve hit the point where if this is to continue at all, it must merge with the foundational undercurrent of my life, which is personal growth.

IT is but a side-quest for me. At this point, I don’t see how my knowledge and skills in this field will have a substantial role in my day-to-day life. Perhaps they won’t. It’s fairly likely that I will go many days of my life without thinking beyond-average thoughts about computers at all (e.g., “Turn on… Use Microsoft word… Turn off.”).

... Return to Original Intentions...

In the town park near my house, there’s a small waterfall that gives way to a big, long descent, lined with boulders. Roughly 2 years ago, someone spray-painted many of the boulders, along with a few trees. For the most part, the person wrote out vulgarities—some more legible than others.

He used a variety of bright colors—red, orange, purple, yellow. The paint stands out very vividly from the dull, gray rocks. I’m sure it has captured many eyes, and garnered much attention and excitement.

Yet, this paint is impermanent. It is graffiti on the rocks. It will not last. It is flashy and hip, unlike the rocks it covers. But, also unlike the rocks it covers, the paint is fragile. As time wears on, it wears down. The stream washes over the rocks. The snow covers them every Winter, and then melts into water in Spring. Rain comes down to make the stream even stronger.

The rocks look pretty much the same from season to season. I haven’t noticed any difference in them in the last 2 years. But the paint has faded considerably. Much of it is illegible now, and some of it has disappeared.

The paint covers the rocks, but it does not become them. It does not seep into the rocks. It does not turn into the rocks. It does its dance over the rocks for a while, and then it disappears. The rocks, meanwhile, continue on.

The paint may not disappear 100%. If it has lasted this long, it is possible that at least a hint of the paint will stick around for another decade. The paint doesn’t get absorbed into the rocks, nor does it completely disappear off them. Instead, a small amount of it remains to fade into the rocks. The paint will remain in its original form by no means. But perhaps the rocks retain a bit of their yellow, red, and purple hues. In the future, people may even be curious as to how they got that way.

That is what cybersecurity is like to me. It is graffiti on the rocks. It doesn’t have a place in the core of my life. I can’t absorb it. But it won’t go away completely. Some of it will stick around to fade into me, and it’ll give me a hue that is that much brighter.

I started off the semester on high. I was on cloud 9. I was flying around, taking in new information quickly, playing with a piece of my world (i.e. school as a whole) that had been renewed over the course of 8 months.

By about the 4th week, I had to calm down a bit and go about things more deliberately. I was still excited, and I was still okay with riding the flow school (i.e. external authorities) provided me, though I had to take charge of where I wanted that flow to go.

By the end of week 7, I started to fall off the wagon a bit. The wagon didn’t fall apart, though it’s asking for an upgrade. It can’t fly in the air anymore. It wants to stay on the ground. The air is fun to ride around in, but it’s lacking in substance. The adventures that can be had on the ground may require more grit, but they’re far more gratifying.

Week 8, I took midterms early in the week, and I spent the rest of the week thinking about the most important change I can make to my life right now: the way I relate to others. I genuinely have had fun learning about and playing around with computers, though I started to feel like I was using them to hide from people. The computers in themselves aren’t the problem. It’s the way I think about others in the first place. But I couldn’t keep giving my attention to technology with this on my mind. It felt like a heartless pursuit.

... And Together Give Rise to New Quests

Today starts week 9, and that’s where I’ve been at lately: I’m being pushed into the ground. I wasn’t in some totally delusional fantasy-land at the start of the semester, and now I’m coming down from the high and am suffering as a result. That’s not the case at all. I had fun exploring a side quest for a while, and now I’m returning to the basics of my life—to what is really important to me. And I am glad, because damn I don’t think I’ll ever go a month without writing again (if you take a peek at the archives, you’ll see nothing between February 17th an March 14th for 2016. Wowzer!).

Of course, no side-quest is merely a side-quest, just as no time is ever truly wasted. I haven’t taken time to reflect on my exploration of IT quite yet, but I’m sure it has had a tangible effect on the way I view myself, the world, and life (unless it hasn’t!). Taking up another season of track helped me to clarify what I truly value as an athlete. Overall, going back to school has helped to validate the unconventional path of life that I have chosen. The contrast of a vanilla-looking present has helped to solidify plans for a future of chocolately, downright-weird goodness. Mmm mm. My long-term intentions for my life look even more delectable now than they did just two months ago when the semester started.

And now, as I face what has been a major challenge in my life, I can see that I would not have come to this point had I not gone back to school. I’m sure I eventually would have taken up the task of overhauling the way I relate to people. It’s not like this is the first time I’m doing this anyhow. It’s not like this isn’t an ever-ongoing process.

But the process wouldn’t have unfolded the way it has. And when I look back on the last two months, I see that the process has unfolded in a manner far more elegant than I could have designed in advance. Because this is the usual demeanor of life, I expect this to continue. I expect to be pleasantly surprised. :)

Before this semester started, I wasn’t ready to make this type of change. I couldn’t even have imagined what such a change would be like. But the conditions needed to facilitate that change were set out in front of me, and I followed them to this point. Though I choose what happens next, I simultaneously can do little more than soak up the present and anticipate the future. The future, after all, is a series of many presents, crafted and selected just so.

What's Your Quest?

The point is that you can set any purpose for your time at school (or any activity) that you want, and this purpose can fluctuate and unfold anew week to week. If you want a 4-year party, go have a 4-year party. If you want teachers who can assist what is an independent exploration, seek out those teachers. If you want to go to compete as an athlete, go compete as an athlete.

If you want to work on personal challenges, work on personal challenges. Fall accidentally in love and figure out how not to be an awkward chode. Assert that you will take charge of your life even in the face of external authorities. Become someone’s student-athlete slave, and choose to see that life is still kind and gentle to you.

And, of course, if you want to go just to be handed a piece of paper at the end of it all, go and get that piece of paper. Mount it in the flame-resistant trophy case with pride.

Create at Will

I truly mean it when I say that you create your life. You really can have and do get whatever you want. You most definitely are the ultimate authority on the way your world shall go.

For the last two months, I’ve been the happiest that I’ve ever been. I have never felt so strong, nor has my experience of life been so awesome. Even when I am sad, or lost, or weak, my life is continuously giving way to new insight, new enjoyment, and new meaning for old places, old purposes, and perhaps an old soul. Coming down from the high is real, yet perpetual stuckness is not. Life moves along, and it waits only at the cue of your authority to do so.

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