Change #1: Caffeine Addiction

May 20, 2013 in Personal Thoughts

The secret’s out, for those who didn’t already know! Yours truly is a drug addict –the substance of choice, C8H10N4O2 (caffeine, for short). Between coffee, espresso, diet soda, and tea, I habitually consume something on the order of 500-1000 milligrams of this substance per day.

This habit isn’t a typical morning pick-me-up. It’s roughly five to ten cups of coffee per day, every day, consumed at every hour of the day from the time I wake up until shortly before I go to bed. In the past, this addiction has been as bad for my wallet as it likely is for my health. However, this semester it was supported by my employer in the form of a free coffee/espresso bar operating all day, every day; my habit, then, operated on similar terms.

My relationship with caffeine dates back to fourth grade, when an experimental cup of coffee offered by my grandma turned into a performance enhancement. An avid rock climber at the time, I found that a pre-climb cup of Joe (or Mountain Dew) markedly improved my speed and endurance on the walls, though at the cost of reduced temper and increased anxiety (of little consequence to a ten year old). I leveraged this to improve my performance at competitions and practices, consuming my first energy drinks in fifth grade during a climbing competition for an extra boost.

The following three years, the frequency with which I consumed coffee increased slowly — first, in the form of espressos from a drive-up kiosk (on my bicycle) on the way to school, and later, with daily coffee consumption. Though I was unaware of its addictive properties at the time, I certainly suffered the effects of caffeine withdrawal in junior high on days I didn’t consume it. By high school, I became cognizant of the effect the substance had on my body, and I worked caffeine consumption into my daily routine; cans of Starbucks espresso, mugs of coffee or tea, and cups of insta-brew from the school vending machine began to be quantified in the number of caffeine milligrams I could expect rather than my qualitative enjoyment of the drink.

Through high school, I maintained this habit with astonishing persistence. I filled my water canteens with “Caffeine Water” (sold at Jewel-Osco for $1.99 a pop) at summer camps and smuggled Five Hour Energy shots into my caffeine-free drumline practice weekends. I made coffee at home in the morning and re-heated it after school, tiding myself over through the day with a few cups of instant at school.

The stimulant paid dividends. In my senior year of high school, I managed to pull straight A’s across  two AP science classes (Physics C and Chemistry), Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, AP Statistics, an independent study, and AP language. I was the section leader of two drumlines — one scholastic, and one independent. I led the school’s robotics team, revitalized its physics club, and was involved in at least three other extracurricular science teams. In college, I started a company and worked for both NASA and SpaceX before turning 21.

I point this out not to toot my own horn, but to acknowledge that the abuse of a stimulant can lead to extraordinary outcomes. Through high school and college, the high levels of caffeine pulsing through my veins gave me the focus and impulsiveness that enabled so many successes. However, it came at a cost.

My work was sloppy, and I was impatient. I lacked the dedication necessary to perform excellently on homework; instead, I quickly gauged the necessary level of attempt to achieve my the required grade. I solved engineering challenges using heuristics rather than mathematics, and routinely made mistakes in musical performance. At the time, this was an acceptable compromise to allow me to contribute so greatly to the things I cared about.

With an increased intake that accompanied my college years, the downsides of the caffeine molecule started to become more prominent. Fresh off of my earlier success and fueled by the ever-positive, heuristic-supporting stimulant, I began to experience delusions of grandeur that spread across most areas of my life. My love life became driven by fantasy, and my career increasingly insufficient for my perceived abilities. I saw school as a waste of my precious time, as I was convinced I had the skills necessary to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. Meanwhile, the things that truly mattered — meaningful personal connections, deep learning, quality work,and an appreciation for the here and now — suffered.

This was not exclusively a consequence of using caffeine. But the drug was a hell of a large part of it, and part that should not be discounted. That’s the reason why the first change I am making is to abstain from caffeine indefinitely. Indeed, today was my first day in almost a year to consume none whatsoever, and I already feel more peaceful.




Ten Things to Change: A Quarter-life Review of Autonomy

May 18, 2013 in Personal Thoughts

I recently stumbled across a thread on AskReddit — surely, just the most recent of many — collecting the most depressing scientific discoveries of recent history. While many of the comments that followed proved thought-provoking (“We were born too late to explore the world, and too early to explore space”), only one stood out in my memory: at twenty years old, the average person will have experienced half of his life at the rate he experiences it. 

This is, of course, just a paraphrasing of the hotly-debated Theory of Logarithmic Time Perception. This theory suggests, as most would agree, that we perceive time to move more quickly with increasing age. The time between my twentieth and twenty-first birthdays seemed a mere blip compared to the slow crawl between my fifth and sixth.

Though I haven’t bothered to delve into the (depressing, I expect) psychology behind this effect, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it to be due to both biological and structural factors. By “structural factors”, I mean those things which make time appear to pass more quickly which are merely correlated with age, not caused by aging. Examples of these could be a monotonous morning and evening commute, a repetitive work environment, or an increasingly cyclical social life made up of Taco Tuesdays, Thirsty Thursdays, Casual Fridays, and so on.

After reading that one AskReddit comment, the arrival of my twenty-first birthday brought with it much less excitement over my new alcohol purchasing rights than it did nostalgia for those birthdays past. It reminded me of how, as a somewhat younger man, I could spend hours upon hours sitting in my room dreaming of space exploration, exploring new thoughts through books and lectures, writing everything from technical papers to poetry, and above all else, coherently organizing my thoughts into a vision of my place in the world around me.  As I have aged, these pleasures have slipped away from me, and my life outside of work is now occupied by noise and distraction.

Having lost these abilities, I feel out of control of my life and detuned from who I am — a sentiment shared by many others at this point in their lives. Rather than flail helplessly in this world of perpetual distraction, I’m going to try something bolder: an attempt to re-establish a more focused self  through the abstention from the ten structural factors I think most greatly contribute to this problem in me. The next ten posts, then, will be dedicated to explaining my relationship with and justifying my abstention from each of the following:

  1.  Caffeine addiction
  2. Alcohol use
  3. Facebook addiction
  4. Smartphone addiction
  5. Attending “obligation” social events
  6. High-life dating addiction
  7. Consumption of unhealthy food
  8. Lethargia addiction
  9. Rap/pop music addiction
  10. News/Link Aggregation addiction

Indeed, the creation of this site was in preparation for #3, as it is my intent to move away from a dynamic Facebook environment (which enables autonomy) to a completely static page hosted here (which requires thoughtful edits).

I welcome your thoughts on this topic in the comments section.