Intrinsic joy

When I was in high school and college, most of the activities I was doing were to obtain validation of others. I had quite an overpowering fear of death, or rather of being forgotten. I remember having this fear around my junior year of high school that one day I was going to die and no one would care. I quickly realized that theism was an easy way out of facing this angst and that was not going to be the solution for me. I needed something more tangible. For years that solution was to be greater, to have influence on the world, to be remembered. I pursued that through racing triathlons for a while. A few people noticed me and a couple people knew who I was. I was the first to cross the line at some little local races and I thought I was somebody. That was really hard. I tried so hard.

After college I became passionate about long distance open ocean kayaking. That seemed kind of cool. I decided to try to paddle the length of the Antilles, from Florida to Venezuela. I tried a dozen times and turned around before killing myself in the open ocean a few times. I ended up settling for an infinitely lesser challenge and paddled to the Dry Tortugas, a measly 50+ miles of open ocean.

During my first year of med school I learned I was a nobody. I went from getting recognition for academic accomplishments in undergrad to feeling like a total dumb dumb in med school. I was surrounded by brilliant, hard-working people. I was nothing. Ensue massive impostor syndrome. I couldn’t match these people in academics- no way. I tried to hike the Appalachian Trail unsupported faster than anyone ever had. Tore my calf. For a moment I was a badass and then I was just a smelly man on a train back home with a ridiculously sore bruised calf.

I went back to med school sometime later and accepted humility. I knew I was never going to match my peers academically. They were brilliant. I decided to pursue family medicine and at some point in residency it clicked. I wanted this job, not to be special, but because I actually liked taking care of patients. I don’t think that was my original thought but I am glad it panned out. I like the learning; I like meeting people; I like being a part of their lives in a vulnerable time.

This year I bought a boat load of plants, but not like the normal “I’m getting into houseplants”. My house looks like a jungle. But each day I think about what each of those plants needs. I water some of them, regret overwatering several others, monitoring the root rot on the succulent from my helicopter plant dad attitude. I used to think houseplants were silly, a chore rather than a pleasure. Every household task was a chore. Putting away laundry, washing dishes, cooking, watering plants. I enjoyed caring for my dogs but it was because they had some intrinsic joy from it. I absorbed their joy. Everything else was just a burden.

Last year I followed this guy Sam Barsky on instagram. He was probably one of the first people I followed. He knits sweaters and goddang you can tell he enjoys doing it. So tonight, I spent an exorbitant amount of time tending to my jungle. Over the weekend I learned a lot about solar systems and lithium iron phosphate batteries. I learned a lot about composting toilets. I realized that the most joy I’ve had in the past few years, outside of being with people I love, is engaging with tasks and learning that have absolutely no extrinsic value. I love learning medicine, I truly do. But my god I’m an addict to learning about things that will never benefit the world or bring me fame.

I’ve learned something over the last few years about those things that previously brought me joy, like being fast as butts at triathlons, or being able to kayak or hike stupid long distances. I’ve learned that I had way more fun with the planning, learning about weather patterns, nutrition density, lightweight textiles, ocean currents than I did with anything that followed. I enjoyed the adventure for sure. But there was some burden of drive to succeed that weighed on me that kind of tainted the actual trip. Since those mega epics, I’ve had some excellent adventures. I’ve summited Longs Peak in Colorado via a technical route requiring snow travel, mixed climbing, and ability to rope solo. I’ve rope soloed a pretty sizable cliff face in the Bitterroot Mountains. I learned how to ski and managed to summit a pretty imposing peak in the Mission Mountains solo after four failed attempts. I still love the adventure, but taking the burden of success out of the equation has made them so much more enjoyable.

So along the lines of finding intrinsic joy in things, and stopping caring about external validation, this is a rambling blog post about how I am learning to enjoy things because I enjoy them, not because others will enjoy them. I like writing. At some point this blog became about affiliate links, about publishing epics and gathering sponsorships. It’s not that anymore.

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