Soon after I finished graduate school, one of my best friends married Dennis Hayes, whose modem became the de facto get-on-the-Internet protocol during the 1980s. I can remember laughing while drinking beer and debating science fiction authors/stories with Dennis. But I didn’t foresee the massive disruptive innovation that was nascent, despite having had a field day, while an intern at USDA in 1979, conducting much of the literature review for my thesis on a Lexis-Nexis-like command-based database.
I’ve sometimes wondered how my career — which has been set firmly astride Internet technologies since about 1995 — might have been different had I headed south to Atlanta instead of north to Philadelphia after I got my master’s degree.
We all try to live our lives without regrets, I think. But we also may have wince-inducing moments, in hindsight, where there was a fork in the path. Although I was never offered a job with Hayes, neither did I even think to ask if there might be a place for me. I didn’t think of myself as a geek. And I certainly didn’t think of myself as an early adopter, although I owned a personal computer in 1984.
So what words of wisdom might I have for my younger self, if there were a way to insert a message into the past?
To my 10-year-old self:
You know that letter you got from the Jockey Club? The one that says “no woman will ever be a jockey”? It’s bullshit talking. The world is changing, and you can help direct that change! Like your momma says, “you can do anything you put your mind to.” (You will grow too tall and too much, though.)
To my 15-year-old self:
Eventually, (most of) the boys will grow up. And you won’t hate the girls like you do now. People will respect you for your smarts, not ogle at your body. I promise! Of course, the girls are going to annoy you when you learn to play golf and during the jogging craze, and they will cause you some emotional distress because of health issues. But they will (eventually) lose their current most-annoying-part-of-my-body ranking.
To my 20-year-old self:
So you like Norway enough to try to opportunistically extend your summer school experience to an entire year. Don’t let “no” be the final answer! Figure out how to apply for a Rotary scholarship for next year. Make an appointment with the counselor’s office at Georgia as soon as you start fall term.
And last, to my 24-year-old self:
Think long and hard before you turn down that job with Battelle. Yes, it’s eastern Washington, not Seattle. But you fell in love with bits of the northwest culture when you lived in Norway. And remember, right after high school, Tom Church told you and Rebecca to consider the northwest if you were going to live anywhere other than the south.
Of course, had I gone to Atlanta instead of Philadelphia, I would (probably) not have met my first husband. And would I have made it out to Seattle where I have lived since 1989, and where I met my current husband? And what if I had moved to Richland after graduate school? Would I have met Mike sooner? Or never?
Who knows? And that’s one challenge of spending too much time looking backwards.
Today it is a short path for me to age 60. So what can I take away from this essay, one peppered with incidents floating on the edge of my consciousness, waiting to be plucked.
First, I’m struck by the impact that the Internet can have on providing access to opportunities that cannot be imagined because they are outside the experience of anyone in your family or circle of friends. Concurrently with that thought is this: how the heck did we find out about stuff outside of our geographic circle? I know that the library was an important part of my life — but even that relied on atoms (paper, microfiche). It feels so much like … the Dark Ages!
Second, I didn’t have an idyllic childhood but I did have supportive and loving parents (and family) who encouraged me to “be the best you can be” (to borrow a slogan). For that I am eternally grateful.
Finally, there really isn’t much that I’d do differently were I able to live life over, knowing what I know now. I can’t even say that I wouldn’t have married my first husband. There are experiences there that I cherish and that helped shape the me I am today.
And that’s the real lesson here.
Introspection is important. It’s the only way we can understand who we are and who we might want to become.
So go write a letter to your younger self, and, along the way, learn a bit about the self you are today.