Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Balancing Fear

"What if I get malaria and die?"

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I've been coming to a realization over the last half of this quarter: I am tired of being afraid. Of holding myself back. I am naturally cautious, perhaps somewhat paranoid, and evolution is on my side. As a consequence, I conflate me being rightfully cautious with me just being a coward, and sometimes the two overlap.

This summer, I have the opportunity to go to Indonesia to help implement a project I have been working on in a team since January. I am unlikely to have such an opportunity ever again, and yet before today I was sure that I was going to say no to this because...why?

What I really want is a job at a construction company, and I have an interview on Tuesday of next week (it was going to be last Friday but my interviewer was sick). But I don't have that as a sure thing yet, and I have to decide by this afternoon whether or not to accept the funding grant for Indonesia.

I am going to say yes, I know that. And that kind of scares me.

Because getting thrown in the deep end can teach you a lot about self-sufficiency, or it can make you drown. Because mosquitoes in Indonesia carry a lot of potentially fatal diseases and for some reason I always get a lot of mosquito bites. Because I have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the first gen mantra of keep your head down, you're not allowed to do anything out of the ordinary that I am afraid that doing something like this is wrong because it doesn't directly relate to the kind of construction job I definitely want to get next summer. Because I have no practical skills and I don't know how to do anything in the real world and I don't know if I'll be able to do the job the best. Because accidents happen and I don't speak any Indonesian and I hate feeling vulnerable. Because what if I get malaria and die?

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But some of these fears are unfounded and some can be mitigated. I argued with my parents on the phone Tuesday night and convinced them, mostly, so I'm going to put my spiel here to motivate myself:

I joined ESW and in large part chose Stanford because I want to develop and use my skills in a way that benefits people and solves their actual problems. I could do that by doing lab work. I could do that by learning on the job at a construction internship. I could do that by working with people directly and learning from them and listening to the people whose lives I am presuming to improve.

One reason I want to do civil engineering is because the benefits it incurs scale, big time. Transportation, water, and energy infrastructure are the big three and they can change lives of whole countries if done right. This project is kind of a subordinate to energy infrastructure, but it for sure could scale if we decide to open source our methods of remote monitoring. And if it helps make micro-hydro plants more effective to communities and more attractive to donors, that could assist the cause of renewable distgen, particularly for the rural communities in which electricity access is disproportionately low.

Going for a more civil engineering/construction-focused summer opportunity would be great in terms of making connections in the industry. However, I am still interviewing with (and have communicated my probable summer unavailability to) a firm that does mostly transportation infrastructure, and expect to be able to maintain connections with professors who have a foot in the field. The NGO with whom we are partnering is highly regarded and they do really, really good work. I interviewed for two opportunities relating to small-scale renewable energy and both interviewers had only good things to say about IBEKA.

The only way to gain more practical skills is to develop them, and if I learn our system inside out and then am forced to apply it and teach it in the field, I will learn. This is one fear that I recognize as irrational: the fear that I won't be able to learn. Of course I will be able to learn. I am good at learning, when I believe in the importance of what I am learning. If I am put in a position where I have to be competent or else there will be negative consequences for other people, my sense of shame will drive me toward competence. I hate letting people down.

Safety and health are important. That said, people travel to and work in Indonesia all the time (obviously) and nothing untoward need happen if I take the necessary precautions. I can read the CDC's website; I can get vaccines; I will be with people from the NGO basically at all times; I can avoid being an idiot. I will say that I'm vegetarian and avoid the issue of bad meat. I will talk to people from the Haas Center who have more experience in these matters and get expert advice. The professors for the ESW class have done field work in places that have more health hazards than in the US: I can learn from their experiences how to stay healthy and safe.

These are skills I will need to know in my future, if I am serious about wanting to do good in the world. Am I a little terrified? Yes. But I am not flying into this blind, and the benefits outweigh the costs, and I am so damn tired of being afraid.

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Second late post of the quarter. Had my first final today and then a basketball game. Need sleep.

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