Bifurcation



This Oliver Burkeman column got me thinking again about “bifurcations” in my own life – choosing one path at the expense of another. Many of these decisions involved tensions between my personal and professional lives. For example, leaving New York City in 2013 was motivated by personal goals, but had a long-term impact on my career path. I was working at startups in the city, and transitioned to freelancing remotely.

The most significant “bifurcation” in my life was the decision to study Computer Science over other subjects I am passionate about, such as history.

I learned to program computers well before I finished high school. I had a natural aptitude for it. By the time I got to college I wanted to try other things. Like many American students I spent my freshman and sophomore years dabbling in different subjects: languages, history, sciences. I continued to work on software in my spare time, but it was only one thing among many.

Ultimately I had to make a decision. I had always planned to go to graduate school, and earning a doctorate requires some degree of focus and specialization.

I chose to do what I was good at, working with computers. It was a practical decision, though not in the obvious sense of expanding professional opportunities, earning more money, and so on.

Rather, I recognized that having a broad swath of interests and passions was an essential part of my personality. I felt like technology would allow me to engage many of those passions in the long term, because technology is part of so many domains. It is far easier to be a technologist working on digital humanities projects than it is to be a historian working on technology projects.

That is exactly how it’s turned out. In exchange for focusing exclusively on Computer Science for a few years I have a lifetime of opportunities to do Computer Science and many other things: plant genetics, digital costume collections, social psychology, non-profit communities, military history, museums. It’s all there on my CV.

Along the way I’ve met a number of other people who have made similar decisions in their lives. The technology sales executive who is passionate about serving communities. The data scientist who is also a farmer. The photographer who teaches the history of his field. I don’t think of these people, or myself, as having “compromised”, in the negative connotation of that word. I think of these friends and colleagues as having so many dimensions that they were always going to straddle fields, and not rely on majors or job descriptions to tell them who they are.