Irrepressible Conflict: An INTP(?) in a Wasteland of Normalcy

“Throughout history many of the INTPs who contributed substantially appear to have never fit in with established norms enforced by the institutes of scholarship. This makes sense if the institutions are fundamentally flawed and don’t consider that different people learn in different ways. School always seemed to shut my mind down rather than open it. Only by following my own interests when I wanted did I excel. I always considered grades and deadlines as hindrances to learning. Such things are more useful for teachers and administrators than for students. Whenever I wrote a paper in college I was compelled to solve some enormous problem faced by mankind. If I could not, I thought the exercise was pointless and became disinterested. Needless to say I did poorly in school only completing three years of college.” — Glen Andrew Hendler

My first memory of that horrible consuming fear that welled up from the pit of my stomach is from when I was four. I was supposed to go to swimming lessons and I really did not want to go. I remember laying in bed at nap time, fan in the window, trying to look totally asleep hoping that everyone would forget about me. I was forced to go and I survived somehow.

Things got off track about the time I was singled out. The “challenge” program was once a week, so I was cursed with having to keep up with the school I’d missed. Completely not my forte– too many lists of things I would never get around to working on. I remember sitting at different tables at challenge… with pretty boards tacked up with cool projects to work on. I remember certain ones would stick out to me as ones I would do, but most of them… there was that sinking feeling again. I don’t know what I needed, but being left there to pick, choose, and complete those things… that wasn’t it.  It was a shame, though.  Those teachers had worked so hard to make their pretty little boards.

In middle school I would be subjected to the ultimate humiliation: I had to carry a booklet around with me, write my assignments in it, have my teachers sign off on it, and then have my mom sign off. To have to be seen by the cool kids and the cute girls every single period… it crushed my spirit. I think that was when I lost what little tolerance I had for putting up with the bureaucratic suburbanite wasteland gulag of normalcy. I stopped trying to dress like other people and I stopped listening to the same music everyone else did. I created elaborate plans of running away with a friend– we’d picked Louisiana because there was a lot of water there and we figured we could live off fish or something. Never did it, but to the extent that someone could “drop out” but still show up every day, I did.

In high school I would exert myself on anything except the officially sanctioned curricula. I read Dune, Lord of the Rings, James Gleick’s Chaos and other books in class. I would spend enormous amounts of time tinkering with complicated wargame/rpg hybrids. I would work through Pandolfini chess exercises. I collaborated with similar folk to produce a relatively clean (but self-consciously subversive) underground newspaper– completely insane: published daily, pasted down computer printouts put together during homeroom. (Do you realize what they’re doing in those schools… all of those brilliant kids marched around and made to go to… homeroom?! What?) We lasted two weeks before we were caught and duly punished. My role was not the superstar, but more of the mastermind– I could inspire people to collaborate… and I’d somehow harness and sift everything and provide a framework from which more talented people could do their thing. Okay… not mastermind: co-mastermind. But I was an enabler… a key supporting role in the center of the action. There was definitely a controlled drama to it… but what we did had to be something that ignited a fire behind our eyes. I guess we shouldn’t have watched Dead Poets Society or anything like that….

About that time some silly girl became enamored with me. I’d thought it was something that I’d always wanted, but I completely did not know how to handle it. One minute there’s sonnets spontaneously bursting from my chest (as it were)… but I was going away for a special 5 week program. Of course I said, “I’ll write you every day.” How many letters do you think I wrote? None! Completely consumed by that mysterious paralyzing fear. What the heck is that thing!? She’d later forgive me for it, though I didn’t deserve it.

After compiling underground poetry magazines and recording completely improvised song tapes (awful, but very fun; we actually came up with a few good tunes) I was about ready for college. I hooked up with someone that taught Meisner method acting and did a couple of shows. That’s another thing I remember doing in school: memorizing my lines for the plays. The horrible sinking feeling returned after our last show. Oh yeah, there was one more show we need to do; it wasn’t on the schedule. Just a random thing the director agreed to. Mentally I was already done with it and ready to move on to the next project. I declined to do the show and left my drama pals to their own devices. I felt horrible about it, but lacking the… what, mental fortitude? Character? What? I just couldn’t make myself do it.

In college I’d settle down for a moment. I’d dabbled in so many things, but never gotten good at anything. I was completely slack with music lessons up until then. What would happen if I went all out? I had to know. I loaded up on Music Theory classes and practiced for hours every day, blowing off other tasks I needed to do. I’d play all twelve scales for over an hour at a time. I switched instruments over the summer just so we could make a band– the other guy was better than me anyway. I went nuts– but come hell or high-water we were going to have a jazz group on my campus. For two years I pursued my dream… and Wynton Marsalis actually showed up along with a dozen of the state’s best jazz musicians. It was a summer camp thing and I’d become sort of a cult hero to some of the classically trained kids there– teaching them blues scales and trying to get them to improvise something with me. (I was working a summer job in the kitchen, not attending the camp.) So it’s a late night jam session and they start playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”. I check the fingering, realized I could fake this one, and went up with the band. The crowd went nuts. It was some sort of crazy cult hero thing… they all wanted me to blow the roof off and I was soaking it all in. I played two choruses and the applause was deafening to me… and I totally got out of there because I knew that was all I had considering who else was there playing.

At the end of the night Wynton took a moment to exhort the kids. His point was to a) not hog the spotlight too much… and b) when you play something… *play* it. And to illustrate his point, right? He singles *me* out. “Where’s my man that was up here,” he says, right? Except… I was the man! Good grief. I was completely floored. (The guy that disappointed so many teachers and “broke so many hearts”… he’s the one that was called out on that night. Sheesh.)

It was not to last. I was instrumental in breaking new ground by creating some kind of jazz happening out of thin air on a campus that maybe wasn’t the most conducive environment for such activity, but… what to do after that? The wall for me was conducting and Music Theory IV– the 20th century stuff. And sight singing and ear training exercises decimated me as well. Collectively all those things… I just wasn’t as into them. Not good at them; couldn’t make myself go through the months of small daily practice in them necessary to master them– but somehow not able to see how to go about it.

So with music, I’d made my first concerted effort to become disciplined in the practice of something. I was very promising and went relatively far in a short time, but conquering one set of obstacles only revealed the next set– and I wasn’t up for them. The sinking feeling won and I wouldn’t even have a lousy major in music to show for it. Part of it was that the two years was up, the fire had gone out, and a new passion was taking its place.

I knew something was wrong. Wrong with school… wrong with the world. I read dozens of books on a cross section of topics that connected together in a randomly oblique way that made sense to me. I published an essay in the college paper that would later be lampooned as being the same style as the Unabomber. I was non-violent of course, but they were dead on about my lame polemics. I could not keep my mind off of it, though. I’d constantly be connecting the dots… everything from Lewis Mumford and Neal Postman to Noam Chomsky and Wendell Berry. I really thought I was seeing something. I put together this strange project… not really an essay… more of a collection of extended quotes from books connected by my mediocre ramblings. I heard from people years later that copies of it were passed around for a long time after. Crazy. I tried to pass it off for a project for an English class, but maybe got a C or a D for it– I was totally unorthodox in my subject matter and execution. It’s a wonder I graduated.

As far as writing goes… I never could do it. Those awful five paragraph essays they made us write in high school? I just couldn’t do it. And the drafts we were supposed to do? You’ve got to be kidding me! These things ate me up. I drifted into math practically by default. The one English class I did okay in was a summer class. I didn’t take anything else at the time and all we had to do was read some stuff and then write a short little ditty about it. Instead of agonizing essays… we just had to have something reasonably coherent that was more or less on topic. I could totally get into that. (Hey… that teacher had inadvertently invented blogging! If only he knew….) I’d also done pretty good in Philosophy 101, but my teacher was more interested in clear structure to arguments than to particular styles or premises– and he was pretty unorthodox himself. In other English classes I’d get consumed with getting ahold of the deepest truest meaning of the works involved… but the cogency was beyond my grasp. English majors would laugh at me for obsessing over the authors when they could write entire papers without having even read the books. Me? I’d read entire books looking for a way to build on a single point that would probably get thrown out of the final paper by any sane editor.

Ah well…. There’s more of this, but it’s all the same: some crazy guy with a fire behind his eyes chasing something regardless of the cost… and regardless of what the “official” specifications were. I’d thought he’d grown up and moved on… but he’s still here. He’s somehow stayed with programming for more than two years, but stylistically he couldn’t avoid being unorthodox to save his life. He makes his way somehow through the cubicals and the constantly shifting requirements, but he’s always up to something. There’s always some sort of damn fool idealistic crusade brewing in the back of his mind….

8 Responses to “Irrepressible Conflict: An INTP(?) in a Wasteland of Normalcy”

  1. mcduckus Says:

    I read your previous post and immediately thought that you were a gifted underachiever in school. This post certainly seems to confirm that hypothesis, but I don’t even know you and I am not qualified in anything, so my thoughts are to be taken as everyones thoughts, lightly with curiosity (I hope).

    I know that in reality, no-one likes to think of themselves as gifted, it engenders some horrific thoughts about extreme arrogance, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. I thought I would throw some links out to you that you may like to take a look at.

    Even though most are aimed at current students, perhaps you recognize some facets of yourself in the articles. Or maybe I am wrong, but I wanted to share what my immediate response was, and to wish you the best.

    Also, I know you say that you thought “he’d grown up and moved on… but he’s still here”, he never really left, did he, and in all honesty, he shouldn’t have to.

    Right, end of philosophical light cheeseiness, I wish you the best of yourself with everything.

  2. Passionate Distractability « Gifted Slacker Says:

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  3. How to Get the Most Out of Your Eccentric Programmer/Genius « Learning Lisp Says:

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  4. jeepndesert Says:

    I’m an INTP. These traits probably fit me. However, I just dropped out and started blogging. Programming is a waste of time.

  5. chuck Says:

    Gee, just more stuff we have in common. I, too, was a failed college music student. I lasted two semesters as a composition major and I think I got a 0.8 GPA out of it. But I did record an album of doomy industrial sludge noise music in the university’s Electronic Music Studio over spring break.

    The conclusion I came to though, was, if one wants to be a musician today, one shouldn’t waste one’s time getting a degree in it, but should nonetheless learn some theory. Apart from that though, what music that people care about today is coming from the academic world? I dropped out and wandered through a bunch of weird rock bands while delivering pizza for a living before I found my way back into programming, a childhood interest that I gave up in the 90s when much of the skills I had acquired by that point became very suddenly obsolete and my family couldn’t afford to keep up on buying the new, current computers as fast as they were coming out.

  6. Mark Miller Says:

    I can see shades of me in your school experience. The first school I was enrolled in was Montessori, before I was 6 years old. My mom was a Montessori teacher. It was structured, and I had some trouble fitting in. I tended to want to go off by myself and do my own thing, even though the teachers wanted me involved in group activities. I’d sometimes hide under the tables. I remember we were taught math in simple terms using small wooden rods and abacuses.

    Eventually my mom left Montessori. She got bored with the routine of it. While she was deciding what to do next she enrolled me in what were called at the time “free schools”. They were private schools, but ones in which the students’ interests were paramount. I remember kind of liking them. There was guidance from the teachers, trying to coax us into different subjects, involving us in creative projects. We went on field trips to see different kinds of stuff. One science project I remember is we tried to hatch chicken eggs. We took some fertilized eggs, put them into an aquarium-sized glass box, with a regular light bulb turned on inside to provide heat. It ultimately didn’t work out. The chicks died in their shells. We had done something wrong, though we never found out what.

    I tried my hand at traditional math, but struggled with it.

    My mom tried enrolling me in some affordable private schools that were more structured. I went to one school where my memory is they emphasized reading and writing, and math using wooden rods, plates (divided up into etched squares), and cubes. I remember liking this. Occasionally we’d do some creative projects. The wooden math aids really stuck out to me, because we learned the idea of squaring a number (take a rod and match it to a plate by its length). Each plate was Y x Y in length and width, so for example a plate of 25 squares shaped as a 5 x 5 square. I could see that “5 squared” was 25. We also had cubes, which were plates in the configuration of a cube. These were harder to figure out, because I was used to counting all the squares on the plates. I doubt I understood them, but they were meant to illustrate “5 cubed”. What was cool is we could take pieces off the cubes (like the top) and fill them with material, like sand, and kind of get an idea about volume (cubic units).

    It was at this time I was introduced to music. My mom encouraged me to learn to play the violin. She enrolled me in the Suzuki method. Playing an instrument was kind of interesting. I think I liked performing, and my efforts being recognized, but I didn’t have much motivation to stick with it. Looking back on it I wonder if it was just that the violin is a difficult instrument to play. In the same building where I’d have violin class there was a black bassist teaching students how to play drums. He’d groove with his electric bass guitar while his students riffed on the drums. Looking back on it it sounded like jazz. It sounded pretty cool, and I thought maybe I’d enjoy that more, but I didn’t pursue it.

    Eventually though I was placed in public schools. What my mom kept seeing was that I would neglect certain subjects because they felt hard to me.

    Reading silently was hard for me. I could read out loud and that seemed to help my comprehension. I liked writing though, and I still do.

    I immediately felt a little out of place in public school. I was tested and was behind in math. So when we were scheduled for it I’d be assigned to a lower grade math classroom, just for that subject.

    The students were different. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. They were very attuned to routine, and interested in superficial things like what other students were wearing. All of this, I wasn’t. Their social interaction was different from mine. While some students welcomed and engaged me, others just didn’t get me. They chalked me up as “weird”, not because I’d make faces or talk to myself in class or anything (which I didn’t). I was just used to having more freedom. The teachers also expected me to strictly follow routine, and I tended to rebel. Obviously they didn’t approve. I felt kind of isolated.

    My mom tried a couple more times to enroll me in alternative schools, ones with some structure, but also some freedom. Ultimately she put me back in public schools because I was still getting behind in some subjects. In hindsight I’d say that she thought structure was the solution, not that I learned differently.

    She put me in a school I hated, at first. It was superficiality and strict routine times 10. Not only did most of the students think I was weird, most of them picked on me/bullied me, too. I was so isolated I had only 3 friends in the whole place. We were the “losers” as far as everyone else was concerned. She quickly took me out of there and finally found a public school with a classroom that fit my flair for creativity. I loved it! It had structure, but we learned interesting things. For example we were taught Greek and Latin roots (parts of words). There was a little electronic device available at the time, which my teacher allowed me to have while I was doing math. I haven’t seen anything like it since. It was like a calculator, but didn’t tell me the answer. It just told me whether I was right or not. I would punch in “3 x 5 = 15”, for example, and it’d give me the “green light” for “correct”, or “red light” if I was wrong.

    We did creative art and writing projects. Some of the teachers were still sticklers for routine. Ironically my music teacher was this way. How were we supposed to be creative with this atmosphere??

    The one anomaly in the school was the 6th grade teacher. He was a stickler for routine, and roundly hated by the students. I got bored in his class. I frequently spaced out, and he’d embarass me by calling on me to give an answer to a question he’d just asked. I had no idea. The other kids laughed.

    We had pencil holders on our desks that were stuck there with some putty. One day I just zoned out. I visualized the solar system, and started taking bits of the putty, rolling it in my hands and making little balls of different sizes. I set them up as planets “orbiting” my pencil holder on the corner of my desk. I got all of them set up, out to Pluto (though not to scale of course). I put “rings” around the ringed planets, and I even sprinkled in bits of putty for the Asteroid Belt. By the end of class I was almost done. The rest of the students had left, and I was still working on it. My teacher walked up to my desk and was a bit stunned, and also insulted. He realized I hadn’t paid attention to a word he said that day. He pegged me as lazy. He had an “honor roll” list on the classroom door. A couple times during the year he announced to the class, “There is someone in here who should be on this list, but is not because he isn’t applying himself.” I didn’t realize until years later when my mom told me about this, that he was talking about me. I guess he knew I was smart, I just didn’t care for his class. Really what it was is I didn’t care for his teaching style.

    Something happened to me, because by the time I got to jr. high it seems like I had adjusted more to the public school routine. My mom tried to get me in schools with intelligent/creative teachers, and I think she succeeded at it, as much as there was “choice” available. The only reason I say this is I have fond memories of them.

    The main challenges I had were taking notes during class, and doing reading assignments. If I wasn’t interested in a subject, I just couldn’t focus on it for any length of time. I would read words on the page, and they’d just pass straight through my brain, no retention. Some teachers had this teaching style where they’d just lecture during class and hardly write anything on the board. It was a real challenge for me, because I used them writing notes on the board as clues to what was important to take down. I almost flunked a couple classes because of this.

    I went on to college, and ran into similar issues there. I pursued a CS degree, and tended to do well in the classes that emphasized hands-on work. I found I really had an interest and a flair for classes that discussed ideas, rather than having us take stuff in by rote. I got so frustrated with my college math classes, because they didn’t teach things so I’d understand them. They just expected me to memorize most of the time. Most of my science classes were the same way, though I thoroughly enjoyed and did well in the lab sections, because it was all hands-on work.

    When I got out in the work world I could work on assigned projects fine, but I really enjoyed the ones where I had creative freedom within those projects, like rather than having to follow a spec. I was just given, “Make a program that does X”, where I could implement it any way I wanted. I found I could get bored though. If I end up doing just getting pigeon holded, and doing the same ‘ole, same ‘ole, yeah, I want to get out of there.

    In the end, I didn’t have a problem with structure, but what I really didn’t like was being treated like a robot, or a blank slate that had to be impressed upon.

  7. Sam Griffin Says:

    Thanks Lispy. It’s always good to remember that I’m somehow connected with humanity.

  8. Mike Brown Says:

    I’m an ENFP (Champion Idealist). I’m a very abstract and “ideal” thinker. Not great with follow through. My favorite part of programming is figuring out how. Once I do that, I’m the last guy you want to tell “Okay now that we know how, go ahead and do it.”

    I also dropped out after 3 years of school…not because I couldn’t do the work, I just wasn’t motivated to do the work…also because I got a job offer that paid what I was paying in tuition LOL. It does nag me at times that I don’t have my degree. But then again, I don’t NEED my degree because my skills speak for themselves.

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