By Bradley Jarvis

In many ways, my entire life can be described in terms of a struggle to find a niche in the world. That struggle, if not over, is definitely converging toward something that feels right.

I think we all naturally fill certain roles, starting with our families, expanding into school and work, and encompassing all of the interactions we have directly or indirectly with other people. Much of this is beyond our control, a product of circumstance, but over time we have more of an opportunity to consciously guide the impact we have on others, the way we fit into the larger scheme of things.

Families are like miniature ecosystems, and the way that I supported mine was as a peacemaker. My parents were constantly at war, and I was a shuttle diplomat trying to help them find common ground. This effort required the ability to quarantine my own feelings so that I could be an effective, objective tool serving external needs. This world view was even reflected in my interests, space exploration and astronomy, which involved the creation and testing of abstract representations of the universe. Just as understanding my family members could lead to insight that would yield momentary peace, understanding the universe could become a uniting goal for the people of the world, and I felt a kinship with scientists who held that as their goal.

There were two hobbies that I pursued for sheer pleasure, which I was able to mask as a means of improving my performance in school. From the time I learned to read, I devoured books; and by the time I was in high school I was writing short stories, poems, and essays, as well as illustrating my own comic books. Those hobbies became critical to the most recent part of my struggle.

My father was one of the most curious and smart people I have ever known or heard of. His niche was solving problems, any kind or anywhere, and not surprisingly he made his greatest mark as an engineer. In an effort to help my youngest brother learn algebra, having taught it himself, my father decided during idle time on business trips to invent his own brand of mathematics which would be much easier to understand. Several of his colleagues were so impressed that they convinced him to start a company that could share his ideas with the public.

During my last years of high school and throughout college I helped my father develop his inductive approach to mathematics, and became an integral part of the company after my graduation with a degree in physics. My physics degree had been a first step toward a career in astronomy, but I became convinced that I could help the world more by radically transforming math education. Unfortunately, my father’s company was having trouble attracting investment for what many venture capitalists and educators considered akin to the reinvention of the wheel.

I took the first job I could get to help support the company until it could survive on its own. That job was as a test engineer, which I knew nothing about. Luckily, I learned fast and had a considerable amount of natural talent for finding hidden problems. Unluckily, I had stumbled into another unhealthy niche, where in the process of helping to improve a company’s products I was forced to become progressively more cynical.

My parents had divorced while I was in college, so I was free from my family’s dynamics. But I was now locked into a new niche as a facilitator of almost every aspect of the company’s survival. When I wasn’t developing or producing products, I was managing finances, creating marketing and business plans, and using my salary to pay living expenses for both my father and me.

It took a move to a different state for the company to start making its own way. My mother had died of cancer, and my inheritance helped three of us work at break-neck speed for nearly two years before my father died of a sudden heart attack and everything fell apart.

All by myself, I tried to keep the company from going under while working temporary jobs from janitor to assembly line worker. After about a year, I found a full time job on third shift cleaning silicon wafers in acid, which allowed me to meet with school principals during the day to try to sell my company’s products, time which I should have been using for sleep. My schedule was, to say the least, unsustainable. But more than that, I was feeling burnt out, and I decided for self preservation to abandon the mission I had been on for over a decade. I had hoped to help save the world with a company that filled a niche in improving education; if I was lucky, I might be able to save myself.

My one constant indulgence during this period was my interest in astronomy. Moving from New England to Colorado, I discovered a sky unblocked by light pollution, trees, and hills. The local astronomy club became a regular social outlet, where I developed a network of friends and found another niche as an organizer and activist.

My best friend, who had introduced me to the club, helped me get a job as a test engineer at a small company that actually appreciated my talents in that area. It was in this job that my problem-finding skills jumped from work to the rest of my life, and became more of a hindrance than a help, as I literally stumbled into one flaw after another in everything I did. The one area that it helped was in testing my core assumptions about life, including religion and philosophy, as well as the value of pursuing intimate relationships. Where it hurt most was in its contribution to anxiety about the future of mankind, which I live with to this day.

After four years I was laid off, and took the opportunity to explore other career possibilities. At the same time, I was involved in my first close relationship with a woman, who was mightily holding out for her own dream job – working for herself. It was both an exciting and a confusing time, which ended up with my starting a career as a technical writer and the relationship ending in favor of another one.

Technical writing seemed like a good way to mesh my technical and education backgrounds with my love of writing, which I rediscovered while taking inventory of my interests and strengths. It also paid far better than any job I had ever had. I was also playing a positive role in my environment, providing guidance so that products could be used properly instead of figuring out how they couldn’t.

In my personal life, the second relationship lasted two years, during which I worked through most of the remaining issues from my life of self-imposed isolation. Then I met my wife, and I felt like I’d been reborn.

After some savage layoffs and what I considered unwise cancelation of several projects, the cynicism nurtured during my engineering career began to reassert itself. Clearly, the management of the companies I worked for didn’t know what they were doing. Did I want to continue spending hours and valuable resources turning out documents that were likely to go to waste, or was there a better way to use my time?

Reading and analysis that I did after my father died convinced me that the world is in deep trouble, and not just because kids aren’t being taught how to find their own answers in a logical way. There is a huge species die-off in progress that is comparable to the impact of a large asteroid, and humanity is its cause. Exponential increases in waste coupled with overuse and misuse of natural resources are leading to what might be a major crash of the world’s human population, and soon. I was tempted to once again try to save the world.

One of the valuable lessons I learned while reshaping my life was that people should only take responsibility for what they can affect. To attempt to do otherwise is both an act of supreme arrogance and potential self destruction. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to help things along; we just can’t do it as the expense of our health (mental or physical) or the health of those around us.

I decided to focus on what motivated me the most while enhancing (or at least not degrading) my life and the lives of those closest to me. Applying it to the issues I cared about was certainly appropriate, but not required.

Creative writing seems to fill the bill: I enjoy it enough to work for hours without getting hungry or tired; I seem to be good at it (or at least good enough to be able to make rapid improvement); and it is a means for exploring ideas (one of my other favorite things to do). The only remaining issue is providing income, but with work and exposure that could come.

It feels now like I’m close to concluding my struggle, with this new niche as an entertainer and an agent of thought with a bias toward encouraging the world to save itself. Only time will tell if I’m right.


© Copyright 2008 Bradley Jarvis, All Rights Reserved



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