Sam Gimbel

Tech, Beer, and Strange Thoughts.


Silver Bullet Syndrome

It's easy to feel broken, and easier still to feel that you must be whole. We suffer constantly from the need to complete our thoughts, to see our dreams unfold in the present, to watch success—however defined—blossom in front of our eyes to the delight of our loved ones and admirers. And every time the yearning starts, when that misguided ambition begins to take over, you can be assured disappointment is not far behind.

There are no silver bullets. There are no cure-alls. There are no easy, lasting wins. Your path, whatever it may be, is a long one. And the sooner you learn to accept that the better.

Loss of Dreams

I have lots of dreams. I want to make a lasting impact on the world that lifts up the worlds' most vulnerable. I want to run a marathon. I want to live at peace with myself and with my natural surroundings. I want to learn without purpose and explore new ways of building old technology as a way of reliving the experience of my ancestors. I want to give happiness and passion to my loved ones and watch them flourish over many years. I want to enable those around me to experience one day after the next full of stimulation, community, and hope. I want to do these things and more.

So, what? Other than revealing some post-adolescent angst and a lot of naïve raw emotion, what's so great about my dreams versus anyone else's? To be honest, nothing. And that's what makes this next part so powerful.

Everyone has ambition. Everyone strives towards some goal regardless of their location on Maslow's hierarchy. And after correcting for privilege/luck/socioeconomics, everyone approaches goals the same way. Which is to say, most people don't succeed. Everyone fails to achieve at least one of their goals, and everyone remembers the pain of that failure.

It's that pain that leads us to believe in silver bullets. A childish hope arises to urge us to avoid that pain and search for shortcuts. Soon, we stop thinking of it as childish and begin believing our lie that dreams can come if we wait, if we just do this, if we simply buy that. The resulting failure is always a shock, an unwanted guest, an offense against our best judgment.

My Dreams, Lost

As a young person I strongly believed that going to college and becoming a doctor would be the salve for my adolescent confusion and the perfect focus for my intense nature. And, because I allowed myself to expect an external force to change me internally, I found school to be as confoundingly imperfect as I found myself.

Last year I started a business. It was bound to be the answer to feeling disenfranchised in a large company and it would certainly make me feel "in control" of my own life. It didn't. I got lost in the game and had a great time but the company folded and I fell into deep depression almost solely because I felt I had been lied to by my own intuition.

Therapists label this "emotional myopia." My parents call these experiences "character building." Some would point to the entitlement of my generation as a major factor in setting bad expectations. I am confident that none of these people remember what it's like to run.


This year I started running. I started slowly with an eye on running a healthy, injury-free half marathon in May. I went from 2 miles once a week to 5 miles three times a week with a long 8 mile run on the weekend and I'm still increasing my mileage today. That's a lot of time to think. It's a lot of time to be in pain, too.

Your brain does something fascinating when it's in long-term pain. It floods you with opioid-receptor binding endorphins which mimic the pain-fighting power of strong drugs. You can feel the pain, understand it, but it doesn't stop you from continuing. You begin to associate the twinge of fatigued muscles with the light, airy high common to runners. You begin to recognize that distance, time, and effort are all relative. If you plan for it, if you have the fitness to spare, you can keep going forever.

Runs have an eventual end, but running does not. As one of the most natural human activities running connects you with the most basic human experiences. There's the pain, the joy, and the intrinsic desire to keep going. There's the meditative state you arrive in around mile 2 and never leave. There's the full understanding of how your body moves and works. And then there's the mental transcendence.

It starts with the endorphin rush of the runner's high, sweeping you into a world where pain and effort are an end unto themselves, a joyful experience that gets you to your eventual goal. You begin to lose yourself to the process of being in motion, to the awareness of being inside your body and yet not the same as it. You begin to realize that goals are big and they take time to reach, but each moment in motion is its own reward. The myopia melts away when you run and you become aware of the vast, deep chasm between where you are and where you are headed. And when that happens and your joy is boundless as you stride over the ground, the challenge ahead crystallizes as massive, painful, and exciting.

Dreams Found

I found my dreams running. I don't know how you'll find yours. I do know that in order to cross the divide you will have to embrace pain and learn to enjoy it. I do know that believing in silver bullets will leave you alone with your hope for a solution, and hope is not enough.

Hope can guide us to our dreams and inspire us to challenge ourselves, but it cannot run the race for you. Looking back at my failed attempts, I had an abundance of hope at every stage, regardless of my success.

Embrace the breadth of the path ahead and you can find joy in the journey. When joy replaces hope as your primary motivator you will see it mingle with the pain of temporary setbacks and propel you forward past them. You will begin to own your failures as equal to your successes and recognize that even if this run has come to an end, your running days have just begun.

There are no silver bullets. There are no shortcuts. There is only the thrill of the journey. Make every moment joyful. Your arrival is imminent.

Growing Up

My brother called to tell me about his first week at his first job out of college in a new town. Here's what I told him.

First he told me that he's been crying every day.

It tore me up. It made me want to hug you and take back all those times I smacked you or rolled my eyes at your younger brother antics. You're going through something important, something hard. Getting out of college and starting a life is hard. It's not just a matter of "growing up," it's about getting used to a new way of living.

I told him to find out who he is.

Every person is given direction on how to live their life before they reach a certain age. Some people grow up faster than others, but this is the first moment in your life where you've been entirely independent. Who are you? How do you want your life to be? What's important?

I told him to live in the moment.

It's so easy to get stuck on what isn't happening, what's ended, what may happen, or who you're going to be tomorrow. Beyond finding out who you are, find out how to be that person right now. There is a tendency to get stuck on things, to get hung up on people, to feel that your yesterday is your today is your tomorrow. But the truth is, the only thing that is is now.

I told him that he's breaking up with his childhood.

And that it will never cease to exist, and you would never be any less good at being a kid, but you may not get as many chances or feel as free to do so. And the sad truth is, most people think this is the end of their childhood. I want you and everyone in your place to realize that the challenge is figuring out how to live as a person who was once a kid, a person who can get joy and feel safe and be absolutely inspired by the smallest, silliest things. I want you to know that you can live life to the fullest, feel young, and still be an adult.

I told him that home is wherever he is.

Growing up means leaving home, both physically and emotionally. You're in a scary new place and you don't know how to cope. Sometimes you go to Mom's house and it feels "right." That's because Mom is there, because her stuff is there, because it reminds you of the safety and the love and the happiness that you can get when you feel at home. You are remembering how to be a person in the way you want to be, comfortably and stress-free. You can do this anywhere. The true measure of maturity is how comfortable you can feel doing the thing you like the least. And I know you can manage to be yourself in any situation.

I told him to be honest with himself.

Ending a period of people telling you what to do usually means feeling obligated to be a certain way and do certain things. Young people so frequently do what they're already on the path to do because it's what they're already doing. Don't ignore that little voice inside that says "no wait, maybe I'd rather be a fireman." Be honest with yourself and find out what it is you want to do. Give everything a good try, but don't do the first thing you try just because it's what you told your mom you'd do.

I told him to feel every emotion.

Feeling bad is a signal from parts of yourself to other parts reminding you that something is changing. We never feel comfortable when change occurs, and feeling the discomfort is critical in finding out what makes you feel good as it fades. Feeling emotions is hard. Feeling emotions is brutal at times, and it reminds us of memories that make us feel worse. But feeling emotions is our lifeline to ourselves. It's a reminder that we're alive and that things will change and get better.

I told him that he isn't being selfish.

When I was going through this I felt like this was my burden to bear, that I was the only one ever to go through it and no one else wanted to hear my bullshit. So I kept it in, thinking I was being selfish and I suffered unduly as a result. Don't suffer in silence. Ask questions, cry, ask for advice, talk about the weather, just don't feel obligated to go through it alone. Because the truth is, you're never alone. There are always people willing to listen. You have me, you have your family, you have a lot of friends.

I told him that he's not the first.

Trust me, you're not the only one to go through this. Leaving the safety of home or college or wherever is depressing, fatiguing, and brutal. You aren't the only one to notice that. And while that may feel like you're not unique, it means there are many, many people who have found out how to navigate these waters before you. Lean on them. Learn from them. Trust that you can get through it.

I told him I love him.

Because I do. You're my little brother, and you confided in me, and I'll always be there for you. You can rely on that, little brudder.

Two feet on the ground

a partial fiction

Ever since I was little I have been living somewhere between dreams and waking life. I was never diagnosed with any condition, and I don't think I should be. My breaks from reality seem to stem from a stubborn belief that my own future and those of my loved ones can be better than our respective pasts. I don't know if that qualifies as an illness. I don't know if I want to know. But I am made painfully aware of this phenomenon each and every time it happens.

It's scary at times. Every now and then I speak to a close friend and realize my recollection and theirs are not aligned. Not in the sense of what color shirt I was wearing or who was dating whom in high school, but on the level of themes, of intent, and of defining moments within a cherished memory. I'm always shocked by which memories are which, to be honest. Sometimes it's obvious that a thought does not fit, and other times it is only through painful discovery that my reality is not yours.

I first remember being aware of this around the time I turned 13. I was obsessed with lucid dreaming and keen on developing my skills so I could fly and create what turned out to be very awkward sexual encounters with the pretty girls from school. I was good at it. Sometimes in my dreams I would look into mirrors and see faces that weren't mine, and upon waking I would catch glimpses of my dream in the shadows of the bathroom mirror, waiting to be unlocked in the daylight.

These early experiences with the line between dreaming and the waking world were deeply affected by my childhood. On one hand I was voraciously reading all the fantasy and sci-fi I could get my hands on. Dreaming was a big part of these adventures, and was typically used by their authors as a window into the true self of the dreamer or the nature of his or her quest. On the other hand, my family had been shattered by the murder of my Aunt Ilene by my uncle her ex husband and the arrival of Luke, my cousin, who my Mother agreed to take in when no one else could or would. I needed frequent escapes from that moment at age nine when I saw my mom crumple to the floor in numb shock after receiving The Call through those moments when Luke in his misplaced rage would force me into my room in order to tune out his hateful screams and on through high school when my parents threw in the towel and got a divorce after twenty-odd years of loving us and maybe half that of loving each other.

And so I hid. I hid in books and video games and music. I never got into trouble or got less than a C on a report card. Instead, I built worlds and I explored them and I asked myself "where are you now?" and my other selves would answer "Somewhere quiet. Somewhere better." My curiosity of the world beyond the visible grew and I went on to study philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and religion in college. I found ways to cope. This isn't a story about my pain.

Somewhere in that hiding I realized the power of deception. Of deceiving oneself by focusing so hard on one facet of the diamond that the rest of the world disappears. Eventually—inevitably— something else would creep in and start construction on new ideas. I would be reading a book and the characters would leap off the page and into new adventures when my eyes were closed, but also when my eyes were open. There was magic in the world, dragons from ages past, and everyone was implicated in their prophecies. My ability to imagine grew exponentially and my real life friends were those who enjoyed playing pretend with Dungeons & Dragons, laser tag, and fort building in the woods. It made me happy to be able to escape and find new places to sit on rocks and think about what I might like for dinner. My life meant something when all that stood between myself and the world burnt to cinders was my own restraint in casting that very powerful fireball spell. And so I never thought twice about "letting my imagination run wild," as my imagination-Mother put it. She was like my real Mother, but she wasn't sad.

And that's the thing. No one ever told me "you're not really a wizard," or to stop playing pretend, because that's what kids do. But my imagination wasn't "regular" in that sense, and without any critique it began an insidious infiltration of my day-to-day life. Mostly it's minor incidents, like thinking I've not watched an episode of television because I remember it ending differently. Or, in the case of romance, I allow myself to become entwined in post-relationship intrigue and succumb to notions that my unrequited love is being returned when it isn't. That's even alright, except for the times when I act on it and have it thrown in my face that no, we never agreed to get back together and no, saying "i love you" when we break up does not indicate that you're secretly with him and not me because no one can know about us for very important and valid reasons. But then there are the times when I swear he deserved it because everyone knows you walk on the LEFT down the subway stairs (I had just decided on this a minute ago) and so it was OK to shove a little. Or the time when you wrote those incredibly hurtful messages because XKCD set such an important precedent on the matter.

So it would be a mistake to say I haven't been hurt or hurt others by this little foible of mine. I also still enjoy video games, getting lost in fantasy worlds, and reading until my eyes hurt. And I've found ways to leverage this iffy grip on reality into new ideas, new companies, and some pretty great friendships. So, it's not all bad. But what is it in the first place, and is it possible to keep myself and the others around me safe? Is this actually what being crazy is? Are we all a little bit crazy?

I'm more concerned with the effects of this behavior, though. Am I actually creating a better world for myself by denying the world we live in? It does not seem to follow logically that by ignoring one reality we may create another. Can any reality exist in a vacuum without being informed by a previous reality, and honestly, isn't ignoring something simply another way of addressing its presence in your life? That doesn't imply that the world we live in is good, does it?

I do not know what to believe, but I do know that whatever belief comes home to roost must pay rent. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that so many thoughts take up residence in my head without my say-so, but I'm unwilling to take action given how similar it feels to the way creative people create masterpieces: by being a little bit off and a little bit in their own world. Or is that one of my false memories? Equally as confounding, do other people experience this? The brutal isolation of individuality makes it almost impossible to know. It's a situation my brain wants to solve coldly and rationally, but the nature of the problem does not lend itself to objective study at all. When I come up for air I'm fatigued and full of ennui for a world that does not have to ask permission.

Of course, that leaves out my own agency entirely. In this scenario it sounds as if I'm a bystander and a puppet to this mysterious force. That's not the case. Sometimes I'm aware—painfully so—that the words coming out of my mouth make no sense. Instead of cutting off the stream, I consciously allow the flow to continue to see where it takes me. My curiosity always trumps my social tact (which may or may not exist at all). And even if I do cut myself off or alter my own behavior I am left haltingly devoid of accurate alternatives. I simply freeze.

Have you ever been frozen? Not "I can't dance, so I'll stand here," frozen. But frozen for words, actions, thoughts? Petrified that the next words or movements you make won't be yours? You know if you have.