A note if you're feeling down

Growing up, I was always a fairly introverted kid, prone to day-dreaming, reading, and tinkering with things. Every holiday, my parents got together with my aunt and her kids. The cousin closest in my age, Nathan, was also the one most similar to me, and the one who has had the most impact on me.

Nathan was a very smart kid, but also very introverted. He had trouble socially adapting. He finally came into his own in high school. Nathan was really into video games and taught himself graphics programming. That led him to become interested in physics, which he studied at a community college. Eventually that led him to finish a four year degree in physics at a regional state college. Then he applied to Yale's PhD program in physics, and he got in. He was the first person from his college program to ever get accepted into Yale.

With retrospect I realized that almost everything that I am was influenced, in some way, by copying what Nathan was doing.

I got into music by using LimeWire to download the bands he was into – Metallica and Led Zeppelin, most notably. I first learned programming because of him. I first played Dungeons and Dragons when Nathan ran a short game in a park behind his house. I still remember him narrating the battle, telling me "the goblin dissipates." I'm also fairly sure I picked up The Lord of The Rings because he was reading it. I also think he inspired me to start studying math and science when I was in high school, which was a straight line to my professional career. Almost everything about me was forged during those years when we saw each other frequently.

In October 2019, my cousin Nathan killed himself. Whether he knew what he was doing is debatable. He fell off a tall apartment building balcony and died on impact. He had probably been drinking, but only Nathan knows whether he meant to end it that day in October or if he just lost control.

What I do know is that Nathan was very depressed, in large part because he had not found a tenured position in a university after earning his PhD from Yale. He had spent his whole life learning everything there is to know about nuclear physics. He had published a paper about it. He was tutoring undergraduate students at Yale. I don't know what he was going through, but it seemed he was overworked and alone. I hadn't heard from him in almost a decade at that point.

Nathan was and remains, without a doubt, the most intelligent and successful person I've ever known. What strikes me is not just that he was smart, but also that he was sincere about his love of physics. He had a true passion that few can match.

And yet, he probably died thinking that he was a failure.

It is ironic that the smartest person I've ever known died this way. I know a lot of shitty, dumb people who feel great about themselves. It's only the intelligent, ambitious, and driven people who fall into depression over rejection and disappointments, because they are the ones that push themselves to achieve and put their hearts on the line for a passion.

As in life, his death had a profound impact on me. I think about it almost every day. Despite the pain, it has helped me to keep some balance in my own life, during the dark times that have followed.

I relate this story to get across two points.

First, some pursuits in life are very competitive. You can be among the best in the world, the hardest working, the top 0.1% of people, the most deserving, and yet still not find the lucky break you need at the moment. That doesn't mean you've failed. It means you've tried to do something very hard. Life isn't fair. This world we live in is far from paradise. There is no justice in this world.

Second, you never know what your impact on another person might be. You may feel down about yourself and think you're struggling. But you might be the one who inspired someone else to go for their dreams, years ago. You might be still inspiring them now, even though you never see them, even though they are very far away.

Thank you for reading.

  • Robert K Quinlivan

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