I had a vision of what I wanted to be like before I entered graduate school. Some things have worked out, and others haven’t. One thing that hasn’t — and not necessarily in a bad way — is my changing opinion of how I want to structure my schedule so as to talk to others.

Originally, I wanted to be someone who could hunker down at his desk for sixteen hours a day and tenaciously blast his way through a pesky math or programming problem. I wanted to possess laser-sharp, Andrew Wiles-level focus, and channel it to work on computer science all day without a need to have others hinder my progress with meetings and various requests.

That vision has not become reality. The key factor? I really want to talk to people.

For most of my life, I never viewed myself as “normal.” This was largely a consequence of being deaf and being isolated in social settings. But I am normal in the sense that I thrive on talking and socialization.

My isolation in recent years has made me hungrier and hungrier to socialize, and when I don’t get that opportunity and see people my age establishing new friendships on a regular basis, I relentlessly beat myself up for failing to take the necessary initiative. Is there something they do that I should be doing? Am I not painting the correct impression of myself?

As a result, sometimes those “uninterrupted hours” that I’ve gone through during work have really been “interrupted” by my brain1, which is constantly telling me that I should socialize. Somehow.

My brain will often go further than that, in a peculiar way. I don’t know how common this is with people, but my brain is constantly creating and envisioning fictional social situations involving me. A typical scene will be me and a few other people socializing. Interestingly enough, I will be participating in these conversations much more often than is typical for me, and the other people will be more engaging towards me than usual. That’s it — those are the key commonalities in these scenes. I don’t know … is my brain trying to form what my hope would be for a normal social situation? Is it trying to compensate for some real-life deficiency? This kind of hypothetical scene formation, for lack of a better way to describe it, happens more often when I am in bed and trying to sleep. I will usually go through cycles of social scenes, with an intriguing rotation of settings and conversationalists2.

During the day, I find that if I go too long without talking to someone, these thoughts may appear in a similar form as those that occur in the evening. Recently, they seem to begin when I think about how I’m missing out because I don’t know many people and don’t always have the courage to talk to others. Unfortunately, there’s a paradox: most of the time, when I have tried attending social events, I tend to feel worse. Huh.

One-on-one meetings, of course, are the main exception to this rule. Even if such meetings are not strictly for social purposes (e.g., a student-advisor relationship), I usually feel like they have served a social purpose, and that they fulfill my minimum socialization goal for the day. It’s no surprise that after meetings, my mood improves regardless of the outcome, and I can get back to my work in a saner state.

I think it’s more important for someone like me to have meetings and to talk to others while at work. The rationale is that I don’t get to talk to many people, so any small conversation in which I do participate provides more utility to me as compared to that other person, because he or she will have had more social opportunities throughout the day.

As a result, I now try to stagger my schedule so that, instead of having three days completely free and one day with four meetings, I’ll have one meeting per day. Having just one half-hour meeting can completely change the course of a day by refreshing my “focus” and “motivation” meters so that I can finish up whatever task I need to finish.

You know, for someone who doesn’t socialize much, I sure do think about socialization a lot! Case in point: this short essay! The reason why I am just now writing this post is due to a recent visit at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to discuss some research with several colleagues. While I was at RIT, I had an incredibly easy time talking with my colleagues in sign language.

More than ever, I appreciate the enormous social benefit of RIT to deaf students. While I may have issues with how RIT handles academic accommodations, it has one thing that no other university can boast: a thriving, intelligent deaf population of computer scientists and engineers. Wouldn’t that be my ideal kind of situation?

My visit to RIT made me again wonder how my life would have been different had I decided to pick RIT for undergrad. Life, however, is full of tradeoffs, and whatever social benefit from going to RIT would have been countered by a possible reduction in my future opportunities. If I had attended RIT, I doubt I would have gotten in the Berkeley Ph.D. program, because the reputation of one’s undergraduate institution plays a huge (possibly unfair) role in determining admission.

I don’t want to suggest that all deaf people can follow my footsteps. I know that the only reason why I had that kind of “choice privilege” to decide between a hearing-oriented versus a hearing-and-deaf-oriented school is that my level of hearing (with hearing aids) and speech are just good enough so that I can thrive in a hearing-dominated setting. By thrive, I mean academically (in most cases); I am always at the bottom of the social totem pole.

When I think about my social situation, I sometimes get angry. Then I react by reminding myself of how lucky I am in other ways. With the exception of hearing, I have a completely functional body with excellent mobility. My brain appears to be working fine and can efficiently process through various computer science problems that I face in my daily work. I live in a reasonably nice apartment in Berkeley, in an area that is reasonably safe. I have a loving family that provides an incredible amount of support to me.

In fact, almost every day since entering college five years ago, I’ve reminded myself of how lucky I am in these (and other) regards. I wish I could say I did this every day, but I’ve forgotten a few times. Shame on me.

I make no illusions. I am really lucky to be able to have conversations with hearing people, and I treasure these moments to what may seem like a ridiculous extent. Not all deaf people can do this on a regular basis. I do get frustrated when I communicate with others and don’t always get the full information.

But it could be a lot worse.

  1. Or many I should say that it’s my mind that’s mentally communicating with me? For simplicity, I’ll just term my collective conscience as “brain” here. 

  2. Most of the time, I know the people that are in my fictional conversations. They do not always know me.