Hi, I’m Daniel, the human behind this edition of Upstairs. I’m a computer scientist building software tools that reason and uncover knowledge; applications of science that address core challenges of society and enrich our humanity are close to my heart. Outside work, my innate curiosity always keeps me on the look for a new hobby; lately, I ended up with way too many coffee brewing tools.
The plane had just deployed its landing gear and started gently approaching a small airport outside London before I firmly decided that I would take the first flight back to Bucharest. During the previous three hours spent in the air I had hastily flicked through the fuzzy memories of my late childhood; I was 19. In the four years to come, while momentarily suspended in that same airspace for a total of three 24-hour days, intriguing questions about my past and doubtful thoughts about the future would race in my mind to paint the picture of who I was and where I was going.
For quite a while, I wondered what would have happened if I had boarded that flight back; as you might have already guessed, I missed it. I’ll spend the next few paragraphs trying to make sense of the journey leading to this moment and how it then unfolded. In the end, you might say this is yet another story about an adolescent growing into adulthood after moving away for college; you wouldn’t be far off. However, the wider story I’m trying to convey is about overcoming the pain of stepping into the unknown, not understanding entirely what to expect, but being way too aware of the risks lying ahead.
My journey started with naive curiosity and enthusiasm. I cannot pinpoint the particular moment in time when I decided I was going to send an application to study Computer Science at Oxford. I can only remember it happened mid-way through high-school, after a few months of enthusiastically reading every webpage on the topic. It took only a little while for my cheeky hopes to accumulate before I felt confident enough to apply.
According to the metrics of academic success I was benchmarking myself against at the time, I was entirely unprepared and not stand a chance to be successful. Sure, I was academically motivated, spending a significant chunk of my free time exploring extra-curricular topics, but so was everyone else around me. To further tilt the balance of fortune, I could have not counted on much financial support from my parents either; simple back-of-the-envelope estimations were suggesting the yearly costs could have easily surpassed our household income.
The raw curiosity and enthusiasm to dream of an improbable adventure were the catalysts of an insightful self-discovery journey I now have the luxury to look back to and extract the learnings. Were I to blindly consider all the concerns stemming from everywhere around me, I should have probably abandoned the idea early on.
The initial excitement was quickly balanced out by an emerging fear that was paralyzing me. While the application process was unfolding, as I was gradually improving my performance on the mock exams and tweaking the early budget plans, I learned that there was another aspect of reality I had to reconcile with. Moving away from home to study would affect my social relationships. For a non-trivial amount of time, it would keep me away from my folks, and, most painfully, from my partner along the whole journey that far and girl-friend at the time. I initially hoped I could be joined by her, but several intricate blockers later (and despite a sustained team effort), we had to admit she had to study closer to home.
The exams went by successfully, then I flew for the interviews and walked the beautiful streets of Oxford for the first time, until one day, I got the offer letter in the mailbox. After briefly jumping up and down with excitement, I immediately started crying; I was petrified, I felt lost. Was I supposed to accept it? Would that be alright? Once I began fearing that my relationships could crumble and that my ambitious plan might actually turn out selfish and potentially hurtful for the few dear people around me, I suddenly fell torn between two worlds sliding apart.
I spent the summer months before the start of the academic year going back and forth in an indecision loop that seemed endless. One day I would be reminded of my initial excitement and be day-dreaming about sitting in a guest-lecture by Don Knuth (I later discovered they can be quite intimidating); other days, I would try to convince myself that my plan was not worth the pain of distance. I ended up applying and securing a place to study at both the relevant universities in my hometown; I was ready to take any of the two diverging paths.
It felt like I failed terribly to have landed into such an ambiguous state. The only solution out I could eventually see was giving up and starting all over again. I was literally minutes away from doing so as I was planning to fly straight back home only hours after departing for Oxford in the first place, not being able to understand why I ended up leaving anyway.
After a turn of events that’s still fuzzy in my head, I missed that flight back. It turns out I got confused about the two hours time-zone difference and booked a flight too early. It was ready for take-off with the gates closed by the time I recovered my inbound checked-in luggage, so there was never a chance to catch it. There would be at least half a day until the next flight, so there I was, stuck in limbo again. After buying a ticket for each hourly bus to Oxford to then only go to the bay and watch it depart, I hopped onto the last one for that day, scared at the idea of spending a night in the airport; I was exhausted.
I ended up not leaving Oxford until the end of the first term. As I was starting to make sense of a “new me”, I decided to return for the future terms too. It would take me years of introspection to come to terms and forgive myself for letting me drift in this manner, engaging myself and my dear ones in a confusing spiral of uncertainty.
For a metaphorical turn to the story, I will allow myself to believe that my most meaningful reconciliatory thoughts emerged up in the air, while “super-commuting” between Oxford and Iasi, once every seven weeks or so.
The four years that followed were somewhat of a roller coaster. I would often come back home to spend my rather long holidays between intense terms that would fully absorb my attention. I was living two parallel realities onto which I was projecting my developing views and emotions.
At Oxford, I could finally pursue my drive for deeply understanding a topic for the pure pleasure of doing so. I enjoyed every moment I got to spend just thinking about some intricate abstract concept. Debating these with my tutors and the couple of close friends I ended up meeting would animate my otherwise quite lonely days. Of course, it was overall a tough ride, and some sleep deprivation costs were indeed incurred, but I will always be grateful to those times for helping me get to the bottom of my passions and building back my self-confidence.
Back at home, the world was inevitably moving on while I was away. Immersing myself in and out of this universe took me along a steep ride to the bottom and then back up again. If initially, I was continuing to enjoy my late days of being a child well into adulthood, ultimately my fear of my personal relationships fading away did indeed materialize. After getting me to feel deeply lonely and unable to understand my place there anymore, this back-and-forth ultimately led to forming new strong bonds with dear people I have since welcomed in my life.
It took a while, but eventually, I came to appreciate the naivety that kickstarted the entire process, as well as my team player spirit, which, not unlike an immune response spiralled out of control, fought against the former to the point of a painful deadlock.
I came to understand that exploring these diverse, animated environments was exposing unknown angles of my personality; it was helping me converge to a fuller version of myself. I was suddenly seeing myself as rational, determined, and focused, where before I could have said I was indeed curious, but rather easily distracted and often melancholic. I could finally accept that my reality was not only black-or-white, that I was neither right nor wrong to have set my life in motion onto this particular trajectory.
More importantly, I came to terms with the fact that my decisions will never be perfect: some will indeed have intricate, painful repercussions, some will shine bright, some may just be passively attributed to me through my in-actions. Each particular decision point might not mean much when analyzed in isolation; with an incomplete context, it’s impossible to discern between “wrong” or “right.” Such binary analysis is a blunt tool and likely to lead to paralysis as it keeps us locked in a zero-sum game.
Kindly allowing myself to be curious and to keep painting the picture of my life through the adventures I will be embarking on in the future is the north star I chose to guide my further steps.
Embrace your fuller picture,
Contributors of this story: Daniel Vasile wrote this story, Oana Filip edited it, George Olaru designed it and put it all together, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development.
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