Taking the First Step – Nika’s blog

Taking the First Step Blog

Taking the First Step – Nika’s blog

Taking the First Step Blog

Taking the first step to hacking life

Back in college, a friend told me that his life plan was to study something interesting, find an awesome project to work on, make a ton of money with it and retire at the age of 30. He was a few years older than me, studying in the field of engineering and he was one of the smartest people I knew, so I was pretty convinced he had it all figured out.

The idea of retiring at 30 seemed quite unusual to me — most people I knew retired around the age of 60, but we agreed that ‘retiring’ in his plan would mean ‘having enough money that one would never have to work again, and could spend all of their time on one’s hobbies and project one liked’ not ‘do the kind of stuff our retired grandparents do’. As for the rest of the plan, I’ve always known that I want to study something cool, and if I could get a job that’s awesome, well, what’s not to like? We debated the possibilities of our futures and painted with our words an inspiring picture full of clever solutions to all sorts of problems that the mankind is dealing with. The whole conversation was happening in a relaxed atmosphere and we weren’t being 100 % serious, but the idea kind of stuck in my head and I would remember it every now and then and daydream about ways to make it happen.

I went on to study physics (I was deciding between physics and mechanical engineering till literally the very last minute) and first three years of my Bachelor’s programme passed in a blur of countless hours spent at the university, mathematical formulas and proofs, endless numerical examples and work at the lab. It was hard work and it left little time for other hobbies, and my social life outside of the university was practically dead at that time. It was a stressful time and I wouldn’t repeat it, but I look back at it with great fondness, mostly because of the friendships that we formed with our classmates. We remained in touch and we all get together for the occasional ‘Anonymous Physicists’ meeting.

And while the Bachelor’s programme gave us a broad and solid foundation, the Master’s allowed us to dig deeper into the fields that interested us the most — which in my case was numerical simulation and fluid dynamics. I also decided that I wanted to see what else exists outside the university, so I connected with a company that worked in the aviation industry and became part of the development team for virtual reality flight simulators, and a full-time employee before the time I finished my Master’s thesis.

I had covered two parts of the life plan, while the ‘retire at 30’ part was all but forgotten. I’ve been part of a team that developed the world’s first commercially available VR simulator for an electric ultralight airplane, I worked on combining brain-computer interface with virtual reality and simulation into a flight simulator that can be controlled by thought and have been part of a team that entered a design competition for electric racing airplane held by the British Royal Aeronautical Society and placed among the 3 winners. In 2019, at 28, I was one of the 10 nominees for the Best female engineer award, a national event designed to inspire girls for technical studies and careers. And the best part of it was that I also had a great balance between work and free time, allowing my hobbies to thrive. My love for sports climbing has turned into a love for alpinism which we share with my fiancée. We would work in the mornings, climb in local crags in the afternoons, and go on weekend adventures to the mountains. So generally, my life really felt on the right track.

And then came the global pandemic. It was an event that touched all of our lives, some more than the others. I’ve been fortunate enough that my family has been okay and that on the outside, not much has changed for me — I still have the same job, apartment and life partner. But it touched me deeply on a cognitive level.

I remember how it was when things were just starting to develop in Europe. We were getting news from neighbouring Italy, and were waiting for the first confirmed cases in Slovenia, but our lives were still pretty normal. I was wondering, whether this is just something that would pass, or are we enjoying the last pieces of normality before a catastrophe. Like in an apocalypse movie, where people are still playing on the beach unknowing that a tsunami is heading directly towards them. And the beauty — or horror — of it was, that only time would tell.

Despite those thoughts, I have never imagined that, in my lifetime, something so big and so drastic could happen. I was feeling it, observing it and absorbing it. I got a glimpse of how people react when they are afraid and desperate. I’ve seen people and organizations step up and rise to the occasion, and others, who just completely decompensated and were consumed by chaos. I’ve experienced insecurity and realised that jobs are a very fragile concept. And I’ve seen that my perception of our society, its functioning and values was utterly and completely wrong. I’ve realised how powerless and insignificant we are as individuals and how easily the priorities and values can change with changing context.

And I’ve gone through different phases, as I’m sure most of us did, from fear to denial to mourning, seeking purpose, action, and acceptance. This was followed by determination, that I will find a way to make the most out of the situation.

I started working on projects that I usually never have time for. Our living room got a DIY hangboard for training finger strength and we upcycled our old climbing rope into a decorative pot for a Madagascar Jewel that I’ve had since my third grade. I read more than I did before and when the first wave of the pandemic passed, I really focused on training and improving my climbing. I listened to different online courses and finally purchased a book on numerical simulations that I’ve been eyeing for a while but always felt it to be too expensive. And I remained opened to new things. New information, new views, new skills, new ideas.

And with that mind set, I stumbled upon a series of lectures about developing the entrepreneurial mind set, held by a local startup accelerator. The lecturer was amazing and he had my attention from the start. He presented a lot of examples and real-life stories along with facts and studies to support them, and I was totally intrigued by some of the concepts. But one thing he said has really struck me. He said that people who exceed in school, usually don’t achieve anything special in their life. That they hack the school system, but not life.

As someone who fits into the first part of the statement, I felt a bit hurt by the second part. And I started questioning if this was indeed the case — I think it often is — and wondering why it happens. The answers I found are a bit too extensive for this post, but I’ve decided that I do not want to be part of that statistic. And if this was going to be the case, I had to do something about it.

But, first, I needed to define, what ‘hacking life’ and being successful means. And I don’t think I quite have the answer yet, but some things that I feel are part of that picture are the ability to work on things that bring you joy and you feel passionate about, having control over how you spend your time, independence, financial freedom, the privilege to do something meaningful and the power to actually make a change. To achieve that, I feel I must upgrade the knowledge I currently possess and expand it into the areas that are new and exciting and feel dauntingly out of reach at the moment.

And with that awareness, I’m taking initiative. I’m taking a risk. And I’m taking the first step towards change and towards creating something out of nothing.

I know the chances that I fail are very real, so I’m doing it with a project that is small enough and manageable enough, and that won’t have a devastating impact if it turns out differently than planned. So I’m borrowing it from one of my hobbies, board games.

I’ve been into board games for a few years now, and we’ve been having more or less frequent game nights with a group of friends pre-pandemic. It’s a hobby that I can see myself in for a long-term as I like it a lot — especially the part where it challenges my brain with every new game to find the strategy to apply to win it — and is also very appropriate for all of the life stages. And as a creative person who has written poetry and dystopian prose as a hobby, it was only a matter of time when I would get an idea to develop a board game. The project I am choosing to be the learning one is actually my second idea, as the first is a bit too complex and is waiting in the drawer for a time where it’s creator will have at least some experience with how to actually create a game.

The game will be launched through Kickstarter. It is a platform that I have been fascinated with since 2014, when I followed the campaign of a little startup from where I grew up, Chipollo, and was inspired by their success. I’ve known then that I have to try it sometime too, though I always imagined that my project would be some super cool tech gadget. And Kickstarter officially came to Slovenia at the end of last year, so the timing is perfect.

So, this is my first step. The game development and campaign preparations are in full blow and I am ecstatic by the process and the amount of new things I learn every day. I am discovering areas that are totally different from physics and engineering, but I am also amazed how often they present opportunities where my technical background is valuable.

I will try to word the journey that I’m taking into this blog. It will serve as a reference that I can look back to and a platform to share my experience, and maybe, a small and humble but hopeful maybe, a place where I inspire someone else to take their first step too. Because imagine all of the potential that is being wasted if people stop at hacking the school system!

So, if you want, I’d be honoured to invite you on this journey with me.


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