Before New York and college, before Europe and Road Trip USA, I'd been long accustomed to my rather comfortable existence. My work had required no back-breaking labor. In my most recent position, it hadn't even required back-breaking hours. With the resulting time, I did as I pleased. I consulted more; I indulged more in my computing hobby; for the most part, to no great purpose, I allowed the time to pass.

Of course, whether or not one chooses it consciously, there is always some great purpose. That time was good for me. But something about its aimless comfort never sat well. In all my years in the professional realm, as much as I relished the visceral pleasure of gaining technological mastery, the state of having a job never felt quite permanent. It's not that I took each post with a mind to soon leave it; on the contrary, I threw myself into each with renewed fervor, possibly to combat the sneaky sense that this time I really ought to have gone back to college instead. The workaday world was real, every moment of it, but it felt in the abstract like reality was on hold. I never opened a 401(k). Why would I have, when this wasn't supposed to be a career, when school was waiting for me around some nearby corner?

In catching up with a smart old friend who's taking her own circuitous route to the intellectual career she always knew she'd have, questions popped into my head. Had she ever noticed a feeling of responsibility — perhaps to herself, perhaps to others — to deliver on her evident promise? If so, how had she delivered? And if not, what was her secret?

I didn't ask her those questions, because they were meant for me. That feeling of responsibility belonged to me. It kept me driving, four jobs and seven years, looking for that intersection. I owed someone something. The debt was profound, impossible to ignore or escape.

To whom did I owe it? When I didn't want to think about this — which was most of the time — it seemed like everyone who'd had a hand in shaping me. Parents. Friends. Parents of friends. Teachers. Relatives. All of them had had their hunches about how my life would go. To myself, I would come to my defense: I'm good at what I do. I love doing it. I'm surrounded by good people. I'm becoming the person I want to be. See, my life is wonderful. You were right about me.

It's clear now, of course, that in preemptively seeking to mollify others I was admitting my own dissatisfaction. (In moments of lucidity, it was clear then, too.) Even as I was making the most of some of my abilities, I was leaving too many others untapped. Where I was no longer creating, I had become a ravenous spectator. I wasn't playing football or making music, for instance, but I'd drive hundreds of miles just to watch a Bears game or a Marc-André Hamelin recital, as though one such effort could redress the wrongness of habit.

Then, a little over a year ago, two major roads to my self-improvement reached logical ends. I found myself with too much time and too little distraction to keep from turning all this over and over in my mind. I wanted to keep growing. I couldn't think of a way to do it as I had been. Thus I belonged somewhere other than where I was.

That feeling of responsibility which brought me to Columbia was mine, to myself, for myself. For the gifts I had chosen not to develop. For the person I had chosen not to be. God, I missed that guy. I knew where I belonged the moment I realized: I don't have to miss him at all.