Zach Smith, Data Scientist on Art & Sports

My name is Zach Smith. I’m 33 years old. I have half an engineer’s brain and half a creator’s brain and half an adrenaline junkie’s brain (and yes, I know that doesn’t add up to 1). Currently, I work as a data scientist at OrthoFi, an orthodontic flexible financing and insurance processing company out of Denver, Colorado. In 2018, we were named #164 on the Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Companies in the US.

My grandfather once gave me the life advice to always “look out for luck”, so that is what I’ve tried to do. I try to take advantage of the lucky opportunities that have presented themselves – I then work hard, learn aggressively, and strive to be damn good at what I am doing. This approach landed me a research assistant position at the University of California San Diego doing functional MRI research out of college. I then had a position as an electro-mechanical test engineer at Brooks Instrument, which parlayed into another test engineer position at Boa Technology. From there, I leveraged the only constant in all of those positions – data analysis and statistics – to get a position at OrthoFi as their data scientist.

I love to create things – wire sculpting/wrapping at the moment – and challenge myself physically through board sports. Depending on the season, I love snowboarding, whitewater paddleboarding, and river surfing. I tend to have a creative and an active hobby going at the same time. That way, I can choose something to do which fits the moment.

My dad inspired me to take up creative hobbies. As a kid, a lot of our quality time together was spent creating things, whether that be painting and drawing or sculpting with clay or the like. We also spent a lot of time at art museums discussing the artists and their works – what we liked/disliked, what we found intriguing or off-putting, and whether something really was art or not.

My interest in adrenaline sports evolved from being an adventurous kid. This probably started by jumping off the highest point in the playground. I then grew into rollerblading and surfing. My love of surfing grew into a love of anything “board sport”, which meant adapting the activity to the area that I lived in – surfing while in San Diego and snowboarding in Colorado. The overarching connection that makes me constantly want to come back for more is the excitement of fully connecting my body and my mind together to overcome a seemingly scary physical feat.

Overall, there are two reasons I move between hobbies:

  • Probably the most influential, I love to learn things. I love figuring out how to do something. Frequently, a new hobby is inspired because I saw somebody else do it and thought, “That looks cool. I think I could learn how to do it.” The challenge of learning something new and the moment of accomplishment the first time something comes out well is one of the most rewarding feelings.
  • Opportunity and situation. Put bluntly, the places I’ve lived have offered different terrain and opportunities. Until I learned about river surfing, being a surfer in Colorado was pretty difficult. Same as being a snowboarder in San Diego, which just wasn’t ideal.

Subjectively, I feel that I get to participate in my hobbies often. I’m not a very idle person, or at least I strive not to be. I get the chance to participate in my hobbies several times a week. It’s a balance between spending time with my loved ones, learning new things to be a better data scientist, and taking the time to fulfill my hobbies. I say “taking” time to fulfill my hobbies, because hobbies are what centre me. They allow me to deal with the stress of being a human. Making the time to fulfill these things allow me to be a better partner and a better worker.

My favourite part of adrenaline sports has always been the connection to nature because it’s the natural features – ocean, mountains – that allow me to participate in these sports. If it’s the connection to nature that draws me to these sports, it is the serendipitous connection to people that has surprised me most about participating in these communities. Longboard has brought with it a crew of people that would frequently just turn up at the local spot. Snowboarding has brought relationships with new friends, or sometimes just a random person to hang out with for the day on the slopes.

My favourite part of creating things is sharing it with other people. I no longer own most of the paintings I’ve made, having given them away to friends and family. Also, in the past, I highly enjoyed painting live at music festivals because of the strange and interesting conversations it would generate.

In the future, I would like to explore whitewater paddleboarding more – being on the river provides such a unique perspective of the landscape. I would also like to get back into my creative hobbies, such as painting. As for pastimes that I’d like to try out, it would be kiteboarding or foilsurfing. Kiteboarding if the opportunity presented itself, but foilsurfing is something I can venture out and try on my own without lessons or classes.

It sounds cheesy, but my advice to anyone looking to take up action sports or painting is to just do it. YouTube has a ton of videos that will show you the basics. If you can afford/obtain the equipment, there’s really is no reason to not try something. You can always put a helmet and pads on, and a canvas can always be whitewashed.

I do think that these hobbies benefit my technological carrier, both by reinforcing the skill of learning and by providing a balance. So much of data science is creative. If I didn’t flex those creativity brain muscles and always focused on strict technical rules, I fear they would atrophy. It’s important to expand one’s horizon and do more than just stare at code all day. Work is always going to be there, and there will always be one more thing to check off the to-do list. Take time for yourself, nurture your creative impulses, and get back to nature.

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