Shit I Wish I Knew When I Graduated
This is not a success story of “I quit my job and made it!” This is a “I quit my job because I wanted more and now here I am” journey.
In 2016, I graduated with a guaranteed job in Silicon Valley. I was stoked to be working with a tech giant and to be living in sunny California. Psyched to be in the epicenter of technology and surrounded by other young people from around the world, I couldn’t wait to get started. By my friends’ standards, I was “living the life.”
One year later, I quit my job. I had a lot of emotions but satisfaction and happiness were not among them. In many ways, I knew I was lying to myself. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew it was out there and had to explore. So I cooked in a French fine dining kitchen, I hustled on a startup, I solo backpacked through South/Southeast Asia, I went to a Vipassana retreat where I meditated for 10 hours daily for 10 days — in complete silence. Did I “find myself?” Hell no, but I picked up a few insights along the way.
1. Fuck passion. Find self-awareness
I am not anti-passion. I am against the modern-day concept it evokes for many, an idea reinforced by glossy career fair posters, cover letters from desperate college students, and glamorized singular success stories. An idea that passion can be this simplistic, just-around-the-corner, end all-be all solution. A notion both comforting to believe in for the sense of direction provided, and incredibly stressful for those who don’t know what their ‘passion’ is. Ideally, said passion should also align with some facet of industry demand whereupon finding it, you too can be a success story shared on social media. All you have to do is find it, right? I’m sorry, but I call bull. This is not passion, this is expectation.
The idea that somewhere out there, your passion is just waiting to be discovered, can dangerously imply that the you at that moment is somehow underdeveloped or even inadequate. Thus ensues the chase after self-actualization and self-validation. I struggled for a long time thinking that I just needed to chase after that one thing to find life’s sweet spot.
It took me quitting my job, journeying around the world, and then some, to challenge myself to stop chasing and to start being; to stop running after a passion/expectation and to start observing myself as I am without an internal ‘could be’ or ‘should be’. Understanding that if the only constant among all my experiences was me and if I wanted a bomb-ass future, I needed to observe and accept myself in the moment, without any expectation. Sounds hippie, huh?
You could distill this into cliched “Be true to yourself” advice, but that still begs the question of “Who the hell am I?” Self-awareness helps recognize your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, but more importantly, how you perceive the outside world and what makes you tick. This is also not a “F- the world, I’m going to do me” mentality. The world exists. Emotions exist. You live in said world with emotions. Before dominating the world, dominate yourself.
Go solo and explore without expectation
- Travel. Have ‘Why not?’ moments. Meet new people. Try different challenges. You don’t need to buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world. Surround yourself with people of different backgrounds and interests to understand what distinguishes you. Traveling to a different country can be especially insightful, leaving the culture you knew behind and placing yourself against a backdrop completely unknown to you.
- Don’t embark on the Eat, pray, love mentality, thinking your life will be forever changed with that one trip to x exotic country. Travel with a mind open to the possibilities and not disappointed by highly photoshopped pictures of tourist destinations
Find your quiet moments
- Whether it’s driving, taking a walk, or doing the dishes, find the moments when your thoughts are organized and you can have that ‘aha!’ .
- I recommend meditation retreats. A vacuum of electronic and actual noise, these retreats force you to examine your thoughts whether out of patience or sheer boredom.
Volunteer / work for free
- Volunteer not for the resume building but to explore what intrinsically interests you. Another way of thinking is, what would you teach and why? What would you share with others? Would it be interior design because you love the creativity and client-based work or online gaming because of the community and strategy?
- By virtue of the cause you’re interested in, you will find a community with similar values and can authentically connect with them rather than schmoozing with others in a networking event.
Run into your fear / build your story
- Running along a conventional path doesn’t take much thought, but running against it does. Listening to a speech is a straightforward process, but giving a speech suddenly raises your awareness of your fears and self-limitations.
- Going off above: Telling your friends you listened to a speech can seem trivial. Telling your friends how you were brave enough to deliver a speech and why you gave it, now that’s a story.
To be clear, a self-aware expectation-free mentality does not mean to be ambition-free. If anything, it provides clarity and liberates you from other’s ideas of success, shifting your perception so that you can focus and explore goals that authentically interest you. Instead of the murky “this could be me,” floating around your head, self-awareness grounds you back to the reality of who you truly are, in the moment, and where you stand without those feelings of inadequacy.
“Ok, I’m aware of what I like, but it won’t make me successful.”
Learn how to define your own success, not just through numbers and labels. Does success have to come in the workplace, or can it come through different venues? Swap the word successful for meaningful. I find successful people aren’t successful because of a job title such as director or executive. It’s what that job means to them. True personal success is non-quantifiable and non-categorical. If being an exec of a company was defined as success, then all execs would be considered successful and happy.
On an airplane ride to Canada, I sat next to a woman who was CEO of a small financial holdings group. I briefly asked her about her work but she transitioned quickly over to her family, showing me pictures of the dinner parties she hosted, and gushing about the community work done. “Wow, and you’re a successful CEO too!,” I added. She laughed, “I get enough out of my home life where I can have a boring day job.”
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye. – Antoine de St. Exupery
In short, substitute self-awareness for passion. Substitute meaningfulness for success.
2. Breathe. Be journey-oriented first, then goal-oriented
Dear 22-year-old me,
Chill the hell out.
For college students: Since elementary school, we tend to identify ourselves by grade or major. Leaving the nice structure of university and going into the terrifying ambiguity of reality, we now identify ourselves with a job at X company, or Y graduate school, or not finding a job at all. It’s easy to exaggerate and internalize the present or near future, especially if they’re not to our liking. (“Why can’t I find a job?? I’m going to be a hobo for life”). Keep in mind that wherever you are, whether a low, a high, or an uncertain point, this too will pass.
As a freshman entering college, I freaked not knowing what I would want to do. Looking back, I know that my senior self would have looked to my freshman self, slapped him, and similarly tell him to chill the hell out. You don’t have to know everything at once. Take a backpacking trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and you’ll find countless soul-searching Europeans and Americans (of all ages), hoping to find answers. You’re not alone.
For everyone: As Americans, we tend to be goal oriented and results driven. Goals are great to keep us on track and give us something to work toward. However, for personal happiness, there is an inherent danger to relying on them. Investing your emotional energy on a result is short-sighted. I went to an engineering school where the dream job was working at Google/Facebook. It wasn’t until I moved to the Bay Area where I met unhappy engineers and designers from Google and Facebook. People who have “made it” in every sense of the phrase can still be unfulfilled.
Results constantly change based on where you are in life. Your journey, well, is a journey. Instead of the “what”, focus on the “why”. Instead of comparing yourself to what you don’t have, focus on where you are. The last thing you want is to start Astroturfing.
There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path — Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk
3. Potential, not pity. You > environment.
I like travelling and dancing. More specifically, I really like traveling to remote areas of the world and finding the local hip-hop spots. From Ugandan and Indian slums to underground Japanese parties, I find a lot of my inspiration in kids killing it in hip hop sessions.
What does a breakdancing 7-year-old from the Dharavi slum have to do with me? He reminds me that I can also break whatever perception people put on me. That if a kid who comes from one of the poorest parts of the world can shock and inspire others, then the possibilities are endless for a dude coming from America. That I could complain about my surroundings and go off on a litany of “If only I..”, or I can show what I can do and dance my heart out.
You’re not your resume. You’re not your Facebook. You define yourself. Life decisions that are out of your control or were ill-picked do not make you. If anything, they provide a degree of clarity and richness to your journey. Embrace the challenge and give yourself some love.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? — Langston Hughes