For the first time in many years, I’ve decided to do something based on wanting to do it, as opposed to doing what others want me to do. I’ve been getting accustomed to pursuing what makes me happy on a daily basis, but for the longest time, unable to apply this thinking when considering the future. It’s taken years of being pulled and stretched to finally be able to do this. And for the first time in my life, I feel what I might call a solid future footing, or an inner peace that completes my sense of self or identity.
A JOURNEY: I’ll describe the path that I’ve taken at Duke to come to this place. It’s been really hard. I’ve been anxious, sad, and confused at times, lost and then under and illusion of guidance. I came here not knowing much about myself other than I was talented at a lot of things, and needed to do a lot of exploration to figure out which talent might further, make me most happy. I’d say that the hardest thing about having what motivational psychologists call a “need for cognition” in the domain of the self, and then being a pretty competent person in many skills is that at some point, breadth must turn to depth. What we commonly forget is that there is a difference between being good at something and being electrified by something. We commonly take a liking to things we are good at because it gives us a high feeling of self efficacy, but it may not define us. Then when we are good at something, and others regard it highly, we force ourselves into areas for the wrong reasons. Hello midlife crisis, or if you never get the insight followed by guts to be true to yourself, consistent unhappiness.
I discovered early on that I was fascinated by people and behavior, and after stomping around in the econ/ public policy puddle I finally made the choice to screw everything else and just study psychology. I perceived this to be a dangerous choice at the time because it didn’t fall in line with any clear career line. As much as I loved the study, I knew (from working at a desk) that I would never be happy in a desk job, and that I just didn’t want to be a psychologist.
Can’t select the right one? Get rid of the wrong ones. During my time at Duke, I’ve largely been trying things to see how much I like them. Sometimes, the easiest way to find what you like is to figure out what you don’t like. Here are some big things that I narrowed down.
BIG THING #1: There is a lot of hoopla and press about this “research” thing. I mean oh my goodness, it’s what every good undergrad does, if you aren’t doing research in your chosen field then- FAIL! I tried strictly literature-digging research, twice actually, and ultimately went insane from working at a desk, and feeling forced to work in one flavor, with not enough creative outlet. It was… BORING! I also encountered many professors and students that think very highly of themselves. Heck, one even fashioned himself into a sort of brand. At first, I was impressed, maybe after talking with him/her once or twice. But what I realized, slowly over time, is that these people weren’t so fun or brilliant, they simply said the same things over and over again, and massaged their egos to some sort of intellectual orgasm. The more I encountered this type of person, the more I felt sick to my stomach, and sure that I never wanted to be like that. It’s much more attractive to be a brilliant force, behind the scene, with a fire fueled by the love of the work or content as opposed to the love of being in the spotlight. Moving on.
BIG THING #2: The next “big thing” that every person at a place like Duke is forced to consider is what I might call this startup bug. It’s the sexiest thing to start your own business, and given the trend, it better have something to do with technology, something mobile, or something green. I had a lot of fun with this path, I must admit, but at the end of the day? My incentives and motives were completely based on the people I was working with, feeling like part of a team and having fun being united by the same goal. We could have been designing a new rubber-band or packaging turds, once the people component turned negative, so did the experience for me. I’m not against entrepreneurship, it is very much a path I could be following maybe 15 years into the future, but it has to be in the right domain.
BIG THING #3: Fall of senior year comes with a lot of “ohmygodI’mabouttograduateIneedaJOB” stress. Hello career fairs, e-recruiting, and submitting a lot of resumes to companies you aren’t sure what the hell you’d be doing. But why did I do it? Because obtaining a tangible job would give me guaranteed future success, stability, and look good to other people. Phew, right? No, not right. In the storm of anxiety I interviewed for consulting and research jobs, even did a case challenge competition, and attended every information session and panel that was available. It was in mid conversation with a partner from Deloitte when I realized, “wow, this guy is a douchebag. Being a consultant might make a lot of money, but when it comes down to it, it’s being a professional @ss kisser. The thought of me being in that job role, again, made me sick to my stomach. I also went to a “women’s dessert event” and realized that I had absolutely nothing in common with these women, and found them a little boring, actually. Later consulting. It is a blessing in disguise that the one job at facebook that I DID interview for, I wasn’t offered. You can ask my friend Sam, before decisions were out, I was hoping that I wouldn’t get the offer to make the choice easier for me.
The social pressures of an institution can be distracting and sometimes louder than your internal voice. What happened is that this stream of exploding seniors made me forget that I would never be happy working at a desk. Once I remembered that (actually when I visited Palo Alto and saw all the little lemmings typety typety at their desks) I was quick to just cancel the rest of the desk jobs I was going to interview for. Doing so would be a waste of BOTH of our time.
Don’t pigeon hole your options for lame reasons: It was after this thought process that I realized that my squirminess with regards to my future wasn’t because I didn’t have something secured. I realized that, had I secured any of those jobs, the squirminess would have gotten worse. I realized that I was anxious and spending hours and hours mindlessly browsing easy opportunities, jobs, and graduate schools because I was severely limiting my options. The best thing for me, what my heart really wanted, I wasn’t even putting out there as an option. This is a disease of Duke: this feeling that, given I went to this school, I have to either get a REALLY GOOD job, pursue some form of graduate study (preferably in something sciencey, if you want to go for something like English or History – FAIL!) or go out and save the world, in a social or teaching sense.
We shuffle towards paths that are most accessible: I think that the majority of kids don’t really know what electrifies them, so it’s easy to latch on to options that are available, and seem do-able. A lot of graduate school (not all, mind you, but a lot) is probably pursued out of prolonging indecision, I think. It’s like, oh @#$%, I’m not really sure about what I want to do, but I can take these pre-reqs for med school, I can study for this test, and I know I can apply, hopefully get in somewhere, and then secure a future with financial and reputation-al prestige and security. I’m not saying that this is true for everyone – I’m sure that there are a group of kids out there that are electrified by the profession of medicine or law. I am just noticing a disproportionately large percentage of the student body that is enrolled along one of these courses, sometimes as a “last minute” decision, other times as a “well I declared it, and now I can’t take it back or people will think I suck,Ã¢” or “heck, I’m not sure what else I’d do, this seems OK for now,” thing. Or maybe they really are convinced it’s their calling, and it might be. But once you jump on one of those wagons, Phew, your future is set, and it feels good now. If that’s the case, why aren’t people happier here? Time to make sacrifices now for that lofty future, because you might be happier then, right? On a tangent, we have this idea that given OK health, I am guaranteed a long life, and tomorrow is there. I’m of the mindset that the cancer patient is pretty much on par with you, me, no one is assured of longevity of life, the difference is having an idea about how much time you have left, and in that case, I could make an argument for wanting to be and not wanting to be the cancer patient. Anyway, back to the Duke undergrad. Okay, I’m pre- med! law! If not that, graduate school! research! If not that -must… get… job! beyond that, can I really call myself a Duke graduate? I have this perception that given a certain income, title, or life-path, that will make me happy. Errrm, probably not. I think happiness is more of a personality trait that changes in degree with regards to the situation that you choose, but that’s another bucket of ladybugs.
In the domain of being true to yourself, Duke is a dangerous place. I would say that there is pressure, or even a disease, to be highly successful and achieving in the eyes of others. From the point of being accepted here to constantly being submerged in this murky pool of huge competition and academic arrogance, most of us develop (consciously or unconsciously) a feeling that, given I went to this school, I expect a certain salary, life outcome, certainty of success, once I am released. Also when you are here, if you didn’t already have it from high school, we further develop our fear of failure. I can’t tell you how many of my friends, who have the work ethic and drive to be successful, are terrified of not getting into graduate school, medical school, law school, or even getting a job or having some clear path after graduation. Heck, that’s been me this Fall. Hold up. First of all, there will always be opportunity for you given that you graduate college, let alone a brand name school like Duke. Wrong perspective. Too black and white. If you are unemployed for a year or go out and try something completely crazy, that’s OK. Not being perfect at everything doesn’t switchback to failure, and neither does maintaining some path of career certainty. It is possible to do something and not be perfect or the best and be happy. The problem here is that we perceive “not-complete success” as failure. There is this feeling that if you aren’t making a solid 60-100K upon graduation or are on a path to make more than that, you’re a waste. And if you are electrified by something that doesn’t fit in that box? Better go on salary.com and find a way to make it fit. Sucks!
It’s all so silly, we can smile about that: Guys, do you realize how silly all of this is? It might be me, but once I reached senior year, I started to look around and everyone looked really young. And the way that kids stress, work themselves to the core, and then drink like sailors is just silly. Given that I place a high emphasis on what others think of me, do I really care that much what an 18 year old thinks about my choices? Do I really need to be concerned with how attractive I come across to these gawky self-centered frat boys? Nope! When it comes down to it, every single person here is just that, a person, and in the same boat of being in some stage in the process of self discovery. We’re all sticking our toes in different puddles to test the temperature and are a little confused. This entire campus culture, pressure to succeed, make sacrifices, not be true to yourself, is just so ridiculous. I’m not sure what the administration is up to. No, adding flat screen TVs to unnecessary places doesn’t make people happier, or doing construction to make the campus even more impressive and uncomfortable, sorry!
So in this mindset, I’ve relaxed a lot. I’m not so worried about what other people think that I’m doing, I sort of just do what moves me. It feels wonderful, and it feels free, but getting here was a huge suckfest. I am certain that I’ve been force to deal with things that most don’t even consider until later life. But in order to learn, and in order to grow, you have to survive adversity and make it through challenge. Nothing will ever be learned from a life of safety, privilege, acceptance, and easiness.
The Suckfest: Along this line of self discovery I had three large buckets of bad things poured on me. I had my heart elated and broken, I had three nasty surgeries that made me realize that life was no guarantee, and I had an identity stomp when I stopped running competitively. Let me summarize what I learned.
1) I learned that I have to pursue and put energy into the people, things, activities, and ideas that make me happy, regardless of others, because at the end of the day, the one person I have to report to is myself, and it’s always the case that when I feel anxiety or unhappy about something I haven’t stayed true to myself. What does this mean? It means really following your heart, and not just convincing yourself that you are. It means not changing your style of dress, behavior, or personality to be better liked. It means dropping people from your life that make you feel crappy, and surrounding yourself with people that make you feel good. In terms of my running, it had lost its previous passion because I was running for everyone but myself. As soon as I left the team I gradually re-found the fulfillment that was lost. It’s a little contradictory, but I now run more than I ever have, and I love it.
2) I learned that communication and honesty are always the best policy. It’s a good and a bad thing to have a very thin filter between my mind and my lips, but I figure that anyone who is offended by my thought content and style probably isn’t a good friend match anyway. I also appreciate people who are open and honest with me, who I perceive to be more “real.”
3) I know that I score highly on this personality dimension called the “need to belong.” I am most fulfilled by connecting with people, by making them happy. If you want to make me really happy, make me a part of something you are doing, or come along with me in something I’m doing. If you want to hurt me, do something that alienates me, is dishonest, or manipulative. A few times of hurt, I can forgive and move on, but I know myself well, and there is a certain line of squirminess that people can cross when I feel the automatic necessity to make a social cut.
4) Having someone to love was like this forbidden fruit, that once I lost it, not only was the rejection painful, I wanted it back and felt incomplete without it. I realized through this process that life is most fulfilling when you are whole in yourself, and having something like a relationship isn’t even necessary. It sucks that society sends a prominent message that being single is akin to being incomplete, and that you should want a relationship. I can’t say either way whether I will stumble upon this love thing again, but I am certain that I don’t need it to be happy, and that when and if it comes along, I’ll just know it. And I am of the mindset that I will not change, or feel like I need to, for anyone. And given the pressure from society, the media, it’s pretty common to evaluate the people that are currently in your life and try to pick the best one, and even potentially obsess or force something that isn’t there. DON’T DO IT! I feel like I will either know, it will happen naturally, and if I’m unaware of a potential interest, if the guy in interested enough, he will put in the energy. I’m a strong believer that if the guy doesn’t have the energy or balls to pursue me, he’s probably not interested enough in the first place. Bottom line is that friends are amazing. I will always be socially healthy when I pursue and feed good friendships.
5) Be good to yourself. You won’t always be in good spirits, and you don’t always have to smile. I find it refreshing to be pissed now and then >:P It’s OK to value or fall into your neutral and negative moments as it is your positive. It is in the days of high negative emotion that you need to be better to yourself. I even sometimes go as far as to view myself as another person, and make decisions about how to treat myself based on that. I felt crappy the other morning, so I went to the state park. I’m also a firm believer in doing what you want when you feel like it. I manage my time and work based on this principle: I write papers and do work when I am driven and motivated to, and in that context I am efficient and enjoy it. When I don’t feel like doing something, I stop. Yeah, sometimes things are due and you HAVE to force yourself to do it, and you might not want to. The key in this case is that if you “don’t feel like doing something” consistently enough over time, you probably shouldn’t be pursuing that thing, yo.
Knowing Myself: So, after four+ years, on the journey from an old 17 to a young 22, I know myself pretty well. To be happy, I need moments of people, humor, moments alone, color, music, sweet and salty, and movement. I realize that I started this entry announcing a decision, and you’ve probably read this far hungry to find out what that decision is exactly. It is a far far future goal, based on an activity that energizes me in the present moment, that has been a passion of mine since I was a kid, but I’ve largely abandoned it since coming to college. It is very far from a desk job, puts me in a position of being self directed in my work, and being exposed constantly to creative output, color, music, and connecting with people. It fits well with my personality, emotional character, and motivational structure. It let’s me wake up with the sun, and engage in a daily routine that I find fulfilling, that I wouldn’t even consider work, but more just living. If you haven’t guessed by now, and can’t tell by now, I’m not going to tell you. It’s not technically a set profession, just a theme really. You can ask me in person. I can tell you that it offers no clear path, not very high salaries, but that I’ve never felt so excited about something in my life, and I’m going to work really hard at it, and be the best that I can be. I’ve finally mustered the guts to follow my heart, and the feeling is full, beautiful, and like the euphoric high after a run. It’s been scratching at my mental cat door for quite some time, gosh, took me long enough to remove the kitty blocker.