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Over dinner one night with a friend that I greatly admired, the thread of conversation came to hover around that topic that we twenty-somethings loved so dearly. As it was happening, I was not without wariness of the extreme privilege embedded in the moment -- but the easy jazz of the night with good food carried me forward. I listened to her questions in earnest.
Are you living a life you love? Are you on the way to becoming who you think you want to be?
Are you going to leave something better in the world than how you found it?
I already had a glass of wine before dinner, which always puts me in a falsely philosophical mood. But even then the deliberate largeness of the question made me slightly uneasy.
True to the pathos of our generation, I had encountered inflections on this theme many times before. I am familiar with the inspirational posters (you know, the one with differently sized fonts?) and Steve Job's commencement speech -- these things used to fuel me through the doubts of my own career switch. I also understood the intelligent, albeit cynical commentaries of millennials' penchant for expectations and disappointment, and my own ambivalent relationship with that view. I knew the shapes of restlessness and presumption but also of the apathy and negation in converse.
I had thought about this question a lot before and worked hard for its implications.
So what followed surprised me.
Sometimes I wish I had listened to my parents and became a doctor, she said.
My friend is a very successful product designer, who, at the time, was working in one of the skyrocketing startups in San Francisco. She is the poster child for pursuing the arts and her passion at the disregard for "conventional" warnings -- and she has made a great career out of it. The way she has lived her life could very well be the affirmative answer to her own question. But now her sentiment sounded like the reverse of the Hollywood tale.
She explained that she had been thinking long and hard about what it takes to actually do good in the world. It seemed, however simplistic, that if she really wanted to help people, being a doctor could do much more direct, tangible good. But when she was younger, all she could see was her own worldview, and she could not even entertain the possibility of what her parents wanted. Now that she's older, she begins to see that they were not all wrong.
I had a few immediate thoughts to this.
First, I disagreed that art did not have tangible, direct good in the world. I am a strong believer that art could equally save people, and that if you must quantify that into economic and societal contributions, they would not be dismissible (even if the act of doing so defeats the soul of it).
But second, I understood what she meant. I had felt that way about software engineering and my late arrival to the scene. It was something I dismissed completely when younger. There were just parts of it that I could not fathom as a college student with my abstract passions. Engineering was so specific and required the mastering of many little details down a narrow path -- it seemed irrelevant then to my amorphous desire to embrace the big ideas in the world.
It was not until I started working that I understood that the mastering of technical details was one of the key things that afforded transformative possibilities in the world.
I articulated this to her and she agreed. For a quick second, it felt like I had come upon some important truth about adulthood.
Given my transition into engineering and my friend's late-revelation about being a doctor, it may seem like what I am trying to advocate is the value of a STEM career or for youths to reconsider their paths. But that would be overly simplified and false. There are contemplations about the value of a technical career in there for sure -- but the elusive truth that I had felt was far more self-contradictory.
It's the fact that we are not always in the best position in the moment to judge what is valuable, that our perspectives can change with each transformation that we experienced or did not experience, and that lessons learned through experience cannot always be taught to those without experience -- or even be equally true. If you had pressed young Jasmine or her friend into an engineering or medical career, they may have never have felt this way, and the most relevant lessons that they need to learn may be completely different.
For every advice that exists out there, you can find an inverse that is true under different circumstances and light of day.
I am glad to have my current career, but I also believe that every job can play its role into changing the world for the positive. I believe in transformations but I also believe in deriving value out of status quo.
I believe in many things that sometimes contradict with each other, not the least of which being that each fragment could still be consistent with a deeper -- even if shifting -- truth. To seek linear, self-contained resolutions is human and natural to our need to tell easy stories, but its flatness removes us from our complexity. In adhering to prepackaged lessons, we easily miss perspectives not considered.
To embrace that is not a cleanly inspirational story to tell, but learning to acknowledge dissonance is the only way to keep our eyes open to possibilities we could not even previously see.
Follow Jasmine Tsai on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jasmineyctsai