Ever since we were young we were asked, what do you want to be when you grow up?
At the time, I gave the answer that the person asking wanted to hear: doctor, engineer, pilot, astronaut…
Those professions were also the only ones I knew at the time, my understanding of the world was limited. It still is.
The people I loved told me I could be anything.
What they forgot to tell me is that ‘anything’ could be myself.
At eighteen years old I realized I needed to learn who I was.
I started to do this by asking questions I thought I knew the answers to:
- Why is the sky blue?
- Why do I love my family?
- What does family mean to me?
- Why am I a vegetarian?
- Why do I want to become a doctor?
- Am I ‘good’ at science?
- What does it mean to be smart?
- Is there a god?
- How do I know I’m alive?
- What’s love?
- Do people actually love me?
- Why am I here?
- Who are my friends?
This led me on an exploration of philosophy and science. I was looking for theories I could disprove. Like any amateur scientist, I wanted to find answers. As I grew older, I realized that there aren’t definitive answers to most of the questions I asked above. All I have is a feeling. The exploration honed my intuition by giving me a feeling of whether something is true or not.
Now, as I grow older, I’m learning to question whether that feeling is true or not and why I feel that way.
At the beginning of college, I was on the pre-med track. When I told people that I was studying science they assumed it was to become a doctor or a researcher. A year later, I switched to business where people assumed I wanted to become either a financier or a consultant.
Whenever someone asked me what my major was they immediately made a judgment of what I wanted to be. They never asked what I wanted to learn or why I wanted to learn it. After a while, when people asked me what my major was I told them, “happiness.” This shocked them. What does that mean? Is this guy serious? Why?
I went on to tell them that I’m in the process of learning what makes me happy. What they don’t teach you in school.
It was a matter of making the choice of what to do and understanding why I wanted to do it.
I started working at start-ups and going to events that interested me. This led to opportunities in places with people I didn’t know existed. I would have never done that if I was just a ‘business’ or ‘pre-med’ student.
As I did things in the ‘real-world,’ school began to matter less and less. I never understood why teachers made a big deal about the difference between the ‘real-world’ and the classroom. It was almost as if they didn’t want us to know that we could choose to be ourselves. Why were they sheltering us?
The unintended consequence of, ‘doing things’ is that you pick up a piece of your surroundings that you’re unaware of. When you spend a certain amount of time in a specific environment you become accustomed to it. This is how our brain copes with the incredible amount of stimuli it has to process at any given moment. For example, when you walk into a room with a distinct scent, good or bad, you’ll become accustomed to it after some time.
I’ve found that changing environments is the fastest way to uncover the things I’m unaware of, the things that I don’t know I don’t know. The magnitude of the change in environment is also important. Going from elementary to middle school to high school in the same district isn’t that big of a change. On the other hand, moving to a different country and continuing school is a massive change.
I learned the difference first hand when my dad sent me to boarding school after I failed math in the fourth grade. I never understood how deep the effects of culture are on people. When I was in America I took school for granted and felt entitled to the education I was receiving. When I went to a private international school in India, that required tuition, I realized not everyone has access to the same quality of education. It made me value the education I had and was receiving much more.
Being far away from my immediate family for two years taught me how to be independent. I learned the importance of discipline living in a boarding school with rigid scheduling. I learned about what my parents were referring to when they told me stories of growing up in India. It made me more empathetic.
When I came back the culture was so deeply rooted in me it was difficult for me to acclimate to what I used to call home. Over time, I overcame those challenges too. Despite getting over the cultural differences I still never felt in place. I always felt uncomfortable.
As I look back upon it now, not much has changed. Feeling uncomfortable has become normal, my tolerance has just increased.
The reason it’s important to understand and seek massive environmental changes is it’ll bring out a side of you that you don’t know exists. It’s important to surface this side because it’ll make you aware of blind spots. The people around you will call you out on things you do that don’t make sense to them. Those things may have made sense in your previous environment but now they don’t.
I’ve learned this again in the past few weeks, since moving to Seattle. I’m currently living with two individuals who are software engineers. They’ve studied math and science deeply and look at the world through the lens of first principles. As someone who had been a ‘marketer’ for the past few years, communicating with them was difficult at first.
They didn’t have the context I had when I was speaking. I didn’t have the context they did when they were speaking. This led to miscommunication and frustration. All because we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
Our environments leave imprints on us, whether we know it or not, they shape how we see the world. It’s important to recognize the change that occurs within ourselves when we move to different environments. Not only that, it’s important to remember not to classify ourselves into a certain box. We’re more than that. We’ve all had unique experiences that have led us to this moment.
Don’t let someone assume you’ll be a financier or a consultant because you study ‘business’ or that you’ll become a doctor or a surgeon because you’re studying ‘science.’
Attempt to understand yourself, your experiences, and how you change in different environments.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get there but that doesn’t matter as long as I’m moving.