Valley State of Mind

I always look forward to coming home on vacation. I know I have the chance to snap out of my regular rhythm, enjoy home cooking, sleep in, see my family, and snatch up various items from around the house. What I sometimes most look forward to, however, is the least predictable opportunity: catching up with grade school friends. Unlike my family, I’m not constantly updated with the latest news, and get-togethers let me hear where people have been in the often too-long time since I last saw them.

This particular vacation has been interesting because it’s 4 years since high school graduation, and many of my friends are just out of college. Oddly, I happened to end up meeting up with quite a few I haven’t seen at all since high school, which makes it as though college never really happened. It seems like people are all over the place: some have moved out of Texas, most stayed. Some are doing something related to their college major, most aren’t. But across the board, it sounded like they just didn’t really know what they wanted the rest of their life to be yet.

Which is fair. Unlike in other education systems, it seems that American students often make very late choices about what they want to do. I’ve heard that in Europe, some students are tunneled into a profession as soon as they reach high school. Here, most high school students don’t specialize at all. 4-year colleges often don’t require students to choose a major upon admission, and even if they do, they have the flexibility to change well into their 3rd and 4th years. And as I’ve discovered, even college graduates don’t know what jobs they want. It’s a sentiment I can understand given my huge changes over the past year or two, but I was surprised by their approach to dealing with it.

Many of them mentioned that they were just working jobs and not working on their careers. The sense I got is that they were biding their time: uncertain of what they wanted to do, they were trying something out to gain a little experience, like a small job at a big corporation, and they were continuing to explore and see what might come their way. While holding down the fort 9-to-5, they could spend their evenings learning about other opportunities and enjoying life. Instead of returning home and becoming dependents again, they wanted something temporarily stable until they found their true passion and could jump on that opportunity at that time, with a resume and work history that demonstrated their commitment.

Put that way, this plan seems very reasonable, and I happily agreed that this was the best thing for them to do at that time. Only after thinking about it a little longer did I realize that this very sound plan for any college graduate completely contradicted my own plan.

The mindset that I came into was that this time after college was the best time to go for the biggest, craziest idea possible. At this time, my only commitment is to eat and have a warm roof. I don’t have a family or any dependents and am not locked into a corporate ladder. Even if I fail, I can learn a lot, and even the worst failure is still work experience. By the time I’ve waited to find my passion, I’ll have lost that window of freedom. I only need that really steady position a few years down the road, and I can reevaluate the rest of my life at that point.

This mindset is undoubtably a product of my time in the Bay Area, where you can’t miss the optimism that anyone can change the world and the urgency that someone else will if you don’t. And even then, it can be hard to follow that plan. Many of my friends, even from Stanford, are heading out to well-paying jobs at big companies, some of which will definitely pitch their startup roots but realistically can no longer maintain that excitement and enable individuals to really go for the big thing. Even I almost took the safe path of job opportunities with Silicon Valley firms. It actually took some external forces to push me along the path I am now that has really allowed me to embrace this headlong mindset.

That difficulty and serendipity, however, reminds me how hard it is to believe these perspective from the outside. Out of my great confusion from CS378, one thing I learned is how important it is that one be immersed in a particular community and circumstance to really understand certain ideas. Just as how a halfback pass play isn’t very tricky to someone who doesn’t understand football conventions and strategy, it’s hard to really believe the mindset I’m in without being where I’ve been.

So for my peers reading this, I’m kind of directing this post at you. I understand that this mindset doesn’t really work for everyone, but don’t let that be an excuse for you. I think it applies to more people than they themselves realize. But don’t take my word for it: I think just reading my words on it is exactly the sort of passive engagement that I don’t think will change your life and is characteristic of learning about what you might do instead of going for it. I have an open couch for anyone outside of the Bay Area who wants to visit, and I’ll extend an open invitation for anyone around the Bay Area who wants to have lunch at Zanbato. At least take enough of a step to see what you might be able to do: once you start, it’s awfully hard to stop.

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