What to Do
Lofty thoughts about life and career
There’s a meme I’ve seen pinging around social media lately, which is something along the lines of:
WHICH would you CHOOSE??
1. Re-start life at age 10 with everything you know now.
2. Skip to age 40 with $10 million in the bank
Yes, it’s standard, silly, share-bait internet content, but I found myself pretty automatically picking #2 — skip to age 40 with monetary success. It wasn’t about the money, so much, but more so that sometimes I desperately would like to be done with this part of my life. I just want to know already — did I “make it” or not? Did I succeed in having the lofty impacts on the world that I wanted to have? And if not, so be it — I will resign myself to the pleasures of everyday life, raising my probably adolescent children, going to yoga class, helping people where and when I can help them, doing my small part in whatever way I might to make the world a better place. I sometimes crave the relative certainty of a mid-life, mid-career person, the track that one is set on after making a variety of choices in their 20s and 30s related to their personal lives and careers. Of course people still deviate from that path at that age — but still, there is at least something offered to you, with a history of choices that you have made, a reputation that you have established.
Part of this is probably that I aim too high — the ‘lofty impacts’ I speak of are things that are truly difficult. I don’t want to rush into them — I don’t want to be a 20-something young person who thinks they can solve the world’s problems with no experience. That might work fine when you are building a ‘revolutionary payments app’, but it does not really work when it comes to addressing national, global inequalities. When most people say ‘change the world’ in their college essays, they are not really talking about those problems, or if they are, they humbly put forth the small dent they might be able to make as an individual or organization. I became disenchanted with tech when I realized ‘change the world’ for many of my peers or others in the tech space largely meant things like a ‘revolutionary payments app’, or some software-as-a-service for realtors, or a taskrabbit-but-for-big-companies.
It is frequently repeated that women tend to have less confidence than their male peers in the workplace — we are less likely to ask for raises or to go for whatever it is we want in our careers. I acknowledge this, but then I ask, why is that important? Why is it that women should change to be more confident like men — why isn’t it the other way around? Why isn’t it that these confident men should, perhaps, slow down and reconsider whether what they are doing is valid or good, or that they are necessarily deserving of whatever they demand?
How is it morally good to be rich, to be smart, to work hard? These things, in and of themselves, seem like ingredients for capitalist success, but they are not necessarily ingredients for meaningful impact. As a child my motivations were simple: become an inventor, invent things to help people, maybe get rich in the process. The messy reality of the world I have grown to know is that few things are invented which help people, and those technologies that are truly helpful, in medicine for example, do not reach the vast majority of people who need them, and are sometimes deliberately priced inaccessibly for no good reason. And also that getting rich, by the way, often comes at the expense of someone else.
What does it mean to be good, and to live a good life? In a culture that values work as a religion and sees #hustling as a virtue, I wonder if some people stop to think that maybe the world would actually be a better place if they did their jobs less well. I don’t want to go blindly into a field or industry and pursue excellence for the sake of excellence — I did that already, I went to my prestigious ‘dream school’, I am sure I could do it all again — but why, with what motivation, for what good reason? The simple world view of my 5 year old self has vanished and been replaced with great uncertainty.
I admit that thinking about these questions as they apply to your career can be paralyzing, and often it is easier to throw up your hands and do nothing. Which, in large part, is what I have chosen to do, at least for now — to just slow down, and think. I have a comfortable job which I perform well in, and which does not require me to give up my social life and well-being. I am still learning and growing technically as an engineer, and building skills in that area, even if I am unsure if it is an expertise that the world really needs. I have enough free time to ponder these moral, existential questions on long walks. On the outside, it looks like I have a blossoming, rapidly accelerating career. It is clear I am on track to exceed the material success of my parents. Anyone would be delighted to be in my position.
I think back often to my MIT interview with an alumn. He said that in recent years, MIT became more interested in selecting students who were passionate and driven beyond pure intellectual capability, people who would make impacts on the world, people who would not just be hired by Harvard students. Though I’m incredibly aware of the position of privilege I now hold, I think often about when I will be ready to pursue something greater, something bold. I feel the weight of what future choices I should make, and I worry constantly about whether I am on the right track. Should I go to grad school, should I pursue an MBA, should I start a coffee processing business in southern Ethiopia, should I start a solar panel factory in southern Ethiopia, do I know anything about how to do either of those — am I wasting my time by getting better at robotics and “high-tech” fields when it is clear those may not be useful for leveling global inequality? Is technology going to solve anything, really? What technology could I provide to the people I actually care about— my relatives, in southern Ethiopia — that would empower them, help them achieve their dreams, heal their traumas and hardships? Is there anything?
So many things are out of my hands when it comes to geopolitics, systems of government and commerce, repetitive patterns of humans fighting and oppressing each other and covering things up. We are running out of time on a warming planet. The only answers I have for now are that I have to at least try, I have to try to make a small dent, and that attempt-at-a-dent will be a more noble pursuit than anything else that might be more comfortable or easier for me. That will allow me to die peacefully. I know this sounds dramatic, but it’s what I truly believe. I don’t know how to get there and I don’t know what I’m doing.
But I don’t feel insecure about this anymore. I no longer envy, or aspire to be like people who are The Best in their technical fields, people who are young and have already achieved so much success with their revolutionary payments and taskrabbit-for-corporations apps.
Instead, I write long, meandering blog posts about what is it all really for. I use my comfortable salary to send remittances to my relatives. I help my friends move apartments. I show up at protests against police brutality. I make many mistakes and I have many flaws, of course — I forget about a meeting my friend organizes, and I feel terrible. I sign up to count people for the census — maybe I can help count people who are immigrants or speak Mandarin or Amharic, maybe a brown face will feel less threatening to them.
Sometimes I wonder if I am thinking too big and too broad, too amorphous and undefined. Maybe those big things really are out of my control, and I’ll have to just do what I can here and now, on the ground. Maybe I just have to try to be a good friend, an outspoken citizen, to stand up for other people in small ways, to still be gentle in a harsh world.
To be a person who takes long walks and thinks about big moral questions and, though somewhat cynical and very uncertain, tries their best.