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Conversations with a 20-Year Old

Posted on Monday, Dec 16th 2019
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Olivia is 20-years old. Her father and I have been close friends for 22 years. 

Of late, we’ve spent a fair bit of time together discussing where she wants to go with her career and her life.

This set of conversations is the catalyst for this post that may be useful and broadly applicable to other young people considering similar questions.

At the center of Olivia’s quest is a desire to preserve all of her multidimensional self and make a significant impact using her myriad talents.

There are some people for whom the number of options are less diverse. They have obvious strengths that can be applied in obvious ways. They do not face as many forks on the road.

But for Olivia, and for others like her who are blessed with many possible paths, making choices is trickier. 

For instance, if you have a strong interest in Physics, but also an equally strong interest in playing Jazz music.

Or, if you want to be a doctor, but you are also equally interested in Theater.

Olivia is doing a double major at Harvard in Psychology and Environmental Sciences. She is interested in Art, Theater, Fashion. She has great leadership skills. 

The first question we have discussed is whether being a professional artist is something she would have stomach for. Making a living as an artist is really difficult. You have to have the appetite for a relatively financially constrained journey, and the probability that you would become super successful, especially financially, is low. Considering the odds, when I had to make this choice in my teens, I knew well that it was not my path. Besides, I knew at 16 that I was going to be an entrepreneur, and a Computer Scientist. Olivia, too, would probably choose not to become a professional artist. She may not have the stomach for it.

But a small number of you who are reading this piece may still opt to become artists. And that’s perfectly fine. If you have other talents – especially entrepreneurial talents – they would come handy as you navigate your journey. My friend Marylene’s daughter, Sophie, also a multi-talented young woman, HAS chosen this path: she’s an opera singer. Talk about a difficult journey! Marylene has taken it upon herself to financially support her daughter’s dreams. This is one courageous mother-daughter duo. I have immense admiration for both of them.

For the vast majority of you, however, the artistic disciplines are going to be extra-curricular. I will talk about how to preserve them later.

First, let us discuss how to choose the professional path forward.

Olivia has declared two majors that are clearly aligned with her interests: Psychology and Environmental Sciences. My advice to her is to take courses that explore all three aspects of these two disciplines: (1) Science (2) Economics (3) Policy. The future of psychology, for example, would include the evolution of the brain. My recent talk, Man and Superman: Human History Bifurcates, discusses the related issues.

The second key question to ponder is at what scale would you like to make an impact? I have chosen to tackle a very large problem: Reconfiguring Capitalism. It’s very complex, very difficult, and the odds of success are very low. But I have already made a significant impact through this work which gives me the confidence to keep at it. Olivia could work at any of the three aspects, Science, Economics, or Policy, of either of the disciplines she is studying. For example, the MIT Media Lab has some fascinating work going on in the domain of brain-computer interfaces. May be worth exploring.

Taking on large problems end up calling for personal sacrifices. Be aware of the trade-offs. You can have it all is a grand myth. 

There is also a third major question to think through. How big a financial success do you seek? My philosophy is that excess is not a requirement for success. If you define success as becoming a billionaire, you may end up trading off a lot of things that constitute a wonderful life.

The fourth key question is where do you want to live? On balance, if you have the option of living close to your family, assuming that you like your family, take it. I have not had this opportunity. My parents and I have lived on opposite sides of the world for the last 30 years. How I wish that were not the case! Olivia has wonderful parents living in Silicon Valley. She has two brothers who, most likely, would both end up in the Computer Science field. This family has a real shot at living in Silicon Valley, within close proximity of one another, and enjoying the small pleasures like having dinner together every week. One of my trade-offs has been to not be able to see my parents often. 

And now, let me return to the topic of what gives you joy. For me, integrating my artistic self, my Renaissance Mind, has been critical to being happy and enjoying myself. It is through Art and Culture that I have woven around me communities that add tremendously to my quality of life. I have written various pieces on this topic that you could look up [see links below]. I have created rituals like annual Arts salons, monthly literary salons, a monthly milonga, etc. with which I keep nourishing my deep interest in the Arts. I believe that Olivia would end up replicating a similar strategy, and keep her artistic self alive. 

In choosing whom I share my life with – my husband, my friends – I have also looked for people who share my interest in a multidimensional, Renaissance existence.

At the end of the day, life for me has been infinitely richer because I have relentlessly optimized ALL aspects of my multidimensional self. Not just my professional journey.

To those of you who feel this tension between specialization versus preserving your wider range of interests, my concluding advice, then, is to honor all of yourself. Not just a fragment.

Related readings:

Man and Superman

A Meditation on Gratitude

Thanksgiving Meditations: Fire, Dance, Colors

Let’s Go Beyond Superficial Virtual Interactions in 2018

An Antidote to Social Media Addiction

Silicon Valley: The Next Decade

Talented Women: Please Do NOT Quit

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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