Turning 23

In just a week I turn 23. I look back at the emotional turbulence that has marked the past year. I close my eyes. I deep breathe. Has it been a good year?

There are many blessings to be counted. I graduated from college. I’m making a good wage in a fun and young city. I rented a beautiful apartment with cool roommates. I bought a bike. I made new friends. Obama was re-elected.

There are also many changes.

This year I turned away from pursuing the start-up dream and took a regular job, believing that there were many things in life that I did not want to miss out on. Life at a start-up was too all-consuming, too unpredictable, I thought. I wanted to spend time with my friends, my family, my books, my girlfriend at the time – people and things I loved.

I also moved to San Francisco knowing few people, far away from most of the close friends I had growing up. I’ve wanted to live here since high school. The tech industry was here. Lots of data science was here. I wanted to come out here to be close to what I was interested in.

Then I left that girl I love and miss. We broke up on the eve of moving out to San Francisco together. I just wasn’t ready to settle down the way she envisioned we would, I thought. I was young and I still wanted to see the world. I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted. I can’t imagine trying to negotiate all that right then.

So everything I had been used to changed this year. Career plans. Friends. Love. Four years at college ended abruptly. Two years trying to build up a relationship washed away. I’m back at the drawing board yet again. I had chosen to make these changes, and I may never know if they were the right ones.

~

Friends tell me, now I’m free to do whatever I want. I get a clean slate. Life is a blank canvas for me to paint whatever I want. I should feel liberated, carefree, energized.

As these changes happened, though, I grew more weary of the emotional highs and lows. No longer do I want drama in my life. No longer do I crave to be infatuated.

If personal growth is defined by gaining experiences to guide future decisions, then I have grown a lot this past year. At least part of growing up is discovering that the world needs you to make decisions about your life. The world doesn’t wait nor does it care if you don’t know who you are or who you want to be. So you make the calls, you can’t turn the clock back, and you try to take responsibility. You end up regretting some of the things you did. You begin to live more deliberately. You stop being so willing to throw everything away. Those things you don’t throw away – they will come to define you as a person.

I think about how I’ve felt this year: I’ve labored hard. I’ve been emotionally strained. I asked for directions. And I introspected. But things just feel up in the air. All these big life changes happened, and it feels as though so little progress was made. There is a saying, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” If I had to describe my complex web of feelings to you in one word, “unsettled” would probably be the most fitting.

There’s still the teenage idealism simmering within me. It no longer boils over as it once did, nor am I as blindly optimistic as I once was. I look out to the world and breathe in the monotonicity of a 9-to-6 job. Still, a part of me yearns to be carefree and adventurous. Part of me yearns to throw it all away and move to another country, or join a start-up. Part of me desires to attach myself to some bigger cause, to lift mountains, to save the world. Part of me wants to hold on to that idealism, that higher calling.

So what do I want for my future?

~

I see everyone worshipping a god of their own, be it money or knowledge or pleasure or something else. The truth is none of these gods make you happy. Worship money and you begin to measure yourself in the dollar you make. Worship knowledge and you’ll never be smart enough.

I see both the promise and emptiness of material wealth. I’ve seen the suffering of people moving across countries and away from family to pay bills or mortgages. I’ve seen people struggling to make ends meet or put their kids through school. They have little time left to relax or to enjoy the company of people they love. They become stuck in their career. They take jobs they dislike. Their talents become wasted. I’ve also met bankers and lawyers slaving away for their paychecks, unwilling to give up their high-paying job because they’ve become used to that lifestyle. They don’t find meaning in what they do. They think that they need the comfort. They think of pay as a proxy for value. Their talents also become wasted.

I see the danger of complacency, as well as danger of premature optimization. Choosing the default option is so easy. The mundane demands of daily life come to triumph over their childhood dreams and long term desires. People stay in their jobs too long. People give up their ideals. Yet at the same time, deliberately planning one’s life seems difficult, even pointless at times. Does it make sense to build up dreams around a single career? Does it make sense to settle down and get married yet? How can you try organize your life before you actually know what it’s like?

I see my parents’ generation in their stalled marriages and mid-life crises. They grow old and stubborn in their own ways, no longer willing to change their idiosyncrasies. Marriage becomes defined and inertia simply stops them from being able to love each other the way the other wants to be loved. Their children leave home, they’ve fulfilled their ambitions, and there’s nothing left to keep them together. Some of them get divorced. Some don’t. They are lonely all the same.

I wonder how I might avoid these fates.

~

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is about the true meaning of courage. It is the ability to see reality clearly and to fight against the inequities thereof. It is to make the right choices and live deliberately. It is to consciously avoid the default, even when the choice seems daunting, even when you’re scared shitless of the consequences. It is to persist in your beliefs and your choice even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It is to persevere in your effort against an adverse world.

The next couple of years are an exciting time. I will make decisions about how I want to live and who I want to become. Today I get to choose and I have choices that I will no longer have 20 years later. I’m all too aware of the danger of complacency to simply follow the path of least resistance. Instead I can choose to live courageously.

When I was home in Hong Kong this past summer my parents asked a family friend if she had any advice for me. She paused and tried to recall her younger, more rebellious self. Finally she said, “Oh boy. I’m glad I’m not in my twenties anymore.”

Some day I might look back and feel the same way. Perhaps I will only think of the frustrations, the unsettled feelings, the mistakes, and the confusion of young adulthood. But I want to remember the feeling of still being a boy. Afraid, wide-eyed, excitable, naive. The world is open. Life is open. This is such a precious time. I want to hold on to it. It fills me with hope.