The World Owes You Nothing, But You Owe It Everything

To my kindred spirits:

As an Asian American kid who grew up in a predominantly rich suburban community, I lived the stereotypical narrative: great student gets into a great university, thus poised for a great job.

My parents would often say that it would be a disservice to relinquish my technical aptitude for anything but a STEM career, that it would not be what was best for me. Like most immigrants, they didn’t have the economic freedom to choose their career path and therefore naturally viewed “success” through the lens of economic security. So, caught up in living the details of their prescribed narrative, I “made it” before I knew what “it” was: valedictorian of my high school class, accepted to an engineering program at a “top-tier” university.

Nevertheless, university was wildly unspectacular for me: most classes were an uninteresting struggle; extracurriculars were my form of escapism; and the parties and basketball games seemed like just mindless entertainment. I felt like your average engineering student just going through the motions, with a never-ending existential crisis and no sense of autonomy. So when graduation came around, I was pretty relieved to be done — done with being subjugated by teachers to do this problem and that lab report.

And so with my millennial privilege and desire for autonomy, I packed my bags and moved to the Bay Area to pursue a startup idea with my college roommate. While the experience certainly brought a unique perspective on building a web application and developing a product for the real world, there was never a sense of any purpose beyond that. I was working with my good friend on our own idea with the financial support of my parents — what more could I want? What was I missing?

During the startup, I left for a month in August for a cycling trip sponsored by Bike & Build. After each raising over $2,000 for the Affordable Housing cause, twenty-nine other riders and I cycled through the Pacific Northwest for 900 miles. We spent our days with each other, just riding bikes, sharing stories, and building homes. Everything was always about the group and the cause. The physical pain and emotional struggles were shared. The experience was refreshing and energizing in a way that I had hitherto never felt: to be part of a community, sharing the gravity of civic engagement. That month with my Drift West family changed my life: it taught me I could find personal fulfillment and meaning in genuine sacrifice, selflessness, and compassion.

Upon returning to the Bay, it was understandably tough to get going with the startup again. After a month or so, we stopped working on the project due to a combination of high stress and distinct product visions. Completely lost, I left the city and spent the next month just reading, writing, and meditating — disconnecting from external influences as much as possible.

I realized that what I was missing was ultimately not about me nor my career. I had been given everything I had up until this point in my life by well-intentioned parents, and I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. So what more could I ask for? It was this perspective and those feels from August that I was missing. It was a lack of gratitude and a lack of selflessness in my life. I could only ever discover this truth by being brutally honest with myself — by not blaming circumstance, not claiming that the World owed me anything.

As humans, we tend to operate on our egocentric “default” settings: without conscious effort, we “reason” within the narrow bounds of our own perspectival limitations. We posit the variables we prefer to see relevant, and then focus our thoughts and decisions according to our desires and expectations for the World. Unfortunately, what we do not wish to see is often more important than what we do. In that spirit, we must continually scrutinize our own biases and rationalizations and open our worldview to the perspectives of others, especially those less privileged.

We owe it to our parents to always thank them for our privilege.

We owe it to our communities and our environment to be modest, conscious, and good.

But we ourselves deserve nothing.

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TL;DR: First written as a brain dump, this piece turned into an exercise in self-discovery and a delineation of my worldview. Beyond bringing clarity to my life, it examines the “millennial privilege” and hopefully serves as a call to arms for more civic engagement by millennials in our time of need.