On raison d’être and the daily grind

Gene Block, chancellor of UCLA, visits Hong Kong on July 3, 2017

I graduated from UCLA in 2012, double majoring in International Development Studies and Spanish and Portuguese. These majors are eccentric major among Asian students. Most kids from Hong Kong major in business, engineering or medical related subjects. I was kind of crazy and probably foolish in the conventional sense to have tried a different path.

There were a few reasons for me to choose these two majors.

  • Learning everything about other countries is absolutely fascinating
  • You can’t really understand other countries in a fundamental way without knowing their languages. My focus was Latin America.
  • I dreamed about working in public service to help “save the world”, especially the third world. (Naive, I know)

The job market in 2012 was difficult, let alone for a guy with a degree in “International Development Studies” and “Spanish and Portuguese”. The reality hit me hard. Not only was I not going to have a positive impact on other people’s lives, I couldn’t even save myself. For example, if you look up any reputable public organisations’ job site (such as the United Nations), you will realise you can’t improve other people’s lives by “applying what you learned about the developing world in the classroom”, because what we really learn are mostly social sciences. While it is very important for people who want to “save the world” to understand what they are trying to save, it isn’t very applicable to people who just got out of college. They need people with hard skills like “setting up a computer network for a Cambodian classroom” or “giving injections to kids in Indian villages”.

Years went by and I neither entered public service nor did I save the world. I live a rather ordinary life. Influenced by the tech scene in California, I learned how to code when I was a senior and I eventually became a programmer instead (There you go, yet another “change the world” attempt). After dreaming about being in public service, working for a startup was another dream to me. Through a lot of hard work and rejections, I did end up getting my foot in the door and I have worked for a few reputable startups.

Eventually, I still love what I do but I don’t wake up every day feeling like “fuck yeah I am going to change the world with my code!” Having read Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” recently and I think he made a very good point about one should not seek short-term emotional highs, the dopamine, but to accept the fact that a person’s life will be filled with mundaneness and suffering. Even if you were to start the world’s greatest company or to go fight poverty, your everyday life will not be glamorous. You will run into A LOT OF problems and you’ll have to solve them one by one. It is also a never ending treadmill and you will never “get there”. Even Adriana Lima has to jump rope for 3 hours like every night. So I heard you want to be fucking awesome? The devil is in the detail. This “slowly dying passion” due to the hard work required is what I think kills most people’s willpower to achieve great heights.

After being shaped by society for years, I have changed for the better and for the worse. The passion is still here, but it is obviously a lot less idealistic and a lot more realistic. Have you ever waken up thinking “have I already become the kind of person I don’t want to become?” This thought flows through my head sometimes. A few years of professional life allows me to understand that there are people who dream of doing great things like yourself everywhere and you’re nothing unique at all. To indirectly translate a saying in Cantonese, “if a street sign falls down, it will kill a dozen of people like you.” Maybe I really am becoming more and more average as time passes.

An old friend from UCLA told me about an alumni event in Hong Kong recently and I showed up. I had the chance to meet Cindy Fan, the Vice Provost for International Studies and Global Engagement, and she said one simple thing that touched the bottom of my heart without her realising.

Fan: What is your major?

Me: IDS, International Development Studies.

Fan: Good! Usually students in IDS want to save the world.

I almost forgot already how and why I made all major life decisions, and thanks to her I am reminded of precisely why.

To work for something greater than oneself and to not yield before reality.

Being reminded of this desire will not magically change everything over night. I will still wake up feeling like shit sometimes and I will not like everything that I do. The point though, is to accept that greatness doesn’t come without putting up a good fight. Don’t let the day to day life kill your dream, especially when being able to embrace mundaneness, years of practicing and suffering is absolutely an integral part of greatness. Going through all these supposedly “negative” and “boring” experiences is what inevitably takes you to the next level, wanting to “have a raison d’être” and not willing to deal with the nitty gritty details does not take you anywhere. If you want to “save the world”, you must first save yourself. I personally haven’t heard of any superheroes out there who could save the world without doing over the top hard work and enduring extreme hardships.

To quote my rowing coach, another respectable figure from UCLA,

You can rest when you die.

Thank you UCLA.

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