The summer after I had graduated from high school, my father sat down with me and said something I’d never forget.
“When you want to build an airplane, what is it that you think about? Do you think about all the reasons you can’t get off the ground, or do you think about how to actually do it?”
If anything, this was yet again illustrative of the fact that my dad was first and foremost an engineer. I had grown up between three different cities within the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area—or, as most people prefer to call it, the Silicon Valley. Both my parents worked in tech. All of my friends’ parents worked in tech. All of my friends’ friends’ parents worked in tech. It’s an exaggeration, but you get the picture.
My senior year of high school and the summer after it were a big time of contention between me and my family. I had applied to multiple college programs across the nation (and some even in Britain), but primarily for the field of… philosophy. You can easily imagine how angry my parents were at the fact that I wasn't applying my skills to a more “practical” field of study.
But this isn't a story about my journey walking the line between philosophy and engineering. That’s for some other time. No, in the end I really did give in and attend an engineering school, just like my parents wanted. In 2012, I enrolled at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU (NYU-Poly) for a dual-degree in Computer and Electrical Engineering. And that was that.
To get deeper into this article, I must offer a bit of context for why I am writing this to begin with. For those who know me well, or have read my drudgingly boring Tumblr, you know that I am an extremely verbose writer, who always needs to give context (often in the form of disclaimers) for everything I say. I also love to use personal experiences and anecdotes to frame almost all of my writing. I suppose with this—my first article on Medium—these are things that you, the reader, should still expect.
A bit of background: at the moment, I’m lying in bed, trying to recover from a slightly irritating fever, to no avail. I started to feel sick last Friday, but did not tend to my sickness at all over the Valentine’s weekend. It’s now Tuesday, and I can’t say I’ve gotten much better. But I suppose it’s always been like this. Last year, I fell ill quite a few times as well, and my friends always like to joke about how I just seem to be eternally sick. But not sick in a serious way, of course.
Or, so I hope. Over the past year, I’ve gone in to the doctor (and once, even to the ER) to get different things checked—anything from a standard blood test to an x-ray to an ECG, even to an ultrasound. Two weeks ago I went to get a CT scan as well, but the results haven’t come back just yet. Nothing conclusively negative has been found from any of these tests, so that’s good.
However, I suppose in the seat of this sickness, and with all of these other worries floating around in my head, it was inevitable for me to reflect upon my life, as I always do. I often think about the things that I have done in my life, the kind of person I've led myself to become, and the choices that I've made (or avoided making).
But this time, things are a little bit different.
Here are some of those thoughts.
Flash back to last Friday. I had just finished an interview with The New York Times. Not for a journalistic position, mind you, but for a programming one. My heart was still pounding from having gone through my first official technical interview in my life, and I could sense my emotions beginning to pour back into my immediate consciousness.
“Fuck!” I yelled, as I walked over to a corner in the lobby. I had failed my first interview miserably, which came as a shock to many of my friends when I reported back online.
I was not as surprised.
On paper, there are many things that make me look like a great candidate for a job. I enrolled in college in 2012, but by May 2016, I will be graduating with an undergraduate dual-major in Computer and Electrical Engineering, a Master’s in Computer Science, and a minor in Philosophy of Science. Even with this overloaded path, I've managed to maintain a 3.95 GPA, while juggling two part-time jobs and working as a Teaching Assistant for three different courses. It goes without saying that these last three years have been both exhilarating and exhausting.
However, I bring these statistics up not to brag (although I’m sure enough of you are convinced otherwise), but rather in an attempt to say that these things don’t really matter.
No matter how stacked your credentials may be, no matter how nice your resume might read, it doesn't matter if you can’t actually do anything with those skills.
I walked out of the NY Times building with my head low. I thought I knew enough about Computer Science: about how to use Bayesian inference to re-weight learning algorithms, about how Assembly code can be converted into machine code and understood by a computer’s architecture, or even about why trying to print the address of a char using cout in C++ requires a cast first to void*. And yet, I wasn't able to answer the one simple technical question that they asked during my interview. It made me realize that regardless of all the academic or theoretical knowledge I had gained, I still didn't have the fundamentals down for working in the mythical real world.
When I got home, I had gotten a flurry of messages from friends, peers, and even my professors about my interview. It happens to everybody, they said. Don’t let this keep you down.
You’re a bright kid with lots of potential.
If I were to frame this in a horribly misused, contemporary sort of way, I’d say that any variation of the phrase, “You’ve got potential,” is a negative trigger for me. The story takes me back to middle school, when I was all but struggling academically, socially, and emotionally.
I vividly remember the amount of excitement my classmates had when high school entrance results came out. “Yes! I got into [ x ]!” “I can’t believe [ y ] accepted me!” I had been building up my grades all throughout middle school to get into a particular private high school, which was one of the best and most exclusive in our area, and I had a good feeling that I was going to get in.
One night the memory came back to me as I was lying in bed, ready to sleep. I could hear the garage door closing, as I held the envelope from the school in my hands, ready to tear it open and seize victory. It had been a long battle, dealing with anything from entrance exams to interviews, to just getting my grades up. I remember how I got all A’s for the first time in my life upon entering middle school—it was a sharp contrast to the flurry of B’s and C’s that I had gotten every year up until then. Before then, people had always thought of me as the slacker in the class—the weird kid that didn't quite get it and didn't quite fit in. But I worked hard to prove them wrong. Envelope in hand, this was the moment to prove them I had what it took to be successful.
Of course, it turned out to be the wrong moment. I opened the envelope and within the first few seconds knew that it was all over. “We regret to inform you …”
Failure and rejection are things I've gotten quite used to in my life. Whether it was failing to get into a private high school, falling short of my parent’s expectations to love engineering, or messing up my first technical interview, there’s been a lot in my life that I've done wrong. And after each time, I've always gotten the same response from the people around me: “Don’t worry, you have lots of potential.”
However supportive this phrase might be to others, with me it’s been intimately tied together with the memory of failure. In my mind, potential is only a euphemism for my shortcomings. It’s like telling someone that they’re forever destined to be a dud.
No one tells the successful person that she or he ‘has potential.’ That’s a phrase only reserved for people who have tried and failed, and have never succeeded.
Whenever I get home after a big failure, I like to think about it—obsess about it—and most importantly, I think about how to learn from it. I’m not the kind of person who lets something just steamroll me over. I gotta know what I did wrong. I gotta know how to make myself better. I gotta keep fighting.
The problem is, I always try to do better. But I rarely actually do.
The summer after high school came much like the summer after middle school. Of the 20 colleges I had applied to, I had been rejected by roughly 15 of them. Only a handful of options remained, and the only two that I had applied to for engineering were UC San Diego and NYU-Poly. I was quite disappointed in myself with my placement. It was like middle school all over again, I thought. Things just didn't work out, even though I had been expecting them to. I had taken 12 APs between Junior and Senior year, and achieved all 4's and 5's with them. I had a 2280 on my SATs that I took in Sophomore year. I had been on the officer team of three clubs, one of which I founded, and the other two which I lectured for. I spent ten years in Boy Scouts and achieved the Eagle ranking. I went to Yale over the summer after Junior year to study political philosophy. I even had musical extracurriculars, having played bass for our school’s jazz ensemble and percussion team, as well as having performed in a rock band with a recorded studio album. Once again, on paper everything looked great.
But of course, we don’t live in a paper world.
I can’t stress this enough, not to you, not to myself. Credentials mean nothing beyond bragging rights. When you read over that paragraph above, you get nothing but a bad taste in your mouth. It says almost nothing about who I am, but rather, all the superficial things that I've spent my time on.
If there was anything I could tell my peers that are still struggling in high school and college, it’s that grades and scores on standardized tests don’t define who we are.
It’s silly to have to say this, but for a lot of us, this idea has been beaten and ingrained so deeply into our subconscious by our families, our culture, and the general environment of the Silicon Valley. I absolutely hate it. To this day, I still can’t escape trying to define my existential worth by what score I get on my transcript or how well I do on a single technical interview.
I suspect it’s the same for many of my friends as well.
That summer after high school, I had been in a few arguments with my parents over my future and my shortcomings. A lot of it was me venting my frustration at having been rejected from so many schools that I was sure to get into. How could I have been rejected? Where did I go wrong? I was talking to my dad about how I had tried to learn so much from my failures, when he turned and told me about airplanes.
“Do you think about all the reasons you can’t get off the ground, or do you think about how to actually do it?”
My father always liked to speak in metaphors. This time, though, it was quite clear what he meant. He explained how staring at our failures forever and ever will never allow us to find success. You can’t just think about all the reasons we’re stuck on the ground in order to learn how to fly. Instead, we have to look upwards and forwards to find a solution.
And so, I've been trying.
It was 3 A.M. in my apartment, during Sophomore year of college, and music was blasting all throughout the room. The low, repetitive pounding of the bass mixed in well with the thick, smoky congestion of both cigarettes and weed. I had moved out of the dorms in order to get a more private space with peace and quiet, but… you could say things didn't go nearly as planned.
Some back-story: when I first moved in to that apartment, I was unable to find people to share the space and split the costs with. I was quite desperate, so I was open to suggestions and recommendations from friends. It turned out that coincidentally, one of the people I knew also needed a place to stay, so I decided that he could come live in the other bedroom. It was not a good idea, to say the least.
I leapt out of bed, to the dismay of my girlfriend, and went over to his room. I knocked on the door furiously, which at first did not catch his attention. He was at it, once again, partying on a weekday with his friends, smoking and drinking and wasting their lives away. I apologize if I’m just a little bit judgmental of their vapid lifestyles.
This was not a novel situation, of course. It had happened on countless occasions, after which I would talk to him about how disruptive and unacceptable his behavior was. He would make excuses and fake apologies, but nothing really stuck with him. This one was the final straw. I knocked and kicked at the door until he finally took notice and stopped the music. He came to unlock and open the door, and a wall of smoke poured out from the room, whose windows were shut tight. This is fucking it, I thought.
We got into a huge argument right away.
“Why the fuck is this happening still?”
“We’re just trying to have some fun, relax, man, geez..”
“It’s fucking 3 A.M. and I don’t know about you, but I actually have responsibilities to tend to in the morning. We’ve been over this before — ”
“Been over what”
“Been over you partying and playing loud music and worst of all, smoking in the apartment without opening any of the windows. I’ve already told you to cut this shit out a million times.”
“Well, I’ve been trying, man, chill out”
Something snapped in me when I heard those words. I wasn’t sure why I said what I said at the time, but I was furious, and I threw upon him what I thought to be the perfect response. It wasn't.
By morning, I had made up my mind to kick him out of the apartment. From that day until the day he moved out, he continued to mock me for what I had said that night. “Do or do not, there is no try? What kind of bullshit is that?” He continued to mock me for words that I had lived by and taken to heart. I shook it off and took it as a victory that he was moving out. Of course, he did the asshole move and called to cancel the check for his rent payment of his final month there (a mere $1,600 out of his spoiled pocket). I still have not gotten that payment back.
The concept of “do or do not” follows closely with my sentiments against “having potential.” More often than not, what happens to us in the world is binary—either we succeed, or we don’t. We don’t get brownie points for trying. We don’t get remembered in history for coming close. We don’t become successful just from having potential. It’s all the same.
I realize, as I sit back and reflect on my life, that all I've been doing is trying to make myself better, rather than actually doing anything to make it happen. I also realize that it was my dad, once again, who was the one to introduce me to the concept of “do or do not.” It was all a part of the collection of great profundities and life lessons that he tried to hand me when I was growing up. But upon remembering this, another realization enters my mind, and changes everything.
And here’s the catch to it all:
My father is just a human being. He may be older than I am, or more experienced as an engineer as I am, but it doesn't make him infallible. It surely doesn't make him omniscient. When we were kids, we always look up to our parents for guidance in the world, but it’s a part of growing up to realize that they don’t always have the answers.
In fact, they usually don’t have the answers.
Our parents are just people, too, and one day, we’ll be in their shoes. Do we suddenly gain a library of wisdom when we have kids? Of course not. Do we give advice that will always be exactly what our kids should hear? No.
Last winter, when I returned home to visit my family, I got into a somewhat big fight with my father. He became extremely unreasonable in my mind, and the dynamic that he had with me and my mother were not acceptable by my standards. My father might be a respectable man, who worked hard to get where he is today, who overcame difficulties beyond all comprehension to come out of poverty, travel to America, and be a crucial individual in the Silicon Valley, but it doesn't mean he’s a perfect man. Those are his on-paper credentials, but it’s what he does today that makes a difference—not what he says about his past or about how to live a life.
I have always looked up to my father for his intense spirituality and perseverance. But when he got so easily angry and irrational, that childhood facade was dead and gone, once and for all.
I started this article with a quote from my father. It’s been a quote that I've ever since internalized into my subconscious. It’s made me question myself at every junction in my path, and see if my decisions fit into his philosophy.
However, I realize that his words and ideas might not be fitting for me. They might not be the life lessons that I need. Sometimes we’re so stuck on tradition that it leads us to misvalue our own lives (such as in the case of grades and test scores), or it makes us reiterate pieces of folk wisdom that might not be appropriate for a given situation (and I doubt my roommate still understands what “do or do not” means). Sometimes we just need to step back and say, maybe these are not life lessons, but just helpful words to consider.
You can listen to lessons on life from others, but it’s ultimately up to you to test whether they actually work. No one can simply hand you the answers to your own journey.
I realize I need to start unlearning some of what I've been told, and find what fits for me. Maybe it’s fine to have potential. Maybe I shouldn’t be so caught up in failure. Maybe the world isn’t just as black-and-white as I’ve been taught it to be.
The other day, someone said to me, “Why should I listen to you if you can’t even get a simple technical interview question right?” At the time it really stung, since I didn’t expect him to come at me so personally. To highlight my failure and make me think that my entire value was summed up by a single bad interview… that’s exactly the mindset that I realize I need to unlearn. There’s no easy way to do it, but it only begins if we try.
This post was that first step, for me.
For you, the reader, I suppose there’s a bit of intentional irony as well, that I wrote out this article as a series of failures from my life in order to reach my conclusion. By phrasing everything in the negative, and saying that there’s nothing to be learned from the negative, I've painted myself as an unreliable narrator from the start. If there’s no way to fly just by looking at the ground, then maybe these all were not life lessons for you at all.
This was merely a story of how not to live your life.
Not a story of how you should. That part’s up to you.