The Meaning Behind “Growing Up”

When I grow up, I want to move from success to significance.

My university hosted a gathering of minds where Genentech’s Ann Lee-Karlon said this in response to the roundtable discussion question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I was out of town at the time, but someone tweeted the quote, and it made me ponder my future. I later repeated it to a close friend, adding, “I want to move from malice to benevolence.”

“So, you want to be a benevolent dictator?” she asked me, confused.

I wanted to tell her that success meant something different to me; that success came in different colors, like the shades of blue she painted with; but I could only tell her what success wasn’t.

When I moved to Silicon Valley, I thought that success meant working at Google, or another large tech company. A year later, the people with this definition of success scare me, and the Valley’s values terrify me at best.

As a kid, I never wanted to have any specific job. In first grade, I remember copying off someone else’s paper when the teachers asked us to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up.

I never decided what I “wanted to be” until I was halfway through high school. I only picked a profession because people kept asking, and naming a profession was easier than explaining why I didn’t want to have any specific job. My answer changed depending on my mood; I wanted to be a neuroscientist, a geneticist, and a biochemical engineer — all at once. Above all, I wanted to learn everything there was to learn.

I left high school a bit early to spend more time learning, rather than going through the motions of standardized testing, pretending I was trying my best at life. I had always thought that success meant fast learning; that I wasn’t successful unless I turned into a Googler at 18, and a Nobel laureate at 20. Silicon Valley seemingly agreed with me.

And that’s why the Valley scares me today.

Today, I have decided that my success is intrinsically coupled with the lives of those around me. There are things that I enjoy doing, like coding and learning about biology, but, in the end, I am happiest (and therefore most successful) when surrounded by genuine people.

Here in the Valley, the things I can do are more valuable than the things I can be.

I’m afraid of the words people say here — they’ve nurtured the habit of gushing, “Great to meet you!” when they are merely nonchalant. I struck up a conversation today that ended in “Great to meet you!” when I hadn’t even asked for the guy’s name. “Hey, how are you doing?” tumbles precariously from my mouth in my dorm’s corridors; I am still surprised when people tell me how they are really doing.

Most of the time, I put such little thought into words that should be so genuine. I swaddle myself in the blanket of others’ insincere sincerities; these things aren’t hard to find here. I’m working on being a more genuine person, but I’m struggling to find genuine people. I feel like I’ll be disappointed if I try to truly befriend anyone; everyone wants to say they’re your friend so that they can message you when they need something, but do they really want to be a friend to you?

Yes, I can be a coder, or a neuroscientist, with “(minority group) IN STEM” plastered across my chest, making tons of money because of it all (which would definitely be useful)—but does any of that matter if I can’t do kindness? What should growing up mean to me, if I must first decide what I want to be, rather than how I want to be?

This doesn’t mean I should escape to another bubble with a definition of success more closely aligned with mine; I feel like I should leave the Valley, but that wouldn’t make anything better.

The problem is that we’re all in this together—all seven billion of us—and the world is not a zero-sum game. It’s actually a lot more like a commons dilemma; the only way we can all win is if we win together, and this fact is completely flying over most people’s heads.

Winning together is what success means to me.

And, goddamn, Silicon Valley… this does not make me a failure.

A few of you on Facebook have started publishing your poetry on Medium. Here’s poetry I’ve written about San Francisco/Silicon Valley, albeit on Tumblr. If you poet and also live in the Bay, come poet with me (and other more amazing poets) at 10pm on Thursdays on the 16th and Mission street corner.