Scared by Choice

Looking into the future is often times like peering into a well of darkness — an incomprehensible, intangible blur — until you notice a single, dimly lit path. You can’t see exactly where it leads, but you can tell it’s straight and safe. There are faint shadows of other people around, taking this path. They are standing, walking, seemingly doing well. Perhaps, you wonder, if you belong on this path too.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve found myself confronting a series of social cues — both explicit and implicit — that show me what success in life is supposed to look like.

They show me Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley start-ups; they tell me internship, grad school, tech entrepreneurship. These voices are everywhere, shedding light on a future that’s hard to attain but secure if I have it — a future that’s clearer than most with outlining the steps one might take to get there. And because it’s the path I can most easily decipher, it invites me in.

Unlike opportunities I had found in the past, Girls Driving for a Difference (GDD) didn’t come out of a career fair, an online internship search, a “person who knows a person,” or a well-intentioned inMail message on LinkedIn; it came out of an inspired conversation.

Jenna and I, having spent a year working together through Stanford’s Design for America team, had seen the power of design to create social impact but were newly curious about its implications in education. Our shared intrigue brought us into a Stanford course led by SparkTruck!, where we discovered an interesting way that people were bringing together design + education + social impact — by driving around to schools and introducing students to maker tools like 3D printers.

We saw the kids’ faces light up — when they saw the SparkTruck roll in, when they watched the design tools in action, and most importantly, when they learned they could use these tools, too.

And it hit me, stronger than ever before: the immense joy to be found in sharing with others a love of learning.

Our last class inspired a conversation between Jenna and me not only about what we did, but also how it made us feel: Inspired. Awake. But the class was over; what now?

We shared the same dream, but following it was easier said than done. We held individual, fragmented pieces of our vision but never the full picture; we had no idea how it would work. And this time, an online search wasn’t going to show us the way; we had to shine the light on our own.

We began to explore crazy ideas for uniting design + education + women’s empowerment, letting our passion pave the way for purpose in every step along the way.

The next few months were a whirlwind of long nights and early mornings. Normal academic requirements, which used to be my daily focus, suddenly didn’t feel real anymore. They were nothing but imposed regulations, completely external. I sat still in class while my mind sprinted around our curriculum, the communities we had reached out to, and our fundraising status as a public benefit corporation. I scribbled notes on napkins, on my hands, on anything and everything that existed and was accessible at any given time, clinging to every idea I could before it skipped away.

But the harder I worked, the more I panicked. I shivered with intense waves of excitement and then doubt. What was I doing? How could we ever succeed? With our entire cross-country itinerary up in the air, our workshop curriculum feeling “standard” at best, and over $40k total to raise, several times I was so overwhelmed that I considered quitting altogether. I was met with constant fear that I severely lacked both the knowledge and the skills to be doing what I was trying to do. And I cried on the shoulders of more than one friend, anticipating that I was trying to follow a dream that was seriously bound to fail.

The only way to diminish my fear was to actively replace it with drive.

I told myself, “Katie, if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be all in: 150%. If you’re going to take this risk, you’re going to make sure you get that RV, you find those communities, and you build a curriculum that shapes lives, and you’re not going to settle for less.” Our project was the manifestation of a dream I had loosely crafted years ago, but this was the first time that I could honestly say that I was doing everything I could to bring it to life. It was worth it.

We launched our Kickstarter campaign, connected with corporate sponsors and communities nationwide, and started prototyping our workshops around the Bay. In the Spring, I studied abroad in Italy, where I spent three months devouring delicious food and seeing beautiful things. For most, it would have been the experience of a lifetime, but for me, it was a constraint. Amidst little moments of pleasure, I felt emotionally oppressed, held back, almost trapped overseas — I longed for my team and everything we stood for. That’s when I knew that choosing GDD had terrified me in all of the right ways.

This summer, I’ve found this feeling of being alive again in my work, a million degrees stronger. As we’re empowering girls to discover their abilities and dreams for changing the world, we’re also figuring out our own along the way, and it’s exhilarating.

I’ve learned that I want to design curriculum, develop programs, and craft experiences for the rest of my life — ones that help people set goals, find their passions, define success for themselves, and fully understand their identities in the present in order to map their futures. I believe that lives aren’t meant to be just lived — they’re meant to be constructed and crafted with intention and purpose. We all need, value, and desire different things, and as soon as we can discover what they are for ourselves, we can work towards achieving our unique, honest, and true versions of happiness and success.

This doesn’t mean we should all quit our jobs because they’re “normal” or “safe,” or that we should perpetually strive to be different for the sake of being different. Most career paths are well-traveled for a reason; because they’re usually quite wonderful, and they open doors for even greater opportunities. Between taking the road less traveled and the one more commonly frequented, there is no objectively “better” decision — it’s just sometimes easy to forget we’re making this decision in the first place.

Maybe I’m bound to follow a life of wild, creative risk-taking, or maybe GDD is simply a random detour in the straight path I’m destined to follow for the rest of my career. Either way, I’ve decided that instead of searching for existing job titles that seem to make most happy, I’m going to seek out anything and everything that brings this feeling back again, of being so passionately alive. And the more the decision scares me, the better.

There are tons of opportunities in this world waiting to be seized, but even more waiting to be created by you.

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