Reclaiming Your Compass

May 29, 2018

One muggy summer day in the Virginia suburbs, I drove my mom’s minivan to Home Depot and picked up a giant piece of showerboard. I lugged it home, and my parents helped me mount it on my bedroom wall with heavy-duty screws. Along the top of this makeshift whiteboard, I wrote in dark green marker: “We accept the reality we are presented with. But we don’t have to.” The first sentence I had read somewhere, the second one was mine. I didn’t really know what I meant by putting the words up, but they felt adequately provoking for a whiteboard header.

That was eight years ago. The words are still up there, and only now do I feel like I am beginning to live them.

Each of us carries a compass. This compass helps us navigate life — tells us what is meaningful, what is beautiful, what is worth pursuing. It helps us make decisions — both quotidian and critical.

Most of us do not set our own compasses. They are programmed for us by our family, our peers, our media, our culture.

The kicker is that most of us don’t even realize we have a compass, much less understand how to set it.

We cheerfully go through life following prescribed notions of success. If you grew up in privilege, which I did, these notions look something like — do well in school, get into a brand name university, get a sexy first job, go to a prestigious grad school (likely business), get a sexier job (repeat as you age) OR help start a company, marry someone of equitable status to you, accumulate wealth, spend and invest wealth, put your kids on the same path as yourself, die.

We optimize for our resumes and our Instagram accounts, instead of for our souls.

One breezy summer night a few weeks ago, I biked home from a dive bar and in slightly manic energy, phoned a dear friend. “Justin, how should I think about this? I’m leaving my societally-accredited full-time job — should I go for a tech start-up or should I become a freelance business consultant or should I pivot into a management role???” And Justin, channeling some Socrates-meets-Elon-Musk vibes, said, “Minahil, hold on — let’s start with first principles. Time is time — how do you want to spend it?”

And just like that, my compass, which had been taking a vacation in the Serengeti for all I know, snapped into focus.

My answer to Justin was tiny and true. “I want to spend time working with people I love and admire, on problems that I feel are important to the world. And I want space to think and create and love and be.”

The next few weeks were ones of conscious, effortful demagnetizing. My compass was heavily influenced by the idea of status. The options I sought were ones that would elevate my prestige and my wealth. As friends around me announced their business school acceptances or tech job offers, my compass needle veered towards resume-building.

My friends have well thought-out reasons for their choices. But nowhere in the answer I gave Justin was a tech start-up or a management role or business school. If I was considering those options, it was purely out of a sense of career FOMO. It was a slow and difficult and absolutely fucking liberating process to realize that “actually, status does not matter to me right now.” We accept the reality we are presented with, but we don’t have to.

I can’t pretend that I’ve extracted societal influence from my compass entirely, or that I ever will. We humans are, after all, social creatures. But I do know that the N on my compass looks slightly more like my handwriting as opposed to the Size 12 Times New Roman it came in, and that despite not knowing exactly where I’m going, I have the clearest sense of direction I’ve had yet.

A note on the H-word

The older I get, the more I realize I have to both learn and unlearn. One of these unlearnings is around, as the delightfully wise Lady Kate put it, decoupling happiness from achievement. Can a day be a good day if I didn’t do anything “productive?” Am I still valuable when I am not progressing towards some goal? Duh. But it’s not as intuitive as it seems.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been channeling my middle school chakras and picking random parts of my body to write the words “happiness is here” on. I should just get a tattoo but 1) I have commitment issues and 2) Needles make me faint.

I used to think the N on my compass pointed to happiness, but I am realizing that happiness lies at the center of the compass. You have always already arrived at happiness. It’s just a matter of noticing it. Hippie, hipster, new-agey-millennial, yes I’ll own up to all of those, and if you come by my apartment I will give you your own temporary tat of “happiness is here.”

Originally published at in May 2019