Learning to love yourself again
The Train Problem
When I’d wait for my mom to pick me up from my dad’s, he’d pull out his Parker pen from his shirt pocket and draw on some scratch paper. He’d lift his arm and reveal some circles and lines he’d drawn, and ask me, “A train leaves this station at noon and travels at 50mph. When it returns from the other station, it travels at 40mph. What’s the average speed over the total journey of this train?” The only things I could think of in those moments were how tired the conductor must be to drive so much slower on the return, and the distinct click of those Parker pens — my dad’s thumb pressing down until that click.
That question came back to me as I took my GMAT. Funny, that the questions on the GMAT — for entry into graduate school — reminded me of my pre-pubescent days. That question has always stuck with me, though, because it challenges us to dismiss our hunch sometimes. At first glance, you’d think the answer is 45mph, because you take the two speeds and divide them by two, right? Nope. You can’t forget about the weighted average factor. The answer would be less than 45mph, given that the 40mph segment took longer than the 50mph segment.
Thanks to growing up around this type of curiosity, I’ve developed an everlasting hunger to be challenged analytically — this I’ve always known. No matter the task, mathematical or creative, I crave the required critical thinking. The distinction that took me a while longer to realize, however, is how those passions fuel how we define ourselves — that is, what we pursue and what we don’t.
My parents immigrated in the 70’s with little in their pockets, and received graduate degrees in the US that propelled them into careers in chemistry and engineering. Growing up, I felt a lot of energy around these subjects. While they sounded good in theory, I didn’t care as much about grades as my parents wanted me to, and for whatever reason I felt a little intimidated by the sciences. While my brother woke up early to do math questions to prep for Mathcounts competitions, I was sketching some random shit in a notebook. Thank god I had a tiger mom. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am.
I went to a rigorous high school that added more much-needed structure to my approach to academics, and amidst it all I found solace in my jazz class, which was located in the ground floor of the math building, of all places — perhaps the perfect analogy to how I undermined my mathematics education. Jazz was my favorite class. The staged layout of the room and our teacher, Dr. Margolis — who always had a smile hidden behind his perfectly white beard — provided me with this sense of warmth that I didn’t get in any other class. There was nothing quite like it for me when my lips wrapped tightly around the tip of my saxophone, and my tongue tickled from the vibration against the reed as I blew into the instrument.
Music to me was the most interesting and challenging thing I could take up at the time. Torn about my cultural identity, I took up sitar as well, my dad’s eyes lighting up when I said in the car one time, “Dad… I’ve heard these Nikhil Banerjee CDs way too much… can I just start playing?” He found me a guru in Highland Park and I studied sitar for a few years. Learning Indian classical music while learning jazz was so trippy, but I thrived on that. An opportunity to play in the LA Youth Philharmonic Orchestra allowed me to meet fellow kids who shared my struggle of music vs. something more traditional. As it came time to start looking at colleges and writing essays on what I intended to study, however, I found myself questioning what I could do with music. Most of my friends were applying to college to pursue more traditional paths, and my peers who were pursuing the performing arts were just incredible and I was intimidated to compete with them for the coveted performing arts scholarships and spots at various colleges.
Standing out in the shadows
Eventually, thanks largely to my mom and her constant pushing, I made it to a good college. I took enough math and economics classes to satisfy my degree, and while I thought these subjects were highly theoretical at times, I made it through and graduated, but not without regret. A few of my standout moments in the classroom in undergrad were when my Asian History professor read out an essay of mine and said, “This is someone who thinks differently,” or in one of my upper level Art History classes, where as the only non-art history or architecture major, my analysis of a painting was selected for a school magazine. These were moments that made me feel proud to be who I was — perhaps an artist and creative first, and mathematician second. And that was okay. Rarely do I remember being called out in my quantitative classes, and if I did, the moment was simply not the same. I largely “rode the curve” in those classes. Was I falling out of love with solving the types of problems I was used to? Or, was I finally okay shifting my perspective about what problems I like to solve, and applying my learnings to those?
Remind yourself of why you’re here; why you’re you
Fast-forward to now. My career has taken dramatic turns both in terms of job type and geography, and I’ve been in — mostly — analytical roles and functions, which are aligned with my degrees and pedigree — fine, right?. As I’ve gotten older and increasingly involved in these jobs and figuring my social and love life out, I’ve also found increasingly that I’m removed from my interests and hobbies. Long gone are my days of playing music. I once in a while do Origami, draw something or write a short story, but not nearly enough to quench my hunger for creativity. I’ve become more conscious of this gap lately, as I reflect on a recent dating experience. I met a dancer, who called me out on not being totally passionate about analytics and more of a creative. I loved that she figured this out, but it also made me realize that I haven’t been putting enough time into the things that really drive me. Sure, I enjoy solving problems and analytics is a form of problem-solving — but, the missing piece there is the ability to create something entirely on my own, like a musical piece or a short story, or like one of her dances.
The energy and people at work and solving the problems we do inspires me. But it’s important to not forget what inspires you outside of your livelihood. At times in my education and career, I’ve gotten lost in myself, forgetting what I’m good at vs. supposed to be good at. Without thinking about the former, we’re setting ourselves up to live a lie.
I challenge you to pick up one activity that meant something huge to you once upon a time — whether it’s elementary school, high school, college or more recently. Something you’ve lost touch with as life has moved on, but that you’ve had in the back of your mind. Pick up that activity and see what it does to you. For me, I brought my saxophone up from LA and, while accepting of how unremarkable I sound now, that tickle on the tongue never felt so powerful.
Authored by Ron Sinha