Stamp collecting: letting go of the brand names
What was the last stamp you collected? The shiny award, the prestigious college, the lucrative internship. Looking back, I’ve realized that I’ve amassed quite the stamp collection. Except here belies my problem.
Every stamp I’ve collected was only for collection’s sake. Very rarely did I do something when a stamp wasn’t at stake.
This idea of stamp collecting came about from a conversation with a dear friend. He talked about how we’re socialized into collecting stamps: various symbols of success, power, and accomplishment. If the stamp wasn’t pretty enough, it wasn’t worth doing. I was victim to this phenomenon.
- I didn’t try out for the volleyball team because I didn’t think I could make varsity. I wanted the varsity stamp.
- I only ever ran for a certain student club position when I thought I had a higher than decent chance of winning. I wanted the president stamp.
- I picked Brown over three lesser-known-but-equally-amazing liberal arts colleges. I wanted the Ivy League stamp. (I’m still so thankful for not getting into the other two Ivy League colleges I applied to. Brown was easily the best fit for me but I would’ve picked the other two. I wanted the prettier, bigger Ivy League stamp).
The idea of doing something for the experience was lost on me. The idea of looking passed the brand name was equally lost on me. I just really wanted the stamp. But why?
Why did I like collecting stamps?
1. External validation
Stamps talk. It’s hard to deny it. I liked hearing my parents gloat about all the stamps I had collected. I liked being the girl that had done this, this, and that while maintaining that, that, and that thing over there. I liked having the biggest stamp book.
The stamp meant my hard work was worth it. But once the stamp was logged, I was off on the hunt for the next three. Each stamp’s external validation was only temporary, and it would be compared with the stamps of others around me.
Captain of one sport? Why not two.
President of this club? Why not run for three more.
Also become the editor of yearbook even when you’re not supposed to take an elective as a senior.
Why aren’t you in honour society yet?
3.98? Should be a 4.0.
Great you got into Brown. Now go do a study abroad in Oxford.
Why aren’t you doing a major in Economics? What sort of stamp is History compared to Economics? Add computer science too while you’re at it.
Morgan Stanley? What happened to Goldman…
The trap was already set up for me. Once you start on the stamp collecting path, it never really ends. You will always be on the chase for one more stamp. A bigger stamp. A rarer stamp.
The external validation is a self-perpetuating cycle of never being enough because you’ll never have enough stamps.
2. A sign of “success”, whatever the heck that means
Success in the society I grew up in, and arguably my college environment to a lesser degree, meant having a stamp. Stamps signified success or “making it”. It signified your worth. It signified the amount of time anyone should spend talking to you.
People would do complete 180s on me in conversation at the mention of what university I was going to, or which firm I was interning at. Eyes would widen. Ears would suddenly switch on. And somehow, all the questions were suddenly about my stamps and less about me.
Isn’t it sad that my value had been reduced to the stamp I wore on my forehead and not who I actually am as a person?
I am much more than a stupid stamp.
3. Because it’s what everyone else expected me to do
I was known for being a people pleaser. It was my mum’s favorite nickname for me. I was caught up in this image of the “perfect trophy girl”. Collecting stamps had suddenly become an expectation.
If I wasn’t topping my class, something was wrong.
If I didn’t make it to a stamp-worthy college, something was wrong.
If I couldn’t do everything right, something was wrong.
I ended up doing a lot of things I genuinely didn’t have much interest in because I thought it was what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to have the most stamps so I sought out ways to make that a reality.
In that process however, I’d often find myself feeling shallow. I lost myself. I didn’t know who I was beyond my stamps.
Why did I struggle to see passed the stamp?
1. They’re pretty
And even beyond the shiny appearance, a stamp was always something I never had to explain. The stamp spoke for itself. It offered me convenience. Credibility. And a lack of doubt from others.
2. They’re easier to collect than something less defined
Stamps usually have a clear path on how to go about collecting them. That’s not to say the walk is easy or hard. But at least it’s there. And you know people who have taken the same walk before.
It’s much harder to go after something where there isn’t a clearly defined end product at the end of the tunnel. Where do you even start building the path if you don’t even know which way you’re going?
3. Explaining my value was easier through stamps than stories
My story was my stamps. I spit out 3–4 in a conversation and I could be neatly bucketed as the smart, driven, ambitious woman from Bangladesh. I never had to use an adjective, an anecdote, or a story.
I could just tell. I never had to show.
But see, I don’t want to be the stamp collector anymore. I want to be the storyteller.
Who am I collecting the stamp for?
This was the first question that I started asking myself when I wondered what my motivations were for collecting stamps. I wanted to think it was for myself. But really was it? No.
I started asking myself harder questions.
When you look at a stamp, are you looking passed the name?
I know it’s a good experience. But deep down, I know I could’ve gotten the same experience and the same learning anywhere else. I could have learned it by myself. The substance behind the stamp was never as special as I made it out to be.
I was swayed by the names. The power. The symbols.
Are you willing to go for the experiences that don’t give you a stamp? Why not? Why are you scared?
Uncertainty. A quote I always liked by Tim Ferris is,
“Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.”
I am willing to go for the experiences now, but I know I’m scared by the uncertainty, the lack of stability, and the lack of comfort. But if I feel this way at 20 when I have no responsibility and nothing to lose, what about when I’m 30? When I’m 40? When my entire life passes me by and I’m still too scared?
I’ll never lose the feeling of being afraid if I don’t start now.
As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. The more I practice going after things that are beyond the safe, ivory tower, the less scary it will be. I might just find the treasure amongst the trash.
Why did you take the giant firm internship? Because it would give you the credibility? The stability? The skills?
Yes, yes, and yes.
I took it because it was easier to get the stamp on a silver platter than to actually go out hunting for something out in the open.
The stamp gave me credibility. But I started asking myself, why did I think I wasn’t credible before? What would this firm give me that I couldn’t fight for by myself?
The answer was really, I didn’t want to do it the hard way. The hard way wasn’t going to a prestigious firm. It was taking on a experience that wasn’t defined, had no brand, and gave me a story instead of a collectible.
I’m not saying everyone approaches this particular decision the way I did. But I always knew I took the job for the wrong reasons. And that’s a hard pill to swallow.
I took it for the stamp.
I wasn’t going to lose my job because of a lack of funding or what may have you. But if I can’t handle instability at 20, when can I ever handle it?
The best lesson I’ve learned at my internship was I could’ve learned all the skills I’ve developed on the job by myself.
I was just lazy. But now I won’t be.
I saw that the firm doesn’t teach you the skills necessarily. The environment forces you to learn the skills. Consequently, I can take on the responsibility of putting myself into an environment that will make learn the skills I need. But more importantly, I can give myself the opportunity to learn the skills I actually want.
Why do you live like your resume is all that matters?
There’s a great TED talk by David Brooks called “Should you live for your résumé or your eulogy?” I recommend watching it.
Even as I’m writing this, I have to remind myself,
Why the fuck do I care what anyone thinks? Why am I defining myself by a single piece of paper? And why am I letting that paper guide my life?
I have maps on how to get other prestigious internships. In fact, I have most of it already in motion. But I step back and remind myself, do I actually care if I work in a big-3 consulting firm? Or a major tech firm?
It’s scary to think that I’ve mapped out the last 2 years of my life based on what I get to write on a single US letter sized paper with 0.5" margins and 10pt Times New Roman font.
I’d rather live for the eulogy. I’d rather live for the difference I can make. I’d rather live for the adventure than a stupid piece of paper (but you should still know how to write one so shameless plug to my guide on how to write one hehe).
Shouldn’t only you care about what you’re doing? Not the opinion of someone else?
It really should be only you in theory. There are exceptions obviously. But we only get to live our life, not the life of someone else. In my story, the idea of spending 2–6 years in a job when I could learn the skills by myself, meet twice as many people if I just hustle, and have more control over my daily life doesn’t make sense to me.
Time is the only thing we don’t get back in life. I don’t plan on wasting a second on doing something I don’t like.
And I’m too stubborn to believe that we have to do things we don’t like, or “pay our dues” when I’ve seen countless stories of people who just dared to step into the unknown. I get a lot of disagreements here but I’ll learn the hard way if I’m wrong.
Finally, yes it’s harder to explain a life without stamps. But I’m the only one that needs to understand my explanation. I’m the one living my life.
1. Make your own stamps
This is the very cliché result of most articles. Totally admit it. But doesn’t make it any less true.
It’s not for everyone. But if it’s for you, don’t be afraid to go out for the stories and the experiences. I’m having a great time doing it and I can assure you, it’s not that scary.
The only thing I’ll say is it’s not easy. I came to this country not knowing a single soul in the worlds I wanted to explore. But I worked hard. I figured out the system I had to operate in. I hustled. And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I love sharing what I’ve learned to help other people start their own journey. You can ask me how I find myself in crazy adventures you know :)
The best piece of advice for making your own stamps is
- Tell everyone in your world what sort of stamp you want to make. One way or another, they’ll find a way to help you
- Don’t be afraid to ask for that help
- Seek out the people who have created the stamp you want. Ask them how they did it. And then do it!
2. Make the stamp the consequence, not the intention
I’m not opposed to large firms, big corps, brand names, or stamps. I’m opposed to the idea of someone passively going into these experiences because they think they didn’t have another option, or they never answered the harder questions.
From the thought experiments I’ve done, I’ve figured out that a lot of stamps aren’t worth collecting for me. But that’s me. And that’s the conversation I had with myself to see what I wanted.
My ask is that you have the same conversation with yourself. And if the answer is to take a stamp experience, then by all means do it! But just know why you’re doing it.
Let the stamp be a byproduct, not your main reasoning.
Do it because the stamp was the best way to get what you wanted, put you in an environment to learn what you wanted, and surrounded you with the people you wanted to be surrounded by. Because that stamp means nothing on the day-to-day. So you might as well like the letter it’s posted on.
Happy stamp collecting :)