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Identity, career, and the hustle

By Jay Gopalan, Harvard  College '20

When I was 12, my mom knocked on the door of my room, asked if I had eaten properly, and told me that we were leaving a cushy life in New Jersey and moving to Gurgaon, India.


Up until then, I knew what kind of person I was. I lived a life pretty typical of many Asian American children: excelling in school, competing in music, debate, and theater, making friends with other overachievers following paths set forth by our parents. At Harvard I’ve ended up reconnecting with some friends who attended my elementary and middle schools––it makes me feel like I’m still not so far away from life before moving to India.


Life after moving to another country was hard, but I was still among friends. I was in the company of all the stories of others who had been thrust out of their lives and forced to live in a new exhilarating and terrifying environment at a young age. It’s a major cliché––many families move long distances, and moving at the heart of middle school is beautifully difficult. I didn’t have to search hard to find books, movies, and music that lamented my feeling of alienation. It felt like learning about others’ stories helped me to better understand my own condition.


When I was 15, I fell into another familiar story when I found my father at four in the morning writhing on the living room floor, spitting blood, suffering from a tonic-clonic seizure. At the same time that my dad was in the hospital, my best friend’s father was battling pancreatic cancer, so we mourned together: the unfairness, the excruciating pain of loss, the instability. My mother quickly realized the care my dad needed was more than what is available in Gurgaon, so we decided to move back to the U.S.


In my first class in Tucson, Arizona, my teacher mentioned that Edward Snowden was seeking asylum in Russia, emphasizing what a traitor he was to the United States. I thought to myself, “This is it! Here in Republican Arizona, it’s my job as the oppressed liberal minority to explore and endure the trials and tribulations of free thinking!” But no––the teacher was making a joke, and Tucson is thoroughly left-wing.


On my third day of school, a classmate seemed really surprised when he said to me, “Wow, your English is really good!” 


I thought to myself, “Aha! I’m an Indian immigrant struggling through cultural disconnects, working hard at all costs to bring success to my family!” But no––America will never be a foreign country to me, and I can’t pretend otherwise.


How was I supposed to define myself? There’s no trope for the one who’s moved across the world and back. I was lost, companyless, without a familiar story to grab onto and call my own. Probably the question I struggled with most was figuring out how I was supposed to navigate the balance between falling into familiar stories and carving out my own path of interesting things to do. Moving across the world forced me to grapple with myself in different environments.


My experience dismantling the comfort of clichés was a messy process that unfolded by necessity over the course of a decade. As time has gone on, I’ve continued learning to create my own story and abandon the instinct to match my experience with something recognizable.


By the time I got to college, I had sorted out a lot of what I want my identity to be: try to avoid being bogged down by tenets of a particular ideology, and instead, learn as much as possible about the world so that I can build isolated facts from first-principle observations. Of course, it’s not like I don’t have doubts and fall into comforting narratives that promise to explain the world around me in a simple and flawed way––but these doubts tend to be passing, and haven’t caused major shifts in my worldview like in earlier school. At this point, I started wondering if there’s anything special about identity as a primary issue that had concerned me for most of my life.


When I came to Harvard, I was shocked for a couple different reasons. I was shocked by the sheer volume of opportunities available to us after graduation, but I was also shocked by the existence of set paths to success which students take advantage of––consulting, finance, medicine, and things like that. I would often consider what a huge place the world is, and that opportunities and options should only multiply as attending Harvard opens up more and more doors across society. Kind of like being boxed into a single identity, I was wondering why it’s so easy here to get boxed into a single path.


At Visitas, when I first met other Harvard students, I was shocked by how many students seemed to have their paths figured out: “Yeah, I’m gonna major in economics,” “I’m definitely set on doing pre-med,” “I did some data work in high school so now I’m majoring in computer science.” Isn’t the point of a liberal arts education supposed to be to take classes until we figure this stuff out? How can you know that you want to major in government if you don’t have any experience of what working in government is actually like? Or is something wrong with me that I don’t have clear gut intuitions about these things?


It’s definitely true that it’s terrifying and sometimes risky to hold off on making decisions about falling into a set path. But I’ve always felt like the alternative is much more terrifying and risky––spending years getting the “right” jobs, going to the “right” kinds of grad school, and setting up the “right” kind of career before coming to terms with the possibility that it could have been a big mistake. I’m a lot more terrified of one other possibility and one other certainty: the possibility is of getting locked into a dreary and unfulfilling career that one ultimately finds unfulfilling and dreary. The certainty, however, is an even more terrifying implication of traditional success––the idea of never experiencing the kind of failure that shatters your worldview and shows what it’s like to live a life completely different from what you’re used to.


Most of this fear stems from the fact that there’s no guarantee that passion in the short term aligns with long-term fulfillment and happiness––after all, it’s too easy for one’s opinion on an academic area to be tarnished forever by one bad teacher at an early age. Figuring out the balance of what’s fun in the short term and what’s meaningful in the long-term is possible, but requires careful introspection mixed with research and experience.


I ended up choosing a general major with a focus on developing skills rather than following a passion for subject material: mathematics and philosophy, with a secondary in economics. I also decided to center my extracurricular commitments around teaching to hone my communication skills and practice navigating imposing structures and hierarchies.


I think that the connection between trying to figure out my identity and my academic path at Harvard comes from a common desire to think about systems, rather than to think within systems. For identity, this mode of thinking is pretty transparent––we don’t usually think of identity as the process of studying more and more about a particular cultural or gender group and deciding an “assessment.” Rather, we recognize that the process of developing and honing identity consists of thinking and feeling our emotionally react to them.


In the math department, this distinction is also fairly clear: I entered math because I loved the idea of thinking about math, considering things clearly and mathematically, and building up structures without the guidance of intuition. I was pretty surprised that this approach isn’t too common in the department––instead, it’s a race, in which people thinking within math compete to achieve at a high level in the hardest classes. Something about this view has always struck me as incompatible with being humble––how am I supposed to have the confidence that I can beat the people around me and win at the race if we’re all working at the same things? The only way to celebrate our diversity of thoughts and worldviews is to recognize that we’re all working at different things in our own ways.


There’s no doubt that it’s necessary to have (a lot) of people in society who think “within” a field like math: after all, this is what researchers do most of the time, and necessary for any progress to be made. I’m talking mostly about this stage in our lives: before even getting to thinking “within” a field, we need to think carefully “about” the field, to decide if this is something to which it is worth devoting a lot of time. When it comes to considering identity, we already recognize that we need to think “about” different lifestyle approaches and feel what fits right. But when it comes to career and academic pedigree, the dominant approach seems to be thinking “within” fields for long enough to meet a definition of success.


In personal life, this process can consist of captivating introspection that arises suddenly and lingers for a while. But recognizing the difference between thinking within and thinking about can be helpful even when the object of thinking seems as practical as trying to decide on a major, classes, or post-graduation plans.


For me, developing this way of approaching life’s obstacles is inseparable from my experience moving from place to place, and specifically the years that I spent living in India. In India, I was shocked for opposite reasons compared to when I came to Harvard––I was shocked at the lack of clear paths to success outside of academic pipelines to the few prestigious coaching academies and universities. Some people devoted their efforts into succeeding within these pipelines, but I saw more people around me finding their own ways to achieve their own kinds of success, whether by learning how to play the drums, or finding ways to make quick money, or figuring out the best ways to manage relationships with teachers, family, and our peers. I always thought of this riskier approach as the hustle, compared to pipeline approaches.


But at the same time, we can’t just ignore established paths of success in a quest to be different for the sake of being different. After all, high risk-tolerance is a common trait among both people who are billionaires and people who are bankrupt. To me, the key to balancing established paths with finding one’s own slice of success is learning to think about systems at least as much as thinking within the systems themselves––which allows accurate reflection on personal risk. Married with heavy introspection, this focus on thinking about systems makes it easier to decide the best path and the ways it might intersect with established paths.


I’m excited to graduate and experience what life is like outside of the sanitized school environments in which I’ve existed my whole life. I hope that learning more about the world teaches me more about both the different experiences to be had out there and the ways that I react to them emotionally. Most of all, just like when I was building my identity after moving to India and back, I’m excited to carve out my own story.

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