“I’d Rather Be Ashes Than Dust”

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artbyaarohi-artprints-littledreamer

“If water stands motionless in a pool it grows stale and muddy, but when it moves and flows it becomes clear: so, too, man in his wanderings.

Whereupon, as if by magic, all disquiet leaves me. I begin to look upon myself with distant eyes, as you might look at the pages of a book to read a story from them; and I begin to understand that my life could not have taken a different course. For when I ask myself, ‘What is the sum total of my life?’ something in me seems to answer, ‘You have set out to exchange one world for another-to gain a new world for yourself in exchange for an old one which you never really possessed.’ And I know with startling clarity that such an undertaking might indeed take an entire lifetime.”

― Muhammad Asad

I’ve always been a “fixer” and am obsessed with leaving things better than how I found it. I like to fix processes, fix up homes, repair physical objects, and admittedly – even restore people. I enjoy conquering problems that are rooted in ambiguity and developing a toolkit of my own. At the age of 19, I found myself working at a Hospital in a managerial role tasked with driving process improvement initiatives for the engineering, housekeeping, nutrition, and transportation departments. I was responsible for improving the hospital’s HCAHPS score, which is a patient satisfaction survey required for all hospitals in the U.S; these scores are posted publicly and can impact a hospital’s reputation, and government funding. My days would consist of me interviewing patients on their hospital experience; most would cooperate, some would shoo me away, and a few offered me counsel. Interviewing terminally ill patients was always the hardest for me; it was a stark reminder of the fragility of life. I learned during my time interacting with patients that their proximity to death provided them clarity on what truly was important in life. I listened intently as they gave me advice and warned me not to make the same mistakes they did. The common threads regardless of their race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status were: chase your dreams, don’t be a workaholic or focus on money, and prioritize time with loved ones. I was determined to learn from their mistakes.

I read a research paper that measured peoples’ perceptions of their future selves. The research subjects were asked if placed in a room, whether they would devour carrot sticks or chocolate bars. A significant percentage of the subjects claimed they would consume the carrots due to being health-conscious. When the actual day came and the subjects were place in a room, the majority consumed the chocolate bars. I found it fascinating how we are biased in our perceptions of our future selves to make favorable choices. When the patients told me to live a life worth living, I confidently thought that I wasn’t going to fall into the same traps that they did. However, I worried that maybe I was romanticizing my future. I shifted my perception from that will never be me – to that is me, so that my mind would be incentivized to make better decisions.

I’ve never felt exceptionally smart, I figured intelligence is relative, so I avoided stack ranking myself against peers or colleagues. I don’t exactly have the best work ethic either; when boredom rises my effort dwindles. However, two personality traits I do have that allowed me to fare well are my insatiable curiosity and irrational optimism. In youth, I got scolded for having curiosity without parameters. I recall when I was in art class in middle school and we were experimenting with glass blowing. The professor told us to not touch the part of the glass which was engulfed by the flame because it was hot. I, naively touched the glass’ end anyways – I wondered: How hot was it really? Is it as hot as he described? I found my answer immediately. My teacher unempathetically said there’s always that one student that does the opposite of what they’re told during this exercise, and he began lecturing me on how “curiosity killed the cat.” I retorted with, “at least a cat has nine lives,” as I winced my way to the Nurse’s office to treat my burn. Possible outcomes of my curiosity have never deterred me; I’m just keen on finding out the answers.

As for my optimism; I approach everything as an experiment, or as an adventure. I don’t map my life out with a list of expectations, since things never go according to plan anyways. I enjoy taking things day by day and trust that I’m on the right path, no matter how undefined it might be. I figured that although my journey might be complex and scattered, it’ll display a final result that’s as intentional as the constellations. Planning can lead to paralysis and expectations can steal joy. I believe it’s perilous to construct our experiences around our plans, so I try to have my plans be a byproduct of my experiences. I’ve realized that the more receptive I am to life questioning my notions of the future, the more I learn, which in turn, allows me to thrive. This mentality has shielded me from anxiety and negativity; when things don’t work out – I simply pivot.

It’s comical how in youth we strive to assimilate, yet, in adulthood, we strive to prove how “different” we are from others. With age, our reference points for our personal value shift from uniformity to originality. My highest moment of discontent festered once I entered Corporate America, I just didn’t feel I was put on this earth to become another Shark in a Suit. I was enthusiastic after I received my Master’s and began working at my “dream job” in crypto, but eventually the novelty wore off as well. I recently got a Life Coach to guide me in unraveling what it is I want and help me course correct when my present state isn’t in alignment with my goals or values. In one of our sessions, she asked me to close my eyes and describe my ideal life:


Where do you live? What do you live in?

I’m nomadic, I don’t have roots in one place. I’m a wanderer that goes country to country, home to home.

What car are you driving?

I’m not – I have no desire to own a car.

What do you do for a living?

I seek out answers to my questions. I read, I write, I teach, I learn.

What do you have?

Not much – just the bare essentials, I hate clutter.

What are your habits? Hobbies?

I’m vegan, physically fit, and I still wear my hair natural. I’m focused on the arts – I write, I draw, I paint.

Who are you with?

My lifelong partners – my family, my mom, my husband, three kids, and a dog.

Do you think it’s practical to have a family in this world?

 I don’t know I never thought about that.

Do you want a family?

Absolutely, I never doubted that for a second.

When?

In my 30’s ideally, actually, whenever I find the right partner. That could mean sooner, later, or never.

Would you be willing to sacrifice this dream life of yours for a family?

I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I won’t ever change who I am due to expectations or obligations, I will never allow anything to provide friction for my next adventure. However, that being said, if I do decide to settle down – it won’t be because I have a family, it’ll be because I chose so.

 When will you ever settle down?

When I run out of questions to answer, or when I find a question that takes me a lifetime to answer.

Describe your ideal life in one word.

Free.

What’s next?

I’m going to leave my job.

To do what?

I’m going to get my PhD at Harvard.

Why?

I have a question, to which I don’t have an answer, and I need their help.


When we watch a TV series, we can sense when it’s being dragged out when the plot flattens, and the characters don’t develop. Sometimes, I try to look at my life from the vantage point of an audience – Am I becoming lackluster as well? When you dwell, you dwindle. I’m learning to close and begin new chapters quicker than I have in the past.

I’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable lately, I’m not in alignment, nor am I confident in my current path. Whenever I catch myself feeling like this, I think back to the value exercise my professor gave me. In the photo below, he asked us to select 5 core values that are most important to us:

List-of-Common-Values

My 5 core values are:

  1. Freedom
  2. Compassion
  3. Generosity
  4. Love
  5. Purpose

My professor taught me that when you feel discontent, it’s simply because you’re not in alignment with your values. A few weeks ago, I was on cloud 9 and couldn’t have loved my job more; I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity, but, my core values – my core sense of being – are stifled in a corporate environment. What I once thought was my dream job, and my dream city, isn’t fulfilling me anymore, but it did take me one step closer in the right direction. So, I’m ready to forge a new path.

I applied to two pipeline programs to pursue my PhD in Economics, one at U of Michigan, and the other at Harvard. The chances of my acceptance are slim to none – but I figured I’d shoot my shot anyways. I’d rather fail, than wonder “what if?” When I tell peers and colleagues, I want to pursue a PhD, I’m usually discouraged and told I should be “content” with where I am currently. This would frustrate me and make me question if maybe something was wrong with me, that maybe I’ll never be satisfied. Then, I became empathetic when I realized that people speak to you how they speak to themselves, or they project their own doubts and fears onto you.

I have no idea what’s in store for me, but I do believe you have to shatter your own glass ceiling to reach for the stars. I’m ready to take a leap of faith and go on my next adventure.

 

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