I read an article today called “The Silicon Valley Suicides” that has impacted me in such a significant way that I may never view life, success, failure, society and parenting the same again.
Growing up in Palo Alto, I was never aware of the academic and social pressures that this article discusses, because it was the norm. It was the norm to play at least one sport, one musical instrument. It was the norm to take AP’s. It was the norm to pass your AP’s. It was the norm to speak at least one foreign language. It was the norm to get into a top college (and community colleges were frowned upon). It was the norm to be stressed. It was the norm to be the best at something. And for many years, it was also the norm to grieve over the passing of a classmate or friend. Those moments in my life continue to haunt me and I have come to fear death as an incredibly painful experience.
The conception of this type of thinking cannot be defined by one cause, and is a complex combination of how society defines success and failure, school culture, upbringing and much more.
We live in a world where achievement defines us, not our character, generosity, passions or dreams. And that “achievement” is defined as money, fame or power. Society continually defines success for individuals at every age, erasing our unadulterated aspirations. The media paints the picture of a successful individual with their top lists of industry leaders, highest paying jobs, and most likely to succeed with this type of major in college. Most recently, publications have attempted to rank colleges differently with evaluating top colleges being institutions where students are more likely to result in a higher income…While the intention to move away from school prestige to a more practical ROI on education is thoughtful, this creates an even bigger issue of perceiving academic success with the ability to make more money, defining post-college success as income. Why do we try so hard to quantify success?
This is why we have cycles of graduating students wanting to be investment bankers and consultants one year, and engineers and entrepreneurs another year. But do any of them Really want to be those things? Schools react to this phenomenon and start creating programs that encourage more students to pursue these careers, asking alumni to support the school for such initiatives, and hoping to rank top on the list for schools that support careers in the field. And It’s a dirty cycle.
I once wanted so badly to be an investment banker in college. A few years later I wanted nothing more than to be a venture capitalist. I looked up to those individuals in these industries, where all around me they were praised and recognized as successful in the media and among my peers. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an interest in understanding how different companies were valued or what it meant for one company to acquire another, but it was that I also believed these careers would make me “successful” that eventually led me down a path of being unhappy at my job. I realized I didn’t want to work for that type of success – money, fame or power. I wanted to work for me. A job is a job and no one “loves” their job, but you can love the purpose behind your job, the people you affect as a result of doing your job, and the team that you work with. All of these things cannot be defined for you by anybody else but yourself, and this comes from taking a bold stance against what you should do.
In college, I had started a program called BrightEyes out of my frustration that my school didn’t provide opportunities to easily get my foot in the door with the best companies (we weren’t a “Target” school), like some private schools offered (I had got my first job out of college by impulsively traveling to New York and demanding to meet with executives at companies that I wanted to work for, and sneaking into USC’s recruiting session and pitching myself for the job). But soon after I started the program, I realized it wasn’t about providing career opportunities through BrightEyes, but helping students rediscover their true passions and unleashing and augmenting their inner voices to ask themselves what they truly aspired to do. Success in the program became defined as helping students become self aware and honest with themselves.
I’ve recently read numerous articles on “following your passion is bad advice.” At first, I nodded in agreement and part of me has always believed that those “successful” people say it, but that’s never how they got there. But now I revisit that piece of advice, and I realize there’s more to interpret in what appears to be such a shallow lesson. We can’t take the statement literally, rather we have to understand it to be a metaphor for chasing our curiosities and fearlessly trying new things to discover what makes us happiest – you don’t know what you love until you’ve already experienced it. My new understanding also has largely to do with my definition of success. I understand “follow your passion” to be advice for happiness, not wealth, fame or power. While this may appear obvious and so many also preach happiness as success, few let this drive how they make decisions in life, especially when we are young and vulnerable.
I wish the word Failure didn’t exist. For so long, I’ve feared it and let it influence me. It’s a word that people constantly use incorrectly because, the fact is, it cannot be defined. It is a word that relies on short-lived perception and interpretation. It is not about being fearless of failure either. It is that we do no see failure, we don’t acknowledge it’s existence, because the decisions we make are ours and those are the best decisions we can make. Our experiences shape us, and we always come out stronger than we entered. You cannot fail when you don’t believe it’s possible.
There’s not one parent who doesn’t try to guide or influence their children away from “failure”. But the extent of influence can have a lifelong psychological impact that prevents an individual from ever being successful, or happy. While I’m not a parent yet, I have observed the parenting styles of many who are, and I feel confident about concluding that parents who value their children’s achievements over who they are imprison their children to the belief that there is only one route to success, and that success is rewarded with money, fame or power. And as mentioned in the article, children should not fear “quitting” and associate it with failure, and it is the obligation of parents to ensure that their children understand there is no right or wrong when making a personal choice.
And as mentors, we must be careful not to advise from only our experiences, and help the individual see past the end goal and embrace the journey. My first question to any individual who approaches me for advice these days is, “How do you define success and failure?” And then let’s talk about the many ways to achieve “success”. We have an obligation to communicate and create a culture where we are not afraid to choose against societal norms and “career paths”.
Let’s reevaluate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and challenge ourselves to not fear the unknown and rid any possibilities of failure from our decisions. Let’s save future generations from becoming a victim to the existing notions of success and failure.
I dedicate this post to my parents. Thank you for trusting and supporting my decisions, and for always encouraging me to make my own choices.