We were sitting inside a coffee shop at the corner of a block in downtown Manhattan. I can’t remember what time it was, but it was past noon, for the high-rise buildings had eclipsed the sun, casting a refreshing shadow. Two of my friends had invited me to talk about an extra-curricular opportunity, a social impact challenge in collaboration with IBM and my college. I had accepted to meet because I needed experience and the undertaking sounded intriguing. Our goal was to nail down the requirements of the challenge and find a social problem we could address, using IBM’s Watson.
The conversation started off productively; although, because our table was facing the street, I couldn’t help but occasionally drift off to glimpse at the pedestrians and the sea of yellow taxis rushing both on sides of Park Avenue. I wasn’t the odd one—the bulk of our time was spent on casual conversation. I was in one of those reveries when my friend turned to me and inquired about my interests. I was surprised because nobody had ever asked me about my aspirations. Confidently, I replied, “Well, I am more of a generalist, really.” This statement was true considering my ambiguous college direction—a high school student with a love for biology and science that enrolled in college as a business administration major that later turned to public affairs, whose interests included being a part of the college’s literature club, and who later decided to pursue law school.
A pause ensued. Then both of my friends looked at each other and proceeded to laugh at me. I was surprised and shocked, and at that moment, I felt the weight of the Empire State crushing my chest. I gasped and tried to explain what I meant by that term but to no avail. The more I tried, the more I realized that I had no sense of direction. Perhaps it was a blow back to reality, and words are great at facilitating that.
For the rest of the conversation I was left feeling ostracized and unable to concentrate on their plans, aimlessly and fitfully agreeing to their decisions for the project.
Back then, I despised the idea of specificity and specialization, but I was envious of the breadth of my friends’ knowledge within their respective realms. They had painfully pointed out my lack of focus, whereas both of them seemed driven by a concrete image, therefore allowing them to operate within narrow and specific contexts. The problem that was not unique to me but only came to realize that day was that trying to be everything makes you nothing at the same time. My position was no longer sustainable, at least in the context of that analysis.
The solution to my problem was to pick something rather than nothing and master that. A simple idea, indeed, but to my inherently wandering mind it was no more than an illusion, an easy fix, perhaps a dopamine rush of the moment, powered by the adrenaline of the impending doom that I felt. Discipline—I needed to be harsh with myself, I thought. I strove to tame my proclivities, tried to find comfort in the idea of mastery along the way and the ability to leverage skills and knowledge in case something doesn’t work out, but I never found myself in a concrete path. Everything kept falling apart—jobs, friendships, academic interests, career choices, artistic proclivities.
The only thing constant in the sea of distractions was my confusion, innate and perennial.
To this day, I have to admit, that I haven’t managed to tame my wandering mind to a significant degree. I have increasingly become harsh with myself, judging my existence and degrading my self-esteem as I go. I have reduced my dreams and have surrendered my future—yet when I become aware of this unofficial defeat, my heart races and my blood boils: I still have time to tame my mind, I proclaim. I stand up and declare that I will not, I do not, admit defeat.
—and then the cycle continues.