Adulthood: Ten Years In
January 2014 (perspective of a postdoc)
[Note on 2016-05-20: This article was an incomplete draft that I wrote in January 2014 but never published. I decided to dig it up and post it now even in its incomplete form since I just realized that it indirectly inspired a survey that I ran a year later, whose results I published as Academic High Achievers At Age Thirty. It's fascinating how half-baked ideas indirectly spur later ones!]
I recently turned 30 years old. Whenever I reflect on the first ten years or so of adulthood, I am reminded of the disclaimer that adorns every financial investment website: Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
In the context of finance, this statement warns that just because a particular investment (e.g., stock, mutual fund) has done well in the past doesn't guarantee that it will do well in the future. Financial markets are far too volatile for most ordinary mortals to consistently predict.
When reflecting on the lives of my friends and myself over the past decade, this statement means that just because someone has done well in the past doesn't guarantee that the will do well in the future. And vice versa.
What does “doing well” mean? I hate trite metrics of success such as income, job status, life milestones (married yet? have kids yet? bought a house yet?), so let's not use those directly. What about level of happiness or fulfillment or meaning? That's better, yet still vague. But let's work with that for now.
Note that everyone's happiness function places different weights on those trite metrics. For instance, Jane's happiness might be closely tied to her salary, while Joe's is more tied to pride in fixing up his newly-bought home and playing with his young children at night. Thus, it makes no sense to compare people against one another. People can be compared only against expectations that they set for themselves, not against those of their peers.
A Privileged Start
Most of my friends from college and grad school were at the top of their class in high school. We were all labeled by teachers, our parents, and our classmates as the smart kids, the overachievers, and (shudder!) the kid geniuses. I cringe because such praise can be detrimental to many kids. Also, for the most part, we grew up with a host of implicit privileges that contributed to our early academic success. When we started college at MIT (and also grad school at Stanford), we were bombarded with encouraging remarks about how we were being groomed to do great things in the future, which further contributed to our privileged start to adult life. Thus, the focus of this article is on how my friends who grew up in the U.S. as academically high-achieving children, mostly in STEM fields, fared in their twenties. I won't attempt to generalize to broader populations.
Patterns of Success
When I think about my friends who have done really well (again, not just on metrics like money or prestige, but rather on a holistic sense of personal fulfillment), they all embody one common trait: working really hard but not trying too hard.
Let's dissect this phrase.
The first part – working really hard – is obvious. Nobody, no matter how capable, finds success without working really hard. However, I don't mean just putting in 80-hour work weeks in the cubicle grinding away like a beast. At work, working really hard means working efficiently on stuff that actually matters. At home, working really hard could mean getting up early each morning to make music or write for a few hours before heading to work. It could mean trying really hard to come home at 6pm every night to have dinner with spouse or kids. It could mean going the extra mile to nurture personal relationships, even despite a busy professional schedule. And it could mean mustering up the energy to go on more dates even though it's more comfortable to veg out in front of the TV after work. No matter what, though, successful people don't coast; they are always working hard.
Now for the second – and to me, more interesting – part of the phrase: not trying too hard.
Everybody in my peer group is conscientious enough to set and achieve our goals. We have been conditioned to do so when growing up as high-achieving children. That's how we were able to get into top-ranked universities. But the real world isn't nearly as clear cut as school. It was relatively feasible (for my peers, at least) to cram hard for an exam and get an A; it's much harder to plan a career trajectory one year, two years, or five years into the future.
Ironically, the people I know who are able to let go a bit of their deliberate goal-setting habits as they grow into adulthood are more likely to do better in life. It's not that setting goals leads to failures; it's more that there is so much randomness in the real world beyond any of our control that any attempts to over-engineer our careers, personal lives, or fates aren't likely to work out as intended. (Of course, they're still working very hard on things that matter day-to-day, but they're just not fixated on rigid medium- to longer-term goals.)
When thinking about this idea, I was reminded of a sailing analogy that President Obama used in a recent New Yorker interview where he was talking about enacting government policy:
“And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn't move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you're just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you're being blown all over the place.”
Patterns of Personal Disappointment
I don't want to use the word failure, since that's too harsh of a judgment, and also since we are only 30 years old and at the beginning of our adult lives. There's still a lot of time to turn things around. But here are some qualities and events that I've seen in my peers' lives that have led to personal disappointment:
[The article draft ended here since I didn't have time to finish writing this section.]