Year One: Transformation

May 22, 2015 at 11:02pm

As I close the door on my first year at Princeton, I feel like I should take time to reflect on how I've changed and grown as a person this year. I have the impression that a lot of character- and worldview- defining things have taken place over the course of this past year: leaving high school behind, working in the Bay Area last summer, and transitioning into college life. Of course, a lot of surface-level factual things about me have changed; as a somewhat meta example, I do enough academic writing now that I apparently only ever blog on planes anymore. There's a succinct symbolism in capturing my thoughts in the interstitial transition-space of an airplane, leaving one place (and therefore aspect of my life) for another. But I've been challenged in many of my classes this year to "dig deeper," so to speak, and I'd like to do that idea justice. So, in the spirit of justice, the title of this post alludes to stories like Frank Miller's Batman: Year One that depict the challenges that superheroes face in their early days of wearing the mask; performing heroic acts while still searching for what it means for them to be a hero. Michael Chabon calls the superhero myth a story of transformation. Here are some reflections on personal growth and transformation with a light smattering of superhero metaphor.

Determination / Formidability / Resilience

College takes you outside of your comfort zone, exposes you to people from diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking and asks you to empathize with them, and stretches you until you discover that your capability exceeds your self-expectations.

"Five years on the island have forged me into a weapon. I return not as the boy who was shipwrecked, but the man who will bring justice to my city."

—Arrow

In a way, it feels like the next step on a journey that I started before, that has become central to both my identity and the way I perceive the world. My eight-year journey in scouting to become and Eagle Scout saw me challenged physically in the outdoors, personally by way of increased responsibility and necessary self-reliance, and characteristically as I worked to distinctly define my ethical view of what honor and integrity meant to me. People always ask about the Eagle Project because it's a tangible footprint of a scout's contribution to his community, but I feel like its significance as a capstone comes from the need to direct the project from start to finish; keeping in mind logistics, team dynamic, goal-setting, and contingency planning. I think the most valuable lesson I learned from the experience, in fact, was that planning only takes you so far; how I adapt and react when things inevitably diverge from the plan will serve me in anything I do. I feel the effect of those experiences — tipping myself off balance and growing by regaining my footing — in the things I do now, whether it's managing school and personal projects, directing Design Summer, or any other endeavour which necessitates working toward a larger vision both individually and with a team.

When Sam Altman from YCombinator visited Princeton, one of the things I found significant was that something indicative of a successful founder, but incredibly hard to measure, is formidability. I think we've all heard it in a lot of different words — grit, determination, formidability — but this is an idea that, by sheer repetition, has demonstrated its importance to me. A good friend of mine in high school passed along a piece of advice that has stayed with me for years: take jobs you aren't qualified to do. At the time, the context was my first software engineering internship: building out the server side for a startup in Austin. It's like Ira Glass and the gap between taste and skill — the first step to being really good at something is to be really bad at something. So while it's hard to do things that make me uncomfortable, it's a discomfort I'd like to allow myself to revel in.

Maybe this is why I've been finding more and more resonance in superhero stories. I love superheroes because, superhuman as they are, they show us how to access our humanity. As I saw someone wrote eloquently on Reddit or something, the best Superman stories aren't about Superman punching things; they're about the adversity he can't overcome with super-strength or heat vision. Batman solves his problems by choosing to do the difficult thing and retain his ethical code, his humanity, even at great personal cost. Daredevil exists because of his heightened senses, but he's effective as a heroic symbol because he always gets back up when he's knocked down. When Phil Kaye visited Princeton and had dinner with a group of students before his performance, he quoted something from the internet to this effect:

"Somewhere between crippling self doubt and absolute egomania, is art."

There's nothing more superheroic to me than that paradoxical idea. I'll never be connected to the Speed Force by a particle accelerator explosion or be given a ring powered by force of will by a shipwrecked alien; but overcoming personal and professional adversity while retaining my determination to do something amazing with my life, that I can do.

In the context of Princeton itself, the intellectual challenges I've faced have slightly shifted the way I frame my work; likely, this is due to my experiential learning about how my professors reason about design. In high school, I taught myself both to make in the practical sense and to reason abstractly about computing. But I think I'd like to move forward through the what/how and further into the why: why does what I make matter? Alternatively, how can I make things such that they matter? A piece of advice that came out of my last visit to the MIT Media Lab was that the difficulties of the real world are about defining problems as much or more than they are about solving them. I'd like to define my own contribution to the future of technology that can positively impact people's lives and productivity.

Collaboration / Creativity / Community

I remember a year ago (wow) trying to determine at least in the general sense what I wanted out of college. I realized that one of the significant motivators was that I didn't want to build on my own anymore; that I wanted to find community in other people who are driven by that same creative and empathic impulse that drives me to find meaning in making. I'm incredibly grateful for all the friends I've made at Princeton, how they've shaped and inspired me throughout this past year. They've been my Justice League.

The truth is that building with other people is just more fun. Each person has their own host of personal experiences that compose their outlook on life. This is so valuable when you're trying to bring an idea into reality; everyone starts at a different place in the solution-space, such that the breadth of approaches and ideas is just so much more than if it were one person by themselves. Being able to find that sweet spot of complimentary personalities, skillsets, and perspectives has meant so much to me this past year. Collaborating with others, I can create things that are by all measures better than the things I create alone. We make each other more creative.

During the final portfolio review for my typography class, my professor said something to this effect:

"Your designs should come from you; be a reflection of everything you've been."

I like the idea that art materializes the worldview of the artist. It's comforting in a way, to have a material symbol remind me that what we make engages other people in conversation even in the absence of ourselves. Maybe, then, my collaborations are a materialization of my relationships.

All I make is me; but what we make is us.

People and Places / Home / Storytelling

Airplanes are interesting. They're the interstice, the inbetweensies space between where you've been and where you're going. Airplanes are the boxes we step inside, aim at another part of the earth, and launch through the air. Airplanes are the portals that we step inside while we move the rest of the universe relative to our reference frame until we are where we want to be.

I've spent more time in transit this past year than probably cumulatively before that. Hackathons, interviews, conferences, city adventures with my favorite people, moving to/from college — I feel immensely grateful for all the opportunities that I've been able to enjoy this past year. But with all of this travel comes the realization that this is what my current stage of life is like for the time being: untethered. Moving out of my dorm this past week was a reminder that, like the speaker in The District Sleeps Alone Tonight by The Postal Service,

"I am a visitor here — I am not permanent."

I live somewhere for three months over the summer; I move back to Princeton; I'll move out again eventually, and it'll happen again until I change professions (from student to... ?). This may sound unremarkable, but as someone who grew up in one place for 18 years, it prompts a reconceptualization of what home means to me.

What is home? When I return to my hometown, I see places both familiar and unfamiliar. But there's no feeling of belonging associated with these places anymore; home is a retreat, a sabbatical, because my life takes place elsewhere now. But at the same time, when I'm there I'm really there, and when I'm elsewhere, I'm really elsewhere. Maybe it's it means, then, that the feeling of a place being home isn't an inherent characteristic of that place.

In Okkervil River's Song of our So Called Friend, there's a line that goes,

"Oven's heat, this house is now a home."

What aspect of the interaction of the oven's heat with the house makes it a home? I've come to think about places in terms of the stories they tell. Sitting in a courtyard on campus observing visitors walk by enjoying the day, I was struck by the sense of history of the place, the years of stories and experiences that it had accumulated. The unremarkable intersection of lives happens everyday. Walking down the street passing people just living their lives as you are living yours, assured you'll never see any of them again — the dictionary of obscure sorrows calls this feeling sonder.

It's then these stories — the experiences I've had in a place, and others, that give a place its place-ness. It's the interaction of people and places across time. What makes home in fact home is that I walk down the street and know that it experienced my story with me, is the keeper of a thread of what makes my worldview a vibrant tapestry: people, places, feelings, experience.

Princeton is home, for now. But it's not the only one.

Conclusion / Goodbye / Hello

I'll miss seeing people this summer, but I'll see old friends and meet new ones. Each of our lives will intersect at different points and we will change and inspire each other on our way to becoming what we are becoming.

Here's to the act of transformation.