IMMIGRANTS AND EXPERIMENTS
In an immigrant family, the first child is an experiment. The second is an opportunity to fix all the things you screwed up or didn’t understand with the first. I’m sure this happens with nonimmigrants too. But if a parent at least went to school in the US, he or she will have some understanding of the assholes kids will become when they’re teenagers.
Right around sixth grade, your hormones rage, you figure out your social status or lack thereof, and you become excessively preoccupied with being cool. For young boys, a life of video games is suddenly dominated by hair gel, designer clothes, the desire for athletic stardom, and compulsive masturbation behind closed doors, while claiming to be studying. To top it off, your parents become the most awful people on the planet who are salting your game even though you don’t have any.
Shoes were a big deal for some reason when I was a teenager. Somewhere in sixth grade, buying shoes from Payless became unacceptable. This was the first of many experiments for my parents. I would tell my dad about the nice shoes I wanted and he would tell me, “You wear shoes on your feet, not your head.”
Then one day we were at a Factory Outlet hundreds of miles from Bryan, Texas, and some kid I’d never met started making fun of my Pro Wings from Payless. My dad finally understood what I’d been dealing with at school. He bought me the best Nike sneakers that he could afford.
There was another day that my mother insisted I wear a shirt and brown corduroy pants that I hated to school.
So I put on a Bugle Boy shirt underneath, and took off the shirt I hated when I got to the bus stop. Somehow my mom found out and we got into a huge fight over it—and not a single hot girl had walked up to me in school and said, “Excuse me, Is that a Bugle Boy shirt you’re wearing?”
It took me a long time to learn that advertising is basically nothing but a series of false promises designed to make you buy a product.
In eighth grade, I didn’t tell my parents about the open house. I thought if I didn’t tell them, they’d assume we just weren’t having one. But just like all my other plans to pull one over on them, this failed. When they asked why I hadn’t told them about it, I explained that I was embarrassed by their accents and my dad’s jokes. They were rightfully hurt. But now I’m anything but embarrassed, because my dad is one of the funniest guys in the world and all my friends love him.
Since my dad is a scientist, he tested all his inaccurate hypotheses on me, and adjusted them with my sister. By the time she got to seventh grade, they’d already been through this insanity before.
MUSIC WITH WORDS
I don’t believe in natural talent because I don’t believe that I ever had any. I’ve sucked at everything I’ve learned how to do when I started learning.
- I thought flags on musical notes were for decoration and somehow made it to all-state band.
- I couldn’t get down a bunny slope without eating shit at age twenty, and flew down a black diamond at age forty.
- Despite having the attention span of a five-year-old, I’ve managed my attention long enough to write a handful of books.
The discipline to practice and persistence to continue when every conceivable metric said I should quit are the only two reasons I’ve managed to do anything worthwhile with my life.** And it all started with the tuba.
My band directors saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself. They seemed to have an unconscious understanding of the Pygmalion effect, which means we live up to the standards and expectations that people have for us. What they believe becomes our reality. For some unexplainable reason, my band director decided that I would make all-state band one day, and I eventually did.
Music has influenced my writing more than anything else has.
Writers who are musicians don’t see words. They hear them. They pay more attention to how something sounds than to how it looks. They don’t write sentences; they compose lyrics. They judge their work by the ring to it and its potential for resonance. For them, writing is a way of making music with words.
You Don't Have to Choose from the Options in Front of You
Our motivations are heavily informed by the media. Our social feeds are populated by endless images of wealth, travel, power, relaxation, beauty, pleasure and Hollywood love. This virtual runoff perpetually seeps into our consciousness, polluting our sense of reality and self-worth every time we go online. We compare our lives to these largely artificial constructs and structure our plans accordingly, hoping to eventually afford a golden ticket to these misleading fantasies. - Ryder Caroll, The Bullet Journal Method
As far back as fourth grade, I’ve been making plans for my future.
None of my plans included becoming an author or writer, because I was failing reading. My teacher called my parents in for a conference and suggested that I might have a learning disability. But most Indian parents don’t believe that their kids have learning disabilities, just that they have shitty teachers.
My first plan was to become a doctor and drive a Mercedes. All the Indian doctors we knew had big houses and drove Mercedes. Deep down it was the only reason I wanted to become a doctor. I’m not certain about much, but I am certain you’d get rejected from medical school if you said the reason you want to become a doctor is to drive a Mercedes.
Prestige and accolades were the value system that determined most of my plans for the first thirty years of my life. This system was reinforced through every message I received:
- These are the classes you should take.
- These are the colleges you should apply to.
- These are the careers you should consider.
- This is the definition of success.
Most of the messages we receive from our cultural programming are based on collective agreements that we’re actively discouraged from challenging. If you told anyone that I went to college with that working at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey sounded like a terrible opportunity, you’d likely be excommunicated.
So in the fall of 1996, I started college at University of California, Berkeley, filled with hope, optimism, ambition, and dreams. But with each semester’s grades, I lost hope and became less ambitious. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve felt for most of my adult life: I don’t belong here.
- I felt it at Berkeley.
- I feel it when I’m surrounded by Indian people, perhaps more than at any other time.
- I felt it at every job.
- I feel it when I’m at a conference with like-minded individuals and weirdos like me.
- Sometimes I even feel it when I’m in front of an audience who is paying me to be there.
I think the only times I don’t feel that I don’t belong are when I drop into a wave, when I’m flying down a mountain, when I’m behind a microphone, when my head is buried in a book, and when I’m immersed in a blank page. So I’ve chosen to spend my life doing these things.
The fact that something is the next logical step in society’s life plan doesn’t always mean it’s the right step for you. If you want to shape your reality, you must have the courage to question it. That’s the only way it becomes malleable.
Peers, parents, society, friends, and family members might ridicule, criticize, or question your decisions. So often, we make our most important life choices on the basis of other people’s opinions.
The greatest lie that you’re ever told is that you have to choose from the options that are in front of you.
Don't let the options in front of you blind you to the possibilities that surround you.
My first job out of college was for a company that sold medical transcription software. We’d go to conferences where attendees had bumper stickers with slogans like “MDs need MTs.” They were more excited about winning gift certificates to Bed Bath & Beyond than they were about winning the latest tech gadget.
The CEO was on a rampage to fire anyone who disagreed with him or challenged his authority or wasn’t Indian. It didn’t count if you were an Indian American.
Our product manager had built a successful online wine business. His uncle was a prominent Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur. I have no idea why he was working there, but I’m glad he was because he kept things funny, especially when he explained our software development process to me.
“So, if a dog shits on a carpet, you can clean it up, or you can cover it up with newspaper. Now, if the dog shits on the newspaper, you can clean it up or cover it with more newspaper. Eventually the smell will go away. Well, that’s what we do with bugs in the code here.”
I replied, “So what you’re telling me is that our software is dog shit.”
On the surface, and on my resume, I was an inside sales rep for a software company. In reality, I was selling dog shit.
The Longest Relationship I've Ever Had
December 31, 2008 put me on the scenic route for good. There was no turning back after that. I had no idea just how much that day would change my life. It was two days before I came home from a six-month study-abroad program in Brazil. My friends had all gone home early because they had run out of money.
When our plans get disrupted, we can adapt and search for our next adventure, or we can lament the fact that things didn’t turn out the way we thought they would.
All my athletic pursuits up until that point in my life had been disasters.
- I was the most-improved player on my seventh-grade basketball team.
- I was the slowest person on my eighth-grade track team.
- I was the only one of my friends who couldn’t get down a mountain without falling when we took a ski trip in college.
None of this was preparation for a sport that requires a great deal of coordination and willingness to continually adapt to conditions that are always changing. But that December morning, I stood up on a surfboard for the first time. I became a surfer.
Unlike other sports, surfing isn’t a hobby. It’s an identity. It defines people, connects them, and makes them sound like obsessive fucking lunatics to people who don’t surf. It determines our vacation plans, the jobs we’re willing to take, and in many cases who we’re willing to marry.
For male surfers, the ocean is another woman in our lives.
Barring the birth of a child or a wedding, I’m sure surfers have missed lots of things in pursuit of one last wave. If a good swell rolls in, it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. Surfers are in the water. Those words “One last wave and I’m done” have probably been the cause of lost jobs, divorces, and so much more.
Catching that first wave was the first of many inflection points that have led me to take the scenic route, and it’s something I will do for the rest of my life.
I’ve chased her around the world. I’ve refused to live far from her. I’ve tolerated her violent temper tantrums, and the days when she returns my love with indifference, all for those moments of serenity, joy, and bliss that she gives me every time I stand up on a wave. My relationship with the ocean is by far the longest relationship I’ve ever had.
Stop and Look Around
I’ve spent a lot of my life in a big damn hurry to get through lines at the grocery store, at the post office, or at my local Starbucks. But it hasn’t saved me much time at all. It’s paradoxically taken more time, and caused me unnecessary stress and anxiety. It’s worth asking yourself where in your life you’ve been in such a hurry.
- Maybe the love of your life is in line behind you or in front of you.
- Maybe you’ll find that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by striking up a conversation with a stranger.
- Maybe that long layover is a perfect opportunity for a long, slow dinner with an interesting person.
When we’re in so much of a hurry to get somewhere, we fail to see the world around us, even though it’s rich with color, experiences, and opportunities. You defeat the purpose of taking the scenic route when you don’t stop and look around.
The View From the Top
You will take wrong turns, reach false horizons, and end up in dark valleys. You’ll encounter obstacles, reach dead ends, and walk through storms if you choose to take the scenic route. Scenic doesn’t always mean *easy and effortless*.
Every experience in your life is defined by what happens to you and how you react to it. You don’t have very much control over what happens to you.
But you do have control over how you react to it, the story you tell, and the meaning you assign. You get to choose whether something is a temporary circumstance or a permanent identity, whether you’re informed or defined by what happens in your life. This is the choice that determines whether you grow or shrink because of a life experience.
If you choose to view things as temporary circumstances, the most powerful chapters of your work can emerge from the most painful chapters of your life. No experience, whether it’s a job you hate or a relationship that didn’t work, is wasted.
I’ve done the hike to the top of Half Dome at Yosemite twice. It takes almost six hours to get to the top, and I made the mistake of doing the hike with a hangover the second time (not advised). If you want to see the view from the top, you have to be willing to pay the price that it takes to get yourself there.
A FULL-COLOR-FULL CONTACT LIFE
If you’re going to live what my friend Pamela Slim calls a “full color, full contact life,” you’re going to get punched in the face. You’re going to get hurt.
- You’re going to put your heart on the line and someone will break it.
- You’re going to give someone your trust and he or she will betray it.
- You’re going to try something you really care about and fail.
Unless you plan to spend your life like a hermit in a cave, there’s no avoiding this. Pain creates wounds, which turn into scabs that leave scars. Our scars are the reminders and the lessons of our most painful experiences. If you have lots of scars, it’s a good indication that you’ve lived a full color, full contact life.
CONDITIONAL HAPPINESS IS A SELF-CREATED PRISON
Wanting the outside to happen exactly the way you choose is the path of conquest, tyranny, dictatorship. - —Sadhguru, Inner Engineering
Conditional happiness is a recipe for unnecessary suffering. When your happiness is conditional, you’re always at the mercy of your circumstances. You sacrifice joy in the moment for a possibility of happiness in the future.
You write a book. But then you decide that it needs to become a New York Times best seller in order for you to be happy. Your happiness depends on something that’s outside your control. Even if it does become a best seller, this is only a temporary circumstance, not a permanent identity. For about a week, I was a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. It wasn’t my permanent identity. Eventually people forgot. My life returned to normal, and I just kept writing.
If your son or daughter has to be married for you to be happy, you live in the future and deny yourself the joy that’s accessible to you in the present. Say your child gets married. Then all your suffering was for nothing. What a waste of your precious life.
Because of hedonic adaptation, this change of circumstance won’t lead to the everlasting happiness you think it will. Something else will replace it. What you’ve been wanting so desperately all along will be your new normal. The reference group will change. Now you don’t have an unmarried son or daughter—instead, you don’t have any grandkids. Conditional happiness keeps us living in a perpetual state of deficiency.
My oldest friend told me that people started asking her when she was having kids within a week of her wedding. When she had her first daughter, people asked when she was having the next one. And after three daughters, somebody asked her whether she wanted a son. Biology isn’t the same as ordering packages on Amazon, and the fact that someone has three daughters doesn’t mean he or she wanted a son. As author Natasha Badhwar says in her book Immortal for a Moment, “We all isolate each other, callously spitting smug, self-righteous judgements without a second thought. We have quick-stick labels for everyone, irrespective of the personal choices we may have made.”
If other people’s circumstances have to change in order for you to be happy, your happiness is outside your control. And your emotions will affect their perception of you. If they see that their unchanged circumstances are the source of your unhappiness, their only solution will be to distance themselves from you. They will feel as if they are the source of your misery. Why would *you* want to spend time with a person if that were the case?
In the book The Three Laws of Performance, authors Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan tell the story of an Indian woman at the Landmark Forum whose husband had left her and whose daughter had died in the same year. Naturally, she was grief-stricken. But then she realized that she was denying her son the thing that he needed most in that moment: a happy mother.
Earlier this year I was going through what felt like a roommate search from hell. Just when I thought I was going to be screwed, the perfect roommate showed up. The conditions changed and all that stress and suffering was for nothing.
Conditional happiness is a form of desperation and creates an energy of scarcity. Scarcity repels money, romantic partners, opportunities, etc. Out of scarcity, we choose jobs we hate, partners who violate our boundaries or treat us like shit. But unconditional happiness creates an energy of abundance. You don’t cling to anything. You’re able to hold things with an open hand.
When your happiness is conditional, you live in a hell and prison of your own creation. But it’s a prison that you can leave any time you’d like. You have the key that unlocks the door. The paradox is that when you stop needing the conditions to change in order to make you happy, they do change.
While it is sometimes excruciating to not have what you want, suffering until you get it is pointless and stupid. Whether you suffer or not, the conditions will eventually change because change is the only constant. Conditional happiness leads to unnecessary suffering, while unconditional happiness opens up an infinite well of joy.
WHAT IF TODAY WAS THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE?
Time is the most valuable asset at your disposal. Unlike money, it’s a nonrenewable resource. Once you’ve spent it, it’s gone. Think about all the time that we waste resenting the people who hurt us, lamenting the things we failed at, and staring at the highlight reels of other people’s lives on Facebook and Instagram.
There are few things I’ve regretted in my life more than wasting precious time on things that I could never change.
A few years ago, I met a guy in a coffee shop. Every single time someone walked up to him and asked how he was doing, he said, “It’s the best day of my life.” I was having one of the worst years of my life, so I thought I’d ask him why it was the best day of his, and this is what he told me.
I realized at a certain point in my life that there was less time in front of me than there was behind me. So from that day forward, I decided that every single day was the best day of my life.—a guy in a coffee shop
Maybe it’s worth reconsidering how much time you’re pissing away on things that won’t matter a year from now or ten years from now. Maybe today is the best day of your life.
EVERYBODY IS DOING THE BEST THEY CAN WITH? WHAT THEY HAVE
I believe there are only two kinds of people in the world—those who love and those who are cruel. People who love transform their anger into forgiveness and the cruel change anger into a tool that creates disasters. —A. R. Rahman, The Spirit of Music
A few years ago, I had a breakup that shattered my identity, made me question the existence of God, and filled me with rage and resentment. My feelings blinded me to the nicest thing someone could possibly say to you when ending a relationship: you’re a gift to the world.
It took me a long time to realize that resentment is the acid that destroys the person who carries it. Forgiveness, on the other hand, sets you free. We confuse forgiving and forgetting. We’re stuck with our memories. But we’re not stuck with the stories we tell about them.
Bob Goff once said to me, “A lot of times in our lives, when we’ve been hurt, there’s an emotional sting. But eventually, you realize that everybody is doing the best they can with what they have.”
That’s what love does. Even when it hurts. Even when it doesn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. It makes us see that everybody is doing the best they can with what they have.
We see the world through the lenses of the stories we tell ourselves. If you see the world through the lenses of rage and anger, that’s what will color your perceptions. If you see the world through the belief that everybody is doing the best they can with what they have, that will shape your reality. The first makes you bitter. The second makes you better.
DAMN GOOD REASONS TO DEVIATE FROM YOUR ITINERARY
A friend of mine was on her way to meet me at a bookstore in India and got stuck in traffic. She was worried I might miss my flight. I told her the worst-case scenario was that I’d take another flight. It would be totally worth it if I got to spend more time with her.
When some people travel, they freak out if things don’t go exactly as planned or if they have to deviate from the itinerary. But there are damn good reasons to deviate from the itinerary:
- If you got stuck in traffic and missed your flight because you were spending time with a cute girl you have a crush on.
- If the surf picks up, a swell rolls in, and the waves get better.
- If a storm brings in a foot of fresh powder.
- If you miss a flight at any time of day because you were having mind-blowing sex.
- If you want to spend one more hour, one more day, or one more night with a friend or family member that you absolutely adore.
There’s always going to be another flight, or another way to get there. So there’s no point sacrificing damn good reasons to deviate from your itinerary.
The Backdrop Matters Far Less than The People You're With
It's the perspective we choose— not the places we visit— that ultimately tells us where we stand - Pico Iyer
You could visit the most exciting place on the planet with the most boring people in the world. Or you could visit the most boring place on earth with the most amazing people in the world. The latter would be infinitely more fulfilling.
In all the times I had visited India, I’d never seen the Taj Mahal. My sister said pictures didn’t do it justice. Unfortunately, the day of my visit, my friend was unable to join me because of a death in the family. I completely understood her predicament. So I decided to go alone.
There’s no question—it’s breathtaking and awe-inspiring. But, despite the fact that it is one of the seven wonders of the world, it was the least memorable of my experiences in India.
- The day I spent hopping from bookstore to bookstore with my friend was one that I would treasure more than my visit to the Taj Mahal.
- The week I spent with the first surfers in India mattered more to me than the Taj Mahal.
- Eating and drinking my way through Hyderabad with my young cousins would always be a fonder memory than the Taj Mahal.
Those were the days that would stay forever in my heart and mind, while my visit to the Taj Mahal meant little more than some pictures I could upload to Instagram and Facebook. The backdrop matters less than the people you’re with. Backdrops lead to pretty pictures. Time with people leads to unforgettable memories, even if those memories are as simple as a cab ride from the airport.
When you turn forty, it can feel a bit like the journey is half over. You start to contemplate your mortality and that of the people closest to you. For me, the fear of being alone was replaced by the fear that my parents might not be around to see the milestone moments of marriage, kids, and all those things I thought would have happened by now.
Shortly before I turned forty, I interviewed Frank Ostaseski, the director of the Zen Hospice Project. Frank has had a front-row seat for death. So I asked him about my fear. He told me not to wait for the milestones, to spend time with my aging parents now. So I started going home for dinner every Sunday.
I fill my parents in on the events of the week: book sales, surf conditions, interviews, etc. We discuss the presidency, which they find shocking since I’ve always encouraged them not to watch the news. I avoid telling them about the people I have gone on dates with or hooked up with, and they don’t ask because we now have an unspoken rule that when it’s worth telling, I will.
Indian mothers have the superpower of being able to make amazing food without any recipes. They use “dashes of this and that” combined with instinct to make meals that are unmistakably theirs and impossible to replicate. Just ask any Indian person who has stood next to his or her mother at a stove and tried. The kitchen is their canvas, and meals are their art. For Indians, food is the glue that brings us together and meals shape our memories.
My friend Neha once sent me a message that said, “I might be biased, but my mother is the best cook in the world.” With rare exceptions, every Indian mother is the best cook in the world. There’s very little that I can say with 100 percent certainty is a worthwhile reason to stop when you’re taking the scenic route. But I am 100 percent certain about this: if somebody offers you a home-cooked Indian meal, don’t ever turn it down.
UNICORNS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PLANET
I’d sworn off romantic interest in anyone who knew me through my work. They’re into the persona, not the person; the fantasy, not the reality. I never live up to their expectations. Having a public presence of any kind makes you guarded because it becomes hard to decipher who is there because he or she is really your friend and who is there because of your perceived status (which in daily life, nobody gives a fuck about). Maybe it was because I was 10,000 miles from home. Maybe it was because she was on the sideline during one of the most intimate moments of my life: shopping for my sister’s wedding.
I texted my friend Joseph and wrote, “What would you say if I told you I met an Indian girl who is down to learn how to surf and snowboard?” He replied, saying, “I think you’ve found a unicorn.” But the universe apparently has a sense of humor, because I discovered a unicorn in an inconvenient place: on the other side of the damn planet.
With her, I didn’t feel rushed, in a hurry, or as if I had somewhere to be. I felt like myself: quirks, imperfections, sarcasm, and no pressure to perform, to live up to some image that I’ve created on the internet under the disguise of a “personal brand.” We talked for hours, sharing stories about our families, and I told her my feels so crazy that even Mira Nair would say “holy shit.”
Every time I saw her, she was prettier than the time before. We smoked a joint and went bookstore hopping, and when we were at a tourist attraction in Dehli, I told her my parents might ask questions if they saw that I’d spent the last two days with an Indian girl. When she asked me what I was going to tell them, I stumbled through an answer, while secretly wanting to kiss her right then and there.
But if I did and she didn’t react well, I’d be screwed. She was my tour guide, and I’m certain that I wasn’t equipped to navigate the adventure of walking around old Dehli on my own. So I hesitated ... until we were in the Uber, saying goodbye with the looming possibility that I wouldn’t see her again.
We kissed before we parted ways and I couldn’t help thinking I wanted to see her again. When I told her I thought I’d regret leaving India without seeing her again, she expressed concerns that I might come back to see her with expectations about what would happen.
I made it clear that I had no expectations and that I just wanted to see her again. Because I had no expectations at all, every moment was a delight instead of a disappointment, and the time we spent together led to some of my fondest memories of my trip.
I also wondered what would happen if a girl I started dating back home read this. Would she wonder if I was all in? After all, it’s completely impractical to date someone on the other side of the planet. The one and only long-distance relationship I’ve attempted was a disaster.
Simon Sinek once posted on Twitter, “My favorite definition of love is giving someone the power to destroy you and trusting they won’t use it.” While I like the definition, I don’t know whether there’s anyone who won’t use that power, because there never has been.
When you’ve been hurt, you lose the ability to love with reckless abandon. You’re cautiously optimistic. You let the walls down one brick at a time. If there’s any indication that the wall might crumble and you might be destroyed, you put the bricks back. You choose to be vulnerable in small doses as opposed to big portions. You temper your expectations, or ditch them altogether. Delete a phone number, take a shot, book a trip, go down the mountain as fast as you can go so you can forget about it all.
So far in my life, I knew I was going to break up with the girls I was dating within weeks of dating. But the ones I hoped would stay never have.
I also couldn’t help but wonder whether this whole experience was amplified and intensified because I was in a novel environment. When you’re in another country, everything is a stimulus. And when you’re in a country like India, crossing the road is a death-defying adventure. There’s cause for celebration every time you get to the other side.
When my soon-to-be brother-in-law and my sister arrived in India, he asked right away, “What’s up with this girl?” He’s perceptive enough to tell there’s something up from the way I mention her. When I tell him we smoked a joint and went bookstore hopping, he said, “It’s no wonder you like her.”
When I landed back in the US, I texted the cousin whom I’m closest to, who is like my other sister, whom I trust the most, who is my litmus test for any woman that I’d ever let into my life. Then I told her that this is completely impractical. So I sent my new friend a message on Instagram, told her I’m quitting social media for thirty days, and said, “Meeting you was one of my fondest memories of 2018.”
Without the weight of your expectations, you can travel lightly, see more, experience less disappointment and more delight. You might even find a unicorn on the other side of the planet.
ATTENDING MY SISTER'S WEDDING WITHOUT A DATE
Every couple of months, I make an appointment to see my therapist, just to check in. By September 2018, I’d hit something of a low point:
- My business partner and I had parted ways.
- My books weren’t selling as well as I’d hoped.
- Money was getting tighter.
At this point, my parents are wise enough to know that something is wrong when I make an appointment to see my therapist. My dad asks what’s wrong and offers to help me with money, and I can’t say a word, just shed tears. He reminds me that there’s going to be so much to look forward to.
During my appointment, I tell my therapist that I’m probably going to be at my sister’s wedding without a date. I feel ashamed, unwanted, and unlovable. Being at my younger sister’s wedding without a date seems like the ultimate indicator that I suck at relationships.
For ten years, since my last relationship, I haven’t had a date for anybody’s wedding. At this point, it seems like the only wedding I’ll have a date for is my own.
But then something shifted. I surrendered. I accepted that I’d probably be at the wedding without a date. I stopped seeing myself as the guy at my sister’s wedding without a date, and instead as the most eligible bachelor.
The week of the wedding, there was so much joy and love in the air that I felt anything but unlovable. I was seeing family I hadn’t seen in years and having the time of my life.
My mother was glowing. My dad looked like an Indian James Bond in his tux, and he spent about fifteen minutes at the end of the night bragging to my mother about how many compliments he had received. The way my sister looked in all her outfits made me feel the way Glennon Doyle described having a sister:
Being a sister's sister is like being a museum curator charged with protecting and displaying a precious gift. When someone comes to look, I have to make sure he gets it. I have to make sure he's paying enough attention. I have to make sure he understands the value of the artwork. I have to make sure he's approaching with the right mix of curiosity and reverence. I have to make sure he's in the proper state of Awe.
I knew two things going into this: I look good in a tux and I’m damn good at giving speeches. If you’re my age and single at an Indian wedding, you’ll hear one of two things: “You’re next!” or “When are you getting married?” I’d been completely annoyed by this for years. But with my speech, I decided to put my network of “Indian aunties” to work.
I opened my speech with a slide of my phone number and said, “For all of you Indian aunties who might be wondering when I’m getting married, you can text profiles, pictures, and all other relevant information about potential suitors to this number. I’ll expect a report on your progress by the end of next week.”
The speech was a big hit. One of my brother-in-law’s friends invited me to speak to his students at Texas A&M University, and people came up to me all night telling me how much they had enjoyed the speech.
When one of my mom’s friends came up to me, I explained that I’d meet anyone she wanted, but if she set me up on one bad date, I’d fire her. After all, if she set me up on a bad date, she didn’t know me well enough to be qualified for the job. This would be like The Apprentice. The last aunty standing would win. As of right now, those aunties have proved to be unqualified and unmotivated to do my bidding. They're the worst unpaid employees in the world.
When we stop catastrophizing and wallowing in self pity, obstacles become opportunities, pain turns into potential, and being at your sister’s wedding without a date becomes the opportunity of a lifetime.
HOW WILL YOU MEASURE YOUR LIFE?
Several years ago, a Harvard Business School professor named Clayton Christensen wrote a book titled *How Will You Measure Your Life?* It’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the past ten years. I’ve measured my life in dollars, prestige, status, notches on my bed post, book sales, podcast downloads, traffic to my website, and other vanity metrics. I’ve also measured it according to other people’s expectations, with their yardstick.
Here’s a harsh truth you probably don’t ever consider when you’re worrying about how you’re going to make more money or have sex with that hot girl or guy, or about how your start-up is going to succeed: When you’ve taken your final breath and you’re six feet under, nobody will give a fuck what was on your resume, how big your bank balance was, or how many people visited your website. Instead they’ll be giving your eulogy. What are they going to say? Measure your life accordingly.
ADVICE FOR GRADUATING SENIORS
A few years ago, I gave a talk to my high school AP English teacher’s class of graduating seniors. There’s probably no other time in your life when you have so much freedom, and your life is ripe with so many possibilities. This is what I shared with them.
Not too long ago … well, actually twenty years ago (which has gone by in the blink of an eye), I was sitting exactly where you’re sitting, doing what you’re doing, in Miss Fauver’s AP English class, about to graduate and at a time and a place in my life, much like the one you’re in, when, in the words of Elle Luna “nothing is known and everything is possible.”
So I thought what I’d share with you is the advice that I would give myself if I could go back and talk to the eighteen-year-old version of me. Ironically, if I had known everything I’m about to tell you, I might not have been here telling it to you. That’s the thing about being eighteen. You think you know everything. So, in no particular order of importance, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned on this journey.
What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?
Chances are you’ve been giving a lot of thought to the answer to this question: What do you want to do with your life? And it’s kind of a loaded question because, despite what you might think, you hardly know who you are. You’ve only lived a small fraction of your life. You might be tempted to answer that question with how you plan to earn a living. **But there’s a difference between what you plan to do with your life and how you plan to earn a living.**
When you don’t limit the answer to that question, you open yourself up for a hell of a ride. Even though you’ve probably spent the past eighteen years of your life searching for the right answers in order to get good grades, pass AP tests, get into the college of your dreams, and become masters of the universe, I’m not sure there are any right answers. And even if there are, I encourage you to search for interesting ones.
So make a list of everything you plan to do with you life.
- Write it down in a notebook.
- Don’t worry about how crazy or insane it sounds, or how it’s ever going to happen.
- Just make the list.
At the end of every year, see how many things you’ve managed to cross off.
As you get older, fatter, and slower (which I know sounds unlikely to you right now), some of those things might not be as easy as they seem right now. So use your time wisely.
The author Neil Gaiman refers to his list as the mountain. And he once said that as long as he kept walking toward the mountain he knew he’d be all right. And that’s the first piece of advice I’d give to you and to my eighteen-year-old self: Don’t walk away from the mountain.
Maybe You Have Plans
Maybe you have plans, even a career in mind. If you have Indian parents, some options might have been implicitly or explicitly suggested to you: “Do you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer? Well, how do you plan to earn a living otherwise?”
Maybe you’ve had this conversation at your kitchen table with your parents. I wish someone had told me that you don’t have to choose from the options in front of you. There’s a whole set that you’ll find if you’re just willing to look for them. But I didn’t look for them. My plan included Berkeley in the fall, straight As, and some high-profile job that I could eventually brag about on my resume. Which takes us to the next question …
What is school for?
- 1. To attend the greatest party of your life and have lots of sex (if you weren’t cool enough to do that in high school)?
- To change the world?
Ideally, both. And I know this because I managed to do neither. I had a map and a plan. I thought about being an English major and I went to a career fair on campus two weeks after school started. A recruiter at Accenture told me they didn’t hire English majors. So I dropped that idea. And every single choice I made from that point forward was based on what I thought would lead to a job.
I didn’t get straight As. I never got the high-profile job. And because of that, I wasted one of the greatest gifts that was ever given to me: Berkeley, with a world of possibilities that I would have seen if I hadn’t just been looking at the ones in front of me.
So don’t be in such a hurry to grow up and get a real job.
Embrace your curiosity. Study how to make films, cook delicious food,make good art, and do other things that seem like they have no practical purpose. In indulging your curiosity, you’re much more likely to find a calling, which beats the hell out of a career.
Maybe college isn’t part of your plan. The good news is that there are other ways to attend the greatest party of your life, have lots of sex, and change the world. And given the rising cost of tuition, they’re probably more cost-effective.
The beautiful thing about being young is that you have no real responsibilities. You can take big risks, the kind that your parents, peers, and society might initially frown upon, but will ultimately cause you to grow in ways you never imagined. Some of my happiest, most successful friends are the ones who did stints as ski bums before they became “productive members” of society.
When It Doesn’t Go According to Plan
Even if you have this whole journey all mapped out, it probably won’t go according to plan. Besides, what fun would that be? I graduated into two recessions.
- The first was in December 2001.
- The second was from graduate school, in April 2009.
One of those recessions you grew up with, the other you probably have little recollection of. Just imagine a time when there was no Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhone, and no Instagram. I know what you’re thinking: “Damn, that dude is really old.”
At thirty-one, I was broke, had two degrees, and had a resume that looked a bit more like a rap sheet. So I turned to the two things that have become the driving force of my life: surfing and writing. I finally did what I wish I had figured out when I was your age: I ditched my map for a compass.
A map is great if you want to go where people have been before. A compass, even though uncertain and unpredictable, will cause you to pave new paths and lead you to unexpected and amazing places. So, for the past seven years, I’ve trusted my compass. It hasn’t always been fun. It hasn’t always been easy. But it has always been interesting.
- I wrote every single day, until I was writing 1,000 words a day.
- I started a show called the *Unmistakable Creative* that thousands of people around the world listen to today.
- Since I couldn’t achieve something worthy of being invited to TED, I planned my own conference and convinced nine friends to speak and sixty attendees to show up.
And close to the end of 2014, I almost quit. That’s the thing about a creative career. It will test your commitment to it. But because I wasn’t sure what else to do with myself, I told my parents, “Give me until the end of the year, and if it hasn’t worked out, I’ll quit and I’ll get a real job.” Two months later an editor found my work online, and about a month ago, I got an offer from Penguin Portfolio to write two books. And it happened right after I was almost ready to throw in the towel.
Have there been hard things? Sure. I’ve seen my friends lose their parents, some lose spouses, and others lose their kids. Life is a combination of soul-smashing and beautiful things, none of which can you really prepare for. But it is also filled with tiny beautiful things, as Cheryl Strayed would say.
So I’ll leave you with this, which I hope more than any of what I’ve said you’ll take to heart:
- May your eyes be clear.
- May your hearts be full.
- May curiosity rule your senses.
- May enthusiasm ignite your actions.
- May you see what can’t be seen by the world around you.
- May you make the impossible possible
- May you strip away your fears, your expectations, and your doubts, and unleash upon the world your gift of the boundless originality that resides within you.
- May you steal like an artist when appropriate, as I have throughout this talk.
Let your life be filled with the magic of hours that feel like minutes, and minutes that feel like seconds.
Let it be filled with words that sound like music, paintings that look like movies, and people who touch your heart.
Let it be filled with sunsets, sunrises, perfect waves, long-drawn-out kisses in the rain, chocolate cake with ice cream, and moments that flash before your eyes like a montage when you die.
When you arrive at the crossroads of should and must that Elle Luna refers to, choose must. When you must choose between the map and the compass, embrace the compass. When you have a choice between the most efficient way to get somewhere and the scenic route, take the latter.
Make living your art, life your canvas, and remember, you like the gods were born to create.
AN AUDIENCE OF ONE
My previous book was titled An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake. It was about letting go of the expectations we have for our creative work and finding joy in the creative process. I struggled to let go of my expectations for that book. But eventually I did and got back to work.
I know myself well enough to know that if I’m not writing, if I’m not working on something, I’m not happy. I feel as if I’m moving but not going anywhere. One of my friends said it’s safe to assume that I’m always working on a new book, even if a publisher doesn’t want to publish it, even if nobody wants to read it or buy it. It’s something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
I didn’t write this book for you. I wrote it for me. It feels amazing to be back at my desk, tapping away at the keyboard, back in touch with the joy of creating for an Audience of One.
BECOME AN EXPLORER OF THE WORLD
The scenic route has led me to distant shores in pursuit of waves and to mountains in pursuit of snow. It has taken me around the world and helped me discover the adventures in my own backyard. It has led to friendships with people from all walks of life and taken me beyond the boundaries of race, religion, and status. It has taught me to look beyond the options in front of me and it has opened my eyes to the possibilities that surround me. It has made me an explorer of the world.
Sure, my life hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. But I wouldn’t be who I am if it had. It hasn’t been perfect, but whose life is? It’s had unmet expectations, but whose life hasn’t?
If there’s one thing that this journey has taught me, it’s that there’s so much to see, so much to experience. But your life will always be limited if you’re rigid about your plans.
Travel with a compass instead of a map. Go off the beaten path instead of taking the track that’s well worn. Choose what’s unfamiliar over what’s comfortable. Say yes to what makes your heart sing. Say no to what makes it ache. Say yes to beers with new friends and no to arguments with old enemies.
When you’re tempted to linger, give in to that temptation. Give in to it
- when you’re kissing someone, or staring at something awe-inspiring
- when the final notes of beautiful music echo,
- when it means a long, slow dinner when you and a friend are the very last people at the restaurant.
Because there’s really no point in taking the scenic route if you’re not going to stop and linger.
Your life may not have turned out the way you thought it would. But that doesn’t mean it won’t turn out the way it could.
Living in the present as if the future is somehow prewritten or predetermined on the basis of your past not only limits your potential, it robs you of joy. Your future is unwritten and filled with an infinite set of possibilities. You are an eternal work in progress, and your life is a blank canvas and a masterpiece in the making—so live like it.
Created with images by Francesca Tirico - "untitled image" • GOLDINPIC - "spring vegetables comfort" • Dark Rider - "Guitar on fire" • qimono - "doors choices choose" • Rodion Kutsaev - "Yellow wall" • Denys Nevozhai - "Cityscape and interchange" • Caleb Jones - "Muir Woods trails" • Jeremy Bishop - "untitled image" • James Zwadlo - "Road by the dark woods" • Brannon Naito - "Unbelievable View of Half Dome" • jplenio - "sea ocean water" • i yunmai - "untitled image" • PublicDomainPictures - "sad child boy" • Alvaro Reyes - "Fireworks" • 27707 - "boy silhouette family fun" • sammisreachers - "prison prisoner slavery" • Monoar - "clock alarm clock watch" • Pexels - "art fingers heart" • Ashim D’Silva - "Airport in the evening" • ArtificialOG - "indian food indian kitchen meal" • Debashis Biswas - "The Color of India" • DariuszSankowski - "knowledge book library" • Fleur Treurniet - "Measuring tools" • Gellinger - "books read learn" • Kyle Glenn - "untitled image"