A few nights ago, while chatting with one of my friends in the GSB, he said something along the lines of “Yeah, I still don’t know what I want to do.” I was surprised. Of all people, business school students should be the most focused, the most career-oriented, right? If they’re not, what hope do the rest of us have? I realized, then, that I’ve heard some variation of that from a lot of my peers: We came to Stanford thinking we’d do X (computer science, in my case) and find ourselves doing, not just Y, but half of the rest of the alphabet (math, writing, etc. in my case).
I thought back to a professor I’d had in Hawaii who left me with a lasting impression. In his bio, he was a physicist and mathematician, a jet pilot and a multiple Molokai-crossing waterman. In person, he had long, grey hair and a full beard, one bad eye, and a limp that you imagined he’d somehow earned with a good story. In class, he made everything interesting. Instead of tracking a rock falling from a certain height, you had just pushed the new guy down a well and you listened for the splash to calculate his velocity when he hit the water. And you never knew when he would go from deriving a multivariable function to talking about when he flew Air Force One for Gaddafi.
One evening, after class, we stood in the parking lot talking about his recent interview in D.C.. He was applying for some wild job for some three-letter agency that sounded like the Navy SEALs of mathematicians. He was optimistic about it. The head mathematician had spent four hours with him personally in what was supposed to be an interview, but had quickly turned into a friendly math-problem solving session. (That’s a thing, apparently.) He said that what he liked the most was the feeling that he’d been completely honest with them. He’d spared them no details about himself, and sugar-coated nothing. “I’d rather they turn me away,” he said, “than be hired as something that I’m not.”
But what stuck with me was when he talked about his skills. “Everyone in there is brilliant,” he said, “And everyone can think outside the box. But the box that I bring to think outside of is radically different from everyone else’s.”
I told him that was encouraging to hear because, at the time (it’s even worse now) I found myself going from one orthogonal thing to another. (Orthogonal means at right angles to each other. It was a word I’d just learned and I felt very smart for using.) “I started out as a medic,” I said, “I was a SEAL for awhile, and now I’m going into computer science, and…”
He cut me off.
“Everything will converge,” he said. “You’ll see.” He started tracing parallel lines in the crisp night air with his fingers. “You think you’re doing these irrelevant things, and then you start something new, and you think it’s another thing.” He traced another line. “But space is curved. Over time, you start seeing how it’s all connected. This leads into that, that makes you better at this. It’s hard to see now, but when you get older, you’ll remember me and go a-ha!”
I said look, I believe you, but it’s hard to know what things to be doing.
“Aah,” he replied, “that’s when you have to listen to your fundamental frequency.” Just like in class, he went on, with the two dads pushing their kids on the swing (one of the kids had been pushed into orbit), if you push against the universe with the wrong frequency, the universe pushes back. You’ll make some changes but you might actually be reducing the power of your system. “The universe is always trying to resonate with you,” he said, “and if you tune in to it, that is where your spirit comes from.” (Again, this dude was a world-class physicist.)
I used to think experience had to be linear in order for it to be useful. You were a better sniper if you had been a hunter, but not if you were a circus clown. You became a better nurse if you had experience as an EMT, but not if you were a used car salesman. Now, I’m starting to change my perspective. The hours spent tweaking C++ code late into the night remind me of the hours I used to spend working on my dive gear. The patience and strategy that my negotiation professor encourages reflect the values of my old jiu-jitsu dojo. In math problems and creative writing projects, two seemingly irreconcilable endeavors, I approach with the same mindset ––that I don’t know where this will go but will trust the process –– and I stare, at first, at the same blank page.
In Self-Reliance, Emerson writes: “A sturdy man… who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school … and so forth, … is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives it already.”
So what’s the point of doing a little computer science, struggling at math, obsessing with writing, coaching jiu-jitsu, dog training, taking one voice class and so on? I still don’t know. But maybe the point of learning is not so much to become better at this skill or that, but to become better at being ourselves. And when you think about it, orthogonal axes are precisely what give dimensions to our world.