The Lessons I’ve Learned

Andrew Chen - India


May 31, 2019

Hey guys! Today will probably be my last blog. I wanted to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned from my gap year, whether I learned them from experiencing Indian society; meeting people from other walks of life; or simply from having time to reflect on my life – a basic luxury I often didn’t feel like I had during the hectic past two years. Although there are far too many for me to cover and explain, I want to write down a few salient ones that are coming to mind.

The first lessons are the ones I’ve learned simply from living in India and experiencing a vastly different life and culture. I had grown up with my life revolving around school, sports, spending time with friends, and engaging with American media, pop-culture, and forms of entertainment in an upper/middle-class setting. Though I had obviously known that people live vastly different lives around the world, it was hard to understand what that entailed on an emotional level when I had never been out of the country for purposes other than a brief vacation. I now realize how many aspects of my life I previously took for granted without thinking about it. I’m not solely referring to the material, wealth-related things like having constant WiFi available; while it is true that American infrastructure and institutions may be more developed in many aspects, many of the differences were a result of a difference in culture, rather than an economic reality.

The second is about the importance of having loving people in my life while simultaneously being independent. I had always been somewhat shy growing up, and when I finally had the confidence to be myself and make my own friends towards the end of middle school, they became a huge part of my life. I didn’t just enjoy hanging out with them, but they also became a source of confidence for me since I felt there was always someone there I could rely on for support when I needed it. Over time though, as school became busier and more stressful, I increasingly relied on them for support rather than deal with my problems independently. Although I still go to friends for support, I now feel like this level of dependence on my friends was a result of a lack of confidence and a detrimental mindset that held me back from simply taking care of the things I needed to take care of. The independence I had in India alongside the reflection that came with it has given me a much clearer perspective of what tasks I can accomplish alone, and what challenges I will need help with. My more independent mindset has given me a strong sense of self-efficacy, boosting my confidence and happiness, while still allowing me to cherish my friends and relationships just as much as I did before. It’s also enabling me to be a better person for them as well.

The third development I’ve made in India has been finding a set of values that are important to me. Although there are many nuances, they can generally be simplified into a few things: be confident; be humble; be open-minded; practice constant reflection and critical thinking; maintain a big picture perspective of what’s important; don’t be afraid to pursue and follow my truth; know why I’m doing what I’m doing; and don’t take life too seriously. Why these 8 general values in particular are important could be its own blog post; they mostly come from seeing a completely different society and realizing how many other possibilities and walks of human life there are. I now have a more objective perspective of living, and better understand that what we commonly accept as normal here in the US in terms of lifestyle, values, and priorities are far from absolute truth. It’s helped me realize the extent to which my culture has shaped who I am today, and that awareness allows me to improve myself by determining what aspects of my culture I believe in and eliminating the parts that I disagree with. Using my 8 general values as a simple, easily rememberable compass, I’m hoping to continue living my best life given the privileges I have in the world.

The fourth lesson is related to being open-minded but is important enough to deserve its own point: life sentences. This is an idea I heard during a presentation by a guest speaker during our retreat in Bangalore. It refers not to prison sentences, but to the narratives and decisions we make about our life and our identity that prevent us from pursuing opportunities in life – opportunities that we might enjoy deeply if we were open-minded to considering it. For example, he talked about his sister, who is a very by-the-book person, was a great student in school, has a great job at a banking firm, and is super successful by most metrics. However, he mentioned how she was always stressed about something, was often unhappy, and couldn’t bring herself to slow down and enjoy life sometimes. He said that she had already decided the type of person she wanted to be a long time ago and couldn’t bring herself to see happier possibilities for her life because she didn’t want to deviate from that image of who she decided she would be. It reminded me a lot of how I used to think about my life before I took this gap year: I felt like I had to do well in school and go to a prestigious college, rush to a career, eventually have a stable, well-paying job with a nice family and a nice home, and just be a generally “successful” person. I had already defined so many parts of myself that it blocked off a lot of positive options I had, such as taking a gap year. His speech inspired me to be open-minded to new life paths and to not be afraid to question whether I truly benefitted from the various decisions I had made about my life and what I wanted to do. I feel that only good can come from it: if I don’t truly benefit from that then I can stop doing it, and if I decide it’s still what’s best for me, then I have even more conviction and motivation to continue that activity.

The fifth development is about what I want to major in at college. I had always wanted to be an economics major since I believed it was the best way to understand the global society that has determined most of our life experience. Although I still want to study economics in college, I now also want to take more math and physics courses, because of my love for problem-solving, analyzing the foundations of my knowledge, and simply improving my understanding the world in a rigorous manner. I also feel like it’ll help me develop better thinking-skills that I can apply towards learning other things in life in the future. I’ve realized I want to prioritize taking the courses I find the most interesting, and that piecing those classes into a combination of majors and minors is a secondary priority. I want to enjoy my college education for its own sake, not as some kind of preprofessional stepping stone, and trust that I’ll have the skills and experiences to be successful after college. My current thinking is to take courses with a math/physics/economics bent, and graduate with perhaps a Math major with a specialization in Economics, paired with a physics minor, since it satisfies my curiosity furthers my intrinsic goal of learning more about the world I live in. Of course, this is definitely also a flexible plan; it’s possible I take math courses at UChicago and decide I absolutely hate it – and that whatever I’d learn from it is not worth the pain of going through it. It’s possible I like the idea of improving my thinking more than the actual reality that tackling such a rigorous subject entail, and I’m keen on finding the right balance between embracing a good challenge and enduring unworthwhile, and unnecessary, academic suffering.

The final lesson I wanted to share from my time in India is the discoveries I made about the relationship between personal desire, economic reality, and social responsibility. I feel that these three categories are the bigger picture behind all of my day-to-day activities, and I want to use them as a framework to clearly understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Personal desires encompass everything I want to do with my life and the activities I enjoy, such as traveling, cycling, or playing sports. They are what genuinely make me happy, and they’re the personal goals I’m always striving towards. Then there are economic realities – encompassing everything I need to do to have enough money to fulfill necessities and whatever luxuries I can afford. It can include doing work I don’t genuinely enjoy, but still complete for its economic benefits. I want to carefully maintain perspective when I do so, however, since I think it can be easy to justify staying in an unhappy and unsatisfying job purely because of its economic benefits, when that money might not be worth the negative experience. Finally, there’s the social responsibility aspect: I don’t want to blindly pursue my self-interest without acknowledging all the privileges I’ve been granted in life and that have allowed me to have the amazing life I feel I live today. I want to be conscientious of others and self-aware in my actions, and do what I can to be a good global citizen even if it doesn’t directly benefit me.

Together, these three categories cover all of the overarching reasons for everything that I do. I’m aiming to use reflection to make sure I’m balancing my efforts in all three of these directions. What I want to avoid are situations where I’m overworking myself without a goal in mind, or enjoying myself too much while being financially irresponsible and not caring about others. So far, it’s helped me make more sense of my life, and given me clarity when making decisions about what I want to do in the future, and I think it’ll continue serving me well into the future.

So that’s all! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blogs, and that they’ve provided some insight on what my time in India was like. Today I’m looking forward to the future – towards doing trail-work in Alaska this summer and going to UChicago this fall – and I’m super excited for what it’ll bring. But I know one thing for sure: I’ll never forget my time in India or lose appreciation for how much it’s changed me for the better.

With joy,

Andrew

Andrew Chen