Trees and Changing Leaves (2020 Reflection)
In his “The Interpretation of Cultures”, Clifford Geertz wrote that “one of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but in the end having lived only one.”
The year is 2015. I was about to start my senior year of high school and in the middle of contemplating which colleges I should apply to. I was a generalist, a jack-of-all trades, and passionate about virtually everything. I was the captain of my high school’s Lincoln-Douglas debate team, and I was also the president of our school’s Science Olympiad club. I loved biology and chemistry as much as I loved math and computer science, which I loved as much as I loved English and French. My polyamory came at a cost though, and I felt genuine anguish as I mulled over the options. But as I considered all of the possible futures laid out before me, one of them lingered in the back of my head rent-free long after I closed the spreadsheet, like a nagging, insatiable itch.
In English class that year, to help us all prepare for our college applications, we were to bring our personal statement to class for others to give feedback on. I wrote about how I had wanted to become a doctor after my experience growing up with my grandmother being ill. I loved my grandma dearly, but she was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and my memories of her, while bright, catalog her decline due to the disease. As her cancer reared its ugly head, I watched her and my family suffer, and my childhood was defined by her physical decline and my aunt’s mental decline. And as I remembered what it felt like, and how helpless I felt, I felt resolve. I’d never want to feel that helpless again. I wanted to be able to help. Although it was too late for my family, I wanted to become a doctor to help reduce that suffering for others – and I believed in myself, primarily because I believed I had the emotional perspective to be a good caregiver. I understood what it was like. Of course I’d study hard and become knowledgeable so that I would be a competent doctor, but I’d also be a doctor who met all of her patients with empathy.
After we received our papers back from peer review, mine had a note on the top: “You should pick a more unique and compelling story for why you want to become a doctor.”
I stared at those words silently. I remember feeling very small. I put the paper in my backpack. I never did dream again of being a doctor. Perhaps in another life though, I would have been. In that other life, if I had been stronger, less sensitive, or more determined, or more anything – maybe if I had loved my grandmother more – that would have been so. But it was not so. So nevertheless, no matter the reason, or no matter if there is a reason or not (and it is probably healthier to not delve too deeply into reasons), it is not the life I currently live.
These irrational hypotheticals about junction points, the road not traveled, and other “lives” I’ve turned away from, always make me pause. It’s a mix of regret, nostalgia, and fondness, melded into a generic gray heaviness. When I was thirteen, I decided I no longer wanted to play piano after practicing religiously and taking lessons weekly since I was five. When I was fourteen, I started playing StarCraft II and later started a StarCraft II team with my friend where we competed in the High School StarLeague and later got third place. When I was seventeen, I decided to become a computer science major and picked a school I knew nothing about solely because they specialized in the field. When I was twenty, I decided to go into industry instead of pursuing a doctorate degree.
A doctor. A pianist. A singer. An artist. A writer. An astronomer. A microbiologist. A StarCraft II progamer. A professor.
I had been told all my life some flavor of the American dream where I should pursue something that I love. That makes me truly happy. But when I went to college, I figured that as long as I picked something I relatively enjoyed, I should stop fussing about whether it’s “the one” – and that instead of those romantic ideas about finding a path that I am so passionate about it defines my identity and my happiness, I should just pick something and focus on being good at it. When I was in high school, to some extent, I felt invincible. Everything came easily to me. It was only in college I understood what hard work was, and that I needed to become intimately familiar with it or drown. I became acutely aware of my lack of skill, and more than anything else felt that becoming a competent software engineer was what I should be focusing on. I have many mixed feelings about my time in university, feelings that are still jumbled and chaotic which is why it’s been more than a year since graduating and my reflection on my time there is still long overdue. But if there is one thing I’m grateful for, it is that I was indeed able to become more competent during my time in university. I have many more regrets and “what-if”s about things I would have done differently, but at the end of the day, I’m satisfied with this outcome.
(As an aside: I have also been thinking about how I frequently feel a sort of “urgency” about losing time, or needing to hit certain milestones about being an adult and being grown up. And I seem to always view one’s life path as being a straight shot in the dark. But the truth is it meanders. I was reminded of this today on Twitter, when I saw a post by a coworker from some mutual follows who started as an entry-level software engineer at my company when he was a few days shy of 30. It was humbling, and worth calling out I felt.)
Now I’m here. I’m 22 and I graduated last December. In January, I went on a week-long trip to Norway with five guys I had never met in-person (but played video games with), and after I returned I drove from northern Virginia to Los Angeles, California to start work at Riot Games. I moved alone, and I knew no other friends at the time in the city. It’s now been nearing a year since I first began working as an entry-level software engineer on Riot’s Esports Digital team, and this year has been unprecedented for me – and the world – in many ways. And as I was reflecting on this past year, I’m starting to feel the weight of all of the decisions I’ve made in my life that have led me to where I am now: and whether those decisions were big or small, I feel their weight on me the same, and there are times where I struggle to bear them all. I was reading this New Yorker article earlier today, and read this passage:
The philosopher Charles Taylor, who has written much about the history of selfhood, has a theory about why we can’t just accept the way things are: he thinks that sometime toward the end of the eighteenth century two big trends in our self-understanding converged. We learned to think of ourselves as “deep” individuals, with hidden wellsprings of feeling and talent that we owed it to ourselves to find. At the same time, we came to see ourselves objectively—as somewhat interchangeable members of the same species and of a competitive mass society. Subjectivity and objectivity both grew more intense. We came to feel that our lives, pictured from the outside, failed to reflect the vibrancy within.
There’s a person I want to be. She’s somebody who thinks that competency is something learned. She has a growth mindset and isn’t afraid of being wrong. Everybody gets a set amount of time, the clock ticks 168 hours per week for everybody, but somehow the depth of that time that passed for her is not the same. She makes use of it. She studies hard, doesn’t get discouraged, and doesn’t get distracted. She’s somebody who, when she feels that she isn’t skilled enough or knowledgeable enough for something, will try her best anyways and ask for help. She makes bets on herself and is confident to be constantly pushing herself out of her comfort zone.
I want to be somebody who has that sort of a growth mindset. I’ve talked about before how it’s my goal, and how I actively try to practice it. But the truth is that person is not me, as much as I wish it was, and I’m learning to be easier on myself. However, I am a lot closer than where I used to be. To be honest, although I didn’t admit it for many years, growing up I had a very fixed mindset. I thought that competency was innate. I felt this as it seemed that things where just so much easier for some people than it was for others, and the same was true for myself. I felt that I fell on the “competent” side of that spectrum, and this comforted me greatly. School was easy for me. I was good at many things. I was comfortable where I was good things.
But I started to get curious. Although I was afraid, I was curious about things outside of what I knew. And so then when I went to college and studied a field I otherwise knew nothing about and met people who knew how to work hard and apply themselves, genuinely apply themselves and try, I crumbled a bit. If I felt that competency is innate, and I was not currently competent, I must just be incompetent, incapable, stupid. Others around me were smart. Others around me were capable, and competent.
I felt small.
I still feel that way at times and to a less extreme degree. But I’ve been working through a sort of revisionist history of myself. I think that my perception of myself as being “talented” or “untalented” greatly throws out the time and effort I’ve poured into things. Maybe it’s because I was young, and it’s hard to remember things when you’re a child, but I was good at piano because I had been learning since I was 5 years old. I earned a 7 year’s program from my Russian piano school, which would allow me to go to music college or teach. But I have a shameful story about why I quit: I met somebody better than me. I remember feeling overwhelmed by hearing her play and meeting other piano geniuses at my first international competition. They were the same age as me or younger, and so we had all passed about the same amount of time playing piano. But the depth of the time we had both passed felt so astronomically different. I chalked it up to talent. And I was not talented, so I quit.
I remember a conversation I had once had with my piano teacher that I never thought much about until recently. I had asked her a bit about some of those other piano students I had met, and she told me they practiced for four hours or more per day. I practiced for maybe an hour if I was being disciplined, and sometimes I forgot days. But looking back, that’s something which should not be overlooked – the depth of our time passed was indeed different, and by at minimum a factor of four.
Also, I was recently rewatching some old videos of myself playing the piano, and while I wince at my mistakes, I was a lot better than I remembered or ever gave myself credit for. I’m still a bit ashamed about my younger self, but I’m starting to be a bit proud of what I can do even if I’m not the best. Lately, I’ve been playing piano again, and while my fingers were stiff at the start, they’ve become much more malleable, and I’ve become familiar again with the joy I get from even just a few minutes of playing by myself.
I like to think that since then I’ve changed. I work harder. I believe in myself and my ability to learn and become good at new things more. But even then, I have a long ways to go. I was reminded of that this summer when my team had an intern, and I realized that I was not pushing myself out of my comfort zone as much as I should have been. I was like a shell of my former self, the bright-eyed college student who was so excited to be working what was honestly my dream job, and I didn’t realize this until I encountered a bright-eyed college student who was not myself on the team when he joined as our intern this summer. It was a wake-up call of sorts. I started making more of an effort to integrate myself into team rituals and other meetings – I would have moments where I would hesitate to say something because I wasn’t the expert in the room, or I felt that somebody else knew more than me, or that I could be saying something wrong. I was timid and afraid of being out of place. But, those efforts have been going well, and that’s especially because of how supportive my team and my new manager is of me. I’m incredibly grateful to all of them.
But sometimes, I still think about that “other life” where I could have been a doctor. Where I was passionate about helping others. And to be honest, while I enjoyed what I was doing, I didn’t feel like I could say that was how I felt at the time. I was working harder, pushing myself, and going outside of my comfort zone and a result I was definitly feeling more invested again. But still, it wasn’t quite the same.
I’ve spoken a bit about my role in the leadership of Riot’s gender diversity employee resource group, and the wonders it’s done for me and my confidence as well as how much I enjoy the work. I’ve also mentioned S.L., one of the employee resource group’s co-leads and co-founders, who has been an incredible mentor to me and, when I’m either afraid to ask or don’t know to ask, answers all of the questions I never even realized I had. I had been volunteering to do some work for the player dynamics team, and along the way, had rekindled an interest I had in online communities and moderation (early in undergrad, I used to work with Joseph Seering in eHeart Lab in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute). And she asked me if I was considering looking to work on the team.
I was a bit shocked as the idea had never even once crossed my mind. Maybe it was comfort, or maybe it was safety and security, but the thought of considering other roles had never once crossed my mind. I also felt like it was a bit brazen for me – here I was, an entry-level software engineer who had the opportunity to work at Riot Games and on many interesting projects directly after graduating, and who was surrounded by incredibly knowledgeable coworkers at a time where many of my friends (many of whom I should say I’d consider to be more capable than myself) had lost their jobs while I was continuing to work worry-free in an industry that basically benefited from the pandemic – and I had the audacity to look for more. But she was reasonable and firm, and I realized she was right.
She later introduced me to J.G., a principal software engineer at my company. I had seen her around on Slack but never dared to approach, but had noticed her because she was the only principal software engineer I knew of who was a woman. But, in our first meeting, she came with a sort of warmth, humor, and care that instantly disarmed me and made me feel comfortable reaching out to her and sharing my thoughts and worries. I learned more about her, and I started to feel more comfortable talking about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go – not just to her but to myself, and being comfortable with being more ambitious.
I left our first call feeling incredibly excited. Energized. I left our first meeting feeling passionate. It was a bit of a revelation, to be honest. I was surprised, but indeed, when I woke up the next morning and thought about it, the feeling was still there. And it confused me a bit as I didn’t quite understand why. It wasn’t the first time I had talked with a mentoring figure. And although I was especially in awe of J.G. (I remember kind of eyeing her on Slack and being impressed because of her title, but every interaction with her since has made me realize she’s much cooler than I could have ever imagined), I knew it wasn’t just sheer impressiveness either.
My boyfriend will be applying to law schools soon, and I was helping him the other day with his law school applications. In it, he has to write a personal statement, and in his personal statement he wanted to tell a story about how his first encounter with representation through an Asian-American literature class he took in college woke him up out of his past apathy and empowered him to start seriously applying himself and trying to be better. As I left comment after comment and picked at one sentence’s phrasing and another’s grammar, I had a realization about why that talk with J.G. had affected me so.
It affected me because meeting her and seeing her made me feel represented and as a result empowered. I was seeing another woman in what was my long-term goal: I’d love to one day be a principal software engineer. And seeing another woman in that role made me feel excited. It rekindled a passion in me to want to do more, be better, and achieve more. But I had never known or even heard of any women in my vicinity who were a principal software engineer. I worked with prolific engineers every day, and they are kind to me and care about my growth. They support me. And I’m endlessly grateful for them. But I am the only woman on my team, the only software engineer I know in my discipline, and in previous internships I’ve also similarly been alone in that way – but I’ve never felt like it was important because I can still work, still code, still contribute even if I’m the only woman. I’ve heard nightmare stories about workplaces that were rife with gender discrimination or harassment, and similarly Riot’s past had worried me and made me hesitate to work there after I was offered the internship. But that wasn’t what I was experiencing. I wasn’t being discriminated against or harassed, so when my team captain would sometimes check in on me in 1:1s and ask how we could best support me and if there were any processes that could be streamlined, I had no serious changes to recommend to him (as a side note, I am very grateful for my team’s leadership as well in trying to be more inclusive). So because that’s not what I was experiencing, I felt very strange with the thought that being the only woman for this long has been tough for me or has negatively impacted me in any way.
But I’m starting to realize that the ways in which a lack of representation affects people can be more subtle after my own experience of seeing another woman as a role model and how it has empowered me like nothing else has since I first began my trek into computer science in college. And now that I’m at the end of this year and looking towards the next, I’m realizing that I’m still capable of being happy, of being excited by work and by games, and I’m still capable of being productive and being eager to learn more. There’s a number of skills and courses J.G. recommended I pick up related to C++ and game programming, and I have been using my break to get started and I plan on continuing to spend my free time in the future working through the material.
I do think of myself as “deep” individual with a hidden wellspring of feeling and talent to find. And although I don’t feel that I’m particularly special and I know I have far to go, here’s to finding it, and making that visible from the outside.
Here’s to betting on myself in 2021, as cheesy as that sounds. I wish everybody the best for the new year.
And all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
Are full of trees and changing leaves.
(Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse)