Paddling back and forth at the intersection of thriving and surviving

“What kind of life do you want to live?”

This is a question I’ve asked myself since I was a child. Another one is “What is the purpose of life?”

These aren’t original questions. Philosophers have asked and tried to answer these questions for as long as we could think of them.

I used to want to “save the world”. I’d watch cartoons and read detective novels (a lot of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, if you want to get specific) and fantasize about saving the day. As I got older, I channeled those feelings into a career choice. I wanted to become an Oncologist (or so I thought).

I went through a lot of verbal & physical bullying and racially targeted aggression after moving to the US, which got worse in middle school after 9/11. I watched my grandmother suffer through cancer for all of my childhood until she finally passed when I was in high school.

I wanted to do something about those feelings of helplessness. Of course, I wasn’t consciously thinking it at the time — I didn’t really understand why I wanted to go down that path.

My father never knew his grandfather. My great grandfather passed away very young, leaving my grandfather and his siblings to look after themselves. They grew up in a village in Gujarat. My grandfather moved out of the village, went to University. He marched with Gandhi, saw independence, and joined the new Indian government as an IRS officer. He married my grandmother, and they raised my father & my aunts. Throughout all these life events, they become very active in their community and made community service a central pillar of their lives — and made sure to pass those values down to their children.

My family immigrated to the US in 1996 with less than nothing in our pockets. My Dad got dealt a bad hand in India, and so we needed a fresh start. Where better than the supposed land of opportunity? But in the US, he got dealt another bad hand during the dot com crash of the 90s. I saw him pick himself up over and over again, figuring out how to survive and eventually thrive. I’ll never forget finding his journal as a kid, where he wrote down his thoughts on not being able to find a job after the crash. I don’t remember the specifics of what he had written, but I’ll never forget the realization of our reality as a family. I hadn’t known at the time the details of what he was going through, or that he didn’t have a job. He wanted to shield me and my brother from the pain and discomfort that life can cause. The uncertainty. But I also remember being grateful for being fully aware of this truth.

Survival is endemic to my psyche now as an adult.

When I was in University, I had an incredible opportunity to do a research internship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. I had a rude awakening during my time there. Medicine was nothing like what I expected. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of important menial work, and quite simply not what I expected. I wanted the recognition! I wanted to be a part of the dramatic calls you see on TV!

I wanted a sense of control over life’s unpredictability, and a feeling of comfort. I wanted someone to always tell me everything will always be ok.

Life doesn’t work that way. Life isn’t fair. Life just happens. What does matter is how you respond to it, and how you shape it.

Throughout all of this, I had been teaching myself how to code and how to (what we now call) design. I didn’t do it for any reason other than the fact that I loved it! I loved making stuff. After that internship, I faced an internal reckoning. It threw me off course. I flunked Organic Chemistry, which was insane. The lowest grade I had ever gotten in my life up to that point was a B! In that moment, I experienced my first “thrive or survive” conflict without realizing it. Realizing I needed to listen to my heart, I “pivoted” (lol). I switched my major from Biochemistry to Fine Arts in the middle of my 3rd year of University. And my coursework up until that point qualified me for a minor in Biology to boot, something I always forget.

Ever since then, I’ve been embedded in New York City’s startup scene. When I reflect on the first 10 years of my career, all the decisions I’ve made make sense with the benefit of hindsight. Of course I made those decisions, of course I chose that startup, of course I left at the right time. But whenever I made one of those decisions, everything felt like a risk to me. I constantly second guessed myself, was constantly tugged between deciding to thrive or survive. I didn’t have a financial safety net that many in tech do, particularly entrepreneurs. I didn’t have any connections to the industry. I had to figure it out as I went. And along the way, I made incredible friends and connections who helped lift me up, and hopefully I lifted them up as well.

Two years ago, I felt enough at peace with myself to be able to expand beyond my own survival and start volunteering & being active in my community — an urge and a calling I credit my grandparents for. And last June (2020), I left my comfy job at MongoDB to spend some time working on my own projects and see what could happen. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to worry about money for the short-term. I could just… focus on what I wanted to do. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that the idea I have now is not something I wanted to build a business out of, but rather just keep it as a project.

So here I am again, deciding which turn to take in this next chapter of my career. I’ve always been a risk taker (I get that from my Dad). But part of me will never be able to shake that survival instinct.

What kind of risk do I take next? What’s the best path to my ultimate goal of being able to continuously make an impact in the world? How can I get to true financial independence so I can work on truly impactful projects without worrying about money and can invest in others’ projects?  I’m always pulled between both directions any time I make a career decision, and quite often when I’m in between decision points. When you have lived through this many survival events as a child, these feelings and instincts are almost impossible to shake. All you can do is manage, sit with, and be at peace with them.

I suspect I’ll never find peace with these questions in the long run. All I can do is make the right decision for the moment, and keep moving forward from there.

I’m incredibly grateful for my career thus far, and hope I never lose sight of the fact that my entire life and career has been a risk. And that sometimes the biggest risk is not taking one.

I dream to be able to set up my next generation to truly thrive, so they don’t need to think about surviving.