Career Choices

Today I had a more than pleasing conversation with my Physics TA after our lab ended at 10pm. It was unexpected, wondrous and beautiful. I didn’t have a particularly special day, having spent 4.5 hours sitting in front of a library computer, working out the details to my school’s ballroom dance team winter break trip to Tahoe. I enjoy the planning and am learning from a dear friend how to efficiently utilize Google Spreadsheets to organize a trip for 20. She’s got everything down to the smallest details, from activities and chores assigned to the time of day to the cost estimate of every food needed for the entire trip. It’s a thrill to share the same love for detail-orientated planning, but a wonder to see how if it plays out so smoothly.

Back to my Physics TA. I was having a particularly difficult time understanding today’s lab. Admittedly, I haven’t been keeping up with the physics class. This lab covered Coriolis and Centrifugal forces and how to apply the Right Hand Rule to the omega, velocity vector, and Coriolis force. Our lab included Foucault’s Pendulum swing and a frictionless (hovering!) puck across a rotational axis. We observed. We recorded our observations. We drew out the Free Body Diagrams. We analyzed and applied. I felt the first sense of slight annoyance and disappointment from my TA today–our 8th week into the 10-week quarter. She knew I didn’t understand the concepts. For the first hour, I shied from the embarrassment and dumbly attempted the work in ignorance and quiet desperation.

Finally, I gave in. I’m not a quitter. This is what I’m good at: approaching the leader with my questions and giving in for help. To my surprise, she was willing to reteach the concepts. I worked and reworked extra problems, and finally got them down, feeling confident, capable, and freshly motivated to finish my lab report. I remained till the last student left the lab, and it didn’t bother me. “Emily, I have to leave in 5 minutes”, she reminded me as the clock neared 9:55pm. I was hurriedly writing up a comparison between the puck pushed across the rotating axis and the Porsche test site with the kick-plate… Amusement park chair ride for the pendulum swing…. She asked about it, I spilled everything out, from my love for cars to my fascination with Synesthesia. “I have a form of Synesthesia, and many other friends who have it worse, too!” “REALLY?!” “Yes!” We immediately dove into conversation, walking back to her lab/office.

I talked about my dilemma with too many interests in life to choose a single major from, and she gave me the best advice whilst comparing it to the universe: “Let’s say the universe is a single being. We are bits of its consciousness looking back at the brain, and wondering… how did we get in here… and how do we get out? Anything you pursue–whether it be mechanics, design, astronomy, or cognitive science–is worthy of your time. Because you are learning, fulfilling your curiosity. Category doesn’t matter in the universe’s mind, because it is part of something anyway, and you exploring that area is just as important as any other pursuit. What matters most is if you see yourself loving the work you’d do in that career for the rest of your life. Once you find a way, you’ll effortlessly make the progress.” What helped me connect with her the most was the fact that we were very alike, ethnically. She is half Chinese and half English-Canadian, where I am half Chinese and half Jewish-Russian-American. We both shrieked at the thought that we shared the same burden of “Wondering which side of the family we’ll take from” and “What part of my body is from that side”… We shared the same mixed-race issues. And the same mixed interest issues; “I was always interested in singing–which I do choir now and used to sing opera. I’ve loved marine biology–especially encephalopods! But, most of all, I’ve always wondered how time and the universe works. This is what drove me to choose astrophysics–the overarching goal. That’s what you need. Pursue one. I don’t regret it.” “Also, you don’t have to be great at one thing to do something. You can do poorly a few times before you realize you love it.”–wow, I realized this is where my high school calculus vs college calculus comes in–“Work hard, and you can become good, even great, at something. That’s what separates us from the majority–we are curious. There are too many who are lazy and don’t have a single wonder in their mind about how and why things are–they aren’t curious. Being curious is a gift, a blessing. You are favored, lucky. Do whatever you want with it–let it take you somewhere. Allow yourself to explore. It’s alright to fail. Don’t be afraid.”

What hit me hard was the fact she endured the same pains and conflict I suffer right now. I believe her all the more. She seemed wise beyond her age. Her birthday is today–24! Married for 5 years… Matured so quickly… Mother passed when she was 14 (“That’s what motivated me to take my education seriously and decide on something”). Father adopted (“Who knows what genes I got from him!”). Parents who are computer scientists and yoga-enthusiasts. I admire her story. I admire her optimism. I admire her understanding.

I finally felt I share the same feeling about the world with someone else. Who knew…someone who was constantly in my academic life. Something peculiar marked me at the beginning of the school year–I knew she was someone I’d get along with well. Eventually, she saw me as a good student. But I didn’t realize that maybe we worked so well is because she saw a form of herself in me–that’s why she took me in, the extra time afforded to only the select few students who seek it out, and essentially laid out the life lesson before my ears and eyes. In a way, she granted me her “I believe in you” token. The token that everyone has to give to the select few they see the potential and commit their life to them… (Thank you Cal and Amita).

Edit this later, but I don’t want to forget this experience. Here it is raw, for now.