Next month, my brother is set to finish his Neurosurgery residency at Harvard, a full 16 years after completing undergrad. He’s a bit older than most graduates of his program, but not for lack of progress – along the way he’s earned a Ph.D in brain tumor immunology and amassed a plethora of papers, press, and patents. I couldn’t be more proud.
His first “real job” as a doctor starts in a couple months, and as I’m also embarking on a new journey of starting my next company, a recent phone call turned to discussing uncertainty about the future and the pivotal choices that drove us down two – by all superficial accounts – very different career paths.
As it turns out, one common thread we shared was that we both attributed our career trajectories to an almost involuntary “compulsion” to buck expectations. When presented with our most crucial inflection points, we invariably pursued opportunities that were less traveled and far less certain. Time and time again saw us hurl ourselves into the great unknown, lest we get too comfortable with what’s expected of us.
With his specialty, training, and pedigree, my brother could have opted to go into private practice and comfortably earned in the top 1% of physicians, but he instead chose to pursue a more research-oriented career, with the hopes of deriving meaningful therapies for brain cancer. My experience building a payments company could have been the perfect launchpad for a lucrative career in B2B or fintech, but I’ve taken a left turn to build a mobile app for “social art discovery”. All because I saw a world losing sight of the beauty all around us, and I couldn’t not try to do something about it.
To be clear, I’m definitely not trying to equate building a social app with curing brain cancer. (cue Silicon Valley reference) But I recognized in our stories the same compulsions that have defined how we choose to spend our lives.
It’s a blessing and a curse.
Though our “compulsions” have driven us to achieve many worldly measures of success, they have also been a perennial source of internal conflict – of self-loathing and doubt.
To follow one’s compulsions feels in some ways like giving into an addiction. To know that an easier or better path exists but to be unable to help yourself. I’ve not infrequently hated myself for once again diving into the tumultuous, stressful life of entrepreneurship. In moments of hardship, I will plead with myself, “Why couldn’t you just get a normal job?” And as I struggle to keep my health and my relationships above water, I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether it’s worth it.
But I also know that it’s a moot point because there isn’t a world in which I didn’t try.
I think a large part of growing up is learning to accept the parts of myself that I can’t change. To stop battling them and instead focus on channeling them as positively as I can. I’ve long held the mantra that I must “do what I can’t not do”, which is an affirmation and acceptance of the compulsions which drive me. But I’ve only recently recognized that compulsion, self-loathing, and doubt are inseparable bedfellows. So by accepting one of them, I realize I must accept them all.
How, then, can one cope? Maintain balance, relationships, and health? I’m still working that out. But at least now I’ve got a clearer idea of what I’m up against. And I’d like to think that’s the first step.