Purpose: A Year in Review

December 21, 2017

I haven't written a retrospective about a university term since I finished my first term. After each four-month block drew to a close, I didn't feel like there were coherent enough changes in my life worth expressing. Looking back after this term, though, the sum of many small changes over time has made my present self distinctly different from the person I was in first year, so I felt that I could benefit from some self-reflection.

One of the smallest but funniest changes I noticed between high school and university is that people started willingly self-organizing dodgeball games. Never a competitive sport, no one was especially enthusiastic about dodgeball in high school, although certainly no one complained about it in phys ed. It makes for a fun story: in university, people can be shamelessly into things like this again.

I think in retrospect, dodgeball was more than an isolated quirk. It now seems representative of a trend I notice where people begin being able to do things purely for their own enjoyment, given new autonomy. This is a significant departure from the common philosophy we had in high school where everything had to be done for some long-term purpose. No one allowed themselves to do something uncompetitively then. The motivation for this always seemed loosely defined: there existed the obvious end goals of getting into university or building a resume, but at the time, we only had vague ideas of what actually helped. How much do good grades matter? Is it important to be a member of multiple teams on the side? Are any of these things useful beyond adding a bullet point to a list of accomplishments? There is no easy way to verify that some strategy is more effective than any other. In the face of the daunting unease of not being able to measure results, motivation had to come from an internal commitment to a philosophy of hard work.

The same questions still exist for me in the present, but the feeling is different. In high school, university was a means to some unknown end that we would presumably discover as we moved forward. Now, I find myself and my peers grappling in our own ways with the realization that our work could now be an end in itself. While it may still be a stepping stone to something greater, we seem to be at the end of the path we embarked upon in high school and now find ourselves at the beginning of a new big decision. While the choice of university would guide the long-term the path forward, it felt like a choice for just the next four or five years. Now, deciding what work is valuable and meaningful feels like deciding a whole life philosophy. It makes sense, then, that the same blind dedication to pure productivity from earlier might not be the ideology I want governing this next choice. I would like my actions going forward to be informed by my own goals and desires.

This was the state I inhabited as I entered 2017: eager to take back control of my life, but not yet sure exactly what direction I wanted to take it in. I started the year with the rather lofty goal of figuring out how to set myself up on a path toward living happily and purposefully.

A year ago, I wouldn't have called myself a happy person. I had never been good at listening to my own feelings, and doing things simply for my own interests rather than for the sake of pushing forward was something new to me. This year, I made sure I gave myself time to exercise and to work on art and music because of the meaning I find it gives me. It initially took structural changes to not think about the heights I would never achieve. I stopped timing and measuring myself when going for jogs to avoid awakening the relentless voice telling me to push myself forward and constantly improve every inconsequential aspect of myself. It took focus not to think about how my live musical abilities will probably never surpass their high school levels, when I had time to actually practise. Improvement for the sake of improvement is not inherently bad, but I used to use it as an excuse to allow myself to not be a happy person. A period of adjustment was needed so that I could unlearn old habits before relearning them with a different end in mind. Eventually, the changes I made allowed me to enjoy these things again.

I spent the summer amalgamating advice from everyone I could about making my career have purpose. Through this advice, experimentation, and lots of soul-searching, I have a better idea of what it actually is I value and what I want to work toward. Meaning in my work can come from pushing the limits of human knowledge in a domain. It can mean creating something useful. It can mean enabling further development of arts and culture. For it to be the best use of my time, my work should benefit from the interests and skills I can uniquely bring to the table. There are different routes I can take toward achieving these goals, but having them defined helps figure out what the options are. My current plan is to continue with another degree after I finish my current one. This was a suggestion from coworkers at Google, seeing that I value the pursuit of knowledge and want a deeper perspective. I find I have come to agree with their assessment. While I am not committed to this just yet, I feel more secure than I ever have in the path I'm on, having really put in the time to think about it.

So, this term, armed with a newfound sense of direction, I allowed myself to ease my way back into my old habits of obsessive productivity again. This time, I wanted to see how much I could take on, having a fresh perspective, and still keep myself from burning out. I wanted to see if things were really any different. Previously, I would have avoided the extra courses and work I committed to this term, ensuring that I had a buffer of free time I could use to destress if I needed. I operated without that safety this term, relying on my ability to gauge my own sense of well-being in real time and react accordingly. As I now travel home from Waterloo, I think I can say that I made it through successfully. Consistent sleeping and exercise helped, along with the motivation and healing power of a near-constant soundtrack of good music to keep me going.

I don't think I'll do a full-to-the-brim term like this again, but I also don't think I'll need to. I got what I came for: I learned that I now know myself well enough to be able to push through. I learned what I am capable of when operating at my maximum capacity. In the last year of my degree, I have projects lined up both for Waterloo's undergrad self-driving car team and for my fourth year design project. These are things I'm excited to contribute to, and I feel that after this term, I am prepared to hit the ground running working on those.

On the surface, I suppose I look similar to my first year self, being hard-working and driven. Today, though, I feel like a distinctly different person. I now do what I do for something. Despite being the busiest I've ever been, I am also the happiest I've been in a long while.

I suppose this year, I grew up.