Summer Summary

So I didnt end up blogging biweekly, or even more than once, and I think thats okay with me. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say, or that I was too lazy to write, or that I was too busy doing fancy internships and having corporate meetings. I have plenty to say, and I wrote more this summer than any other time in my life, and, as I said before, I pointedly avoided any-and-all career-friendly resume-builders this summer. Plenty of time for all of that.

I came to view this summer as one long, disjointed (yet cohesive) meditation. Yes, meditation— though perhaps my definition of the act is not in accordance with those of antiquity, as I spent very little time in any cross-legged positions— but I did meditate according to this wonderful definition:

Meditation is a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.

This, I did. Usually it was between 9am and 12pm (although those wee morning hours are always contemplative), and usually I was alone at the time, though I could have been sitting on a train zipping through some windmill-dotted countryside with my family quite by my side. Disjointed, yet cohesive, as it is all now bound between black walls; a summer’s worth of thought, poured into a paper vault. A lot of molting happened in these pages.

I am my own best audience, just as I am also my own best companion. Thoreau said something like that. Screw quotes, I go for gist. The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit. Hear that, Joe?

But I actually ended up doing a lot this summer. I’m not good at doing nothing, so I don’t. Instead I chose experiences and activities that I thought would grow my point of view, help my search for self, raise a new perspective— all with the aim of exercising our human-specific infinite molting potential. Lord let me shed my skin!

Early in the summer, I participated in StartingBloc Boston ’12, which was hosted at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. Though I touched upon this experience in “Reflections…“, I want to highlight this experience in my timeline of life events. StartingBloc was important: a five-day entrepreneurial boot camp that brought me into the remarkable company of my fellow fellows, an inspirational bunch of socially conscious, entrepreneurially-minded folks who are all working in unique and impressive ways to change the world. We prescribed to mantras like “CRUSH FEAR,” and “embrace uncertainty,” heard verbal inspiration from folks like Scott Sherman from Unreasonable, and Rachel Weeks from School House, we had entrepreneurial dance parties, and we drank a lot of coffee. This was framed by the Social Innovation Challenge (SIC), in which ReWork, a company that “connects exceptional professionals with companies that are making the world a better place,” challenged us to dissect, analyze, and rebrand key elements of their business plan, company message, and expansion strategy. 100(ish) StaringBloc candidates were separated into 9 (or so) teams, which each presented their innovations in a friendly and competitive forum. PROUDLY, my team, the Blueberries (BLUE, BLue, blue…!) won the challenge, which earned me and my team special interaction with the ReWork founders and a ticket to the all-fellows summit in Chicago in October. Hell yeah.

So that was all really exciting, and most importantly, affirmational of my current aspiration to create something, to start something, to bring something into the world. However, as I have realized repeatedly and again this summer, I have not yet discovered what I am passionate about.

I’ve been doing graphic design for TEDxKabul this summer. If you don’t know TED, you should first hire a contractor to heavylift the boulder you’ve been living under,— and then go immerse yourself in one of the greatest collections of knowledge and discovery ever assembled. It’s glorious— TED presents extraordinary people with extraordinary “ideas worth spreading.” TEDx conferences are independent TED events, where accomplished individuals each give “the greatest speech they can speak” in 18 minutes or less. TEDx events have been organized all over the world- Tokyo, San Francisco, Boston, Mumbai— and now, (in mid-October), Kabul, the war-torn capital of Afghanistan.

And so I’ve been working with Eileen (whom I met at StartingBloc) working on event branding, social media, and infographic design. And from watching video after video, and reading article after article, I have become quite convicted about Afghanistan’s current plight and future promise. I have thought even, after watching&reading such articles, that I could dedicate a solid decade of my life to building Afghanistan, and I would feel righteous and fulfilled contributing what I can to their struggle.

But then I remember MINDS— the nonprofit that I work for at Wesleyan, which works to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness in rural India. Please explore the website for more information, but this is an incredibly important issue of human rights, and another that I would feel righteous and fulfilled contributing what I can to their struggle.

I have elected my path- entrepreneurship- but I have not yet found what I am truly passionate about. I am just as attracted to (or horrified by) this disenfranchised group as I am the next poverty stricken neighborhood. The world is a big place. There’s an awful lot of poverty and disenfranchisement. I will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people that I can, taking into consideration my unique characteristics and attributes. But what will be my angle? Which problem, of those millions, am I to tackle? Cue the age old musing: what is my purpose in life?

As these questions are obviously inconclusive, I return to my current catch phrase, that I’m “gathering inspiration and education” in order to figure it all out. I’m happy with that. I am just about where I’d like to be in this whole process of becoming.

And so I collect! I read a lot this summer, including Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (written to his son), Walter Isaacson’s biography on Ben Franklin, Sula – by Toni Morrison, a hefty chunk of My Life – Bill Clinton, The Power of Unreasonable People – John Elkington, Audience Evolution – Philip Napoli, and because he’s a creative master, Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

And as Susan Cain stresses in her IMPORTANT speech about the power of the introvert, I spent a lot of time in nature, sitting, writing, (taking pictures). If you sit still enough (and the fates feel kindly), sometimes the mosquitos don’t seem to notice you.

And now summer is coming to a close, and while I’m still prone to never-ending contemplations about best-using-my-life-for-the-world, I think I am a few inspirations closer, and slightly more educated, and also altogether happier than I was at the beginning of summer, as death and time begin to tire of combat. I am ready for my classes, eager to have some structure and predictability in my days, and looking forward to reentering my long-abandoned social spheres. Summer, check. Ready, set, molt.

On Human Nature

I’d like to share a truly beautiful natural metaphor that I see in the praying mantis’s life cycle. As a longtime admirer and mantis hobbyist, I am repeatedly stunned by these incredibly similar, yet starkly alien creatures.

Every spring around the world, mantis nymphs emerge from their foamy egg sacks. Almost magically, like so many instinctual phenomena, between twenty and three hundred tiny translucent mantids emerge dangling from a fine silky thread. Upon close examination, the mantis nymphs are remarkably well formed and proportioned. Unlike so many creatures, including most mammals and insects, mantises begin their lives in almost the precise image of its adult body.

As with most creatures, mantids grow over time. Unlike mammals, they do not grow slowly and evenly, but rather undergo ecdysis several times throughout their maturation until they reach their adult form. This process, known as molting, is the literal shedding of the insect’s exoskeleton. In preparation for a molt, mantids climb to an elevated position, hang upside down, wriggle their abdomen rhythmically, and carefully crawl out of their dermal jackets.

With each molt, the mantis grows; however, the original proportions and image of its nymphal state are preserved, with the exception of the development of various secondary sex characteristics. The most significant molting event signifies the mantid’s entrance into adulthood: wings. Upon the mantid’s final molt, small wing buds are shed to reveal impossibly thinly veined membranes. The mantis then flushes these membranes with bodily fluid, causing them to unfurl. However, the rest of the mantis is remarkably identical to its nymphal form.

Molting can be a difficult and dangerous procedure, and an error such can result in the debilitation of legs, joints, wings, or any intricately shaped protrusions. A mismolt can be as innocuous a single deformed leg or wing, or as disastrous as a crippling of the raptorial limbs, which can often lead to death. However, with each subsequent molt, the mantis has the capacity to shed its deformed exoskeleton and regrow any parts that are broken or weak.

I would now like to depart from biology and enter the infinitely more interesting world of metaphoric thought.

If we can look past the bug-eyed, the mantid’s developmental progression appears to be an easily adaptable metaphor for our own human development. Foremost, I would suggest that humans, like mantids, begin their lives as a miniature representation of their adult character. That is to say, upon birth, each human possesses a guiding kernel that might be deemed our “essence,” or who we “truly” are. This, in combination with a host of influential environmental factors, is what decides whether we spend our childhood drawing and painting, collecting rocks, reading avidly, or even bullying our peers and causing trouble.

However, just as mantids repeatedly shed their outermost layer in favor of a larger and more robust self, humans undergo this same process. With each new experience, each previously unknown situation we encounter, and each obstacle that presents itself along the way, we molt. Clearly this is literally false (or is it?), but also incredibly true. They say hardship breeds character. According to the mantis, I agree. Thomas Paine writes in 1773, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” (thank you 10th grade US History!)

And we have mismolts. Our exoskeletons often tear and leave leathery pieces bound around joints and limbs and cause all kinds of mangled body parts and perceived degradations of our character. We forget to do our homework. We refuse to do our homework. We miss classes and don’t show up for work. We refuse to do either out of anger and spite. We forget to call on someone’s birthday (or refuse because they didn’t call on yours). We crash cars, lose large amounts of money, cheat on our spouses and generally mess our own lives up- frequently.

But biology is malleable; when young mantids have a mismolt for whatever reason- perhaps the humidity is too low, or the mantis wasn’t quite developmentally ready to shed its skin, or some environmental factor interfered with the process, all is not lost. With each molt, the outermost layer is shed, allowing the mantid’s pure and functional kernel to be re-exposed. Redemption. A second chance- or a third, fourth, or seventeenth; unlike praying mantids, humans do not experience a mere six or seven molting events. We, as adaptable and intelligent mammals, are constantly molting. Always. There is no such thing as a “final molt,” for we are infinitely evolving, adding to our character and knowledge of ourselves and the world. This, I believe, is the most integral and fundamentally intrinsic human character: infinite molting capacity.

That all being said, I encourage all of you, my proverbial royal readers, to actively molt. Seek out new experiences, do things that you’ve never thought to do- make a bucket list every day or every week or every ten years- and repeatedly add new layers to that kernel that guides your way. Take advantage of our infinite human capacity to grow and heal. Mess up. Make mistakes, experience hardship, climb over Kilamanjaro until your oxygen tank runs out or you get paged for work or you stub your toe or something. Try to avoid those big mistakes- our biology is impressively resilient, but there is certainly a point at which recovery is increasingly improbable. Keep your raptorial limbs functional and healthy- you’ve got to be able to catch crickets and crawl around and eat your spouse’s heads and all. But trust in your humanity, that even those deep wounds may heal with time and active molting.

Good luck to you all. With the start of the new semester I may blog more intermittently, but check back often! Feel free to leave comments and share your own experiences- molting or mismolting. Until next time,