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.

Reflections— and new directions.

It is time that I write concretely about my recent past, my present state, and my intentioned future. Partially as a cathartic establishment of my place in time, and partially in order to hold myself accountable for the words I am about to write. You see, for the last five-months-or-so, I have actively shirked responsibility, reduced expectations, avoided any-and-all future obligations— a ghost of my former state. This is to be expected, as great tragedy demands great change.

This year has seen unprecedented highs and most destitute lows. To be true, 2012 has erred somber, with the memory of my father’s death tainting even my most exalted victories. One might think that the fresh and whipping air at the summit of Mt. Jefferson would provide the grounds for untarnished joy, or those many nights laboring single-mindedly at the organ in Memorial Chapel might allow me to set the sadness aside. But the mind is cruel, and my thoughts yet run their course unthwarted.  And as I have often been present in situations where the prevailing emotion is not morbid, I have too-often experienced what I now know as emotive dissonance, where my environment and my emotional state are painfully incongruent. This has been rather difficult, and has precluded me from being quite present during most college parties, concerts/shows, classes, and most commonly, routine human interaction. So if I have been distant, or distracted, or entirely rude and blunt — I am moderately apologetic.

And so you’re getting a sense of my modus operandi over the last months: complete only the necessary minimum, do only what is fundamentally essential, interact with only those close friends who are also proximate and well-informed, and avoid any unnecessary LIVING, or life experience.

The day after my father killed himself, I found out that I had been accepted into the Startingbloc Boston ’12 Institute for Social Change. At the time, I was like, “great, now I’ve got to go talk to hundreds of people and act all professional and be motivated and happy.” I wasn’t even sure that Startingbloc was right for me- I was only 19 and hadn’t started any companies or accomplished any great feats of “social innovation.” But it was months away, and even under my sorry storm cloud, I was still excited about my future in some distant sense. So I paid tuition to obligate myself to actually go (SMASH FEAR) and continued my grieving-ghost-living.

I made it through the school year, finished my final exams, made it home, and had about a week to collect myself before Startingbloc. I went hiking for three days in the White Mountains in NH with some of my best and oldest friends. I watched some stars, ate some ramen, listened to the quiet of the mountains, and reconnected with some roots, with who I was pre-tragedy. I felt more control over my own destiny than I had in months.

So I approached Startingbloc with wide-open-eyes, – partially in bewilderment of the passionate and high-achieving cohort I had joined, but more importantly, with a receptive outlook than I had not felt even once during my ghost-living. I realized that my passion for life- my vital energy that I had long felt distinguished me from most others- was merely in hibernation, and could be reawakened mindfully. After every day of Startingbloc, which were each intense and socially demanding 9am-9pm experiences, I felt myself slowly reaquainting with my prior self. In others, I (quite obviously) saw the passion that I used to relish, the kind of energy that keeps you up until 5am learning- every night. I saw the excitement that I used to feel when I would finish a blog post or get that precious inspiration-from-the-gods’ inexplicable motivation to suddenly write down an idea. I remembered. I remembered! I remembered.

One of the most important moments for me (I will share more about SB in later posts) was a conversation I had with my friend, Ngozi Nezianya. I had just met him, really- we had known each other no more than half-an-hour. And we stumbled on to discussing a topic about which I have thought long and hard. He asked me (something semblant of) “… in life, would you pursue Joy, or Happiness, and how?”

My father had many sources of happiness in his life. He loved his (immediate) family, and he derived great happiness from his “toys” including guns (he was a hunter), knives (he was a hunter) and too-many-pairs-of-boots (he had a masculinity complex). But he was not a joyous individual. As I have come to understand the important difference, joy is from within. Joy emanates from within oneself- perhaps it is some glorious and deep satisfaction, perhaps it is the result of true contentment with one’s situation— but joy has very little to do with one’s “toys” or one’s accomplishments, or and is not even immediately fulfilled by having a family

I have thought much about this, and will always still think more— but I believe that Joy is intimately related to one’s purpose, and can be fulfilled only be aligning oneself accordingly. Purpose is the most difficult to define. What is the “purpose” of a life? Is it something more than the biological mission to procreate and evoke new life?

We are unique animals, humans. I do believe we carry a mission greater than procreation. Why? Because we canDefine your purpose. Why? Because you can. Aim HIGH. Why? Because you are SO POWERFUL. Startingbloc is a strong believer in Marianne Williamson’s quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

My father never defined his purpose (for a host of socioeconomic and personal reasons) and thus never found life-sustaining joy from within. But I will define mine. This summer, I will take active steps to learn about myself in this sense.

  • I do not have a “job”. No internship, no café-barista, nothing resume-friendly— intentionally. I will first focus on completing the immediate grieving process, which, though lifelong, can be tackled in phases.
  • I will then read, and learn, and become educated on ALL of the topics that I find compelling. Find me a willow tree, and beneath thee I shall sit. For a long, long time. I can’t wait.
  • I will learn some sort of code-related skill: Ruby (on Rails), HTML5, or Python. Advice on which to choose?
  • I will write (blog) intermittently- perhaps biweekly. Quality over quantity.

I am ready to stop shirking life, and will instead greet it and learn from it all that I can. Here’s to moving forward.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections— via email, or phone, or in the comments below.

All the best, Alex