Uncovering the Dots

This was originally posted on my Medium page. While I’m quite loyal to WordPress, I’m testing out several different publishing platforms for a better understanding of each one’s pros and cons (particularly with respect to user experience and engagement). Apologies in advance for anyone who has already read this.

It’s impossible to connect the dots if they have yet to be discovered.

I’ve never been one for Netflix, but over the last few months, I’ve applied the art of binging to podcast listening. There are a plethora of great ones in the audial ether, but a recent episode of Exponent hit home with respect to Ben and James’s notion that maintaining optionality upfront allows the discovery of focus down the road. The reason? While having general direction can be a guiding force, becoming too prematurely focused on an exact plan can blind you from recognizing opportunity when it arises.

Like Ben, I spent the early months of my undergraduate career trying to meticulously plan every class and schedule for the next four years. I took the necessary courses to earn my degree in Cognitive Psychology and Math-Econ, but in the process, I took a slew of courses with no obvious reason that ended up being some of the most impactful. These were often unrelated to my majors and didn’t fulfill any prereqs, but I took them because I wanted exposure to interesting topics and people. In doing so, I experienced incredible discourse in classes like Christian Environmental Ethics, Politics of Whiteness, and James Joyce Literature that directly contributed to a formative and enriching education.

By forgoing micromanagement and focusing on taking engaging, intellectually stimulating courses, I explored new disciplines that allowed me to discover new interests. Takeaways on intersectionality in my political science classes became applicable to perspectives on economic behavior or on human factors. I learned what did and didn’t inspire me largely by stumbling upon a wide array of these topics, and it ultimately helped me make connections that previously were not readily evident.

My early career trajectory reflects the same exploratory strategy, and I’ve prioritized taking on roles that continue to expose me to great teams and new skills that may yield emergent growth opportunities. And over the years, I’ve begun to narrow the aperture. In particular, a recent deep dive into User Experience Design crystallized the niche I had been seeking but couldn’t define. My sales stint at a major retailer and my current role in financial technology had taught me the importance of having functional, usable, and beautiful products, but UX principles taught me how to apply those product attributes around solving user problems.

I’m not sure if I would have come across the concepts of UX Design/Product Thinking had I not been persistent about learning and pursuing my random interests. In which case, I wouldn’t have been able to put a name to what I now feel confident immersing myself into. There is still so much more to learn, but with healthy doses of gumption and curiosity by my side, I can’t wait.

Finding Patience in the Race to Success

Six months ago, I was on a university weekend getaway weekend aptly titled “Senior Retreat.” The 48-hour escape provided the ideal opportunity for dozens of us seniors to engage in some true introspection. For weeks prior, most of us had been involved in a series of endless quests to fulfill outstanding bucket lists, questionable last minute runs to Mainline bars, and pursuits to satisfy a general need to take advantage of our precious last few months as undergrads. It was undoubtedly exhilarating, but it left me with a nagging need to indulge my inner introvert. The retreat allowed us to momentarily suspend our all too familiar senses of FOMO to instead contemplate the weight of graduation and the inevitable changes that would come with it.

One of the weekend activities had us congregated in a room partitioned into various post-grad dreads. Our conversations rotated around the room with us, ranging from unemployment, moving back in with parents, adjusting to a new city, and the like. Listening to my peers’ worries, I found myself feeling curiously prepared for what lied ahead; I was employed, quite looking forward to being home for the first time since leaving for college, and excited for life in New York City. But of course even my seemingly ideal situation didn’t prepare me for the unexpected. Ironically, the most unprecedented adjustment was a serious need to develop greater patience. 

For those of us lucky enough to receive a college education, all us recent graduates have known nothing but academia for all our lives. These last fifteen odd years provided us with consistent quantitative metrics to assess our progresses and shortcomings. Semester by semester, class after class, and from one professor to the next, we had a trail of breadcrumbs that practically guaranteed our success so long as we fulfilled the necessary expectations. In short, we’ve mastered how to be a student – which is often thought to be a crash course in becoming the ideal employee. But in the professional world, there are neither tests to ace nor classes to pass. Feeling like you’re doing a good job isn’t as clear cut as receiving a 100 on a quiz, and developing a career is a commitment in which doing well or poorly is hazier than earning the “right” grades.

So herein lies the learning curve: managing my expectations and fostering my patience. For a generation who is all about speed and efficiency, we’re accustomed to thinking that everything, even success, can be achieved overnight. Such an idea inspires scores of newly employed post-grads to hop from one career to another, believing that if nothing spectacular happens within the first six to twelve months in a role, it must not be their dream job. I’ll admit on occasion a little voice in my head tells me something similar, but I figure it’s my responsibility to quell that voice and remind myself great advancements come with time.

It’s only been a few weeks of grown-up life in the Big Apple, but I’m learning to find satisfaction in the daily routines and habits as a working professional. Sure there aren’t always midterms and exams to prove to myself that I’m doing well, but if that means trading in multiple choice questions for the freedom to carve out my own success story, I’ll take that in a heartbeat.

To the Class of 2014

It’s been a privilege to spend my four years with all of you stellar individuals. And given that we’ve all popped one too many bottles of champagne these past few days, we probably won’t remember the finer details of commencement and graduation weekend in the future.

However, what we undoubtedly will remember is this feeling; this feeling of unadulterated excitement and thrill that courses through each of us. Because graduation is a call for celebration and reflection upon the four years we spent here at Villanova.

During my first few months at school, nervous doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Villanova was so picture perfect, and I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the hordes of straight-A students and peers juggling roles in not one or two, but several student organizations.

My first Activities Fair is a blur – I remember walking into the Pavilion, paralyzed with the anxiety and uncertainty of how to and in what to get involved to sharing my email address with any organization in my path. Thankfully, I have been able to hone my interests throughout my undergraduate career, but that sense of disquiet has remained because our campus is brimming with peers that are pulled together so effortlessly and seem to have it all. In truth, I am consistently and extraordinarily humbled by the level of talent and success achieved by everyone around me.

And hopefully as nineties babies, you guys can relate; we grew up with a slew of fictional heroes. There is Tommy from Rugrats, Harry the wizard, Neo from the Matrix, or even the likes of Spiderman. These guys represented “chosen” ones who go off to save the world, which made it easy to see leadership as an inevitable fulfillment of a destiny.

So couple that with my perception of picture perfect Villanova, and it was easy to believe that going forward I would be expected to have a clear path to success. Frankly, it felt as if some kind of unique and special fate awaited our classmates that was eluding me. But if my experiences at Villanova have shown me anything, they have taught me to shatter such a passive notion of heroism and replace it with the understanding that we always have the choice to be leaders; to be heroes within our communities and in our own lives.

Whether it is through service, new experiences in foreign countries, or collaboration in the classroom, we find success because we eschew apathy. We explore our boundaries and test our parameters. We accomplish heroic efforts because we dismantle obstacles collectively. Think about it. Our campus is strewn with heroes.

Our scholars. Our tour guides. Our orientation counselors. Our musicians, athletes, actors, and activists. What we all have in common is our willingness to be a part of something greater than ourselves, uninvited and unasked. Because that is the most important characteristic of true leadership: the readiness to volunteer with others to make passions come alive.

My numerous hours spent on Buzzfeed suggest that we Millenials have no idea what we’re doing, but given the calibre of my peers, I politely have to disagree. When I came to Villanova, I wanted to be cool and to make a difference, but I had all these insecurities and fears of failure. But the truth is that all of us more or less want those same things. What ultimately distinguishes us from each other is when our desire to take initiative outweighs our fear of screwing up. We have all demonstrated leadership, and our education has taught us how to embrace challenges and pay attention to opportunities. We came to Villanova wide-eyed and ambitious, and I hope we leave it equally determined, albeit now with greater courage.

Just as the class that preceded ours and the class that will follow ours, we have already gotten a jumpstart to discovering success. Receiving our diplomas in it of themselves is a symbol of leadership; that, if four years of all nighters and dozens of Red bulls later are any indication, it does not happen on a whim and that it is not always glamorous. Yet four years later, we’re here, equipped with the capacity to question the status quo and make meaningful contributions to humanity.

And yes, having the audacity to follow our passions and to be brave in our future may lead to failure. However, I sincerely hope the prospect of defeat doesn’t discourage us. Because persevering through those risks will teach the greatest lessons, and following our curiosities will broaden our world views. So, remember that feeling I mentioned earlier? The electricity emanating from feeling invincible and ready to take on the world? Hold onto that emotion, and don’t forget it.  With every endeavor you make going forward, stay hungry for that sensation.

And while you’re satisfying your pursuits, do celebrate with your fellow dreamers, friends, and loved ones. Because while half the equation is about which visions you’ll fulfill, the other more important half is who you realize them with. So to my friends and peers, thanks for continually inspiring me and for making my time at Villanova more than just about obtaining a degree. We’re young and enlightened and on our way to a boundless adventure, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of the Class of 2014. Congratulations, Wildcats. We did it!

Practicing Mindfulness

It’s easy to get caught up in the pessimistic, fatalistic tendencies of today. With all the news coverage on natural disasters, political strife, and international conflicts, it’s difficult to maintain a sense of silver lining. Despite the challenge, it’s important to keep perspective and be mindful for all we should be thankful. Especially with Thanksgiving and the holidays just around the corner, I’m reminded to be grateful for all I do have and to do my best in sharing my blessings.

Everyday, small acts of kindness make an enormous impact, and practicing mindfulness is paramount to making those small daily adjustments that can not only enrich your life but the lives of those around you. They can be as simple as saying thank you to the barista who makes your morning coffee or holding the door open for someone even if they’re a little out of the way. With our hectic schedules, we’re all apt to go on autopilot and make excuses for not being genuinely present in our own lives. By doing so, we cheat ourselves from enjoying every moment and experiencing life as it is. We become accustomed to the routines and daily responsibilities that we don’t even notice the beautiful day or that someone needs our care. We’re so busy with tasks and stresses that we are literally absent from our own lives.

I’ve found that practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to be difficult, or even something that takes enormous effort. Mindfulness is the ability to enjoy a moment with awareness and without prejudice. There are various methods of achieving this, but these are a few small changes I’ve implemented in my own life that have brought about some eye-opening rewards.

1. Smile.
It’s the most simple, yet often forgotten gesture that is enormously influential. You never know what kind of day the other person may be having, but your offering a smile can brighten both yours and their day. There’s even scientific evidence to back the claim that smiling makes you happier, better looking, and more likely to put others in a better mood. 

2. Listen to music and do nothing else. 
Let it be whatever genre you love – just don’t do anything but enjoy the music. We’re usually working out to music or studying to it, but rarely do we take the time to simply listen to the verses, the instruments, and the harmonies that comprise the music. I grew up as a pianist and violinist, so I listen to a lot of classical pieces when I need a break from all the hubbub and noise in life. Letting yourself mentally wander to your favorite tunes can help center and de-stress your mind.

3. Take a break from multi-tasking.
As the Multitasking Generation, or genM, we’re often found emailing, texting, skimming the news, and doing our homework simultaneously. Despite our belief that our brains are capable of concentrating on all those activities at once, the truth is that we’re not one hundred percent focused on any of them; instead, we’re toggling back and forth from one to another. So close the laptop and give your full attention when your friend is talking to you, or put down the phone at dinner and be mindful of engaging in the present. This is my greatest personal challenge, but by focusing on one task at a time, I am a better listener and am able to take a more active role in my life.

Less is More

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Donate the twelve pairs of shoes lying in your closet, unworn for god-knows-how-long.
Stop getting a new phone every few years.
Recycle the newspapers, magazines, gift wrap, old notebooks that you swore you needed as keepsakes.

Strip away all the unnecessities, and you may be surprised to find yourself feeling cleaner, more free, and ultimately happier. In this consumerist economy, we forget that less can really be more. We buy without regard, thoroughly believing that the more stuff we acquire, the better off we will be. Our hedonist tendencies encourage us to buy, buy, buy. But instead of feeling elated amidst a sea of possessions, we’re finding ourselves in debt, stressed, and not at all happy in the long-run.

So how can we live with less while pursuing happiness?

1. Think before you buy.
I like to treat myself to nice things here and there, but with most of my purchases, even the most mundane ones like a specific toothpaste brand or type of tea bags, I ask myself, “Is this really worth it, and will it truly make me happy?”
This way, the things I buy become items I will love and take care of and not simply things that take up space.

2. Refine ruthlessly.
Edit and edit and edit again. Watch all the excess disappear and trust me, you won’t miss any of the old sweaters or paperback books you decide to give away to the local shelter or library.

3. Increase functionality.
We live in a time where our phones double as our laptops or our electronic books double as a gaming device. So buy things that have multiple uses. Sure, at first glance they may seem more expensive, but if they are gadgets that you’ll use every day or often enough, they’ll come in handy and you’ll save money in the long run. If anything, at least you’ll be saving some space by buying an iPod speaker that works as a radio nightlight, and alarm clock all in one!

So, ask yourself, “can my life use a little editing?”
Because once you admit that and act upon it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that less really is more.

A Degree Does Not an Education Make

When I was growing up, going to college was never even a question. Working hard in high school to ensure admittance into a university that would foster my growth, intelligence, and ultimately raise my chances of acquiring a respectable post-graduate job wasn’t just an expectation, it was the norm. And statistics would show that this sentiment resonates with a lot of people since in Fall of 2013, a record 21.8 million students enrolled in colleges and universities across the U.S..

I’m thrilled that more students can partake in the unique experience we call our “college years.” But looking back on my undergraduate years, I also distinctly remember too many times where my professors and classes were not sufficiently challenging, mentally stimulating, or were truly educating me. I listened to lectures, took my notes, and simply regurgitated information, and as students, we were no better; we sought the “easy-A” courses, in hopes that we’d churn out good GPA’s for those elusive high-paying jobs. College today, feels more like a training ground for the ideal employee and not a place of true learning and intellectual challenge. What’s more, we rarely seem to question this status quo and collectively groan at the prospect of 8:30 classes or the notoriously demanding professors because who were we kidding, we were here to pick the “right” major and get a degree for that lucrative job – applying oneself and learning, optional.

Call it idyllic, but my idea of a college education is about more than getting 4.0’s, choosing the major with greatest job security, and then finding employment.  I see it as an opportunity for engagement, critical thought, and innovation, yet sometimes it feels as though our universities have forgotten how to provide that kind of creative environment while students  have become complacent in seeking one. There is so much more to an education than what can be taught out of a textbook. There needs to be dialogue and intrigue and even some adventure because amazing things come to fruition when individuals are inspired to communicate and share ideas. Undoubtedly, academia is important. There needs to be some standardized method to gauge how much effort a student has input to learn and retain the appropriate material. The application of the knowledge our degrees provide us is also important. However, I would love to see our universities and students try harder in upholding the integrity of a true education with the reminder that it’s not just about the degree.

Our college years are some of the most uninhibited and wondrously selfish years of our lives, yet many of us are so busy cramming for exams with our eyes glued to powerpoint lectures that we completely forget there exists is an entire world at our fingertips. There are books to be read, exotic foods to try, cities to explore, and interesting people to meet. Such experiences provide character, depth, compassion, and a wealth of cultural knowledge that exists outside our narrow bubbles of thought. A true education equips us with, not only facts and figures, but also the willingness to ask questions and seek answers that can’t be found on a multiple choice exam.

So with my remaining few months as an undergrad, I plan on maximizing my education. I’ll be honest, some days I do wish I could re-do it all. As much as I have no regrets, I would definitely do some things differently. I would have told myself to be more confident, more motivated, and more inquisitive than I have been the last three years. And here’s to hoping that when the time comes to put on my cap and gown and walk side by side with the friends that made college a home, I can truly say I had the best education possible.