Time flies! In 2010, I was in 7th grade and just beginning to mature. In 2015, I graduated from high school in NJ and entered college. In mid-2019, I graduated from college and moved from NJ to the West Coast for my first full-time job. To commemorate the ups-and-downs of the past decade, I decided to reflect on my experiences and what I learned from them. Those takeaways are condensed into four themes, in no particular order.
1. Setbacks are often blessings in disguise
Failure is difficult to contend with in the moment. It hurts and sometimes makes us question our competence and self-worth. However, failure also presents valuable learning opportunities and needs to be embraced, even if doing so is difficult. Failing time after time and climbing back from rock bottom has taught me how to be resilient in the face of adversity, be humble and appreciative, and also enabled me to produce some of my best work.
In freshman year at Princeton, I was rejected from all but one of the extracurricular groups that I applied to or auditioned for. As someone who had made a major impact in my high school, I was frustrated to say the least. People who seemingly didn’t care as much and weren’t as competent were accepted into the groups that I most wanted to be a part of. I became a bit depressed.
Little did I know that those rejections would turn out to be a major blessing. Two semesters later in February 2017, I realized a long-standing dream by founding the Princeton University Science Olympiad tournament with my friend Edison. Starting from nothing, we grew Science Olympiad to become one of the largest events on campus, and the first high school tournament nationwide to completely waive registration fees. In senior year, I met underclassmen who had attended the first two tournaments, and told me how meaningful the tournament was for their team.
Entering Princeton, I had no idea that I would pull this off. Nor did I think that I would end up directing HackPrinceton. Those things happened because rejection forced me to reflect, learn, and become a better person. It also made me more receptive of and prepared to seize non-conventional opportunities. I certainly would not have had the time nor energy to do these things if in freshman year, I had joined all the popular groups that were already established on campus.
Leadership is only one personal example where setbacks can be fruitful in the long-run. I feel fortunate to have had many chances to fail and learn from failure early on in life.
2. The journey matters more than the destination
When pursuing our dreams, we sometimes lose track of the reasons for wanting them in the first place. We become single-mindedly focused on the future, and forget to live in the moment. The more I care about a goal, the more I tend to be like this.
It’s important to always maintain perspective and not fall into the trap of valuing the result too much. The world tends to make us believe that happiness is dependent on obtaining what we lack. “Life would be so much better if only I had X …” — but by making our sense of purpose future-dependent on *X *itself, we’re bound to be continually dissatisfied because there will always exist things that we lack. Rather than focusing on the result itself, we should instead focus and reflect on the process of getting towards the result, which is more meaningful.
In high school, some of my goals included earning high standardized test scores, winning awards at science and music competitions, and getting accepted into a top college. In college, some goals included making an impact on campus, publishing my research, and working at a top company. I cared deeply about each goal, and achieving them took a lot of time, effort, and sacrifices. But while they were huge life milestones, my happiness upon obtaining them was fleeting.
I realized that lasting happiness doesn’t come from the act of achieving something itself; the momentary high that we feel from achieving something is inherently short lived. However, the process of getting there leaves us with permanent memories and lessons. We spend most of our lives in the intermediate process of getting from point A to B, and the choices that we make during that process define us as a person. By enjoying the day-to-day, we not only stay better in-tune with ourselves, but also ensure that we can more consistently live a purpose-driven life.
3. Life is non-linear
In high school, I felt more in control of my life. While there were plenty of setbacks, there was also less variability to contend with. The search space of life paths was narrower, and there were well-defined meter sticks to measure my growth and success with. Each year, I took more difficult classes, aced more standardized exams, and earned more accolades in my extracurricular interests at the time — clarinet, science competitions, research, and tennis. In senior year, I finally achieved my longstanding dream of becoming an Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist, and also became a co-author in Nature Physics. My hard work had paid off, and I was confident that I would study something biology-related in college.
I ended up switching majors from chemical and biological engineering to computer science at the end of freshman year at Princeton. At the time, I felt incredibly behind peers who seemed to already have a lot of computer science experience and knew exactly what they wanted to focus on. I also wanted to quickly figure out what discipline I liked and become great at it. At first, that was bioinformatics; I figured that it would be interesting to explore biological problems from a computational perspective, but the more that I worked on projects, the more that I realized that bioinformatics wasn’t for me. My interests then morphed to software engineering, and then computer vision and deep learning — which was the topic of my senior thesis. It turns out that figuring out one’s interests is not always straightforward.
Whereas my plans were mostly stable in high school, my plans fluctuated a lot in college. Although I had meticulously planned my four years at Princeton with the intention of pursuing a Ph.D in bioinformatics immediately afterward, my plans changed. Midway through college, I became disillusioned by research and wasn’t even sure if I would write a senior thesis. Then at the start of senior year, I joined Professor Jia Deng’s lab and discovered a love for computer vision and AI. I rekindled my passion for research, wrote a thesis, and got my work accepted to a major conference. Now, I am a software engineer trying to do AI research in industry, and considering pursuing a Ph.D in computer vision.
Things often don’t turn out exactly as expected, no matter how much we plan. There are countless factors that influence the course of our lives — many of which we can control, but some of which we cannot. It is important to recognize that life is a marathon and not a race. As long as we do our best with the things that we can control, then we should not be too hard on ourselves when things change unexpectedly. In the long run, things tend to make sense.
4. Health is important
Good health tends to be greatly under-appreciated. I usually don’t think about how lucky I am to be able to go about life with minimal health-related concerns and restrictions. I am only reminded of it when I lose my health, or see people who have trouble doing everyday tasks due to their condition.
In high school, I slept past midnight and woke up before sunrise almost every day to catch the school bus. It was painful and I knew it was bad for my body, but I was able to do it for sustained periods. It enabled me to do more work than I otherwise could do. When I entered college, I figured that I could continue to grind like that, but soon discovered that my body could no longer handle extended sleep deprivation.
I got sick multiple times during my freshman year at Princeton, but got hit the hardest during sophomore fall. During fall 2016, I was busy founding the Science Olympiad tournament, running logistics for the math competition, helping organize HackPrinceton (but not as director yet), and recruiting for internships, on top of a 5-course semester. I caught walking pneumonia a month after classes started, and nearly took the semester off due to how exhausted it made me feel. I had a constant heavy cough, felt tired regardless of how much I slept, and had no appetite.
Thankfully, I was able to eventually recover my health and finish the semester while maintaining my academic and extracurricular commitments. However, the incident taught me to never overlook the importance of good health, nor take good health for granted. My productivity plummeted due to illness, which could have been avoided if I had maintained a good lifestyle. Leading up to then, I had been skipping going to the gym and forgoing sleep to balance all my responsibilities, thinking that it would save precious time, when in reality these were non-negotiable.
Eating healthily, exercising regularly, and sleeping enough take time, but they save more time in the long-run by increasing productivity and preventing us from getting sick. Make sure that health always comes first!
What are some things that you learned from the 2010s? I would love to hear from you!
Acadia National Park (June 2019)