This was my summer of new. Capital S, capital N. Definition: Going out of my way to do, see and experience things that I’ve never done, seen, or experienced before. I got a new job, worked part time in a tissue engineering UROP, explored new parts of Boston, and ate only at restaurants that I had never eaten at before. Beyond the statement of the obvious, it marked a shift in my paradigm and a small but significant change in my perception of what makes me happy. This all sounds Hallmark card cliché but it meant a lot to me, especially considering where I had come from, and how I used to be.
I used to be afraid of change.
Complacency was comfortable, easy, and safe. Safe was good. So what was the point of putting myself out there and risking my equilibrium? I’d worn the same clothes for years, had the same hairstyle that I had had when I was just a chubby faced baby-child (bangs, by the way), participated in the same extracurricular activities that I had started when I was 8, and hung out with the same (awesome) group of friends that I had made in elementary school. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
On one hand, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the status quo. I like watching television. Ergo, I watch more television. I like cauliflower. As such, conventional logic would dictate that I continue eating cauliflower until my teeth fall out and I have to start drinking it in mushy cauliflower smoothies. On the other hand? I didn’t quite know yet.
Mine was predominantly a fear of action. Oh, if change came my way, I’d cope. Happy change was taken in stride, adapted to, put neatly in its new spot in the revised status quo. Bad change was met with distaste, discomfort, grumbling about why things couldn’t just stay the way that they were, but dealt with accordingly. Going out of my way to put myself in situations out of my comfort zone though?
Graduation came and went and in just three months I would be heading off to college, billed as perhaps one of the greatest changes my adolescent self would face. New classes, new faces, new challenges, new places. Everything would be different now that I’d be living on my own, being bombarded with harder classes, new personalities, and extracurricular opportunities.
Before I left home for Boston, my parents asked me the million dollar question: “Are you afraid?”
To my surprise, I responded with a serene sense of certainty, “No.”
My excitement was difficult to reconcile at first: left brain was thinking of all the things that could go wrong, all of the ways life would be better if I could just find a cozy nook in the past to curl up in forever. What if I did poorly in my classes? What if I couldn’t make any new friends? What if I didn’t belong? But right brain, or perhaps some part of me that wanted more from life than just being comfortable, drowned all the static out with, “But what if something GOOD happens?” Suddenly it didn’t matter how many things could go wrong; the possibility of finding just one thing that could go right was exhilarating. I don’t know why, or exactly when I came to this realization, but the shift in my thoughts made the transition from high school to college less daunting. It didn’t mean I didn’t still have doubts or fears or reservations. It just meant now, instead of waiting for things to happen to me, I was willing to go out and make things happen (all with a healthy dose of both fear and optimism). Whereas in high school, joining a new club or student group was a source of tremor-inducing, palm-sweating, stomach-knotting apprehension (probably due to bouts of social anxiety and insecurity. All part of growing up, or so I’m told), freshman year I joined a handful of new clubs and tried things I wouldn’t have before. I didn’t like everything, no surprises there, but the few that I did, I’ve stuck with ever since.
I didn’t know everything there was to know as a freshman, hadn’t yet come to terms with this new paradigm, embraced the thrill of new discoveries. I still don’t, but I find myself learning new things from experience, from friends, from failures, from successes. You can read all of the guides out there, be wary of the top 10 pitfalls or mistakes or tips for success that someone else has published as tried and true, but still have absolutely no idea what you are doing. Sure, the practical tips about being an adult, like how to do laundry, or how to not burn a pot of spaghetti are invaluable. But the aphorisms, the clever life lessons, no matter how many times I hear them, they never really hold weight in my life until they’ve taken on personal significance. Live and learn. Sift through all the white noise to find what really resonates with you.
Last spring, as I was applying for summer research positions, finishing up classes, and winding down the tennis season, I was struck with a jarring sense of complacency. School work was proceeding as it had been for the last three semesters. I was gearing up for another summer of research and I was still playing tennis as I had since I was 8.
Complacency is comfort, nothing wrong there. I was doing things that I enjoyed, but there was something missing. After a few eye-opening conversations with my friends about their future plans, and quite a few nights of quiet reflection, I finally whittled down my whirlwind of thoughts to this: Why not?
Ok, so I skipped a lot of intermediate thoughts, and probably skimped on some context, but it all came down to the idea of carpe diem, seize the day, chase your dreams, and other hackneyed clichés. But on my own terms. College is the best time to try what you’ve always wanted to try, to experiment with your likes, dislikes, interests, and hobbies. It’s certainly one of the last times you’ll be able to just pick up and leave for a foreign country for months on end without consequence, or get experience in some field entirely different from where you’ll eventually end up working, or change your mind four different times about your career path. You’re supposed to be “finding yourself” (congrats if you’ve already achieved this) so take comfort in the fact that there will be other people around you going through the same things and changing alongside you.
I’ve loved food for a very long time now. Loved eating it, looking at it, making it. Freshman year, I read a memoir called Heat by Bill Buford about how he left his job as a writer to work under Mario Bartoli at his restaurant Babbo. The idea was exotic and intriguing to me. I thought professional kitchens were for professionals, obviously overlooking the fact that every chef has to start somewhere; they didn’t just walk into the kitchen knowing everything (I’ll refrain somewhat from making the analogy to freshmen entering college for the first time, and how while there might be some bumps and hiccups at first, everyone has to start somewhere). It wasn’t until the end of spring when I embraced putting myself out there and chasing my dreams that I decided that what I wanted was to learn how to cook in a professional kitchen.
Long story short, I spent days combing through hundreds of ads on Craigslist (a surprisingly legitimate source of job listings for the food and hospitality industry) before I found a restaurant willing to give me a chance to learn as a pantry cook (also referred to as the garde-manger at other restaurants). A few days after responding to the ad, I went in for an interview and accepted the job (contingent on a successful stage, or trial day). Left brain was being a real party pooper: What if you’re horrible at it? What if you can’t keep up? What if you can’t handle the pressure? Reading Kitchen Confidential and other chefs’ memoirs kind of scared me a lot. Thank goodness for right brain though:
But what if you have an amazing summer?
And I did. The summer was a lot of things. Amazing. Eye-opening. Fun. Challenging. Exhausting. Stressful. Worth it.
10/10 would do it again.
Working shifts that were sometimes over nine hours long, five days a week, I learned the basics: how to handle a chef’s knife comfortably, how to prepare and plate salads, how to handle a two-basket fryolator, and how to read and organize tickets with the patrons’ orders for the night. I also learned how to sear off chicken livers for liver pâté, how to cook up a batch of cheesy risotto for arancini (deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with meat and oozing cheese), and how to keep an aioli from breaking (the trick is to add the oil very slowly at first, and to add a bit of cold water if the aioli starts getting too thick). Beyond food preparation, I learned how to always be thinking ahead to what I would need to complete my next task, how to maintain my cool when the tickets start pouring in and I have an overwhelming number of plates to churn out in what seems like an infinitesimally short amount of time, how to always keep things neat and orderly and clean, because a clean workstation is the key to success, how to learn new and exciting things from people who know best, and how to train others by passing down the knowledge that was so graciously passed on to me.
I counted. The word “how” appears 12 times in the previous paragraph. And while I learned a lot about how to cook things (life dream: fulfilled), I also learned about the “who” and the “why”. The people I worked with in and out of the kitchen were an eclectic mix of personalities and as much as I enjoyed the cooking, I also enjoyed meeting each and every one of them and learning over time not only who they were, but why they were there and what kept them going.
I’ve worked a couple of shifts here and there since school has started, though it’s been hard with classes and tennis in full swing. Hopefully I’ll still be able to go back and work later in the fall when my schedule frees up a bit. While I’m there, I hardly notice the time passing at all, being so absorbed in what I’m doing. I’d like to think I’ve changed from my experience there, practiced skills that will be useful later in life, no matter the situation (you never know when you’re going to need to fill 50 squash blossoms with a ricotta and blue cheese mixture). It’s hard not to form habits when you’re working at the same thing for full 40-hour weeks. Sometimes, when I’m turning a corner in the infinite, I have a compulsion to shout “CORNER!” to alert incoming students of my approach, something that was drilled into my mind after having shouted “CORNER!” who knows how many times as I staggered around the restaurant holding trays stacked full of vegetables, containers, and sharp objects.
Change is good. Still scary at times, yes. But necessary. You can’t achieve your dreams, your goals, your aspirations without change. I mean, you could also fall flat on your face and achieve failure, but that’s just a risk you have to be willing to take. Since leaving high school, I wear different clothes now (though I admit the difference between free career fair T-shirts and free tennis tournament T-shirts is marginal), have cut my hair shorter than it’s been in a long time (gone are the bangs), am an active participant in different, exciting extracurricular activities, and hang out with a new (and equally awesome) group of friends that I’ve made in my time here. Change doesn’t have to mean saying good bye to everything old. I still play tennis, still read my favorite book (The Princess Bride) randomly throughout the year, and still keep in touch with my old friends from back home. It just means making room in your life for the things worth keeping.
Sometimes I like to think about it from a tangible perspective. When I’m listening to a song that I love (not just like, but a song that I really love, that seems to vibrate at the same frequency as I do) I think to myself, “How am I ever going to find something like this again?” At first I just listen to that song over and over again, relishing the happy complacency. I could just sit around, waiting for the next big song to come along and sweep me off my feet. But this would be a rare occurrence, especially since I hardly ever listen to the radio anymore (remember, I’m still just listening to this song on repeat). Instead, I have to put myself out there in a sea of dissonance, sifting through literal white noise and bad songs, searching for something that reverberates with me again, that makes me happy. You start hearing ok song after mediocre song after oh-my-goodness-please-make-it-stop song and feel like, maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe all this failure is the universe’s way of telling me that I should stop trying and just accept the status quo.
Do not let Debbie downer left brain let you give up. Maybe all this failure is just part of life, but in the end, it’ll all be worth it when you find that song that just resonates with you and makes you want to do a silly dance. I’m blowing this whole song search example way out of proportion, but it’s for the sake of the metaphor. Cut me some slack.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many adages, sayings, or metaphors I cram into this. The best I can do is share what I went through, even the awkward bits at the beginning that I haven’t really shared with anyone before, and share what I’ve learned, in the hopes that someone else out there will decide that despite everything that could go wrong, just the hope that one thing could go right makes it worth the risk. That someone will decide to live and learn, to see for themselves if all these words I’m throwing around actually have any meaning for someone other than myself.
I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, or after I graduate, let alone what I’ll be doing next weekend. But as long as I’m putting myself out there, chasing the things that resonate with me and make me smile, make me laugh, make me happy, I think I’ll be doing something right.