This is the fourth article of our new series, “Lessons to My Younger Self.”
As a kid in a generally over-achieving environment, I saw the world through a very skewed lens. Up until “becoming an adult,” my life was partitioned into three stages: learning how to get into college, getting into college, and being in college.
No one really tells you what to do after those stages, and that’s when reality sort of punches you in the face. For me, that blow was the startling realization that I actually had a life beyond the constraints, standards, and constructs that I’d always grown up with.
From middle school to high school, my goal was to accomplish all that was necessary to fill out an arbitrary 10-page application from an admissions department. Was I scoring high enough on my AP tests? Should I be doing more extracurriculars?
After I made it into college, the world got slightly bigger: it became about the accomplishments necessary to fill out an arbitrary interview application from a random company. I remember telling myself that grades didn’t really matter. That stuck like 20-year-old Scotch tape. Does the world actually care that I got a C+ in Linear Algebra? Of course not. But I definitely believed it did at the time, and I let that grade make me feel less of a person.
When job interviews started, another layer of stress rolled on in: that of getting a “good” job. Was I smart enough to get a cool job at a cool company? And when I did, was my offer good enough?
Most of my stress was self-imposed. My parents never put any pressure on me, but for some reason my own expectations were incredibly high, and if they weren’t met, I felt like I was failing. As a teenager, I probably had the blood pressure level of a 40-year-old executive.
But after coming out of college and actually getting a pretty decent job in the software industry, it hit me like a ton of bricks: This was what I had worked for my entire life—to sit in a cube and stare a monitor all day? It was a bit of a mental explosion, to say the least.
I started to question why I had stressed so much. Why did I put myself through all of that? Yes, out in the real world, there was another arbitrary set of constructs that were placed on me: performance reviews, my salary, and the type of car I drove, to name a few. But this time, I stepped back and asked myself a very simple question:
What really matters to me?
I'll admit it was a difficult question to answer at first. I automatically thought of the constraints I'd mentioned earlier. I thought of why I had founded Meebo—and I realized that one reason was, honestly, to prove I was "good enough."
It all seemed silly once I took a step back, because it didn't matter. As long as I was enjoying what I was doing and learning, life was so much easier and so much better.
So what do I do now? I choose the ways in which I measure myself. I am in control of what makes me happy. I appreciate the things I have, the people I love, and the experiences I gain. I can stop and smell the roses whenever I feel I need to. And I can damn well flunk a Linear Algebra class and still survive.
In the grand scheme of things, I am but one tiny person amongst billions, and my personal stress level is probably the least important factor in making the world a better place. So, my advice to my younger self (and to you) is this: chill out. There are lots of things to stress about, but there are many more things that you’ll miss if that stress consumes you.
For more in this series, check out: Lessons To My Younger Self
Sandy Jen is Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Co-Founder of Meebo, a consumer Internet company that reaches more than 170 million unique users to instantly connect them across their favorite social media networks and allows them to discover content across the web. Prior to Meebo, she began her engineering career at San Jose-based Xilinx, the first semiconductor company, as an enterprise software developer.More from this Author