My first real internship was at an amazing for-profit social enterprise called Sarvajal. That’s where I met my first real “boss”, who was also the COO.
One day, he asked me what I wanted to do. I gave him a wishy-washy answer mixed with the right amount of idealism, purpose and exuberance that is expected from a Kashmiri migrant who is studying in a college in India’s hinterland and hence is very conscious of India’s development problem. He heard me out.
He wasn’t convinced.
I then opened up and told him honestly I didn’t have a clue. I told him that I didn’t think I had a unique enough skill set to be able to decide so early on (I was in my 3rd year in college). Everything I thought I knew, there were thousands better than me.
He told me that as I think about skills and my future, I could consider this:
Every skill and passion I had, on its own made me one among millions because many people had it also. But put together it started making me more and more unique.
This advice struck a chord and has remained in me since those hot Gujarat days from my internship.
An example would be the the character of Jonah Hill in Moneyball, that is based on Paul DePodest. Paul was a Harvard econ major. There are hundreds of thousands of econ grads in the US. But he was also excited about sports and used to play baseball/football in college. Millions of people are excited about baseball and football. But the intersection of the two, made up of people who are excited about baseball and wanting to make a career in it along with the skills of economics and statistics is a significantly smaller number.
Another is a tale of a good friend I know, who was very excited about learning new languages. She knew about 7 languages at last count including French, Spanish and Japanese. That’s a big deal; most educated Indians know a minimum of 3 languages: Hindi, English and their mother tongue.
Persona wise, she’s probably the closest incarnation of Luna Lovegood, that I am aware of.
We were all part of a program and our professional pursuits were common discussion themes. She never seemed to be very excited about those discussions. For the longest time, she thought that she’d probably want to do something in the hospitality/travel industry because that’s what she thought would be the ideal profession to help her use her skills. Over time I noticed our peers in the program also taking it for granted that she’d end up in the travel industry. Because, hey, “what else can someone with language skills coupled with not sure about what to do in life, do? Right?”
Today, she’s helping a major pharmaceutical company to lead their business operations for entire french speaking regions in Africa. Because that company has operations in 140 countries (I think!) and her boss told her that knowing so many languages can definitely help in business. She said that she didn’t know anything about business. He said that he’d be able to help her pick that part up, but it’s much more challenging for him to learn multiple new languages.
I would have re-counted this story to at least a hundred people by now (so this person is already a rockstar in my circle :) )
We don’t need to try too hard to be unique. We already are. We just need to embrace it. And seek out those opportunities, where we feel at once connected. Possibly belong even :)