The First Fork

Since I’m at the crux of what feels like another “fork in the road”, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the first real fork in my life: deciding what to study in university.

Over the years, I’ve reluctantly had to make several big life decisions: what job to take, which city to live in, which haircut to have. But no decision really comes close to the impact of where to go to school and what to study.

That fork happened almost a decade ago, but the stress and confusion I felt then was so intense that it still feels very familiar. It was the first time I had to make an adult decision for myself. And I had to balance a ton of conflicting advice from my parents, peers, and my undeveloped sense of self.

It’s a fun juxtaposition to compare current Me to who I was back in my senior year of high school. I’ve done a lot of maturing, but it still feels like a lot of the personality fundamentals were already in place back then. I was already a quirky, self-conscious boy who enjoyed the feeling of productivity and drank lots of water. Notably, back then, I still had bangs and I pretty much only listened to indie pop.

I actually look pretty similar, minus the hair and lack of chiseled muscles

I applied to several radically different university programs, each leading down a very different direction.

It felt impossible to make a good decision at that point. I didn’t know what was important to me or really what was even in the realm of possibility. There were a ton of unknown-unknowns and the stakes seemed irreversibly high.

The Unambiguous Goal of Medicine

My parents had worshiped the faculty of medicine second only to their fervent worship of the Lord and had slowly incepted me over the course of eighteen years to believe that working in medicine was the best iteration of my future life. They advertised medicine as the perfect career: prestige, money, job security, the ability to save lives, the unmatched badge of intelligence. When you try to flex in other faculties, some people will inevitably not know the name of your company. But everyone knows how impressive it is to be a doctor. Healing people is like the closest thing we have to magic. I’m not being facetious when I say that there really is no greater glory in the Asian universe.

Non-Canadians won’t understand, but there is one program in Canada that to me and many others represented the holy grail of excellence and student achievement: McMaster Health Sciences.

In Canada – there are no Ivy league schools. There’s no complicated tier list of school pedigree or hotly disputed rankings of target programs.

There is McMaster Health Sciences, an undergraduate program that to the naïve Canadian high schooler is viewed on par with graduating from medical school and getting a Wikipedia article dedicated to the circumference of your brain, and there is the all-encompassing Other.

I’m probably out of touch with the High School meta, but at the time, it was so tantalizing because you essentially needed to have a 95+ average, great extra-curriculars, hand-written references from a local lord or duchess, and Voltaire-level symbolism expertly woven into your application to even have a chance at getting in.

From my experience, most of the top science and biology people in Canada don’t really care about going to the U.S. or other international schools. People like staying in Canada, so getting into McMaster Health Sciences is the only thing worth bragging about.

This was probably my first real instance of having a goal just due to a stubborn and impersonal focus on prestige (which was a fun instance of foreshadowing).

Knowing I was mostly motivated by prestige was still OK for me – the simplicity of having an unambiguous goal was more than enough.

The All-Encompassing Other

My second, safety career choice was Business. My parents viewed the category of Business as this somewhat shady, less-skilled part of the economy.

Business does not have nearly the same cachet in Asian circles as Medicine and my parents didn’t view me becoming a Businessman as a fair trade-off for their laboring immigrant story.

I genuinely did not know what to do. In total, I applied to seven different programs and had four different paths: medicine, business, engineering, liberal arts. 

The Fork in the Road

I may not have hyped up McMaster Health Sciences so much if I didn’t actually get in. I got in – my parents were very happy. My enemies tightened their fists and my friends tried to keep a safe distance as they watched my ego grow.

Getting into the program was perhaps the most emotionally ambivalent experience of my life. It was pure euphoria, followed by emptiness and this guilty haze of nervousness.

Achieving longstanding goals – particularly inauthentic goals – is of course a weird and complicated experience.

On the one hand, you’re elated that your hard work and planning have paid off.

On the other hand, there’s an almost immediate feeling of “what’s next?” as your dopamine sensors begin to reset. That thing you thought would bring you happiness oftentimes doesn’t.

There are only one or two other times I’ve experienced unburdened joy from getting an offer. Most of the time, that elusive feeling of victory is followed by a stressful decision-tree mapping exercise.

The problem for me was that I did not like biology. I didn’t like dealing with blood, the concept of surgery, the memorization-oriented academia of science. I was incredibly hesitant to dedicate my life to medicine, but I had affixed my identity to the goal for so long that I didn’t know what to do. I learned the very hard way that despite being incredibly motivating, identity is a dangerous and blunt weapon. People will go to absurdly unreasonable lengths to protect their own identity.

What do you do when your gut starts to conflict with all of your planning?

Medicine or Business? 

I had been heavily involved with a club called DECA, which gave me a weak glimpse into what the world of business might look like.

DECA is essentially… loosely thematic business case competitions and multiple choice tests, but it was super fun. Ironically, I initially signed up for it to help frame my application for McMaster Health Sciences… and of course because it gave me another outlet to spank my peers in a competitive public forum.

But my time with DECA ended up being very insightful – it was one of those early unplanned stock tips from the soul. My successes in DECA led me to believe that my abilities would actually be best utilized in a business environment and it gave me another, reasonable path to pick.

I oscillated back and forth between Medicine and Business, consulting my parents, people who had went to both programs, and random strangers from online communities. It ended up being a torturous decision that I didn’t settle on until the last day possible.

I ended up picking the path of Business, which I think was the right decision, though I’m still not completely certain.

My close friends have pointed out that I didn’t really enjoy my time in finance, so did I really make the right decision? With the thick mist of cognitive dissonance and my limited access to other realms of the multiverse, we may never know.

The Decision Points

My main reasons for going into Business were the following:

  • Skillset: My success in DECA is probably the most influential reason as to why I ended up picking Business. It’s crazy to think that I picked my career path because of my performance in an after-school program, but it truly gave me the sense that I would be able to succeed more easily in the Business world. Specifically, it seemed to me like Business would make greater use of my presentation, creativity, and social skills.
  • Personal Interest: I didn’t have a natural interest for Medicine. That delineation seems obvious now, but at the time, I didn’t really have a natural interest for Business either. In many ways, I was picking the lesser of two evils, as Medicine seemed to require a more genuine fascination in order to truly excel in it. In Business, I’ve learned it’s OK to not have a personal interest because the norm is that you don’t care about your job. I also had two pretty mediocre biology teachers in high school who really stunted my ability to appreciate the cool parts of it.
  • Upside: I didn’t have any actual data at the time, but I felt like Business had the opportunity to lead to a higher-upside life (measured in terms of money and control) than Medicine if you were very successful. Essentially, Business seemed like it had less of a salary cap (albeit a much lower salary floor).
  • Emergency Exits: The path to Medicine seemed relatively inflexible in case I was wrong about my decision. It’s a long haul to get to the end, a haul which my peers are just finishing. Choosing Business seemed like it had more reasonable outs along the way. Although improbable, I could have theoretically applied to medical school after doing a business undergrad.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would add the following points as benefits for a career in Business. These are of course, my personally biased opinions; I’m sure your doctor friend is salivating at the opportunity to rebuke these.

  • Geographic Flexibility: It seems much easier to move to an exciting U.S. or international city via Business. From my observation, that doesn’t seem as possible in the Medicine path given how doctors are placed. My purely anecdotal guesses are that this is due to the more regulation-heavy nature of Medicine (which leads to more localized standards), the strong job security of doctors (less attrition means fewer seats and fewer hiring opportunities) and there being greater demand for doctors in less urbanized areas (vs. Business people).
  • Debt / Financial Flexibility: I don’t know if I would have had the luxury to contemplate a complete career change and sabbatical at this same age if I went down the Medicine path because of the relatively higher student debt burden. I feel very glad that working in finance has afforded me some time and money to truly experiment and take some unconventional risk. It also seems like Medicine has fewer transferable skills to other career paths when compared to Business.
  • Difficulty: I worked hard in college, but I think there’s a level of discipline and consistent grit my peers who pursued Medicine had to have. I think there are fewer standardized benchmarks in Business and so much of the corporate world is greased with personal connections, that you don’t need an immaculate resume to achieve your Business goals. In hindsight, I probably could have gotten away with only working very hard one or two semesters in college while still getting the same job I did out of school.

As I stand before another fork in the road, I find that it’s both annoying and comforting to realize that making life decisions doesn’t become that much easier over time.

It’s annoying because you’d think your judgement and decisiveness would improve as you become older and theoretically wiser. It’s comforting because I think you start to realize that it’s human nature to experience doubt and to make imperfect choices. I’m reminded of the below quote on decision making, which gives me a mild sense of comfort.

They would learn to evaluate a decision not by its outcomes–whether it turned out to be right or wrong–but by the process that led to it. The job of the decision maker wasn’t to be right but to figure out the odds in any decision and play them well.

Michael Lewis in the Undoing Project

I think now I just try to think through things rationally, trust my gut, and not beat myself up over the crappy choices I have made.

Not everything has to go perfectly; things may be more fun if they don’t.

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