“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I looked at Thomas with surprise. He is unreasonably tall, so every time I look at him, I actually have to look up. He is wearing a lemon cotton shirt, his legs uncomfortably folded underneath the low dinner table. His company has just signed a funding contract with our organization for a two-year project.
“Ummm… I thought I was already doing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” I was clearly confused.
“Is there really something called a one true calling? You have to keep exploring,” Thomas replied nonchalantly.
Four of my friends and I started One Degree Initiative Foundation when we were fifteen years old. Idealistic, energetic, curious and stubborn, we carried the traits of a teenager with pride. Our peers became our first volunteers, their younger siblings became their first mentees and soon, we were running six projects simultaneously. We only grew into our bigger vision when we were seventeen and put together our first mission statement. We were serious.
I remember sitting under a starless sky at the edge of the pond in Jessore in southern Bangladesh one evening. I will turn nineteen in a few months. My friends and co-founders had gotten into colleges abroad – they were leaving in two weeks. I had applied to one school and had heard back from them, but something told me I should not leave. I felt I was at the brink of something extraordinary and I wanted to deep dive into it. I closed my eyes and thought about all the people I had met in my journey. I decided to stay; it was unusual for an eighteen-year to stumble upon their life’s calling.
One Degree Initiative Foundation and I grew together. In my early twenties, it evolved into the restless teenager I once was. It wanted to do too many things and I had to learn to discipline it. I traveled to eleven countries by then, met entrepreneurs from around the world and I was on a constant high of inspiration. I had to learn to manage my expectations with that of my team’s, I had to learn to control my temper, I had to learn to latch onto a single goal and build on it. I worked 20-hours a day, missed birthday parties and did not meet my father for days. My friends were people I worked with; my social life was the networking events my partners and funders hosted. I forgot the last time I met someone and did not talk about work. The thing is, it never felt like work.
Nine years passed almost at the blink of an eye. I had experienced several failures, funding rejections and countless sleepless nights. I lost my friends, spent the night in the office, developed migraine and perfected my smile. I fell out of love and graduated from college without ever actually experiencing it. I stopped writing fiction, playing the violin and going to concerts. None of this mattered though. I loved what I did and our organization had innumerable success stories. We accommodated thousands of volunteers, their tens of thousands of ideas and a million people who benefited from them. I had traveled to every continent except Antarctica and my friends were all incredible entrepreneurs on a mission to change the world. I was determined to keep doing this, keep scaling up and never look back.
I was flipped out of my wits when Thomas posed this strange question for me. I will turn twenty-five in a few weeks. After everything, how can someone have the audacity to ask me this question? I was frazzled for weeks and I listened to Pink Floyd on repeat (another thing I should have listened to more as a teenager). It then struck me – do we really have a life’s calling? Do we stop growing and exploring because we must follow one direction (not the boy band)?
After ten years and countless heart breaks, I took a break. I packed my bags and flew halfway around the world to study Public Policy and Technology in Berkeley. These days, I go to picnics, speak terrible French and discuss the world’s future with some of the most brilliant people in the world. My ideas have evolved, my expectations are managed and my vision has matured.
As young people, we grow up believing we must find our life’s true calling or settle for a mediocre position in a multinational company. The pictures on magazine covers, the Snapchat stories on our phones and the newsfeed on our computers all scream stories of success, of early boomers and of insomnia. We believe we must sacrifice our families to be successful; we believe achievement is our financial valuation. It is always now or never.
In the past one year since I stepped down from One Degree Initiative Foundation, I have experienced the opposite to be true. I no longer feel strapped by the narrow definition of a true calling, usually in the form of a physical organization or a specific role. True calling is a broad ideology, where mine is as vague as giving voice to the voiceless. I am liberated by the many things I can do and the many roles I can take in life’s calling. I have realized the world will always need innovators and entrepreneurs, rebels and activists, thinkers and leaders. With sufficient spirit, we will always fit right in. However, in our attempts to make the world a better place, we should not sacrifice our spiritual betterment, overlook the love of our loved ones and forget to experience life. I realize more now than ever that the only way we can contribute is by constantly re-inventing ourselves. Just like the world, our true calling is not static; it needs to grow, we need to let go and the world is always our oyster. The secret is to never stop being curious.