The Realm of Possibility

Originally posted Oct. 20, 2011


My parents don't understand what I do. This has become increasingly true over the last several years, as I progressed from studying "science" to "chemistry" to "organic chemistry" to "organometallic chemistry", etc.. My mom, a nurse, partially understood what organic chemistry was, but she didn't understand what organometallic chemistry was. My dad, on the other hand, was clueless. "Is that like a doctor? Oh, you say it has to do with drugs/medicine? So, a pharmacist? Are you going to make good money doing this?" And on it went. It didn't help that I wasn't particularly fluent in Korean, and my dad was not particularly fluent in English. My mom tried to explain what I studied to my dad, with varying degrees of success.

I can't really fault my parents for their naive questions. They emigrated from a recently war-torn Korea that was then essentially a third-world country. For them, professions like "doctor" and "lawyer" signify the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Their desire is for their children to lead comfortable lives that do not involve manual labor. They cannot help but be afraid that perhaps their child is wandering off into a more uncertain path of life, which they are unable to judge. My parents simply trust that what I'm doing must be workable, since I'm at Hahvahd grad school.

Of course, it would be silly to suggest that I should limit myself by living a life that my parents would understand. It's an unfortunate but necessary consequence that I can't always share what I do with my parents if I choose to follow my desires wherever they may lead.

I ask: Why should my realm of possibilities be limited by the vocabulary of my parents?

Generalizing, I then ask: Why should my realm of possibilities be limited by anybody's vocabulary?

There are many brilliant people who walk a path that is a standard path in society (so to speak). This is not a priori a bad thing, but I suspect they are capable of more inspired lives. These people have the intellectual horsepower to do whatever they want with their lives, and get away with doing it. Instead, they handicap themselves by failing to consider the endless possibilities of life. There are an infinite number of ways to live your life, and there's no reason you have to pick and choose from the limited palette of options given to you by society.

I don't mean to say that people should strive to achieve great things with their lives. In fact, that would merely be falling into another trap, an outside-the-box box. Instead, people should look within and stop listening to what everyone else says, no matter how wise they may seem!. Ignore the people who say you should try to make money, try to become famous, or try to achieve great things. Ignore the people who say you should contribute to the world, help poor people, or be kind to random strangers. Ignore the people who say you should follow your passions or savor the small things in life. Instead, look inside, and attempt to give a genuine, personal answer to the question, "How should I live my life?". It may turn out that your answer will involve one or more of the above goals. It may turn out that your answer will be an entirely new way of living a life. In either case, you should answer to yourself, and yourself alone.

You could call this a very selfish way to live. I think it's the only way to live.