Perfection

By Aryman

My last blog! It’s really long but I go into great detail to provide a complete summary of the whole year. I share why I decided to take a gap year, how the year went, how I felt at every stage and my concluding thoughts. The fact that I am submitting this blog a month late expresses what I am trying to say with this blog perfectly. This year hasn’t been perfect. Far from it. It was a challenge and it kept me on my toes, and that’s why it was better than my idea of perfect. This sounds cringe, I know… But if you read the blog it might make sense 🙂 

 

If you learn to paint with handcuffs on when they come off, would you dare to spread your arms wide open?

 

When I got into Duke, I was wide asleep. The admission process was traumatic enough without the added benefit of a night’s long sleep deprivation. My phone rang. Ecstatic, dad started shouting that I had GOTTEN INTO DUKE!!! “Did you check correctly,” I asked. I was at my Nani’s place then. My grandparents burst into tears as they heard the news. The house was a sight worth seeing that day.

 

But, soon after the initial excitement died, it hit me — I was going to college in just a couple of months. There was so much I wanted to do before I got into college. So much that I thought I would have figured out. As a child, I would look at people who were about my age in awe. They had that look on their faces. The one that said that they had their lives worked out. A plan. A path to follow. Far from it, at 18 years old, I didn’t even know who I was. What I was supposed to be. Sure, I know everything about myself. But, do I really know myself? Is this the person I always wanted to be? Would young Aryaman be proud of the path I have followed? Does it even matter?

 

“It’s so much change, isn’t everyone scared before college?,” my feelings subsided. Did they really? I don’t think so, but there were a lot of distractions. Parties to go to, family members to meet before I left the country, and the hundreds of plans I was making for Duke. But, I still felt it in my bones. At the time I don’t think I truly understood what it was, but something felt off.

 

I think we all have our fights. With the world. With ourselves. Like shape shifting jigsaw pieces, we either change ourselves or the pieces around us. But, my true self felt hazed, obscured by the society around me. I was studying subjects I adored, doing things I loved. Yet, I still felt frustrated. Quantifiable achievements aside, I think in the simplest of words I felt lost.

 

College sounded exciting. It always has. But, I have also always wanted time for myself. So, the second I read about the gap year program I knew I was going to apply. Time to figure everything out. To sit down and make sense of the world and—of myself, while also getting the opportunity to travel. I was sold!

 

But, I had a huge hurdle ahead of me—my parents.

 

I feel that, in my family, critical information is best digested when it is slowly trickled down the pecking order. So, the first person I approached was my sister. As soon as I thought she was a little bit convinced, I moved on to the greatest challenge of my life: I had to convince my Asian parents…. that I wanted to take “a year off”….While everyone else heads to college…To waste my time not furthering my education…Delay my future income by a year. Just so I can travel and find out more about myself?!?

 

Needless to say, the conversation was a tiny bit dreadful. In the end, thankfully, it came down to them letting me make a decision for myself even though they didn’t support it.

 

I applied and I got in! I was now on a gap year! A whole year ahead of me. I could do whatever I wanted, and I wanted to do everything! Learn a million languages. Yes! I have always wanted to learn cooking. There is that yoga class I wished I took. I think I briefly enjoyed painting for a period of three months when I was four years old. There are about a million places in India I think I should visit. 5 internships?

 

You could say that my expectations were unrealistic and I would….agree, but boy was I oblivious to this disparity of our treacherous reality. My first few months were absolutely packed. I would get up, go to the gym, then play basketball for a while, then attend my internship for about three hours, work on my Maths course, then attend the Global Citizen Year Leadership Academy, then I would attend my Computer Science course, then a class about investing and personal finance, then I would get leftover work done and spend the rest of my time reading.

 

Burnout. By December I realized that my behaviour was extremely unsustainable and though I really enjoyed everything I did, my desire to be too productive turned out to be very counterproductive to my goals. This was also around the time I realized that I had miscommunication with the DGYP team and that funding for my year was canceled due to covid. How do I say this in a professional manner—I was pretty bummed out by that.

 

So there I was. The middle of my gap year. I wasn’t going to be able to travel the world or do the kind of things I had initially thought of. 6 months left before Duke and I had no idea what my time was going to look like. Probably for the first time in my adult life I was without a plan. Without any structure to hold myself by. Almost like I was out in society. I was confused and I was scared.

The turbulence lasted for a while but my time after that has honestly been nothing but blissful. Very randomly, one day I decided to get a violin. Growing up in a strict family, I was always stopped or actively discouraged from pursuing non-academically oriented interests. I would have to fight my parents to let me do Model UN. As much as I hate to say it, for the most part, I grew up without truly appreciating art. From the very beginning, I was taught to see it as something which wasn’t useful. Secondary. Unimportant. I absolutely love music now. From the day I got the violin, I have only grown closer to it. Now, I have arguments with my violin teacher because I try to earn way too many things and can’t stop myself from learning stuff that is way outside my capability (which is something I’ll get to in a few paragraphs). All of this has completely changed my perception and my taste in music, and, though this is far from a glorious achievement I can write about, I am extremely proud of myself for embracing music. It has truly changed me as a person and I hope I never have to stop.

 

Soon, after I learned the violin, I joined a dance class. This doesn’t sound big at all but I would say that it’s my biggest achievement. Dancing is something I was very very discouraged from even trying. It was looked down upon by my grandfather and I was stopped from dancing anytime I tried as a child. When I grew up, I was the person at parties who wouldn’t move. Despite the fact that I knew it was okay to dance I always felt like it was too late for me to start and I had built up a lot of anxiety around dancing. Despite wanting to dance, I was never able to. All my life I had never been the worst or even close to the worst at something in the room, and, honestly, I was just so embarrassed to try to dance.

 

From having literally never danced as an adult, I joined a class with around 15 people who had been super passionate about dancing for a long time. I was the worst in the room. I forgot. I messed up. I couldn’t get my body to move. I felt like running away. But, I didn’t. It was extremely hard and extremely embarrassing, and I am still terrible at dancing but I really really pushed myself and I saw things get easier. Soon, they became fun. I danced around my friends for the first time. I find myself randomly dancing to songs at the mall and at the gym. I was able to conquer such a big fear and every time I dance now it feels extremely rewarding.

 

Slowly, fighting my fears became an intrinsic part of my gap year. The mental shift that I have acquired from challenging myself has opened an infinite door of new possibilities. Now, every day, I actively try to do something that scares me. Whether it’s being more experimental with my idea of masculinity or embracing parts of my culture that I grew up being embarrassed by (I talked about this in my first blog) or just wilfully failing at new things in front of other people, I have started to feel less restricted by how I want to be perceived. Now, being constantly beaten in a one-on-one in basketball by people taller and better than me doesn’t hurt me or my ego. It’s thrilling and only increases my drive. I think what’s most inspiring in all of this is despite coming from a place of extremely high anxiety I have now become addicted to trying really hard—even in front of people—to make just tiny bouts of progress in whatever I am doing because it’s just so much fun.

 

On that note, another major theme of my gap year has also been to consistently do therapy. This is something that is highly personal but I really think that it should be talked about: being neurodivergent has really shaped my life and my understanding of myself, and coming to terms with my neurodivergence has helped me become much happier, healthier and function much more effectively. I am writing this blog the way I am specifically because I think that neurodivergence are more likely to be attracted to gap years and to benefit from them.

 

I was diagnosed with OCD in tenth grade and with ADHD this past December. I only started doing therapy during the gap year. For me, having OCD means that I like to obsess over things, like this blog for example, and I like to work on it until it feels right. It is why I felt the way I did about the school system—it wasn’t designed to accommodate me or my needs. The way schooling in India was set up, I never got to enjoy the true beauty of what I studied or to appreciate things the way I wanted. I felt walls rise around me which prevented me from diving into topics as deeply as I wanted, and, as someone who loves studying, not being able to enjoy studying felt frustrating. ADHD added to the exclusion I felt. To be completely honest, having a short attention span didn’t really affect my education much. I have always been a deeply curious kid who got interested in everything. Because I loved to study so much I—unknowingly—developed strategies which allowed me to keep studying, but I can imagine things going the other way round. However, school never felt stimulating enough for me. I like my creativity to free flow and learn things my own way so learning purposely limited information in a linear manner was just extremely boring, and frankly not difficult enough to engage me. The best analogy I have heard to describe ADHD is that neurotypicals talk about thinking outside the box but people with ADHD don’t even understand where the box is. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t go well with rigid systems. By high school, school just became a tiny obstacle that I crossed so I could come back home and watch lectures on the most random topics and then end up spending weeks learning about new things which weren’t useful to my “education”.

 

It was a struggle, and a silent one. A fight I didn’t even know I was fighting till I did therapy. I used to be embarrassed by it but now I see my neurodivergence as a superpower. Many tiny changes like keeping the case of my violin open and in front of me allows me to target issues that make my diagnosis a disorder and learning about it helps me make use of it in so many amazing ways! I obviously still face problems, but I am learning to deal with them more effectively and to create spaces for myself to work how I like to. Like I did with my violin class. The stigma around therapy in India prevented me from doing therapy before but it has been so incredibly helpful that now I recommend it to everyone I see. I am really proud to say that. Now I think that I can not only fit in but prosper in a world designed for neurotypicals.

 

In terms of academic goals, I worked as an intern at StartupBootCamp Australia for about 6 months. Working online in a foreign country was such a refreshing experience for me. I got to learn about the casual work culture of Australia, take part in their training and attend all their events (which were all online because they were in lockdown). I got to learn about finance and startup culture and go through thousands of startup ideas as a scout. I was able to do a deep dive into the emerging technologies in the energy sector and learn about startup growth and management in a really fun way. Global Citizen Year Academy was also an incredible program to the point that I still think about the things I learned over there to this day. I was able to explore social justice from multiple angles and learn about how different cultures, including tribes, possess hubs of knowledge that we have ignored as the world became industrialized and westernized. Most importantly, I changed how I thought of discrimination. Being an upper caste male in India, I thought I couldn’t be oppressed, but I learned about intersectional identities and intangible forms of discrimination like the ones I face being neurodivergent. All of this has allowed me to develop a new idea of what a leader is supposed to be and given me a lot of insight into the kind of person I want to be.

 

I also wrote my first ever code during my gap year which was extremely cool. I covered the basics of python and java and ultimately coded a model of our solar system. I wasn’t able to learn as much computer science as I wanted to, but I was able to dip my toes in the field and understand what it’s like to code and I really enjoyed it. I also spent a lot of my time learning about markets and learning how to read financial reports and analyze financial charts. I have been really interested in economics since I learned it at school and learning about finance allowed me to really see the macroeconomic implications of interest rates and inflation play out in real-time. Most importantly, I learned enough about personal finance and financial management which was a very important topic for me. I used most of my free time to pursue my hobbies and explore new subjects (subjects I haven’t formally studied) which involved philosophy, sociology, astrophysics, Asian history and literature. Most notably, I have started to really enjoy poetry including shayari and I find analyzing different pieces of art and trying to relate to them and find meaning in them extremely interesting now. I have also started my journey of learning more about Indian culture, specifically the parts which have been destroyed by colonization. I have been learning violin in the Indian classical style and I used to look down upon Indian classical music before, but learning it now, I have realized that it’s a form of music which is only dying from mainstream Indian culture because of our ideas of western superiority. Needless to say, Indian music is breathtaking (I also traveled to places of historical importance in India to further this goal and I wrote about it in one of my blogs). I have also rediscovered my love for Maths and patterns. When the gap year began, I was sure I liked social sciences and wanted to just study them, but now I find myself reading books about Maths and constantly trying to learn about new concepts. I am really considering majoring in Maths now.

 

The last segment of my gap year was centered around my health and happiness. During high school, my sleep schedule had become terrible and my health had really taken a toll as a result. Around August, I started going to the gym regularly and also decided to learn a new sport (which was basketball because well Duke). I also got 8 heavenly hours of sleep every night that I am eternally grateful for. Over the year, I have developed a meditation routine and I also try to incorporate yoga into my day as much as I can. Both of these are things I never did before and kind of cringed at. Particularly because both of them are very Indian uncle things to do and that is not a label particularly wanted to associate with. But, I think reading research around mindfulness and self-care changed my view of things. I also got the opportunity to reconnect with my family. My dad was always traveling and I really loved getting to spend the whole year with him. I think that this time has allowed me to get closer to my family than I have ever been before. I also started to play chess again. I used to play a lot of chess as a child but, for some reason, it had completely vanished from my life. I think all of these things together added up in a really good way and now I can say that because of the gap year I am healthier and happier than I have been since childhood.

 

Though I didn’t get to do everything I wanted, this year has been very transformational for me. I have changed as a person and I have changed my ideas of life. After focusing on the deinstitutionalization of my mentality, my path at Duke is going to be remarkably different than what I had planned before. From having narrowed down my major to a mix of social sciences, I am now much more unsure of what I want to study in a very good way. Now, I am going to be open and I will explore everything. I want to pursue music and dance at Duke in whatever capacity I can and that is something that still surprises me. At the end of every year, I look back to see how much I changed and grew as a person. This year I had to do that every month. I was talking to someone in my dance class and I think gap years have an advertising problem. I choose to call this year, as the person said, “An Exploration Year”, and though my parents might still disagree with me, I am glad I made this decision and absolutely recommend it to anyone who is even remotely interested in the idea.