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A Memoir of Sorts

August 19, 2020
- Rajsuryan Singh

Four years ago, around this time, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in life. I wish I could still say the same thing. College is supposed to be this transformative phase that you enter as a naïve kid and come out as a fully functioning adult having your life all figured out. The normalisation of this notion makes it much more difficult to accept when the puzzle pieces don’t fall together. Three years into college, as I looked at the puzzle with its pieces farther apart than they’ve ever been, I couldn’t help but wonder what drove me from clarity to chaos.

When I started college, I planned to pursue science, physics to be specific. I found a sense of comfort in objective descriptions of the world, a resolution from an otherwise uncertain reality riddled with grey areas. To put it in less pretentious words, a career in science just seemed really cool (I blame Richard Feynman). Also, the only other discernible skill I had was music - which I never saw as a potential career choice. My plan made total sense. What’s funny about it - or tragic depending on your sense of humour - is that I didn’t act on it at all during the first couple of years at college and spent all my time on music instead. While the details of how it happened have blurred out, I vividly remember the consequences.

Music has been an amusement for as long as I can remember. However, my relationship with it was fairly underdeveloped before college. Growing up in a small suburban town, the only other musicians I knew were old harmonium and percussion players who’d play at religious gatherings - not something a 13-year-old John Mayer fan could vibe with. All of my exposure to good music came from the internet, and I am utterly grateful for its existence, but it misses out on a very important factor of effective learning—a like-minded peer group. College gave me access to competent musicians who asked similar questions, had a similar understanding and shared a similar relationship with music. I could always find people willing to listen and talk about anything interesting I came across and the other way around. Showing someone an idea I was working on, as they casually dropped by my room, would turn into full-blown songwriting sessions (true story, happened several times!). And the best part is that people bring in influences from diverse sources, musically and otherwise. Conversations that started with music would often branch off to math, philosophy, art, literature or even accounts of tragic - or funny depending on your sense of humour - life experiences. I credit a large part of my development as a musician to such instances - instances that also happen to form most of the reminiscent highlight reel that plays in my head while writing this. However, the more I progressed as a musician, the farther I strayed from my original “plan”.

I didn’t realise it as it happened, but I gradually lost touch with science. I wasn’t doing too bad academically, but I was sort of faking my way through it. Most of my coursework was not particularly demanding, and a day or two of studying was enough to get a decent grade. A lot of it was learning factual information, the rest was barely an extension of high school chemistry. To be fair, that’s probably a gross oversimplification and perhaps a misrepresentation of the courses, the two-day marathon study sessions are not built for nuance after all, but that’s what I remember. Science was not as exciting as it used to be. It started feeling like a hopeless relationship I had grown out of but was too afraid to walk away from. I started entertaining the idea of dropping it altogether and doing music full-time. But it wasn’t a time to be able to afford rash decisions, so I decided to give myself a semester to figure things out. What followed was several weeks of introspection and existential dread. And binge-watching Bojack Horseman, which might have been a trigger. I started working on the internship applications, scoured through research fields even remotely related to my major, and by the end of the semester, found several areas that piqued my interest and provided me with the much-needed intellectual stimulation. More importantly, I had a couple of realisations about the things I found fulfilling and the reasons thereof (content warning - loads of armchair philosophy ahead!).

I realised that every fulfilling activity for me has the same anatomy - there are long periods of mildly unpleasant monotony followed by little moments of genuine excitement. The excitement almost always comes from an acknowledgement of beauty - whether it’s in an elegant mathematical proof or a soul-stirring guitar solo. It doesn’t have to be as profound, even seemingly insignificant things like a clever calculation trick or a subtle unexpected drum fill have a similar effect. And I believe that your ability to appreciate beauty and hence find joy in something is proportional to your proficiency in it. The more deeply you understand something, the more enjoyable it becomes. This brings me to the puzzle I mentioned earlier. If I were to believe whatever I have written in this paragraph, as invalid as it may be beyond the confines of my mind, it becomes obvious to do whatever you’re the most competent at as your career. At the same time, it becomes impossible to decide between things that you enjoy equally and are equally mediocre at. Whichever way you think about it, there seems to be no satisfactory way to choose what becomes a career and what is relegated to a means to fill spare time.

Coming back to the real world that doesn’t conform to idealistic personal philosophy, you have to factor in things like financial stability, relevant education, and available opportunities while making career choices. A career in science makes practical sense given the formal education, relevant experience and all, and it’s significantly easier to do music as a hobby than the other way around. So that’s what I’m doing, for the time being. My plan, while being turned upside down several times throughout college, is still kind of the same. But there’s a catch - it still comes with the same caveats. A few years down the line if I significantly improve as a musician, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to have another one of these crises, and the trend will probably continue for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, having gone through it once, I’ll be better equipped to deal with it. Now, to end this as abruptly as college did for me, I’ll just say that whatever college entails for you is highly unpredictable, plans fall apart, new ones are formed, and in the process, you go through unforeseen self-discovery (the proof is trivial and is left as an exercise for the reader).