Forest for the trees

“… but it’s MY life,” – self-absorbed fragments of  reflection strayed and streamed through my mind, as dire struggles with my basic interview question inevitably closed the door towards the aspirations of a young immigrant graduate Chinese girl sitting in front of me. She just wasn’t very good.

In the same folder where she kept the code for my interview question, I saw interview files for Google, Apple, Amazon, Uber, Twitter. From the way she was thinking about the simple problem I presented, I knew she couldn’t have passed those interviews. I was playing a part in crushing her dreams; maybe she wouldn’t even get to stay in the US.

Perhaps this was a perfect metaphor for me. I felt like my life was falling apart too, as those with the power over my future, nonchalant and carefree, proceeded to make decisions that would devastate my inner world, my own hopes and dreams, and my ambitions.

She was writing out code in silence, slowly. I tried to help, but she asked if she could have a minute, and I didn’t want to make things worse by making her nervous, or disrupting her flow. She was very introverted, lost in her own thoughts, and I’d need to see her thought process to really help her succeed at the interview. At a certain point it’s out of my hands – I have to make an objective evaluation, and there was very little chance she’d make the cut. Clear communication is itself an important skill to get hired as a software engineer.

So I patiently waited for her, as my mind drifted to the struggles that I had been facing. “My immigration status is the largest blocker in my life; there are all these things that I want to do with my life so much greater than what I’m doing. But the lawyer messed up my paperwork, and I’m stuck for 2 years, unable to truly realize my potential, my ambition. They go through a lot of people, and this could have happened to anyone, I just don’t matter that much to the firm, or to the US government, just one life out of many… on a large scale, so inconsequential… But this is MY life. I care about it; it’s the most important thing to me. I have to figure out a way to solve this situation.”

My stomache hurt. I don’t know what I ate, but it’s been haunting me for days; every part of me was aching and broken, and I was doing my best to hide it from her, but she was too lost in the narrowness of her focus to care. I was safe.

It was sad. We could never hire someone who pays so little attention to the world around them, and just sees a task with no understanding for why they’re doing it, what place it has in their life. Just convert specification to code, and shelter away from reality in the obscurity of algorithms and calculation. She was not understanding that the interview evaluates more than just a completed assignment handed over through a barrier of anonymity. The way she connects with co-workers is just as important, we should work together to resolve her issues solving the problem.

I’ve made similar mistakes in my career, and in my personal life; in evaluating my priorities. It’s easier to be narrow – it’s almost a form of escapism, just focusing on the things you can do, and ignoring the larger context that your problems exist in. My boss tells me it’s my direct responsibility to know why – as far as the company’s goals go – I’m working on what I am working on; to question it, and course-correct if the “what” doesn’t align with the “why”.

I wish I understood these matters better in my failed relationships.

“What do I do now? I’ve resolved to leave the past behind, and conquer the world – to do my best, to contribute as much as I can, serve the people I love. Do I leave this country, go build a cryptocurrency business? The opportunity is now; and that is the opportunity in the world of software right now. There is nothing holding me behind. My immigration status in this country is coming to an end, and the next step is so far away; my future is wrought with uncertainty. I can find funding, and go do a business – like I always wanted. There is nothing holding me back but fear, uncertainty, a need for continuity.”

These thoughts creep up on me. I’ve been thinking about the next steps for my life for months now; these huge decisions lay a heavy burden on my shoulders, and I never know how to approach them; they mix and shuffle with scattered feelings, a longing for comfort and authority, someone I can rely on. As I watch my interview candidate struggle to understand the structure of a simple algorithm question, I wonder if we’re both stumbling in the darkness – if only I stood from a higher pedestal of mental clarity and sharpness, the answers would be apparent to me.

It’s my destiny. It’s my life. What is the right path forward? Do I quit, risk it all – my status in the US, my career – and do what I want? Do I resign to this holding pattern that circumstances have forced me into? What of my relationships in this country?

Here I am, thinking of the timescale and path of leaving my company, potentially breaking ties with everything I’ve worked to build over the last 5 years, while trying to help a girl pass her interview, and talking about how our company is the best to work for at a career fair. I realize every person has these neverending personal life struggles, and we make it work with the work we do. In a way I felt happy that the girl allowed my mind to drift into its own private oblivion. But on the other hand, I’d be happier to engage my candidate; I would never allow myself to not be fully present with a person who is reaching out, and trying to connect.

We’re running out of time; she doesn’t even know that what she’s focusing on is a tiny part of the problem I want to present. I start giving her hint after hint, and eventually, she arrives at an answer, though just for the little chunk she was stuck on. I arrive at no conclusion for myself about my life. I’m lost in an endless soup of decisions and emotions, both tempted to take bold steps, and afraid to lose what I have in making them. Perhaps like her, I’m failing to recognize the broader context of my decisions, and my focus is too narrow. Perhaps I need to take a step back, and see the forest for the trees.