February 27, 2011

Lessons From Abroad

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The night was warm and sweat had slowly begun to bead on my forehead when a breeze swept through the rooftop bar. Across the table was my co-worker Bridgette, whom I had just met for the first time, despite the fact that we had been “based” in the same office for months. The setting was Ghana, and we were both working for Google. “How does this sort of life become reality?” I pondered aloud. Even though we had only known each other for a few days, there was a strong sense of camaraderie. Two months into my job, Bridgette seemed like the only person who lived a crazier life than I did. She had just finished a four-month trip around Africa, setting up conferences for developers and entrepreneurs in an impressive number of countries. I felt like I had only just started, but I had already spent time in three different continents and had settled into my new home in Accra, Ghana’s capital.

The question stuck with me. How had we ended up in these ridiculous lives? We were both living out our dreams, and yet neither of us were quite sure how had we gotten there. Was it luck? Skill? Intelligence? It was a riddle that we contemplated together that night over drinks. A few bottles of Ghanaian beer later, and we had come up with a few theories.

First, we had both spent time living abroad in college. Traveling –– whether it’s through studying abroad, volunteering on a school break, or just taking some time to live in another culture –– opens your eyes to the truly vast world of possibilities out there. Not to mention, Cornell makes this easy. One of my greatest surprises on campus was that so few people took the incredible opportunity to spend a semester or two seeing the world. For me, the realization came while I was backpacking through Europe during my semester abroad. For the first time in my life, I realized that I could be happy doing something other than the path that had been meticulously laid out for me over the years. It was a deeply disconcerting realization, but had it never happened, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun as I am now.

Second, both Bridgette and I had failed at something huge. My first major failure came in high school. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say I had spent years of my life working towards a singular goal, and I failed at it big time. For days, I was devastated. I didn’t even want to get out of bed. But one morning, I woke up and said, “You know, the world hasn’t ended; I’m still alright.” And with that, I had a much deeper understanding of myself. I knew that no matter how hard life knocked me down, I would always be able to get back up. In fact, this understanding was ultimately one of the key lessons that helped me get through some of the rough patches at Cornell too. Now, one of my deepest convictions is that if I’m not failing constantly, I’m just not setting my sights high enough. All of this transitions nicely into number three …

We both set ridiculously outlandish goals for ourselves, goals that are far greater than what anyone would reasonably expect from us. I wanted to move to Africa, to work at a technology company, and to do work that had significant social impact. You might be surprised; when you set such absurd goals for yourselves, it’s amazing how many people want to help. People came out of the woodwork, people I had barely worked with, or hadn’t worked with at all, all came to my aid. They put me in touch with other people, who in turn did the same. And eventually after countless setbacks and dead ends, I ended up where I am.

Lastly, work hard but also work smart. Figure out what you want to accomplish, and then don’t take no for an answer. But more than that, spell out what you want to accomplish and then figure out how you can achieve as many of them at once. I wanted to live abroad; I wanted to do work that I was passionate about, and I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. I could have tackled each of those goals separately, but instead, I decided to find a single route that let me accomplish each of them simultaneously. One of the major lessons I learned the hard way at Cornell is that time is fundamentally a finite resource. Simply put, life is too short. There are too many things to do, too many places to see, too many experiences to experience, and too many people to meet. Our time is the only thing we have. Make it count.

Ben Cole ’10 graduated from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Ben Cole