Those of us from certain cultural backgrounds will remember the joy of finding Easter eggs.
When you’re an innocent little kid, you go out to the yard and dig up the chocolatey treats carefully hidden by the Easter Bunny. As we hit our teenage years we’re no longer fooled by the efforts of our well-meaning parents, but we still love chocolate.
When we’re young we are often asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up"? As a child that’s an easy question to answer – you rattle off the role models around you. The jobs that you see people do in your family; the high profile public roles of firefighter, doctor, and teacher; or the fantasy of becoming an astronaut, movie star, or pop music singer. As we hit our teenage years we realise that the question has a deeper meaning and that life is not just imagination and chocolate.
There is an expectation in the answer to that question because people want to know who you want to be. At this stage of life, very few people have a clear idea of the direction in which they want to head, but this is where the pressure begins. The pressure to choose a path.
Most of the time life seems simply like survival – just get to the next stage. Graduate high school. Further your education and/or get a job. Is the job meaningful, or a means to an end? For most of us, it is the latter, and we don’t want to stray from the path until we have established some stability in our lives. But that time is rarely clear, and sometimes feels like it will never come. We just keep proceeding through each stage, like we’re in a video game that progressively gets harder proportional to our experience, with the odd boss-battle thrown in to test our developed skills.
Most of the time life seems simply like survival – just get to the next stage.
Sometimes in a video game, you’ll find an Easter Egg – something unexpected and rewarding that most people have missed. You did something a little different, looked at a puzzle in a new way, stumbled across a new path, and found something that seems to make the journey worthwhile. Then you start looking for more Easter Eggs.
I was raised with a strong emphasis on showing deference and respect to my elders, possibly to the point of developing a bit of an inferiority complex. I didn’t socialise outside of my extended family, so I found it difficult to talk to new people. I thought everyone must know more than me, so what could I contribute? This lack of social confidence continued through high school, and it wasn’t until I started university that I discovered my first opportunity to divert from this path.
In an early orientation class, a question was asked of the students as to what they looked forward to most at university. I remember feeling unprepared – after all, this was just the next stage. My answer ended up being a subconscious observation that, once vocalised, became a turning point for me. “Nobody here knows me, so I can be whoever I want to be”. I had realised that this was my opportunity to allow the wider world to see the person that I was comfortable being within my family. One of my earliest friends at University told me that she first noticed me when I gave that answer, and it was one of the reasons she became a friend.
The opening question doesn’t need an answer, because what you’re going to be is not a destination.
This conscious choice to “come out of my shell” led me to friendships that I still have today, and indirectly to my lifelong career. I got my degree in computer science - it was not something I was particularly passionate about, but that was the only option available to me at the time. Suddenly I was at the end of my degree, and I still didn’t know who or what I was going to be.
I took a part-time job in an earthquake lab at my University. My role expanded over the years, but it was still just a job, which I did well, but not with the passion of some of my colleagues. Then I saw an opportunity to make a different sort of contribution – to improve the seismograph by designing a better user interface. Something sparked in me when the product was finished. I’d helped to create something, not just processed data. It was an Easter Egg: satisfying and motivating.
Despite overcoming it to a degree socially, there was still an underlying feeling of inferiority in how I saw myself in my professional life. This minor design achievement made me think that perhaps I could do something positive in my working life that might be appreciated and valued.
I realised that I could see things from more perspectives than most people and that I could contribute to making something better, even great. My contribution wouldn’t be in the way that other seismologists discover things about the earth, but in the creation of simple professional tools to make scientific discovery easier.
I finally knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to create, to design, to make something unique that would potentially help someone discover something great.
For so many years I hadn’t realised that the reason I wasn’t engaged in my work was that I was not being creative. Designing new solutions is now crucial to personal satisfaction in my work. I want to keep coming up with new ideas and creating tools that make data processing simpler, making the technology invisible, and leaving researchers to focus on their results and discoveries.
I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I certainly never imagined I’d become a seismologist, hardware and software designer, or lead an environmental monitoring instrumentation company. You never know where the paths in your life are going to lead, but I found that allowing myself to explore a passion within my work helped keep me moving forward.
It’s never too late to learn or try something new, so we never really finish growing up. The opening question doesn’t need an answer, because what you’re going to be is not a destination. It’s a path with choices. Sometimes you find dead ends and need to back-track; sometimes you find a comfortable place to rest; and if you’re lucky you discover a new world of possibilities, motivation, and satisfaction.