Put Your Investigator’s Hat On

5 minutes

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

Understanding the root cause of unhappiness has been the topic of countless articles around the internet,* so reading a few will begin to give you an idea not of the answer, but rather the questions you can ask yourself to arrive at the right answer. Famous computer scientist Alan Kay said it best: “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

The most serious mistakes are not made as a result of wrong answers. Rather, they are a consequence of asking the wrong questions.

One of the more influential books I’ve read in my life is Flow* by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high cheek-sent-me-high), a renowned Hungarian-American psychologist who invented the concept of flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

He bottles 25 years’ worth of research on happiness into 300 pages, where you will find quotes from writers, violinists, mountaineers, and basketball players describing their experiences when they engage in activities in their field. One of my favorite quotes from the book is the following:

Flow is a loss of self-consciousness. [This] does not involve a loss of the self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self.

In the book, he also plots what has now become a famous chart, known as, you guessed it, The Flow Chart.

It is a simplistic plot of skill vs. difficulty in accomplishing a task. If you are just beginning to play tennis and decide to compete against a veteran player, you will lose the game as well as your motivation to learn it further. You will continue to doubt your abilities and enter a state of anxiety, which is detrimental. However, if you are the veteran player, and you keep competing against players who still have a long way to go to match your skill, you will enter a state of complacence, and eventually boredom, since the activity will not excite you anymore. Neither are helpful for long-term happiness.

Csikszentmihalyi posits that in an ideal scenario, you will remain in that narrow state of flow. How do you do it? By taking up tasks that are challenging yet achievable if you put in enough effort. Eventually, you will be more skilled, and take up tasks that are more challenging. This way, you will be in a state of flow by moving both horizontally and vertically, but not so much as to leave this state altogether.

How would you know if you’re in that state? Like all good questions, there is no easy answer to that. You need to read about others’ experiences, and compare them against yours.

Do you feel like quitting because your job isn’t challenging? Or because you don’t see yourself forming a lasting bond with your co-workers? Could it be that you are just having a bad week? Understanding the root cause is in no way a simple problem. And attaining a lifelong sense of fulfillment doesn’t happen by default to some. You need to work towards it by making necessary changes to your life and observing your response to those changes.

The best things in life aren’t free, after all. They are obtained through an exhausting and exhilarating journey.

Flow is just one of the many concepts out there, such as the five whys,* that you can utilize to figure out the source of your problem. If it turns out that you are indeed unhappy with your job because you yearn for the academic environment, where intense learning happens every day, and you wish to study in a strange new country, then by all means, we’re rooting for you!

Day 1: The Big Apple

​story​The first day I landed in New York was probably one of my saddest days at Columbia University. I landed at 9 a.m. in the John F. Kennedy airport, after a 25-hour-long flight with a moderate fever. I was traveling internationally for the second time in my life. The first time was when I came to the U.S. through a summer scholarship. I had spoken to a lot of people that I was about to meet during the day over WhatsApp, in the two months leading up to this day. We had, as I’m sure you will soon, a lively group where questions were asked and answered every few hours. We also had a separate group just to engage in innocent chitchat. As soon as I entered my apartment, which in itself was difficult to find at first, I was greeted by my two roommates who had arrived earlier. We met through WhatsApp. Within the next hour, I was whisked off after a quick bite to spend the entire day outdoors with a dozen others, traveling to Staten Island, Times Square, and more places that I don’t remember now.

It was a strange feeling. Being an introvert, speaking to someone over text messages was something I had mastered. However, meeting them in person and spending an entire day with a group of people who I had known for two months, yet did not really know at all, was really hard. I felt completely out of place and wanted to get home quickly. After roaming for ten hours, I decided to give in to my intense fatigue and return home sooner, and left the group to travel by myself through the subway at 11 p.m.. Even on a good day, I wasn’t good with directions. So you can imagine it was only likely that I ended up at the wrong destination, many blocks away from my home, in a location called Harlem. A location popular for its crime rate.

Add to this a dead phone and chilly night. With only a vague knowledge of my address, I began running in a direction that seemed right, constantly keeping an eye out for muggers and rogues. There seemed to be many that night, thanks to my vivid imagination. Fortunately, I finally reached home a little past midnight and spent the next two hours sobbing uncontrollably, wishing I had never come to this strange new country.

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