Thinker, outgoing introvert, smiley goth, idealist, special snowflake.
Learn more about Sara at saradahan.com
I’m glad that you brought up the analogy of the caterpillar.
Yeah! I mean, it's a very common one but what makes it so amazing is that a lot of people don't know this little nugget. There are these different stages of the Caterpillar and there's this one in the middle called the Pupa or chrysalis where everyone knows like, “Oh, they're in the cocoon”, but what I personally didn't know – I can't speak for everyone – but inside the cocoon it's mush. It's literally mush. It's not a body of the caterpillar that's growing wings. It's just complete goo. And then inside the goo are these little tiny bits of DNA and the DNA is what's sending itself the message - “now you have to become a butterfly” and then it suddenly constructs and does this weird thing.
And I think that's so cool because when we go through these periods of really immense transformation I feel very stripped apart. I really feel raw and exposed and so open to all these new ideas and paths, but what stays very static and very grounded are my values and the core of what I am.
So the DNA of Me stays there, but the rest is complete goo. And I think from that I can rise from the ashes and be whatever I want to be and that's such a more empowering move than if I was already a butterfly and I was like, “I want to change the color of this wing.”
What I have been thinking about with that particular analogy is that, in transformative times, there's a certain level of decay and decomposition and the pain is going to happen for any sort of growth.
I think most growth comes from pain and it's hard to think about that. But I feel like it does open us up in a way and I'm like the caterpillar because what I just said speaks to a lot of my transformations. Staying very true to my values and they can even be like a compass to where I want to go.
There are a couple of transformations in my life – that might have even been the most defining ones – where I didn't like my DNA. I was like I'm just going to choose new DNA. And that was really, really hard. I think it's only possible to do that if you want to change your core values or build up some skills.
Like there's this one transformation where that one alone is responsible for me having empathy, a lot of empathy that I know how to use and channel. Because I knew I was capable of it. I was just like, “I'm not a very patient or empathetic person. I want to be that! I see all these amazing people that I look up to that have that, so I'll do that and I need to dig down deep to do that.”
What is the transformation that's happening right now for you?
So the transformation was not predicted and it definitely happened in its own course. And I think the reason it happened the way it did is because I had been through enough transformations already that I knew how to detect that feeling of confusion. Like “Oh, that's something big. I know that's something big.”
It happened in the beginning of April, my boss went to see her family for a few weeks and that day I asked her for some kind of check-in because I thought it was going to be about very specific ways we interacted. But when I actually started reflecting after she left, I was like, “Ooh, this is not just about our relationship, this is about my future”. And I didn't really understand exactly what that meant until I started asking myself these questions. Like, do I want to stay here? Because the check in was really supposed to be about how can we be more efficient? How can we be more kind, what do boundaries look like? Stuff like that. But I think it kind of... it was a very slow thing.
I was like, if I want that then I need to voice which things I enjoy doing and which things I don't enjoy doing. Why do I like doing that thing and why do I not like that thing? Wait, is there a way for me to do more of that? Do I need more responsibility? Do I need to do something different?
And so what ended up happening was me realizing that I needed much more responsibility with this one kind of thing that I really enjoyed doing, or I had within me and with my resources and network the possibility to make that happen for myself. And I think that if I told myself at the beginning of that two and a half week period, that by the end of it I would have this decision made, I really wouldn't have believed it. It was more following the train of confusion and doubt and uncertainty and desires and knowing how to know that I desired something.
But yeah, so now the spoiler, the end of the story is that me and my boss decided it would be best if I left and she's gonna continue doing the stuff that I started and I will continue doing my own thing and um, my mush is particularly mushy right now. I gave myself this month as a gift to do a lot of different things that could help me choose my path. So I'm applying to jobs right now and I'm creating very, very rough business plans for my own companies to start. And I got a proposition or two from our friend already to help them start something. And I'm working on my writing to see where that will go.
Because it could end up being a full time career, but that's mainly something that I always promised myself, like one day I'll be a writer and then it's like years later and I don't even have a blog and I'm all of my friends tell me, “Oh Sara, you should just be a writer”. And like, what does that even mean? I've never tried doing it, so I'm doing that too.
I’m just enjoying rolling around in the mush and the options and it's obviously not something that could happen forever, but it's a cool thing that I don't have to get a job on Monday. I can just look at my options and figure it out.
That's why I started the transformation in the first place. So yeah, lots of options.
I have had issues in the past with imposter syndrome and stuff like that. But what's pretty cool is that this was the very first transformation in my whole life where I did not have imposter syndrome. There were a few players that were not as confident in me throughout this decision making process and I heard them and I was like, “I hear what you're saying. I disagree. I believe in myself for X Y Z reasons.” It did not happen that way for other ones.
I don't know yet if I could own the title entrepreneur yet. I tried it on a couple of times in the past few weeks and it did not sound great in my head. I was like, "Oh but you're not doing anything" but I think I could learn to own it. It's interesting because when I was making that decision to leave my job, I was talking with a bunch of people about the prospect of making my own company and those were tough conversations because the type of people I was talking to were like "Well, what is your idea? What's your business plan?"
I think that imposter syndrome is very real and there are a few ideas that I've been discussing with people that are right now much bigger than I would feel comfortable undertaking. I won't give it away but one would attempt to solve sexual harassment in the workplace. That's a huge, huge deal.
Like, what credentials do I have? I was having a conversation with someone that might be interested in that and they're like, oh yeah, we could do it! and I was the one that was like We're just these two millennials that are very idealistic and don't actually know how to do that. But it's a great idea. So I think that there is a resolve and the confidence, but I think it's going to be a constant battle of owning whatever I'm doing.
I'm curious if now you've recalled some of those past times as confidence boosters of like, “I wasn't sure what was gonna happen, but now in hindsight I can see how that played out."
Actually I was writing my resume because when I figured out that I was leaving, I looked at my resume. It's the most boring thing I've ever seen, so I scrapped all of it and started from scratch. I still don't know if the way I ended up doing it was the most professional, but I was going about it in more of a storytelling way and giving the transformations as my credentials.
When I was writing it, I think I wasn't having the worst imposter syndrome, but when I was reading it I was like, “I did do that! I'm reading this and it's true.” I feel these very weird feelings right now because you can't argue with actual events that happened.
So I think that was a boost, but it's not really something that automatically comes to mind. Like, “Oh, I went through this so I must be amazing.” My favorite parts of my transformations are actually when I lose sight of that. And then it comes back to remind me of like, “You've already learned this lesson, you're learning it again. You're welcome.”
You mentioned earlier, like in these times of change where there's the mush that you can still hold fast to your values. How did you come to know what your values are?
Well, when I got kicked out of MIT, that immediate summer that that happened, even though we know that the story ends with me being very motivated to succeed, that summer I was a mess. I had very, very low self esteem. I was totally blindsided by it. No one in the administration told me that was a possibility that could happen. They were like, “You have 24 hours to vacate the premises and you can't come visit.” It was this very traumatizing thing.
So I had a day to find new housing. I ended up finding this apartment full of these very nice Christian artists. Two demographics I had no exposure to. I had never really met Christians that were not like, how do I put it? Obviously they weren't militant, but they were really progressive too, and they kept these prayer journals and went to church, but they were also very progressive, modern millennials. So that was pretty interesting to me, but I have to credit them. I didn't understand what values were. I knew the word and they were constantly telling me like, “This week I'm trying to work on my compassion and I had a dream about it. Then I wrote something in my prayer journal about it” and I was just hearing them say this stuff and I was 21 and I was just like, What are you talking about? I want to know more. What? What!
And it was with living with them that I realized that there are these very abstract things like kindness and patience and empathy and generosity that you could aim for. I really did not understand that – that values were a thing that you could grow and nurture and build and they translated into skills. And you could learn how to do it just like you can learn how to do math and science at MIT. It's the same kind of trial and error and problem solving and resolve. And at least at MIT you had to be okay with failure when you were trying to solve a really tough calculus problem.
So that was an interesting time because I was so young at the time. I wouldn't have said that, but 21 is pretty young to be like “I wonder what I want my personality to be” and work on getting it. That was an interesting thing that I was exposed to that I think affected my life in very profound ways. And even though I didn't have all the language that I have now – because I'm sure you can imagine that working with it and being a nerd about all these different personal development things... I know a lot more of what I was doing, like structuring my value system. At the time it wasn't really like that, but it was very much a conscious effort. So that was pretty cool. Little religion in values. They thought it was interesting what I was doing, because I was being very open with them. Like, “I was really inspired by this thing you said and I want to work on that too, but I'm not going to come to church with you and it has nothing to do with Jesus.” Just that's such an interesting thing to work on.
So if I was trying to work on compassion or empathy, I ended up talking to a lot of people that were very, very different from me. There'd be someone in the cafe that was feeling rather extroverted and he revealed himself as this veteran that had PTSD. And I am not brave like that anymore these days. But at the time I was like, oh tell me your story. And I like listening to all these different things and they're a fun challenge for me. I admit I haven't been value building in the same way these days. Maybe that's because it's a bit more solidified. Yeah, it's an interesting journey.
So you find yourself in a period of growth and transformation now. What has been helpful to you, whether it was something that kinda came your way without you seeking it out or you exclusively like looking for some resource or tool to help?
Well, you noticed I have been using a lot of sounding boards, not necessarily to tell me what to do, but just to add to my collective knowledge and understanding of the situation.
And I think what I knew – this is intuitive and I'm sure I knew it on an intellectual level – but I think that like these past couple of months especially, it was very eye opening to me how true this was and how much I internalized it: asking for help was so important. I think I knew that if you ask for help, people will give it to you.
I don't know, they were like these people that I barely knew that I was like, Can I have a conversation with you? And they'd be like, Oh my God, of course that's sounds so great. I'm so happy for you. And I'd be like, Why are they doing this? But if someone did that to me, I'd be the same.
And if you're a positive force...I didn't realize how willing people would be to help and I didn't have that much practice in asking. Before this I think I only asked when I was in crisis and I really needed help, but this is wanting help. And I don't think I had ever done that before.
Well I know this has been, it seems like it's been prompted from the career level. Do you feel like it's trickling out or like touching all parts of your life?
I would actually say it's the reverse direction.
Because for the career intellectual academic stuff, I have always struggled and I'm sure I will continue to struggle for the rest of my life with confidence and imposter syndrome and whatever. It's getting so much better. But I have some stories that make imposter syndrome just sound terrible. But in terms of my personal life – so that means family, friends and relationships – I got so much more confidence with that over the years.
I had a really toxic family member that I eventually had to put my foot down and be like, I'll never talk to this person again. And that was a very bold decision at the time. A lot of people were really, really shocked and I was like, I am standing by this decision. And that was definitely an act of confidence. Not really the kind of confidence of “I am so amazing,” but definitely the kind of “I believe in myself and that I'm making the right choice.” And it's been similar.
And with friends and relationships – you can't do that with family – but with friends and relationships you choose who's going to be in your life you choose who you surround yourself with. And over the years, through the same kind of trial and error that everybody has, I realized like, Oh, this is the thing I want, this is the thing I don't want. Here's someone that has a thing I don't want, I don't owe them anything, Goodbye! Just make them leave. And enough times of doing that I realized how much better my life would get and that would just give me much more confidence growing in my intuition, my decision-making power over my own life. And I think that is what translated into my career.
When would you say this period of transformation began for you?
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It's been a constant learning experience of when you grow up you realize that not everyone belongs in your life.
I think that's been a learning process. So maybe the toxicity part was that part of my life. But then the positive parts – like I know what I don't want, but what do I want? And thinking about that came more in my mid twenties because that's the time where your longer friendships start to shift as everyone goes on their separate paths.
And then in my relationships I did not do any of that by myself. What happened was I met my boyfriend and he had enough relationship experience that even though he couldn't start his older ones with this kind of wisdom, he was like, This is happening right now, time to start this the right way.
And he taught me so much. Stuff that I think was really helpful was like “if it could be like this, it makes everyone else look like dirtbags. I don't have to be with the dirtbags. I could be with people like you!” That was pretty cool too.
So I don't think any of it was necessarily this personal inward transformation where I'm like, Oh, I know how to take care of myself in the best way. It's more just detecting patterns, like This is bad, This is good. And it's up to me to like figure out exactly what that means and then know what I should do and then actually be brave enough to do it.
Right now at age 28, I have a little bit too much confidence in that particular area because my friends and family are very constant. Well, I guess I'm getting a lot of new friends too, but it's not really the same for dating and relationships. If someone is not adhering to whatever insanely high standards I've built up over the years – I am forgiving for all the little stuff – but if someone actually is misaligned with their values, I'll just be very direct and be like, oh, I don't think we're compatible, it was so nice meeting you. Goodbye. And they'll be like, what? I think that maybe could be softened a little bit. But yeah, very direct
What prominent feelings are coming up for you during this time?
There are many. They're not always the ones that you'd expect. So obviously I have fear and confusion and a little bit of self doubt, depends on the day. It's confusing this week because this is my first week off of my old job and it's also the first time in my life where I am relaxing without feeling guilty. That's literally never happened to me even as a teenager in high school. So that's new. Hopefully it won't totally derail me from the plans that I have for next week.
You gave yourself permission, that it's a gift.
Yeah, I am very much taking it that way. It's a very new feeling. So I also have that, I have surprise and gratitude around that. I also have self compassion for not totally breaking down from the various haters throughout this decision. Thankfully, none were doing it for bad reasons. They're not bad characters in my life. Just it was a very tough decision to make and there are certain things that are really hard to hear and I had to be like, Nope, I'm doing it anyway. There were times in my life - there are actually very specific examples of exactly this happening – where at some point someone would say something like that and I would go into a lull, like a deep dark place for months afterward. Not because of the one thing someone would say – just my faith in myself was more fragile and easily compromised. So that's pretty cool.
What would you say to someone who is going through a transformative time for this who’s feeling blocked?
I do feel very strongly that there's really no such thing as regrets that you have to experience. It's definitely a choice to feel regret. So yeah, there isn't a solution to not feeling lost. I think it's just whatever strategies someone could come up with to have faith in their decision, even if it's the wrong one, just stick by it and know that no one can predict the future.
Even really decisive people like me. It's not like it's because I know the future will be great. No, I have no idea! Just they want to see what happens. See what happens when I do this thing. It could be terrible if I do end up making my own company. The statistics are really against me, most fail very epically. I'm sure that there's a really, really good chance of that happening, but it's about making the decision and going for it.