The Choices We Make

When I was growing up my parents had a giant map of the world on our living room wall. It was an antique, from 1892, so it had country names like Siam and Persia on it. Other than that, it was fairly accurate. That’s a picture of it above.

One day when I was a kid with a limited knowledge of global politics, I asked my mom who America’s enemy was. She told me, “We don’t get along with Russia right now.” I looked at the map, saw Russia, compared it to America and thought, “We’re doomed.”

Since then I’ve had a strange fascination with Russia. The country and its people always seemed so foreign and mysterious to me. I took a class on Soviet culture in college and later I lived in Brookline which has a huge Russian population. One day I looked into the window of the local Russian bookseller and realized I couldn’t pronounce a word of the Cyrillic alphabet.

Inspired by my ignorance and on a total lark, I took a class in Russian at the Harvard Extension School. There was never any pretense that this class would be of any value. When I told people at work they all looked puzzled and asked “Why?” To most people it must have sounded like a waste of money. Despite all the naysayers, I took the class and by the end was able to speak rudimentary Russian. I speak Russian about as well as a two year old, possibly worse.

Russian fell off my radar when my wife and I moved out of Brookline and to the suburbs. I was too busy looking for a new job. For this job search I went through a list of the best employers in the local area. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that life is too short to work for lousy companies. On the list of good employers, one company stood out – Kaspersky Lab. Kaspersky had an office in Woburn but headquarters were in Moscow. I put it on my short list of potential employers.

A few months later I went to get a haircut and made a joke with the stylist, “Can you make this haircut look extra sharp? I’m looking for a job.” The woman laughed and said, “Well, my daughter works as a recruiter for Kaspersky and she loves it there.” Isn’t it weird how things work out when you least expect it?

I got in touch with the recruiter and she sent me to interview with another woman with the last name Yershov. One thing about Russian last names, they almost always end with “-ov.” Towards the end of the interview I decided to be bold and said, “Ya nemnoga gavaryoo parooski.” This translates to “I speak a little Russian.”

Right away I could tell I had stunned her. The silence on the line was deafening. When she spoke again it was to say, “I’m going to take your resume to my hiring manager right now.” Turns out my meager Russian skills from a course I took on a whim eight years before landed me a job. I’ve been at Kaspersky for almost two years now.

At no point would I have foreseen any of this. It’s interesting how a series of small decisions lead me to where I am now. It’s been that way for the biggest things in my life. I met my wife by chance at a party. I got my first real job out of college from a guy I met at a dinner party. Small decisions like attending a party or taking a class in Russian have lead me to big things later that I could never have foreseen.

One of the best sayings I know is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely right. From my own life, I’ve seen the choices I’ve made have had a profound influence on the course of my life. I see destiny as the interaction between external events and the choices you make.

Otto Von Bismarck said it best when he said, “We cannot control the course of events, we can only sit on top and steer.” The idea is we can only do so much in this huge world but what we do has an effect. When considering your fate, it’s useful think of yourself as a boat on a river. I didn’t know where I was going exactly when I took a class in Russian, but it was in the general direction of the country itself. When I went to the party where I met my wife, I was open to meeting someone new.

The key idea to remember here is to be open to new experiences and do what interests you with little regard for the anticipated outcome. If you love the activity enough, things will work out.

It’s important to not get too attached to how you want things to work out. Recently there was a story in the New York Times about a man who has the distinction of being kicked out of both Nirvana and Soundgarden, two of the biggest bands of my generation. After kicking him out, these two bands went on to sell a combined 100 million albums.

Tough luck dude is in the way back

History is replete with people like this who almost made it. Pete Best was the Beatles drummer before they hired Ringo. We all know Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were the founders of Apple but did you know there was a third founder who dropped out of the venture because he thought it was too risky? He now lives in a trailer outside of Las Vegas. He is quoted in Steve Jobs’ biography as saying he has no regrets but I don’t believe him.

But being kicked out of *two* of the biggest bands of all time is unreal. Can you imagine the disappointment? That’s why I liked this story. The man, Jason Everman, didn’t give in to bitterness, resentment and hate. He didn’t spend the rest of his life pondering what could have been. He didn’t get too attached to his vision of himself as a musician.

Instead, he abruptly quit music, put all his possessions in storage, took a flight to New York City and enlisted in the Army Special Forces. It was something he had considered for a long time, his stepfather was a career Navy man, but it was a sentiment none of his musician friends shared.

Life in the other world was not easy. The drill sergeants gave him a hard time about it in boot camp, calling him “rock star” before ordering 50 pushups. Everman was 26, an older recruit, but he could not be stopped. He refused to let his failures define him, rather he used his failures as motivation. He saw his failures objectively. Maybe being kicked out of two of the biggest bands in the world means you are not meant to be a musician and that’s okay. The question remains – what is your true calling and what are you doing to find it?

On Sept 11, 2001, Everman was in the last phase of Special Forces training and watched the towers come down on CNN. Right then, he knew America was going to war and he was ready. Since most of his missions are classified, he can’t talk about his experiences in great detail but in the interview he talks about riding horseback with the Pashtun and helicoptering in for midnight raids. He served with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq, won the coveted Combat Infantryman badge, and got photographed with Donald Rumsfeld.

After the Army, Everman used the GI Bill to go to college. Considering his letter of recommendation was written by General Stanley McChrystal, he could have gone anywhere. He went to Columbia and just finished his degree. He may turn out to be the coolest college professor ever.

From these two stories, my own and Jason Everman’s, we can conclude two things:

1. Your life journey is determined by the choices you make, however inconsequential they may seem at the time. Choose well.

2. Don’t get too attached to what you think you destiny is supposed to be. Be open to the idea that it may lie in some different field entirely.