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Day 149: The Birthday Edition: The best gift I have given myself

It was my birthday last week. This post is about the progress I have made this year. This has been the most transformative year of my whole life. I changed the way I think, and in doing so I changed my life.


October-December 2019, external obligations

Without knowing too much about what I was doing or why I followed the standard track that promised stability and certainty. I was an RA who didn't understand why I had chosen to play the role of a caretaker of people that seemed to be fine without me. I was a member of clubs where my membership made no difference. I held up, but frankly, I was perpetually losing my sense of self. The burden of classwork turned my interest in UX design into a guilty pleasure that I had to give up classwork for. This message to my friend describing Thanksgiving break shows what I felt at the time.

"It was a beautiful time. I was alone and there was no one to bother me. I went straight to the bookstore and read for a long time. I still felt like I didn't have enough time to fully develop it[design project]. It felt so paralyzing. The fact that you cannot do what you want and believe in."

December-January 2020, winter break in the crumbling world

I traveled back home to Uzbekistan. It was great to see family but I had nothing I was proud of to share with them. I felt like a complete phony next to my talented programmer cousin who was actually programming. I felt that the only thing they wanted is to see me happy and accomplished, which was what I took so long to find. I operated with tags like "liberal arts education", "computer science" and "In America" trying to cover up my embarrassment.

On top of my inner turmoils, I felt a lot of pain from seeing the unrealized potential of the people I loved. Coming from abroad, I had a fresher perspective: grandparents and parents, happy or not, were not living their best lives due to financial restrictions and lack of opportunity. I got this sense, dominant in the Post-Soviet world: just like the terribly constructed buildings that are crumbling down, the lives of people seemed to be disintegrating.

"Buildings are coming down. Politics is getting more messed up. My family is becoming more and more like an island in the sea of progressively Islamizing society. Education is horrible. Streets are becoming uglier. And it is not just because I am older and I see things in a less pink light: things are actually becoming worse."!!!

Amidst this, I had a good chance to check in with my old self through my journals and books. I came in touch with Mariyam, before the international school, before America, dreamy and determined, undistracted by the expectation to be a certain way, crafting an image of her own. The stakes of generational unrealized potential helped create this sense that there is nothing to lose. If I don't give my best life a shot, I will end up disappointed, poor, and unhappy. I felt like I already messed up enough and it couldn't get worse.

January -March, transformation

I came back with a determined, although vague, intent to change things. I decided to still pursue CS and start UX design on the side. I met Jeremiah and we started practicing morning magic: a couple of hours in the morning of passion work and reading, no classes. The Morning Magic, a sacred tradition ever since gave me a space and time with accountability to think about direction and not get distracted by immediately urgent deadlines.

Through hours of painful reflections and conversation with Jeremiah, I accepted that in my first 1.5 years of college I "learned some things", learned a lot about human psychology through my personal evolution but made almost zero actual progress towards the life I want to have. I realized the deep desire to fulfill expectations stemming from my generational A-student persona fostered the habit of doing that I actually didn't understand or want. I did not want to be like that anymore.

I started cutting things away one by one to give myself time to stop and think. Classes, clubs, meetings, job #1, job #2, research, internship- everything eventually had to go. The void is terrifying but ultimately liberating. I wish every person who is capable of handling that void, to face it, and truly see themselves.

I remembered my once ambitious dreams of pursuing greatness. To be truly great at something, I need to choose a direction based on strengths that stem from my personality. There is no time to bullshit. I will always only be average at something that is not truly mine. Although an international student with a bunch of restrictions, I cannot sell out my life. I decided I will do my best to not hold a job and pursue my direction by building a global brand in the sphere of experience design.

And then, covid happened.

March-June 2020, Ecommerce days begin

A message I wrote to my friends' group when people started departing campus:

"Some might find it controversial, but I think this is a historic opportunity to have a block of free space and time to finally explore ourselves and find a lot of new exciting things/directions/hobbies/insights. It is so precious! We live our whole lives being in the conventional organizational structure: elementary, middle, high school, college, summer, internship, breaks, job, holidays, retirement. It is a gift to pause and ask ourselves all the questions we need to address because there is never ever going to be another time to do that. It is a chance to figure out what we actually need to live our best lives without all the social pressures that get in the way of finding our own way. 😘😘😘😘" (had to leave the emoji!)

I was happy that I was going to have less social pressure around me because I needed that time to build myself up. I wanted to start focusing on "my thing" entirely. I started working on e-commerce with Jeremiah, Nora, and Kerr. When we all decided to stay on campus and grind on "the start-up" called TCC, we created a shield against loneliness, lack of direction, and isolation that so many people were experiencing. All four of us tabled our academics, set out classes to pass/fail, and did just enough to pass. Our relentless focus brought its results: we learned exponentially fast how to run an online business, made good sales, and strengthened our team.

When we were kicked off campus, we bumped around before we found our summer house in Avon Park, Florida. It was crazily fun to have this novel sense of an exciting adventurous life where every day I was doing and learning what I actually wanted.

July-October, personal brand

Back in Chicago, we decided to open personal brands based on the same model we developed for TCC for passive income. Opening personal brands naturally took longer than planned, with variable levels of success. Once we got our own rooms and were not working on TCC as faithfully as we did before, we all further lost our ground. Although living in a summer house in Florida was mega fun, we were disconnected, even lonely sometimes. This was a natural point in evolution because our initial motivation and drive were not sustainable or well thought-through.

We did come together somewhere in July and made more progress. However, we each were distracted or perhaps enticed by running a different kind of brand. Looking back, the decision to divert away from the central project was the root of what caused us to fall apart eventually. At the same time, it eventually gave each of us a chance to come out of the e-commerce "quick buksss" euphoria and reconnect with our individual interests.

It took me a long time to start my brand because I had good traction with Instagram influencers who were promoting TCC and was completely overtaken by my financial insecurity. However, the few moments I started doing research for "my brand", my eyes opened to how much more engaged I could be in a brand that is more aligned with me. So eventually I started to research, moodboard, and continuously trying to launch, revealing multiple mental roadblocks I had. My persistence allows me to overcome them and come closer to launch. A huge realization I had:

"I think it's important for each person to fully face themselves before working with others. During our TCC days, we complemented each other's weaknesses with the strengths of others and we grew fast. Individual biases and ineptitudes were evened out. So when we started working on our brands, it turned out to be way harder because there was no longer that other person who could do smth better than you. Individual biases grew out into huge roadblocks. So of course it is great to work on a team, but I really want to face myself now, face my biases and weaknesses, as well as embrace the strengths. I think as a young team we were perhaps complementing each other's weaknesses or inability/unwillingness to do something. Great teammates and teams, however, amplify each other's strengths"

Although I am technically still a student at Vanderbilt, I designed my existence here on my own terms. I believe this is what each student's education should be like: designed specifically towards their individual progress rather than averaged out for the mass. I am taking two independent studies on writing and e-commerce. Ever since I have been focused on setting up my cash flow from e-commerce and am pursuing the bigger brand through research and tests.


So today I fully realize that I have done a great job of preparing the best gift for my birthday- my personal freedom. Of course, I am very far from being actually free: I am largely restricted by my lack of cash flow and my visa status. As a result of these, I have to be here at Vandy with very few like-minded groups and opportunities. But this year I have gotten as far as I can within the circumstances to granting myself inner freedom: freedom of thinking for myself, standing up for my desires intentionally, and setting up the environment for pursuing my direction.

Now, what is the price I am paying for this gift? The price is the social proof and security I am not getting right now. In the eyes of most people, including my parents, I am failing my college career, minimizing the chances of getting employed in the US, missing a chance to get a serious profession, and risk failing my whole life. Almost everyone I talk to outside of my circle of friends, doubt me and my direction, rightfully so, because I don't have the evidence to back it up yet.

Now, what is this gift of freedom actually giving me? Some really good shit. The peace of mind and the space to focus all of my energy on the most important activity that maxes out my strengths and will realize my dreams: building an eCommerce data-based company.

On my journey to ultimate freedom of time, money, and direction, I think releasing fear and expectation is the hardest and most important task. I have given myself the gift of choosing not to be scared of the path I have chosen and instead embracing it.

I am happy to find myself in the company of new and old friends, across the globe, who are also now making the decision to choose the freedom to think about direction. Some are taking a gap year, traveling, scheduling a time to read personal growth books in the morning, or posing the question of "Have I maybe always wanted to do something else but have not allowed myself to?".

No matter where and how a person is, the freedom to be your full self, unapologetically, and true to the dreams and desires you have and might not realize is the best gift you can give to yourself. It truly is a gift only YOU can give.

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