Startup Institute

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Actually, You Won The Lottery

For four months while studying abroad I lived in rural Hong Kong, a lush island terrain that would have been beautiful were it not for the massive, decaying brown tenements that housed the poorest families in the city, underfunded and overpopulated places where children’s cries came through shattered windows, and stained sheets hung out to dry high above the ground like desperate pleas to surrender.

We were relatively sheltered from these neighborhoods at the university, but one day I took a wrong bus that ended at a makeshift marketplace. It was astonishingly busy, with masses of hurried people bargaining swiftly for essential items - plain shirts, fruits and vegetables, unclassified meats. The sheer scale of the people buzzing around me, all of them a different and single race, left me in an out-of-body stupor. 

So I decided to do what every American tourist would do - I took a picture. As I assessed the image in my camera’s viewfinder, anticipating the reaction for the impending Facebook post (“Oh, Adam, you’re so worldly!” I imagined the comments would say), a young boy carrying a box of potatoes gazed alongside. It was clear he had never seen a digital camera with a viewfinder before. Seconds after, he was knocked into, and he and his potatoes fell to the ground. His mother picked him and his potatoes up, and shouted something incomprehensible at me. I don’t know what she said, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t complimentary.

I realized then what it meant to take a picture. It was an implication that this everyday struggle to them - buying nearly-spoiled potatoes in a crowded marketplace, in a quantity that suggested there was a large family to feed and that’s all they were having - was something to study, something so far removed that I found it necessary to capture the moment because it was just that foreign.

I think about this moment often as I embark on a new career. Along with fifty other students, I have stopped earning an income, taken time off, and paid to make a choice to go after a way to make a living that I will enjoy. And along with fifty other students, I complain often. I complain about how much work there is ahead of me, how hard it is to start over, how much lower my salary will be because I’m starting over, how annoying it is to pin down a time for a coffee chat because you just keep sending e-mails back and forth and people always need to move times and…

And then I remember that moment in Hong Kong where I realized that I will never have to worry about bargaining for a box of potatoes, the moment when I realized that I won the lottery. And suddenly it seems almost brazen to try and find a not just a job I enjoy, but a career that I enjoy, to try and find a type of success and largeness out of life when nearly everyone else on the planet has no choice but to accept misery and smallness.

When the tasks of switching careers mount, and it seems frustrating and hard and you can’t find an intro to Warby Parker and you just want to go to bed and watch Real Housewives before writing another cover letter, I urge you to try and remember that you won the lottery. The chance of being born you, and being born a little boy whose eating potatoes for dinner in a crowded tenement, was entirely equal.

You got damn lucky.

Now what are you going to do with your winnings?

Adam Jaffe is an investment banker-turned-screenwriter who now works with startups. He is a recent alum of the Technical Marketing track at Startup Institute New York. Say hello to him on Twitter @freejaffe