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my mother's friends
life off of the treadmill
I’ve spent my life selecting into bubbles that are filtered for ultra-effective people, but I think my mother is still the most broadly capable person I’ve ever met. I’ve seen her bully a classroom of inner city kids into behaving (as a 5-foot-nothing ESL Asian woman), comfort a murderer, find a way to mail a letter on a federal holiday, counsel countless depressed high schoolers, and reproduce several restaurant dishes just based on taste. Professionally, she was a highly sought-after software engineer who was paid more than I’ve ever made (and so bored by it that she urged me not to pursue the same career). Unlike practically all of the other super-capable people I know, she consistently chose to use her gifts to help people who would never be able to repay her. I learned an immense amount from her growing up, and I’ve started to wonder why I never wanted to be more like her.
Recently I heard an economist speculate that schools and government services ran so well in the 50s due to an inadvertent misallocation of resources. Due to sexist societal norms, many highly competent women were denied access to high-level corporate jobs and ended up becoming extremely capable schoolteachers instead. Similarly, the then-nascent pipeline that sucks promising high schoolers out of their local communities and places them into Ivies and then onto executive-suite tracks was nowhere near as effective as it is today. The result was pockets of highly effective people in low-level bureaucratic and teaching positions, which made life much more pleasant for the people they served, albeit at a considerable opportunity cost to those capable men and especially women themselves.
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I think things started that way for my mom. I spent so much of my childhood listening to her explain things to people who were clearly less competent or intelligent than her: stubborn church elders, beleaguered school administrators, confused recent immigrants, manic or depressive friends. She did this graciously and patiently, to the immense benefit of the people around her, though not always without some private frustration on her part. To some extent she was just playing the hand she was dealt as a single woman immigrating to the US in the 70s, but eventually a lot of it was voluntary as well. As I said, she was well-regarded professionally, and her boss was desperate to keep her, offering frequent raises and promotions. Instead she cut her hours back more and more to focus on church and family. Later in life she ran a successful college admissions consultancy, but I noticed that she spent much of her energy on the most marginal students, often the ones who paid the least.
In short, my mother has a soft spot for underdogs. She was born as the youngest of four daughters in a very patriarchal society and was told that she only existed because they were still trying for a son. When her younger brother was born, she was told to put aside her interests to take care of him. The churches she attended throughout my childhood were the same way. Men would ask for her advice in private but expected her to be deferential in public, and she usually complied. Disadvantaged people are her people, in some ways. They are overlooked like she was.
My mother has a soft spot for underdogs, and this is probably at the root of our differences. I like underdogs too, but mostly in the sense of “diamonds in the rough”, people who are presently underestimated, who can be polished up and made to shine, who will remember me kindly and help me out in turn as their own lives take off. I’m not proud of this, but it’s just who I am. I want to be in a tribe of helpful, competent, creative people, who can lift each other up and help each other get ahead. My mom isn’t like that. She likes the real underdogs, people who were dealt a truly terrible hand and might never fully make good, who really need the help but will probably never be able to pay it back.
It’s interesting to compare how this has affected our lives. My mother has the immense satisfaction of knowing that she has changed many lives for the better: teenagers recovering from depression, prisoners reconnecting with their families, children attending colleges as the first ones from their families to get a higher education. She is surrounded by people who love her and are eager to try to repay her in some way, any way. She never lacks for friends to help fetch groceries if she isn’t well, or to take my dad to an appointment, or to pick them up from the airport. But I’ve noticed that if she needs advice or a difficult favor herself, she rarely turns to this community. Instead, it’s to the various well-connected elites that she still has in her life — a VC brother-in-law, my dad’s friends from MIT, my MD-PhD wife.
I think my mother is also often pretty lonely. She sympathizes with underdogs, but she is not like them, not really. Although she has many friends, I think few of them really understand the way that she thinks or feels. She always used to question why I liked going to parties or seeing my friends so often. Aren’t you bored, she’d ask me. Don’t you notice that people just talk about the same things, over and over? She treasures each one of the handful of like-minded people who have stumbled across her path over the years, precisely because of how few of them there are.
I don’t get bored of my friends, because I selected them differently. My life has been a series of highly-filtered bubbles: a magnet high school, computer science at Stanford, then various groups of bohemian yuppies in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles. Not all of my friends are successful, but they are basically all interesting and well-connected. If I need an intro to a hot startup or an invite to some weird party, it’s rare that my friends come up short. If I want to figure out an unfamiliar concept or collaborate on some new creative idea, my social graph pretty much has me covered.
On the other hand, my friends are much more transient than I would like. I don’t just mean geographically, although I do find that I need to refresh my friend group every few years as half of them move out to chase various career opportunities elsewhere. I also mean that I’ve lost friends when they became too successful for me have anything to offer them. You never really know for sure, but it stings just to suspect. I’ve probably done the same to other friends in turn. Although it’s never a conscious evaluation, after a lifetime of climbing various ladders it becomes hard not to see everything through that lens. What can I offer you, what can you offer me? If one of us loses that reason for the friendship, it tends to fade away.
I also find myself embarrassed to ask for help on small things. Outside of roommates or girlfriends, I don’t think anyone has ever cooked a meal for me when I was sick, or helped me move. My friends probably would help if I asked, but they’d also wonder why I didn’t just use GrubHub or Taskrabbit.
Transactionality seems to infect everything. Human interactions become divided sharply between charity and relationships, and both are evaluated through this lens. Charity becomes a numbers game — the recipients are faceless and all that matters is “effectiveness”, “utility per dollar spent”, and helping someone I’ll never even know is just as good as helping my neighbor. And in turn, our relationships become speculations on what we will get back from them in the future (cf the now-ubiquitous phrase, “investing in a relationship”). I think there’s a deep sadness behind all of this.
I don’t know what the answer is. I fantasize about putting down roots somewhere where I help my neighbors just because they’re my neighbors, and our kids can grow up as friends, but then I remember how stifled I felt in the tight-knit community that I grew up in. My mom calls me every week with a week’s worth of thoughts and ideas that she hasn’t been able to share with anyone around her, but then we are both grateful for her friends who dropped off food when neither of my parents could drive. I guess it’s like everything else in life; no perfect solutions, you just make your choices, and then you live with them.
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