If I Were 22: Discover Your Purpose by Finding Your Mardi Gras

In Fall 1990, I turned 22 and started my senior year at Penn. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, except for a vague aspiration to replace Vince Neil as lead singer for Mötley Crüe. But I didn’t have the chops — or the hair — to be a rock star, so I figured I’d better choose a more viable career option. Law school seemed like a good path.

I signed up to take the LSAT, figuring I’d apply to law school later on. As I looked at the calendar, I realized that the LSAT fell on the same weekend as Mardi Gras. Everyone has their priorities, and this suddenly became one of mine. Trying to make the best of the situation, I decided to switch my test location to Tulane University in New Orleans.

I flew down to New Orleans on a Friday. When we arrived in the Crescent City, the party was in full swing, and the atmosphere was raucous and joyful. But I was on a mission. I went straight to my room and studied logic problems until it was time to sleep.

The next day, I went into an enormous lecture hall at Tulane with just three or four other students to take the LSAT. Halfway through the test, I had an epiphany: If I’d gone to all this trouble to schedule the LSAT around Mardi Gras, I must not have really wanted to be a lawyer after all. So I finished the test as best as I could, and went out to join the celebration and enjoy the first day of the mysterious rest of my life.

Needless to say, I never ended up applying to law school (though, given the circumstances, I’m pretty proud of how I scored on the LSAT). Instead, I took some time to explore, trying lots of different things to figure out what I liked. I took a one-semester leave from school, becoming a bartender and bouncer. Over the summer, I traveled to Israel and worked at an absorption center for Ethiopian refugees. I was deeply moved by interacting with the refugees, and I realized that I very much enjoyed working with children. By the end of the summer, I knew I wanted to work in social justice, and ideally do something that would allow me to continue to work with children. Teaching seemed like a natural fit, and much more appealing than law school.

After returning to the U.S. and finishing my degree, I earned an internship in D.C. with Senator Paul Simon while I applied to Teach For America’s 1992 corps. Fortunately, I got in, and taught fifth grade in inner-city Houston. I ended up becoming friends with a fellow corps member, Dave Levin, and he introduced me to his teacher mentor, an absolute force of nature named Harriett Ball. We studied Harriett’s teaching closely, absorbing every bit of wisdom she had to offer. She showed us what was possible in the classroom, and we wanted to emulate her. At the end of our second year of teaching, Dave and I decided to try and create an entire school program, with the goal of getting underserved kids on the path to and through college.

So we started KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, with 47 fifth-grade students in a Houston district classroom. The following year, Dave moved back to New York, and we started hiring teachers for two separate middle schools. It took a lot of hard work, and a lot of learning from our mistakes and successes. But with the support of many people, KIPP was able to expand in size and scope. Today, KIPP is a national network of 141 public charter schools serving over 50,000 students in 20 states and D.C. In New Orleans, where this story starts, there are now nine KIPP schools across the city, serving kids in elementary through high school.

If you’d told me when I was 22 that this is where I’d have ended up, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. When you’re just starting out, it may seem tempting to settle quickly into a career path, just because it seems reasonable or stable. But I encourage all 22-year-olds to do the opposite. Go out and explore. Start figuring out what you’re really passionate about, what really makes you tick. Hone your talents and pick up useful skills. And if you find yourself in a place you don’t really want to be, go out and look for something different.

Nowhere is it written that when you’re 22, you have to decide what your career will be for the next 60 years.

So find your Mardi Gras, and go explore. It might be the start of the strangest and most exciting life you’ve ever known. :)

Post originally appeared on LinkedIn, May 27, 2014.

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