I often wonder how things may have turned out differently if something small had changed in my upbringing. If I had chosen a different college, or if I had picked up the drums during high school, or joined the debate team, or stumbled upon a passion for cooking, would I be here in Boston right now? Would I be on the path to pursuing a career in medicine? Could some minute detail on some inconsequential Tuesday afternoon at age 10 have set me on a completely different path altogether?

This, I realize, is a pretty deterministic way to look at things, and presupposes that our actions and outlook are simple and immediate reactions to environmental inputs. And over the past several years as a medical student, having been paralyzed by numerous decisions – should I take an extra research year, should I choose pediatrics or internal medicine, should I do a PhD, how should I rank these residencies – I’ve learned that in the end, our trajectories are not so malleable, simply because we have complex reasons for making choices that are consistent with our core values. Should it turn out that one choice ends up leading us astray from what these values are, we are remarkably resilient and self-correcting, and tend to put ourselves back on track to follow our original goals. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if there is more danger in losing yourself in the anxiety of making choices than there is in making the “wrong choice” in the first place. Our minds tend to draw sharp dichotomies where there aren’t any, and in so doing we extrapolate far too easily into the future and talk ourselves out of doing what we know to be right.

I reflect on this concept today because I graduated from medical school this afternoon (from the comfort of my apartment, in the virtual presence of family and friends), and have spent a good amount of the day reminiscing about my time as a student at Harvard and wondering about the choices I’ve made along the way.

Harvard has been a fascinating environment. In many ways, the stereotypes of Harvard are accurate: although this institution has admirably been expanding its access to more people with lower socioeconomic status and fewer opportunities, it remains true that a large proportion of students here are from wealthy backgrounds. Over a third of the incoming freshman class was educated in a private high school. Almost 40% of them have had family members at Harvard. A third of them come from families making over 250k a year (almost a fifth make over 500k). I’ve met people who have been educated in private schools their entire lives, paid in full by family, and – without intending to minimize their achievements – have had a relatively straightforward path of getting noticed by the likes of Harvard. And there are folks from the other extreme: families facing financial burdens and challenges that would stifle the achievements of most people in their shoes. There are the extremely poor, and the ultra-rich. There are the nobodys and the President’s Daughters. And to have them on the same campus taking the same classes together makes for an endlessly captivating learning environment.

There are, of course, numerous benefits of such a diverse environment, where people regardless of social class and financial background learn from each other. These I will not discuss deeply in this essay. But there is an insidious danger, too – one that is not unique to Harvard by any means, but one that is perhaps amplified here. It is the danger of never-enoughness, exacerbated by a setting in which fame, fortune, and reputation are not only admired, but common enough to be expected. And unfortunately, I have witnessed people who, in the chase of the power and reputation wielded by peers, mentors, and alumni, have either been led astray from their core values, or have been stunted enough to never develop any meaningful ones.

I should say: I am not immune to this type of mindset. There have been times along the way in college and in medical school where, upon meeting very famous people or very rich people or very well-credentialed people, I walk away in wonderment at their lives and accomplishments and find myself frequently thinking about the next steps I need to take to be like them. In a sea of people who can regularly afford triple-dollarsign meals without batting an eye, how can someone not imagine that kind of life? Then when I resume the pace of normalcy, there is a sinking kind of feeling when I realize how much it takes to be satisfied now, compared to pre-Harvard days when my ideals of a happy and successful future were actually much clearer.

The danger of this type of environment – in other words – is developing a “fear of missing out”, on some higher-class or ultrarich life that now feels somewhat attainable because it is so common. It is the idea that your prior ambitions are not enough, and that the expectation of this place is for you to become name-brand and backed by Proper Noun Fellowships. It is the nagging thought that maybe your previous goals to be simply an excellent physician, to help and serve people and make a decent living along the way, are not in keeping with the Forbes 40 Under 40 resume. It is the terrible notion that your worth is measured in earnings, credentials, pedigrees – put more simply, that your worth is measured by the quality of your obituary. Perhaps the scariest part of it all is that this doesn’t only affect the students at the bottom half of family income. Even those who are well-off, from backgrounds that by any reasonable standard are envious, wealthy, and financially secure, are prone to the ravages of never-enoughness, because Harvard is a top-heavy microcosm of the real world: there will always be someone with more than you, who is better than you, who has done more than you.

It is often while engaged in this type of destructive mindset that I find myself questioning my prior choices the most. How rich might I be if I had stumbled upon another major and found myself in finance? What if I had done that PhD and made the next big discovery? How different might my life be if I had chosen the other specialty? FOMO is destructive in that it makes you believe that any choice along the way has the potential to unravel your path to victory, and so every small choice must matter in some fatalistic nuanced way. And as a result there is paralysis, there is hedging, there is grass-is-greener syndrome, there is the rationalizing of choices you wouldn’t have made were it not for the enticing scents of money and power.

Perhaps the strongest antidote I know of to the oft-described toxicity in this place is to know yourself and your goals, and to stay the course in maintaining your core values. Values like kindness, positive impact, generosity, family, honesty, gratitude. And while these all seem like Instagram hashtags on face value, I believe they have a deeper meaning and can guide our choices if we let them. It cannot be a bad thing to practice a “return to our roots” and understand what we truly care about, what we have always wanted out of ourselves, what really makes us happy. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what made us happy before Harvard, and what will make us happy long after we leave this place.

Of course, my point isn’t that happiness and ambition and outstanding achievements and Nobel Prizes and being a billionaire are mutually exclusive. Far from it – these things are important, and the brilliant people who achieve these manmade accomplishments are deserving of respect for their hard work, creativity, intellect. Nor do I ignore the possibility that decisions change over time, that much like stocks and bonds break down differently in our investments depending on how old we are, so do our assessments of what’s possible and what’s practical. But my intuition is that core values – once you have a solid set of them – don’t really change all that much, and this is the self-correcting mechanism we have to make sure we don’t wander too far off path. And once we find what these are, it becomes possible to live happily in the insane diversity and dichotomies of Harvard and other elite institutions, and perhaps even laugh in the face of all the absurdity. Only then can the added bonuses of Famous Awards be truly enjoyed, rather than a checkbox to be expected.

Harvard has offered me numerous opportunities and has forced me to make difficult decisions for each of them. And I’ve chosen a particular series of them that – in retrospect – ended up being exactly the series of choices consistent with who I want to become: not the richest, and definitely not the poorest, but more importantly the best person I can be. I do not delude myself in believing there won’t be far more difficult decisions to make down the line; the challenge will be to look at them critically and evaluate whether they are on or off course.

Perhaps this is the most important lesson I’ve learned in my time here as a student: that core values – like core muscles (forgive the analogy) – hold you up, make you resilient, keep you strong in the face of uncertain choices, and give you confidence you’re on the right track to somewhere. Turns out hindsight is 2020.

Happy graduation,