Summer of 2007 I the thought that nearly every college student has before entering their junior year (and senior year). “What the heck am I going to do after college?”
Until this point in my life the only thing I knew I cared about was sports, soccer specifically. As much as I wanted to pursue a career as a professional athlete, there was strong evidence I needed a backup plan.
The wisdom of my dad was and is often in my ear. “Sometimes it is just as important to find out what you don’t want to do as what you do want to do” was one of his many mantras growing up. That is important advice but at some point I need to find what I DO WANT TO DO. During this summer I determined I can’t wait for it to come to me, I have to go find it. The second thing I remember distinctly during that time about my dad was that he works incredibly hard but loves his job. Working for the rest of my life in a career I didn’t love sounded awful and I know my dad would agree.
That summer in the armpit of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, I was living with some friends and working at an Applebees. Though I was doing as much as any college kid during summer, the excess time I had was driving me crazy so I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years. Read a book. I didn’t read a single book I was supposed to in high school. I tried to read one book senior year but gave up because I was still failing the quizzes because I was so uninterested in the book I didn’t retain any knowledge of what was going on.
In Glendora, CA a Barnes & Noble had just opened and it was exactly in between where I was living and where I was working. I strolled in there one afternoon and heading to the history section. History was always the subject I enjoyed most but what do you do with a history degree? Politics is interesting but the last thing I was to do is join that mess. Next to the history section I found the Current Affairs section and let my eyes wander until I found a book on Sudan. It’s title? Sudan.
The war, excuse me, the genocide that was going on in Sudan was finally getting press in the US. Save Darfur bumper stickers were common and it had been brought up in discussions at college in the previous months. It caught my attention because all conflicts have their roots in history, it’s relevant, and it’s tragic. That question that came to me was “how would we actually Save Darfur”? That question is rooting in my skepticism that most people talking about Darfur don’t have the slightest clue about the place. “What would these do-gooders actually want us to do?” That’s just how my mind works.
The book doesn’t start in the early 2000s when the specific conflict began but when Sudan got it’s independence in 1956. After reading the book it was so obvious that we weren’t going to do anything. We couldn’t do anything. Short of invading and occupying the country there weren’t any options. The issues involved were far to complex for any simple options so guess what? We didn’t do anything.
The book was a tough read obviously but the key point here is that not only did I read it but I wanted more. It was clear to me that in regards to trying to solve civil war I didn’t know where to start. But I knew that there was something here. I care about people who are suffering and so do many others and the learning process that I went through reading that book was something I wanted so much more of.
That summer I read 17 books in Barnes & Noble. Yes, all of them read in the store. I was in college and spent a summer in community college because I couldn’t afford to stay at Azusa Pacific University. I didn’t have the money to buy those books. (I still feel a little guilty about spending so much time there and not buying the books I read. I did spend money at the Starbucks in the store. Does that count?) One book was a 750 page book on the history of India since independence. I read it over the course of 14 days and 11 visits to Barnes & Noble. I didn’t read it that fast because it was good but because I didn’t want create a habit of not finishing a book. The only way to read something else was to finish the current one.
The reading and learning as I moved from History to Economic History to Economics. Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell was the second gem that I read. The concept of taking simple economic ideas like rent control and demonstrating that the effects are actually the exact opposite was incredibly fascinating to me. I don’t know if I’m a contrarian by nature or if I simply don’t believe the world is as simple as others want to make it out to be. Either way, I was soon to discover a field that was riddled with things that we think are true but are quite so. International Development.
I still go to Barnes & Noble to read books start to finish. I’m currently reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight but I don’t go nearly as frequently. Partly because some Barnes & Nobles have closed (people like me are probably to blame) but I thankfully can afford to buy a book or two and don’t need to abuse their business model.
If you’re interested in seeing the business I am starting, click here.