life without a plan

Areena Akhter
7 min readAug 14, 2022

san francisco, summer 2022

It took me moving across the continent to put pen to paper again, but it feels good to write. While I plan to write more about my work and thoughts on technology, I wanted to start by sharing a letter I wish I could’ve read four months ago, during a time when I was lost and unsure if I could remember how to be myself again.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a plan — and if I worked hard enough, there was no plan I couldn’t execute. When I was seventeen and trying to get into my dream university and when I was eighteen and struggling to pass my first semester at said university, and then when I was nineteen and doing everything in my power to make it here, California, the land of my dreams (at the time.) I was raised with the privileged belief that there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you set your mind to it. And for most of my life this has worked, leading me to a summer spent working at the foot of the Pacific Ocean in the biggest tech city in the world.

literally, the foot of the pacific ocean

But two days before boarding my flight to San Francisco, I found myself crying on my front porch because after trying hard as fuck to build a life for myself these past years in university, my greatest plans so far had fallen apart. I wrote so much during this time but never had the right words to explain the loss I felt. When you’re twenty years old and you lose the first real future you’ve imagined for yourself, it feels impossible to rebuild. Heartbreak is like this: all-encompassing to the person experiencing it, and incomprehensible to everyone else.

I arrived in this city both impossibly young, starting the biggest adventure of my life, and at once struggling with the grief of the end of my first real relationship. I’ve never felt more lost in my life than I did this summer, my first true stretch of life alone as an adult. I couldn’t remember a time that I didn’t have a plan, something to work towards. I was scared of the work it would take to find replacements for the meaning I had placed in the memories of my past. I had accomplished so much, but didn’t know what to do when I lost the person I would go to to celebrate it with. Even though I moved out almost three years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as unmoored as I did at the start of this summer.

Maybe this is why when the happy moments returned, they snuck up on me. They were made from running barefoot into the Pacific Ocean at the cold, tiny beach in front of Ghirardelli Square, from holding new friends tight while weaving through a line of interns at Monroe, and from lazy Sundays spent sunbathing in Dolores Park with strangers midway to becoming friends. I learned to find routine in the bustle of city life, dancing with the crossing guard at Sutter and Sansome on my way to the gym and ending every weekday night by debriefing with my roommates, the first but not only best friends I made in this city.

said roommates in action

Somewhere in between heavy leg days at the gym and laughing with the interns on 7, I began to feel like I was rebuilding my life. I wish I could go back in time and describe to my heartbroken self the exhilaration of feeling like myself again. It was like coming up for air after weeks of wondering if there was any point in doing so. I would tell her that learning to regain your footing by yourself on the other side of the continent is the most empowering feeling you’ll ever have. If you can return back to yourself here, you can do it anywhere.

San Francisco was the best place to heal, because it gave me something to be grateful for every day. It’s a city of disparity and bubbles, and I was honestly just fortunate enough to exist in the tech bubble this summer, even though I don’t think this is somewhere I’d want to stay forever. I could feel how lucky I was to be here every second of the day. Most opportunities I had felt implausible to my 20-year old self. I got to experience the Warriors winning their 7th NBA Championship from the Chase Center and host Thursday night bonfires at Ocean Beach, watching the sunset through a haze of sand, wind, and classically SF fog. I took the classic bridge pictures from every angle and vantage point in the city, from Baker Beach to Battery Point. I road tripped to what my friend Jake would only call “Blue Water Tahoe” (which I didn’t understand until getting there) and I experienced my first American “ballgame” with 100 other interns at Oracle Park, garlic fries and Giants hat in hand. Living and working in this city makes you grateful for the roof over your head, for your safety, and for the millions of tiny opportunities and sacrifices everybody in your life has made for you to end up here.

views i felt impossibly lucky to witness in person, and don’t want to forget

Other realizations were more quiet: nights spent drinking wine and cooking an Italian pasta bake with coworkers-turned-friends, and cathartic post-work chats over green juice and an egg tart. I met ardently blue Texans and an unusually large group of UMich students, all collectively bonding over being blocked at work and honestly blocked in life in general. I befriended people from all over the country with different political and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and I remembered how much every person has gone through that you really have no idea about. These moments helped me remember the strength of platonic love, when you choose people to be in your life based on the way they make you feel, their character, and how hard you laugh when you’re around them. My friends here embody resilience, patience, and kindness, and being around them has made me want to become a better person (and also laugh a lot more.)

it’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with…

I read somewhere that the best cure for grief is gratitude, because there is literally no way for you to experience both feelings at once. Over the past three months, I’ve had so many opportunities to stop and savor the moment that I forgot exactly what I was missing in the first place. I’ve never felt more peace than in these seconds when I would just let myself exist, watching the city skyline from the roof of my building at 1am and marveling at how lucky I am to be alive. Somehow, the right people, events, and memories tend to arrive in the gaps between your carefully-crafted plans. In the moments you remember to relax.

Without a plan in hand, I said yes to everything this summer, which in turn taught me to say no to whatever did not serve me. I met people who taught me lessons on letting go with grace, on having a strong character and observing people before opening yourself up to being taken advantage of. I learned that the strongest people are the quietest, because they know how to respond instead of react. I feel like I’m finally coming back to myself, whoever she might be today. While I arrived in this city not sure how I’d fill the void of failed plans, I’m leaving it with an appreciation for what comes when you have no plan at all. What does that look like? Nobody knows, and I think that’s exactly the point.

smiling real wide at all the little things in life

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Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, she/her