Perpetual Self-Renewal

Paras blog headshotPosted by John Gardner Fellow Paras Shah

In the season finale of his recently released Netflix mini-series, Master of None, writer and comedian Aziz Ansari grapples with the tendency to become complacent, what John Gardner characterized as lack of self-renewal. Month three of my Fellowship at Human Rights Watch brings new opportunities to work on disability rights in the context of emergencies and conflicts, but also gives me time to pause and ponder.

Increasingly, I am able to work on assignments with an eye toward what I find exhilarating and frustrating. Desk-based research, something my future promises a great deal of, can at times be isolating and requires that I constantly keep the bigger picture of a project or task in mind. On the other hand, advocacy strategy and writing media articles or press releases allows me to synthesize a narrative from many different sources, while collaborating with internal teams and external partners. As I note these preferences, I also question how my future career will unfold.

The Gardner Fellowship is, both by timing and design, a period of transition. There is an acute knowledge that something else—the unknown, the uncertain—awaits next fall. For myself and other Fellows, this requires a certain degree of foresight. Over a recent happy hour, we discussed various potential avenues: other fellowships, research projects, graduate schools, jobs. For me, the pathways seem to change from week-to-week. Reading Jonathan Mahler’s book The Challenge I envisage a career in legal journalism. Scanning SCOTUSBlog my thoughts turn to a federal clerkship. Watching the plight of refugees rekindles my interest in politics and policy. At this point, listening to the hip-hop inspired soundtrack of Hamilton might well provoke another train of thought.

This is not to say that I find my current work unfulfilling—on the contrary, it only raises new and important questions about how, when, and where to continue public service and human rights advocacy. One critical, if at times overlooked, aspect of the Fellowship is to learn by osmosis, speaking with those who have the careers I admire and learning from their experiences.

With so many possibilities and options, it becomes easy to box yourself in. To succumb to the pressures—externally imposed and internally generated. To pick a single path and stick with it, marching along with resolute determination toward a finite point marked “happiness” or “success” or “fulfillment.”

Yet such single-mindedness begets troubling consequences. How often do we chase happiness, or success, or fulfillment only to move past other opportunities and play it safe rather than dreaming audaciously? What Ansari articulated so well is that ignoring conventional wisdom might pose risks, but failing to take risks is also disingenuous to who we are, and who we might become. As John Gardner observed, “One of the reasons mature people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.”

I am not sure of what the future holds, and the thought of playing it safe, while tempting, scares me. I do not want to sink into complacency—I want to explore with outstretched arms and an open mind.

As the son of immigrants, I appreciate the tremendous sacrifices my parents and grandparents made to allow me the privilege and freedom to even consider such choices. I also have the support of so many networks: colleagues, professors, supervisors, friends, family, and mentors who continue to invest in me and support my decisions. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I want to thank all of you—something I do not do often enough.


Paras Shah is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. While at Cal he studied History and Political Science. He is currently a John Gardner Fellow, working at Human Rights Watch in New York City.

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