The new word for “Failure”

Recently I was interviewed for Passion2Action, a podcast that does exactly what the name suggests – sharing stories about passion to action. I thought I did say something useful, mostly reflections & quotes that have resonated with my life. If you find it helpful, please share with anyone.

Here is the link to the podcast

Passion2Action interview with Khuyen Bui – “The new word for Failure”

Podcast note:

2:15 – What I meant by “learning” and “student of life”
4:00 – Meeting my 1st mentor.
9:10 – Why mentorship is really important for me.
11:00 – More on Peter Drucker: how I heard of him and became a “fanboy” (12:20), learning his questions (13:00), experiences with Peter Drucker Challenge 2015 (15:00). Made a mistake about the five questions he asked in “The Effective Executive” (First Thing First, instead of Managing Relationships)20:30 – Theme of the year instead of “New Year Resolution”
24:20 – My thought on “failure”, and “Flop” (25:24)
28:00 – My struggle with Not knowing

Some reflection

  • More on the word “flop”: Recently I shared with my boss about the word “flop” and she said it might still sound a bit too crushing (for example, a show that “flopped” is a really bad thing). I meant to use the word in a more humorous way, like “flopping all over the place”. It is meant to make fun of the experience. When we can genuinely laugh at something, we really get over it. That’s the power of humor.
  • It is so strange to hear myself speaking, my Singaporean accent (with slight Vietnamese intonation) and a tons of grammatical errors (apparently no one pays attention more to myself than myself).
  • There is always that fear of sounding hypocritical. One of my mentors once asked me: “Are some young people really wise or they only say things that make them seem wise?” I really don’t know – my actions will prove my words. I’m learning to accept that fear too, for it means there is potential to strive further.
  • A lot of “yes”, “yeah” “erm” and “ah”. I may sound too eager. Need to be more aware to tone down in some situations
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Some (Chinese) philosophy on relationships

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Forbidden City, with the BNU Philosophy Summer school 2016 batch

Context: This is a reflection on the friends I made at Beijing Normal University Philosophy Summer School. as well as some musing on people from my 23 years of relating with human beings.

Prior to the trip in Beijing. I had two intentions: First, I want is to learn more about what is happening in Beijing and China at large, what people there care about and how they are thinking about the country and where it is heading towards. Second, I want to make some new connections, for people always trump places for me. I was excited to know that the group was rather diverse; my 45 classmates came from many different places in the world, from the land of the Kiwi to various parts of Asia and Europe to the US of A.

There are a lot to observe about Beijing — the streets, the city planning, the pace of life, the way people interact with each other. Whenever I travel to a new place, I always ask “Can I see myself living here?” I do have that sense in Beijing, even though I don’t speak Mandarin. The city reminds me of Saigon, Vietnam somehow — things move fast, lots of opportunities and exciting happenings beyond commercial stuff. Nevertheless, people have always left a  stronger impression on me, so I find it easier to reflect on the people I met. I learned a lot through the perspectives of my friends, especially how they all see China and have different responses to the lives here.

It is such a rare and wonderful opportunity to have people who care about philosophy not only in the academic sense but also in a personal sense.  When a group of thoughtful people is put together in a new environment for two weeks, some close friendships are bound to happen. I made new friends, some at a deeper personal level. Some opened up and drew for me their inner landscapes, which are all very beautiful. I did regret not having enough time with some people. Nevertheless, I know this human to human connection takes time to grow, and every encounter we have is always the beginning of something real and good.

The last night many of us went to have a drink at a street restaurant (that is how people in many Asian countries “hang out”). We all sat around a few tables, playing a drinking game as a way to share and know more about each other. The experience was particularly memorable for me, partly because of what was said but even more so because of what it reminded me about being human.

As the night went on, we were more and more drawn into each other’s life through the questions we asked the group. I could tell that the quality of my listening started to shift to a deeper place. What are the important lessons you are taking away from this experience? How has our sexual identity influence our lives? What makes a good person? What would you do differently from the trip? Each question asked met with many beautiful responses. Our Brazilian friend Hander made a comment: “This group of philosophy people is way more interesting than political science people”. Perhaps philosophy students do ask good questions, although I don’t know if the experience was meaningful because of our philosophy background or because of our shared humanity. After all, there should never be a distinction between the study of philosophy and the living of it.

I closed my eyes and tried to resonate with the emotions behind the stories. The whole scene felt like a piece of music that was both well-written and spontaneous, so beautiful that I could not just stand by listening to but have to sing along. Whenever I am engaged in anything, from writing to listening to good music to talking to people – and this maybe a common experience for many –  there is a paradoxical sense that I feel like already knowing what the next moment is and yet every moment feels fresh as it arrives. Every note is at the right place; every story shared at the right time. Even and especially the silence seemed right, when I could step back, breathe, shifting my attention to the whizzing sound of the cars on the street and take the entire scene in. Staying silent allows me to enjoy the beauty of the moment and also to honor the person behind every story with their full, messy, pretty self. It was important to be in and to hold the space.

In a sense, the stories told were not entirely new. They were all parts of the collective human experiences — be it self-doubt or the pain of rejection or a struggle to accept ourselves and other people. I’m lucky enough to have been a part of several circles of authentic sharing like this. Yet they were so fresh and delicious — the difference was as stark as between frozen packaged broccoli and the one we get directly from the farm.

There is something quite sacred about being on the street of a foreign place, with a group of initial strangers who turned into friends. It must be strange for the Chinese restaurant owner to see a group of mixed colors and genders occasionally bursting into tears (as long as we were still getting more beers). Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that tear is what happened when a person feels connected with oneself, with others and with some greater Force. That is why crying should be celebrated instead of shunned (plus the salty tears are pretty tasty – try licking next time).

Speaking of tears, whenever I hear stories of “Big men don’t cry” and how it leads to the over development of “maleness” nowadays, I just feel thankful for being raised by a single mother. If crying is ever bad, it is because it is messy, not because it is a sign of weakness, which is really nice because messiness for me and many others is much easier to embrace than weakness. I’m also less inclined to make the trite distinction between “masculine” vs “feminine” energy; it just means we are exploring and embracing a fuller sense of who we are and how we can be in the world.

The experience also made me think more about how to respond in the presence of someone’s outpouring of so-called difficult emotions. I often don’t say “It’s ok” and “We love you” and I wonder if I should say these phrases. To this day, I still wonder how to show my affirmation better. Should I say something along that line, offer a hug or just stay silent? The answer is always “It depends”. What does the situation look like? How does the other person tends to receive? From my side, I have to learn to both be more well versed in these different expressions of affirmation as well as to read the situation better to know what best to do. Words can be powerful, sometimes too much so. Hug is great, but I wonder if I hug people because they really need a hug or I just really want to hug?

Generally, action does speak louder than word, yet especially in this kind of situation it might be better to do nothing. As the Daoist concept of “wu wei” goes, sometimes nonaction speaks the loudest.

For example, when someone expresses how she feels about me, should I respond “Thank you” or “That means a lot to me” even if I don’t feel it? Or should I remain silent? I used to value sincerity and only express what I really feel. My common response to compliment these days is silence. If the person is curious enough to ask me how I feel, I will say “I’m just enjoying the moment.” Learning about Confucius and his emphasis on ritual has swayed me a bit though. It is tempting to think of ritual as insincere scripted actions, but that is missing the spirit of his teaching. Sincerity is to stay true with one’s feeling, but feeling can be cultivated. As such, sincerity and tactfulness do not contradict at all if we cultivate ourselves to have the appropriate feelings in every moment. And as with anything else for the Chinese masters, it is a life long practice.

Generally grownups need to have a clear, compelling reason to do something. (That’s why Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan is mostly for them; children don’t need that push) I often hear “start with Why”, yet what happened when I dug deeper within myself with these Why questions is the realization that I could not get to the answer just by asking. I have to start doing something. In other words, I can also start with What.

It has got easier for me to practice something without fully understanding the reason or meaning behind. With diligent practice the meaning will come. (Perhaps my next practice will be to say “I love you” more often to more people more often. Too much philosophy like “What do we mean by love?” and “Who are you and anyway?” are pretty counter productive as you can tell.)

On the last note, I’m often humbled and inspired to hear what people are working on about themselves. In our journey of becoming, we all need support in one way or another, even and especially those whom others have always leaned on. Which is why my answer to the question “What will I do after the trip?” was “To do a better job of following up and following through”. Even though I will probably never know the impact I have on people, I know for sure that I can be a lot more, and that I will have to do a lot more.

Evolving “career” thoughts

My priority has been “Learn first, earn after”. Ideally the work should be about a cause that I care about, that I can make a contribution to. I am very very fortunate to not have to worry too much about money (yet), which frees me to think and test what I want to do.

At the end of last summer, I came up with a few conclusion about where I want to head next.

In terms of learning, I knew that the startup environment can offer me the most. It also has youthful and idealistic energy that resonates with a part of me. There people learn fast, because they have to and more importantly they want to. That’s where most innovation happens because it is the norm. At some points youthful enthusiasm yields in to stability, but as of now I know I want to be surrounded with that kind of spirit of learning and contributing.

On the other hand, I also know that we learn much faster with good mentors, which I think happens often at a more established organization. There are mentors for startup of course, but they very much serve as advisor rather than someone we can shadow. To learn, we need to both observe and practice. If I can see the day to day working of someone else I can learn a lot. People say “You won’t really learn something until you actually do it”. True, and you will learn even more by observing someone really good and then doing it yourself. Eventually we all have to climb our own mountains, but learning how to climbs with good form from the beginning can save us much trouble further down the road and thus allow us to go much further. Having good teacher is important.

Here is what I am thinking in the moment. Whenever I experience a contradiction in what I want, I try to tell myself: how can I do both? Call it ambitious or greedy or whatever (I call it “aspirational”) Work is a big part of life, and since my theme of this year is “Integration” I’d need to be more thoughtful about it.

The term “startup” doesn’t have to be a new company. Any initiative or project that involves people can be considered one. I am working on an initiative that involves a lot of people, on a cause that I care about and with people who are willing to guide me. I remind myself daily how it seems to be such a blessing.

Some lessons in life are unpredictable, but many can be planned. I learned from Gary Bolles his model of the three domains of skill: knowledge, transferable skill and self-management. For knowledge, I’m trusting that domain knowledge is becoming less relevant than making novels connections across domains. I love theories, so much so that I’d rather apply theories to the wrong context than not apply them at all.

Transferable skills can be broadly categorized into three categories: data, people and things. Here are the most valuable and also difficult tasks to do with each.

  • Data: Synthesize.
    – How to test: Able to explain a complex set of data to someone else.
  • People: Mentor
    – How to test: The mentees are able to surprise us with the quality of their work.
  • Thing: Set up / design
    – How to test: well-designed things are used they should pleasantly surprised both users and creators.

Self-management is a whole other set of skills. Know ourselves: how we work, perform, communicate. Gather and interpret data systematically. Hone our intuition and trust it in the most unpredictable circumstance. Be our best ally as well as our fairest critic. Develop the attitude of not taking ourselves seriously but our work very seriously. Last and perhaps the most important one: ask the right questions – questions that invigorates instead of debilitates us.

It is quite a helpful model to guide my thinking. I’m pretty on track with many of these, and I’m quite happy. I know I will learn a lot and appreciate the journey along the way. Something difficult will eventually happen, and I want it to be struggle together than struggle with each other.

What is my long term plan? If I wanted to stay in America in the next five years, it may be safer to go on an established path like working at a bigger company or going to grad school? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters as much. What is more important is learning to position myself in places where opportunities confluence, where I can be used well to make good contribution.

One of my mentors once asked me: “Are some young people really wise or they only say things that make them seem wise?” I really don’t know. I think this roadmap I’m writing makes sense. Following it is another story. As of now I think I’m sticking to it fairly well. Another thing that I learned is that I now really understand the importance of “start with the end in mind”, not only in terms of external goals but more of internal state. I’m already imagining the end of the summer: I will feel fulfilled, joyful, touched, loving, thankful, learned, wiser, ready, confident, If I can feel like that most days then I’m doing great.

Not Knowing

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Tufts graduates reading the Tufts Daily – by Matthew Healy

Context: I wrote this as a letter to the graduating seniors and myself next year. It was published as an Op-ed article for Commencement issue in Tufts here http://tuftsdaily.com/opinion/2016/05/22/not-knowing/

On this Commencement day, I am surrounded by lovely, strange creatures called “seniors” who are exhausted by going from one event to another. It must feel like freshman orientation again, being unsure of the schedule, frantically texting friends to coordinate where to meet while trying to answer parents’ 101 questions. Today, I am falling in love with their smiles and tears and hugs. I also see a lot of uncertainty behind these passionate expressions, and I have some thoughts for you to prepare for your own graduation.

Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty is one of the most important life skills that you can learn; yet the structure of the school may not help you much with that. Don’t blame the school though — it was never intended for that goal in the first place. You have to learn it on your own. Graduation is aptly just the beginning of your learning journey.

You aren’t sure if you want to go to this graduate school or to take this job or to move to this city. You aren’t sure if you should continue or start or end a relationship. Being independent in the world is a scary thing. It leaves us feeling insecure, and when we feel insecure, we often ask ourselves, “am I right?”

Please have the courage to ask a different question. When you have a decision about something as fuzzy as your life, in a world that is as unpredictable as today, remember that you don’t make the right choice. You make the choice right. A better question to ask, and I mean really asking it so that the question will do its own magic in the back of your mind, is “what do I truly desire?”

When you first ask this question, you will first be confronted with this daunting feeling of not knowing.” Why is this so hard to stay in the not knowing” zone? One reason may be how it is linked to your identity: it may mean you are not smart enough or not trying hard enough to find out the answers. As students, we were rewarded by our correct answers, but you should know well by now that your performance in classes is nowhere as important as the quality of your questions and how well you have engaged with them. So ask the good ones anyway, and stay with them.

The second and more important reason is that this feeling of not knowing is simplyhard. Asking you to stay with this feeling instead of putting it aside and getting busy again is as hard as asking you to not scratch at a mosquito bite. You may yell “what the hell is this person thinking?” or “what on earth am I doing with my life?” In those moments, remember that life is teaching you patience again. There is often a tendency to fight through this discomfort of not knowing. Don’t think of it as a fight because life is too busy to conspire against you. Instead of fighting an uphill battle, why not choose to roll downhill? I’m not asking you to be lazy, but whenever you sense resistance within yourself, be gentle and curious. “What else is going on here? What are you whispering to me, my dear self?”

Please embrace this not knowing feeling because as Rilke once wrote, “the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Giving yourself the permission to not know is the most empowering gesture you can have because then you can listen to the answer, perhaps from the universe or from a deity of your own. The more not knowing you can embrace, the larger you become, the even more you can embrace again. Hold this virtuous cycle for other people too, so that we can all live everything.

Independence ceases to be scary when you realize you are not alone, not only in the solidarity sense that other people are going through the same thing but also in the real sense of the phrase, that you truly are not alone in this world of seven billion people and countless other living beings. Independence doesn’t mean doing everything on your own. Rather, it means realizing what you can and cannot do alone and take responsibility to reach out for help. Ask and you will receive.

I won’t tell you what specific course of actions to take because I too am embracing not knowing myself, but I can tell you to do. You may likely be doing cost-benefit analyses on your decisions till things go wild. That’s great, and I’m asking you to supplement this love of overthinking with a bias towards action, so that you can learn faster what you want. Remember what Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and one of Tufts most illustrious alumni, shared about how he went about his life and work? “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Yes, Fire before Aiming. Bring that spirit of “not 100 percent ready, do anyway, recalibrate right after” into life. That is not knowing in action and that will be how you step into future — by creating it.

Boldly yours,

Junior self

 

On being a teaching assistant

 

After the end of last semester, I was offered an opportunity to help out with a class with my instructor Nancy Lippe on Nonprofit Leadership in Experimental College class, and I gladly took it up. I have always loved ExCollege classes for their experiential learning (and teaching) aspect, and I knew I wanted to be a part of a learning community. More than anything, I learned some important lessons about myself, from being there and interacting with people there.

There were rocky moments, particularly at the beginning when we realized the class was much smaller than we thought (only five, including me). We hoped there could be eight or ten students.

Given that I was taking 5.5 credit this semester as well as being more involved in other stuff, I did have some doubt and questioned my own commitment. I don’t want to commit if I couldn’t commit fully. The other reason for my reluctance is the fear that it’s not worth my time. The fear was real, but I recalled an advice for young people by Peter Senge: When we do something in line with our purpose and hear ourselves saying “This is too small for me”, be aware that it is the ego speaking. Mother Teresa once said that “There is no great thing; there is only thing done with great love”, and it could not have been truer in my case. Helping with the class is already aligned with my purpose, “to learn and to co-create learning”, and I would be better off paying attention to what is there instead of wandering about what could be.

Anyway, I sensed a similar frustration from Nancy after the first few classes, that she was aware of my reluctance. One evening after class, I shared with her my fear, and she said “Well, I’m in it, and I’ll make you in it”. That was exactly what I needed to hear the most at that time. It is so important to work with someone else to keep ourselves accountable. One reason that leadership is hard is because it is lonely. That’s why in many organizations, including the nonprofit I’ve worked with for a while (SEALNet) the co-leadership model was used. It is helpful in preparing ourselves transition to leadership role, because a strong motivation for a great many of us is to not let others down. Ask any startup founders and they will tell you the most important asset they have is their co-founders and team, not only because of the complimentary skills but also because they keep others motivated and accountable when things get rough (which is almost all the time for startup)

Somehow I was really inspired after the short conversation that night. On the way back to my room, I asked myself: how might I turn this situation to my advantage? Small class means more interaction time, so we will have more opportunity to hear from each and everyone, to dive deeper into ourselves. That was exactly what I wanted – why on Earth did I even worry in the first place? I’m learning the same lesson again and again: Whenever I have an expectation, be aware of the potential disappointment that comes with it. Be aware when expectation distracts me from the present. Stay with what is. This will take a lifetime to learn, and I’m thankful for this experience.

Going to this class for 2.5 hours on a Monday night feels strikingly similar to going to the gym: I’m often half excited, half dreaded before going, yet I always feel fulfilled after. I told myself often for all of my commitments, “if I am not mentally present then why do I even bother coming?”. Yet in real life we all find ourselves distracted all the time. That is where we really need people – there is something about the presence of others that pull us into the moment and keep us engaged.

Here are some other small learning points.

  • On asking questions: the intimacy of the small class gave me the excuse to ask more personal questions, those that push people a bit out of comfort zone. In a class like this it feels much easier to get a response (not that I don’t ask probing questions already in normal setting). Another related point is that it really requires genuine curiosity to ask good question. I have stock questions to ask, but I know I only feel good when I truly care about the person who answers it rather than just asking a cool question. The reward of doing so is definitely worth it: one of the best experiences in the class is to listen and to be humbled and to admire those who shared even more.
  • Step up, step down: Finding the balance between talking and listening is hard. Being a TA, I tended to give the space to others; at the same time I do feel like do have a lot to share too. Throughout of the course of the class, there was time when I wasn’t sure what exactly I was contributing to the class (I wasn’t participating in much of the work and wasn’t doing much assignment). Now I need to believe more in myself and the specific gifts that I could offer: the willingness to ask questions to dive deeper and to provide contradicting perspectives. Over time and experience, I learn how to have a better sense of where someone is at in their learning journey, which allows me to do what is necessary at that point to help.
  • Reliability: I still have punctuality issues and did not complete some assignments that I took up. I deluded myself by saying that the boundaries weren’t clear – “perhaps a TA didn’t have to do much of the work?” – but clearly I could have taken the responsibility to clarify what kind of role and involvement I have in the class. These seemingly small thing would affect the level of trust of others on me (I bet it already did). To work on it, I will ask my future collaborators to call me out when I am not being reliable.

The most fulfilling part was seeing that people had the opportunities to work together during the class and how excited everyone was to continue a year-long program starting in the Fall. I felt like I’ve contributed my part by helping plant and water the seeds of good relationships. There is some wish-we-could-have-done, but I’m contented with where we are.

Anyway, some pictures for celebration!

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Our cosy ceremony with some nonprofit leaders in the area

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Everyone, including serious-looking professionals, can draw!

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“Journey to the future of philanthropy” – a collaborative art piece. I made up a general journey map and let everyone draw on it. It turned out to be super cool!

23 – a reflection

Today is a good time to take stock of where I am, to share some learning and to celebrate. Life is so good it has to be shared.

Where am I?

I’m entering the blossoming phase of my life: so much excitement, so many opportunities, abundance of energy, lovely people. College has been quite a journey, and I am loving every moment of it. Classes, involvement, people, personal time, sleep, books, adventures. I don’t see life as much as a juggle but rather a process of alignment: when everything is aligned, life moves smoothly.

This is also a good time to check in with my theme of 2016 – Integration It is fascinating how useful the act of crystallizing a theme can be. Even when I’m not conscious of it, different parts of my life are somehow coming together: mind and body, technical and social, fields of study, relationships.

Being somewhat older than my peers, hanging out with older people and reading books of dead authors gave me a bit of thought-fulness. At the same time I am also feeling a sense of personal renewal, as if I’m becoming more and more youthful as I mature. Being youthful has little to do with what young people “should” do – it’s very much a spirit of openness, wonderment and innocence. To quote David Whyte, “innocence is not a state of naivety. It is, in a way, the ability to be found by the world.” Somehow that innocence is often lost as we grow up, and I don’t want that to happen.

I am feeling more engaged with Tufts as well as the greater world. Someone recently asked me “What does it feel like to be alive?” and I came up with two words “engagement” and “ease”. I was surprised by my own answer, so much that I made into my own definition of success: to engage in what needs to be done with greater ease.

What I am learning

I like to keep track of my development through the lessons I am learning. Here they are:

  • On impact: I’m starting to have a better sense of the impact I have on other people. While actions may indeed speak louder than words, the latter can be quite powerful. Sometimes the best thing I say or write is completely spontaneous, but in general words deserve to be deliberate. The energy each of us bring into an interaction can have a strong impact too. Something I learned recently from Ben Zander is that glowing eyes matter. Nothing delights us more than the glowing eyes of someone else, and it is totally a worthy cause to make eyes glow more often! On that note, a recent feedback from a friend: my eyes glow when I feel connected – mental, emotional, physical. Really good to know!
  • On reframing life: In the past, I adopted the radical acceptance motto of “I suck, you suck, we all suck”, which has been very helpful to cope with stuff. However, I put on a quote on my door recently ”I’m a gift. You are a gift. Life is a gift.” Operating this new requires a fundamental shift of mind, and as far as I can tell, this newer motto works like charm. Life is indeed full of gifts – even when shit happens, I have a blog post Indeed, my attention, energy, vibe, questions, thoughts, resources, relationships, youthfulness, thoughtfulness, rashness, spontaneity – all these are gifts. We all have a lot to give and receive from each other and from the world; we just need to figure out how best to do it.
  • On being: As I get older, there is a gentler, more graceful sense of being. Perhaps this is the way to live: as we age, we keep getting lighter and lighter until the day we are gone and the world wouldn’t feel sad about us leaving. A friend recently gave me a beautiful imagery: we live like a helium balloon; the lighter we are, the more we can rise above, but we don’t just fly out of the atmosphere into space. Instead, we look back. We see the world in its entirety, and we become even more we become engaged in it. Such an “uplifting” image – literally and metaphorically.

    This imagery well captures two paradoxes: first, being light doesn’t mean being disengaged, leaving everything behind and going into the forest like some monks. (not all though – look at this guy) The better question is “How can we remain gentle while being deeply engaged in the world?” The second paradox is that people who have that quality of lightness to their being, those who don’t seem to care as much about the outcomes of what happens, are the ones who will make the most impact in our lives. In lightness, there is power. There is so much we can add to the world just by being.

  • On enjoying myself: Over the years, I learn the importance of developing a genuine sense of appreciation and respect for myself, not more, not less than other people. Do I treat myself every moment with attention and care and acceptance and curiosity? The quality of my relationship with myself has got so much better; sometimes I even have this thought “Oh wow, Khuyen, you are daydreaming about this person or that scenario – isn’t it interesting?” One benefit of attaining a distance from myself is that I can be genuinely surprised by what I do in the moment, which is a lot of fun. Paradoxically, not taking myself seriously also means to accept who I currently am and to know that it will change anyway. We are all work-in-progress mistaking we are finished, to paraphase Daniel Gilbert.
  • Focusing on contribution: a few years ago I used to geek out a lot on self-improvement – how to do certain things better, how to improve the way I operate. I still do, but am a lot more relaxed now. We work hard on ourselves because the work is meaningful, but not too hard to the point it becomes a burden. We are all growing all the time, and sometimes too much focus on growth itself may not be the most sustainable thing. The better question is “What am I contributing? What do I need to know, to learn and to do to make it happen?” If you want to motivate me, paint me a rich picture of how I can help!
    Peter Drucker once said “people grow according to the demands they make on themselves, according to what they consider to be achievement and attainment.” The words “dream”, “achievement” or “ambition” somehow don’t jive with me too much; “aspiration”, “contribution” and “responsibility” do. Keep that in mind when we work together next time 😉
  • On learning: from the last part of this interview of Edgar Schein in Google: “whenever you are in an experience, stop and ask yourself: what else is going on? In this place? Among us? Inside me? This is where the real learning occurs” One big influence of mindfulness practice on me is this awareness of the fertile negative space. A related and deeper point is that everything needs a container – music needs silence, painting needs canvas, texts needs screen, people need relationships. That means if we can create the right container, the right thing can happen. The farmer spends lots of time cultivating the soil for a good reason!

    Two guiding questions for myself these days are: How can I be more connected to this whole evolving world, and how can I co-create the conditions for flourishing? I don’t take myself too seriously, but I do take these questions seriously 😉

Some reminders for the future

  • Choose where I pay attention to:
    the real power lies in our ability to ask this question: Is what I am paying attention to energizing, liberating, fulfilling? On a related note, I love this quote by Mother Teresa: “There is no great thing. There’s only thing done with great love.”

    Whenever I feel stuck in my small self that is anxious, calculative, wanting to get ahead, getting caught up in being “great”, it is a good reminder that I can be larger Self that is loving and free. It sounds easy in theory, but really hard in practice. It gets easier with time though.

  • Never do it alone
    Recently the thought that I’m almost one-third into my twenty dawned upon me. If anything, that thought made me feel a greater sense of responsibility not so much as a growing up independent person but rather an interdependent being in the world. As I am writing this reflection in my room, I realized that I am not alone at all. Because we never are. I also realized that what I’m looking first and foremost in any kind of relationships is togetherness – then comes tenderness and intimacy. Quite a piece of self-knowledge.
  • Ready, Fire, Aim (notice the order)
    A motto by Pierre Omidyar for his work as well as his life: it’s important to be ever ready enough, yet never 100% ready. Fire first, then aim, then fire and aim again. Preparing is good only to a certain point, and in general it’s better to have a bias towards action – take reasonable action, learn as much as possible from feedback, recaliberate, do again.

Gratitude

If you have read this far, please take a moment to celebrate our shared joy of being alive. Not only that, we have good eye sights, a device to read this post, enough English ability to understand and a willing heart to celebrate together. If these aren’t worth being grateful for, what is?

Thank you for being with my journey,
Khuyen

Gambling and losing in Paris

Intention
I’m writing to share this deeply felt lesson, to first learn for myself and second help other people learn through my experience. I believe this story resonates with many of us, because we are always part of a larger story. If it does for you, please share it with other too. Another reason to write is so that people can have an example of how to reflect. I don’t claim I know the golden formula, but this maybe a good starting point.

The story
I was walking around Montmartre area of Paris yesterday, and I was drawn to a big crowd on the street: a gambling gig. A man had three pieces of black round pad; under one of them was a white dot. He would switch them around, flip them frequently. People would bet for the pad with the white dot and get paid twice as much. There were many people around; one particular lady was also in, won some at first and started losing. There was an older man who had been inside the circle who occasionally peaked at the pad while the conman wasn’t paying attention, bet and won. The next times he peaked, he asked people to bet with him. Some people won that way. I felt pulled in, and for some conman’s magic, I lost once, twice, thrice, totaled to $80, the biggest sum of money for me I ever lost. Before I ran out of cash, and this man kindly pulled me out and asked me to leave; if I stayed I would have completely dried out.

The whole experience was so fast I felt like waking up from a feverish dream. I needed to slow down and digest it. Any conman knows what he is doing. I was simply conned. But if all I could learn was to never get into gambling again then it would be such a waste. Experience like this doesn’t come quite often, and the learning from it can be so potent.

I meditated on this experience, relived the sensations, let them touch me deeply when I was safe in the room. The first step of learning from experience is to start from the level of sensation. As of writing this, I still felt those very strongly. As I was pulled in, there was a sense of being vulnerably high, like being on the tip of my toes all the time. Even though I thought I slowed down already, I was still drawn in.

What does loss feel like?
They feel extremely vulnerable around my chest, as if there are some currents running beneath. For me, the chest is close to the heart, which can easily cause some tears. These sensations are deep, which must mean there was a lot underneath it.
What I was thinking?
I thought that I could win, that I could outsmart this conman, that I could mastermind this situation. I also thought that I could make some money and then leave. Pretty common thoughts for gamblers, but there were so much more to both these thoughts that I would explore further below.

After I left the crowd, I had a few seconds to reflect on the experience. Then I pulled out my phone from my pocket, and you might have guessed, the phone was gone too, with it gone my debit card and student ID. Quite an experience.

It was as if something at the bottom of my stomach just dropped, as if the ground under me was gone, as if I was going down on an elevator. It felt like having a fever, like a loss of control, which was quite unusual for me. I was sharply aware of the impact: the emotional hijack, the inability to focus, the impatience and the lack of presence. I felt like crying. I didn’t cry; my first reaction was “Ok time to take care of the consequences”. Which I did, rushed to the Internet cafe opposite the street to call up the bank and block the account. I noticed my own impatience as I was calling, and I slowly managed to slow down. (it was ironic that the bank representative was thanking me for my patience…) I also confirmed with a new friend that I would still meet her in an hour (as a side note, I had a pretty good sense of direction within two days in Paris, being able to bike back to our meet up place which was about 5km away without Google map)

On the way back, I was trying to regain my presence; it was hard given how much just happened. There was another thought “All the people around there must be conspiring with each other. Even the man who helped pull me out – I did once think of him as part of their scheme too. He did cheat the conman after all, so they might be together. Who knows?” This was an example of a victim thought; it came from a powerless, blaming position. Thanks to my practice of mindfulness I was aware of them and let them go. Thoughts are the easier to let go; sensations aren’t.

What am I learning about myself?
I was pretty quick in looking at the positive: I didn’t lose everything and still have my passport with some backup cash. I also wrote down in my little notebook the password for the rented bike and the apartment and so I had a place to go back. I did not blame the other, nor did I blame myself. I thought “Okay Khuyen, you are paying for your own stupidity, you are paying a tuition for life”. I would be more careful the next time.

This is not too new. I have somehow trained myself to look on the bright side; it was a good test of resilience. But this time was a opportunity to learn much more.

Focusing on the bright side is a common coping mechanism, a very effective one indeed. But it was a coping mechanism after all, like a bandage for a bleeding wound. The wound needs to breathe too; sometimes bandaging too fast can hamper long term recovery. To truly heal, we need to stay with the pain and understand it.

Intentional self-disruption

Interestingly, one of my assignments for a class this very week was to do something totally out of my comfort zone and normal patterns. Here is the exact instruction from my teacher: “Open yourself up to problems you’ve been avoiding–with family members, co-workers, friends, enemies. Disrupt every area of your life that has become routine. Dress the way you’ve always wanted to. Forget your compulsive promptness. Deliberately destroy as many behavioral patterns as you see in yourself. Use your left hand instead of your right. Dawdle where you would ordinarily run. Run where you would saunter”

I thought of this trip as the perfect opportunity for this assignment. Traveling to a new environment feels like a reset button; we can start everything anew. Note starting something fresh doesn’t mean starting something “good” – it could be quite the opposite. The point remains though: to start something fresh instead of slipping into old patterns and succumb to temptation. It is easy to say and hard to do: the challenge of being present is just that – whenever we think we’ve got it, we lose it.

The two complex relationships I have are with money and with food, and somehow I subconsciously knew that I would like to try to be more spendthrift and indulgent. On the train to Paris, a new friend and a respectable gentleman gave me 50 euros because I hadn’t exchanged USD yet and I needed some money to take the subway (crazy I know… I met wonderful people whose generosity touched me so much). It gave me even more excuse to break my own patterns. One way is to break all my dieting rules – I have been eating quite freely (which means eating the same favorite food again and again – I had 3-4 crepes on the street everyday!) I thought about how much good food I can eat. Yet habits are strong: one big part of me was still quite spendthrift: it thought that the 50 euros already felt quite luxurious for a 3-day budget (I know you may say “in Paris, really?” – but hey, it’s all relative!)

More indulgent, yes, but gambling? Hell no. It never crossed my conscious mind. Yet life always has an uncanny way to teach me lessons. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” said the Buddha. And the teacher is not necessarily a person but an experience. I think I was just depriving myself and my self-control by mentally budgeting the food, and I felt into that “trap”. It’s all part of the grander plan, and I was ready for this test.

A systemic interpretation of the incident

How am I feeling about the people who conned me? He might be feeling high and low like I did often, perhaps so often he might not have the opportunity to be in a safe corner, to quiet down with himself and reflect like I do. Or he might know all this, and he was there to create this learning for other people (perhaps charging them some money for the tuition)

From the larger, interdependent perspective, there was no one conning anyone anyway; there were simply some energy vibrating with each other. The “darker” part of me was resonating with that of other (I’m being careful with the label “darker” here; a better word would be “ignorant” or “mindless”) For example, I was clearly lying too, to myself first and to the conman (I told him I ran out of money, which I didn’t) The incident is just another manifestation of who we are. From this perspective, there is no blame, only contribution. There is neither I nor you. There are only us.

Afterwards, I went to meet up with a new friend, Alexandra. We reflected on our recent experiences, on how strange life has different ways to teach us the same lessons and on how we can learn and evolve together. It was the best conversation I had this week.

On learning about money

I want to use this opportunity to explore my relationships with the past self, especially my attitude with money.

Alexandra told me a difficult story of working with a business partner who didn’t negotiate the payment well. He didn’t ask for the money upfront and turned sour when he received an amount he deemed insufficient. Upon a genuine moment of reflection on why he behaved that way, he blurted “I grew up poor”. The story struck a chord with me. A flashback came through my mind: when I was younger, I used to save all the small notes inside one drawer out of the many drawers of my uncle or under the books. Over time, I accumulated a small fortune. Yet fortune comes and go; one day I found out that they were gone. Someone stole it. I remember crying for so long for the injustice that I faced. Was it my brother? Or was it someone else? As I grew up, these pains and patterns got buried in daily life. I knew money was emotional issue for me, and perhaps many others too. Our behaviors result from habits that were formed and reinforced by deep seated beliefs. The inertia of karma is strong, and only through genuine reflection can we be free from its grip. Alexandra told me that “You are simply paying to your past self”, which was the best line I’ve heard during this trip.

I thought of my past petty self that grew up in a mindset of scarcity, the one who believed it did not have anything to give and thus felt uncomfortable receiving. Seeing people who beg on the street made me uncomfortable, but I don’t usually give. It makes me wonder sometimes: if I have received so much from the world, from money to opportunities to beautiful relationships. How could I start giving? What are my gifts to the world? Writing is one of those – what more?

This incident allowed me to know more intimately this old friend, the less evolved, “darker” and often ignored side. For example, I liked to cheat because it made my ego feel like it know the system. The pleasure of outsmarting someone or something comes from the fear of not knowing enough. I thought I overcome this fear – hell no – some lessons are not easily learned well. I did steal too. I stole others’ raincoats when mine was stolen, because I’d like to believe that the world was fair that way. I hope I’m learning well this time.

As I sat back and meditated, I thought again of the novella Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, one of the most influential books that have shaped who I am today. I felt awed at how prophetic that book continued to be. The chapter when Siddhartha was with Kawasaki to learn the art of making money, of losing them and losing himself in the world of worldly pleasures. He stayed in that dreamy, wandering phase of life for a while before the inner voice spoke to him one day to wake him up from that endless cycles of winning and losing.

I had the theory; I now have an experience. Gambling and losing gave me a glimpse of the pain associated with money – of doubting oneself, blaming the other, of giving so much meaning to these pieces of paper. Whoever said money didn’t matter must either be ignorant or enlightened, and only through experience can we tell the difference. The most striking part was to observe the whole scene – of people winning, losing, of the intense laughters, the sinister smirks, the dejected faces. It was like seeing a brutal fight without the capacity to help. I thought of my mentor’s words: “You have to explore your own relationship with money”. This time I could laugh at myself “Ah. Life is manifesting itself through you, my friend”.

On the last note, I haven’t felt that good about canceling my plan to visit places to sit down and write instead. I felt quite a different person from this experience, and am thankful for the learning that is always just starting.

My gratitude for those who have given, to me and to the world – may you continue to give. For those who have not, may you start giving. For those who have been receiving, may you continue to receive and to give.

[Letter] Last summer work

It is no accident that some of my better writing are letters to people – they have more contexts and therefore meaning. When we do something with a sense of meaning, we do it better. I share because I think they are worth sharing, even though you may not understand most of it. It also gives you, my reader, a better sense of who I am.

Context: From my from my internship over the summer when I received feedback about my work and my reflection on it. You can read more of the original story here – Getting punched, kind of. This letter is another reflection 6 months after. You see, I do dwell on the past 😉


Hi [my boss],

I hope this finds you well. I am writing to say thank you for the summer and the pieces of feedback you gave me.

I’ve been thinking about it more recently. The more I think about it, the more I am so grateful that you gave me so much feedback. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but I’m so thankful that you decided to trust me that I could take it. (I wonder if you would have given feedback to another person that way, because some may have PTSD instead of post traumatic growth. Of course it wasn’t anything too traumatic compared to near-death experiences or losing of a loved ones, but it was hard nonetheless) I think I recover well from setbacks, have a pretty healthy self-esteem and don’t dwell too much on past mistakes, but there was so much to learn from that experience I can’t waste it.

I grew up a lot as a person from the incident, and I am happily surprised at how I took it. Now reading the emails again, I thought about how defensive I still seemed then. I remember when I was writing and preparing to meet you in the morning, I tried to be as open as possible. I think I was, but I could have been a lot more.

I was lazy too; I definitely took the intellectually easy way out. I told myself that we had different ways to learn; you might enjoy reading papers while I prefer browsing through more accessible books. Now reflecting on that, I was just giving myself excuses. I was simply lazy. I did read a lot, and I chose to read what I think was useful but perhaps they were just more interesting to me, and that’s laziness.

I’m saying this as a matter of fact, not feeling bad or guilty at all. Laziness is just as real as entropy – the physical law that the universe is tending towards disorder. And yet there is evolution – when a living being or a species adapts and become more and more organized and complex. These two forces don’t seem to go together, yet we seem to be evolving rather than regressing. Does that mean evolutionary force is stronger? I don’t know. Speculation aside, I have to keep working. I can’t be lazy if I want to love, because love takes work. A lot of it.

I wonder why I was so bad. I think part of it was that I didn’t know how much effort should I put into the work – was it a 9-5 job or was it just get as much done as I can? When should I leave work? How much is expected of me? I didn’t expect much for myself, and in hindsight that wasn’t a good move. One grows from the expectation one makes on oneself, and I wasn’t really consumed by it and therefore didn’t grow as much. Good lesson learned. There are positive too though. I’m getting a lot better in being with people and communicating. That’s one of my strengths. I don’t enjoy being technical at all – I guess I will have to be somehow in the near future, but so far from my experiences I enjoy and am also more effective with people.

This summer was a weird time for me; I was in a limbo zone, not knowing what I wanted to do, not sure how I should use my time in the Bay Area effectively, fantasizing that I could have had a more formal internship in a tech firm. I did notice that last thought often, and I told myself “Khuyen, be in the moment. You have committed to one thing, you have to put everything into it.” Still, having that thought perhaps made me less willing to work, at least at the subconscious level.

Keep me updated on your adventure and learning lessons. Life is too short to learn from one’s own journey – must learn from other’s experiences too!

Thư giử mẹ 2016

Mẹ à,

Hôm nay năm mới, thầy của con bảo mình lúc ngồi thiền ngoài thực hành định tâm ra cũng nên dành thời gian để nuôi nấng cái tánh yêu của mình. Con nghĩ đến mẹ. (thầy mà không nhắc chắc con cũng quên. Thế mới phải nuôi nấng cái tánh yêu).

Cuộc sống nội tâm của mẹ chắc chắn phải rất giàu kỉ niệm, vui có, buồn có. Con lớn hơn, hiểu được hơn một ít. Con nhớ lại những khoảnh khắc làm mẹ buồn. Chỉ nghĩ không thôi đã thấy nó buồn thế nào, con không hiểu làm mẹ lúc đấy thì thấy thế nào nữa. Rồi con nghĩ đến việc làm mẹ của con, làm chỗ dựa của cả gia đình mình khó đến mức nào.

Hồi nhỏ, lúc nhà mình cãi nhau to, cả mẹ bà và anh, con tưởng như không giữ được cái nhà này nữa. Con còn nhỏ đã thấy khó rồi, nhưng con còn trốn đi chơi điện tử cho giải khuây được, me không bỏ được nhà mà đi lúc đấy mẹ chịu kiểu gì? Không có người tâm sự thì chắc tự tử mất. Mà con nó có hiểu được đâu, muốn bảo nó đi cám ơn ân nhân mà nó cứ dùng dằng mãi mới chịu đi, “vì bổn phận làm con”.

Hồi cấp 3 đi du học con về nghỉ hè được ba tuần, con tưởng mình ngoan đi chơi lúc nào cũng phải xin phép mẹ. Sáng nào cũng đi đá bóng với bạn rồi lượn lờ đến trưa, đến một hôm có anh bạn rủ đi ăn sáng, mẹ cáu: “Mày muốn thì đi luôn đi”. Con tưởng mẹ nói một lần con tởn đến già luôn, thế mà con lại đi mất rồi đây.. Nghĩ lại, đứa con mình mang nặng đẻ đau, dành bao nhiêu tâm huyết và tình cảm vào để nuôi nấng mà nó cứ nhơn nhơn. Con biết là giận dữ không giải quyết được gì lâu dài mà thực hành được mới là khó. Bao nhiêu chuyện xảy ra ở chỗ làm, nhà cửa thì bề bộn, về chỉ muốn nghỉ ngơi, thấy con mình như thế thì chả cáu? Giận thì giận thật mà phải vượt qua cái nỗi đau đấy để bắt con nên người.

Hồi đấy nhà mình cáu giận nhiều quá. Lớn rồi con hiểu được, có cơn giận nào không làm đau người đang giận? Không giày vò người ta đêm đêm? Lưỡi dao đã cắt, có bó được vết thương thì cơn đau cũng đã hằn sâu. Chẳng có gia đình nào hoàn hảo, ai lớn lên cũng phải có nhiều vết thương, phải dành thời gian chữa trị. Không phải lỗi tại con hay lỗi tại mẹ hay lỗi ai nhiều hơn. Tại mình sinh ra làm con và mãi vẫn chưa thành được người. Khó quá mẹ ạ.

Mà cũng có những lúc vui. Con nó được giải này giải nọ, được đi du học người khác chúc mừng. Bạn bè khen thằng con lớn bảnh trai lấy vợ đẹp rồi có cháu trai to khỏe. Thấy con mình lớn dần lên từng ngày. Thấy chính mình lớn lên từng ngày. Nghĩ đến lúc đưa con ra sân bay. Sao đứa con của mình nó cứ dưng dửng, mặt mũi tươi cười an ủi mẹ nó “Có gì mẹ cứ nhắn con qua Viber”. Ôi, nó có cuộc sống của riêng nó rồi, còn mấy khi nghĩ về mẹ nó nữa?

Con nhớ hồi hè về dẫn mẹ đi chơi lăng bác xem chuẩn bị diễu binh quốc khánh. Con vui lắm, lần đầu tiên dẫn mẹ đi chơi, cũng là lần đầu tiên mẹ được đi xem chuẩn bị diễu binh cả đời gần 50 năm tuổi. Mẹ phải chịu khổ nhiều quá rồi. Thế mà cũng chính đứa con đấy hôm trước khi quay lại Mỹ bắt đầu năm học mới lại làm mẹ thất vọng. Mẹ bảo con đi chùa với mẹ, con cứ ậm ừ, đến lúc đi mặt mũi tiu nghỉu thể hiện thái độ rồi đòi về sớm. Me nói “Từ lúc con về toàn mẹ phục vụ con, đến lúc mẹ bảo đi chùa với mẹ thì tiu nghỉu. Mẹ tưởng con lớn rồi biết suy nghĩ cho người khác hơn, ít ích kỉ hơn. Mẹ buồn vì con của mình chưa tốt”. Con cũng buồn, một phần vì con hư, phần hơn vì thấy mẹ bảo “trách nhiệm” là phải phục vụ con. Con không dám nhờ mẹ làm hộ việc gì nữa vì con sợ hai chữ “trách nhiệm” đấy. Nó là một phần quan trọng, nhưng không phải tất cả của tình yêu thương. Lúc đấy hai mẹ con mình đang dạy nhau và dạy chính mình biết cách yêu thương tốt hơn. Nghĩ đến giây phút đấy, giờ con thấy cả hai đã lớn lên nhiều.

Yêu được người khác khó quá, phải bỏ tâm huyết và tinh thần, và phải thực hành. Ngồi không nhớ đến người mình yêu thì dễ, nghĩ và làm gì với tình yêu đó mỗi ngày mới là khó. Con sống xa nhà, nhiều khi nghĩ không biết gia đình đối với con có quan trọng thế không? Sau này liệu có mất gốc? Càng lớn con càng thấy phải nuôi nấng cái tánh yêu của mình để nó lan ra tất cả mọi người và mọi sinh vật xung quanh và trên cả thế giới này nữa. Gia đình, đất nước là một phần của cả thế giới lớn hơn. Nghĩ được thì dễ, làm được mới phải khó. Nghĩ cao xa quá lắm khi làm chùn mình chùn chân, mà vẫn phải nghĩ. Thôi cứ bắt đầu nhỏ, từ người thân và cộng đồng xung quanh.

Thinh thoảng con nhắn tin cho mẹ vì con nghĩ đến chuyện một ngày mẹ mất đi, rồi con ở xa nhận được tin. Con sợ. Chắc con sẽ buồn lắm, và con sẽ vượt qua. Đời là vô thường mà mẹ. Rồi con nghĩ đến chuyện con có thể mất đi trước mẹ – ai biết được trong cõi đời vô thường này? Mẹ chắc còn buồn hơn, và mẹ sẽ vượt qua mẹ ạ. Mẹ tin vào nhiều kiếp mà. Khi một người qua đời họ chỉ đến một thế giới khác. Con thì chỉ nghĩ cái chết là không còn kết nối với sự sống nữa. Nếu thế thì có những người sống chẳng bằng chết, không có động lực để kết nối với người khác. Mình phải tập yêu trong từng giây phút này mẹ ạ, yêu cuộc sống và yêu sự sống. Con viết thư để nhắc nhở cả hai mẹ con mình.

Năm mới mẹ mạnh khỏe. Con mong mẹ sống tốt hơn mỗi ngày, yêu thương trọn vẹn hơn, gieo phước đức cho người thân và những sinh linh xung quanh.

Con của mẹ,

Reflection on 2015: Experiment & Synthesis

End of the year is time for connecting and reconnecting time with friends, family and also myself. Looking back, this year has been the more successful year by external measures. If I can tell people about the places that I got to visit, the people I met, the opportunities which have opened up in front of me, then the year is a good one.

I want to share the journey inside though, the one that is often not told and almost infinitely more relatable. I entered 2015 feeling burned out from school, perhaps as the result of a notorious 30 hour/week Computer Science class. I wrote about it more in my 22 note, but to sum up, I felt like wandering around college and life, not growing as fast and not having a clear purpose. In other words, I was suffering from a mini existential crisis, the infamous sophomore slump. Some may say “What the heck Khuyen, you are only 22. Many people twice and even three times your age haven’t even figured it out”. I don’t think anyone has figured out, but I’ve met some people who just seem to be full of life – isn’t it such a good goal to strive for? I believe we may not know exactly what we want, but when we quiet down enough we can always hear a hunch of what it is and know when we are close. There is such a feeling called “getting there”, whatever that means. Before I found something, I need to search for it.

This year taught me about the nature of growth: once in a while there will be a major breakthrough, a defining moment, yet often times change is barely perceptible. It is like trying to lift oneself out of thickened mud – pushing one’s legs into it so hard without seeing any visible result. Hardly does he know that all these efforts count in softening the mud, for one day he lifted his leg lightly and the whole mud collapsed. Someday feel like nothing happening while someday everything seems to align. It is also one of the lessons I learned the hard way from my boss this summer – consistently give your all into whatever you do. The immediate result may not be favorable, but we will never know what it will lead to down the road.
(Funny enough, looking back now I can recall a dozen “breakthrough” moments where I delighted myself, like “Wow, I actually said a beautiful line / wrote a good post / did something meaningful” or felt like I was becoming a different person. It is really hard to predict progress! I remember these moments well because they often yield insights into who I am, what I can do and how I can play on these strengths)

The whole existential limbo of this year was a great learning journey, punctuated by little polarizing moments of mini-crisis / self-doubt vs excitement / awe. I was bored, lack of purpose, insecure about the uncertain future, worrying of not making the most out of my time etc… The struggle was real! Yet the more setback, the more potent the learning. These so-called negativity cut so deeply that now I felt like I’ve learned a good deal from it. Here are some general lessons learned.
On progress: Going through limbo such as this may feel like killing oneself with a dull knife… I wish there could be more huge heartbreaking events that forced me to re-evaluate my life (I did have a few major screwing up this year though). In real life, incremental changes are more common and can snowball in both positive and negative directions. Take unhealthy eating for example: we eat badly one day here one day there and suddenly the doctor says we have diabetes. Or that cliched mid life crisis (quarter life in my case) where everything we have been striving for just seems quite meaningless (it has always been so; only now that we realize.) Anyway, having crisis at 22 seems much better than 44. I think of this experience as paying the small price first before the compound interest takes over. I shall always be in searching mode and trying to live with a clear sense of purpose.
– It’s hard to get feedback for bigger projects like WhatToDoWithLife, because experience comes in bigger chunks. It takes a spirit of trust – if I am earnestly searching then I will find it – to overcome the frustration of not seeing progress. (Or it takes constant distraction, which may seem useful momentarily but not in the long run. The greatest challenge to a goal consists of many paths to less worthy ones)  I don’t know a better way to practice trust but to act anyway despite uncertainty. I recalled a moment during the summer when I felt a burning sense that I got to do something because I can, and because I cannot let myself stuck in limbo forever. Introspection can only go so far. Also, waiting for an inspirational moment isn’t a reliable strategy. To paraphase my drama teacher: “It’s much easier to act into a feeling than to feel into an action”. Remember to act anyway. Life is too short to be disengaged.
On confusion: Confusion and clarity are two sides of the same coins: as I learn more about the world and who I am, confusion will inevitably arise simply because more information requires more time and processing power. I’ve learned to celebrate confusion as a sign of gaining more data about life; they just haven’t made sense yet. The good thing about getting older is that there are enough data to observe patterns – the way I operate, the mistakes I keep repeating, the phases I go through – which allow me to understand the deeper causes. On that note, I’ve come to see life as a continual process of optimization and recaliberation. Optimization is to ask “What is the best thing to do given what I know?” and recaliberation is to ask “How can I know even more, and how will that change what I am doing?” In other words,
while (alive) {
plan, do, reflect, synthesize;
}

  • Overcoming self-judgment. If I were to describe my internal transformation for the past two years, it will be a shift from “What is wrong with me?” to “Is this normal?” to “This happened. Probably not what I want. Time to try something else”. It sounds easy, but when it comes to personal matters it can be quite hard to be neutral, let alone compassionate with oneself. On this note, mindfulness meditation has been hugely helpful in additional to my journaling habit. It opens the door to a kind of mental freedom from the overthinking tendency. The mind is a weird place; it never shuts off. It is like getting stuck in a stuffy room with nothing but a lousy TV that jumps to random channels all the time, mostly with boring advertisements or terrible news (I guess Facebook feed is quite the same for many people). Now you can imagine what freedom tastes like. I actually enjoy being in that room more and more; the TV jumps less often, the channels are more interesting and once in a while I can get out of the room for some fresh air.
  • One role of meditation is as a training in disidentifying with thoughts. My consciousness is the TV screen, not the stuff it shows. With that understanding and practice, I become a lot more chill. Another practice I am doing is to be overly polite and curious with my thoughts, which is to say that whenever I hear an internal judgment saying something like “You should / shouldn’t do xyz”, I would automatically respond “Thank you for sharing” and then “Isn’t it interesting that I am bored? Anxious? Impatient? Having sexual fantasies? Feeling insecure about the future? Thinking? Writing these lines for no good reason but for the sake of writing?”. Not that I stop experiencing these mental and emotional phenomena, it is to recognize those as a thing and then let them go. The practice is so powerful that I almost forgot what my mind was like before…

More specific self-knowledge and advice for myself
Potential downfalls: all my major screwing ups this year have come from hoping to be clever and failing to pay attention to details: cutting short preparation thinking that I will be on time (hopelessly optimistic), playing with the system betting on the facts that not many will find out etc… Good reminder to myself again: consistency trumps cleverness.
+ Being more strategic: Lesson from public speaking class: telling the truth is only one component, saying it at due time with good delivery can make the whole difference. While people value my authenticity, I need to work on timing and delivery.
+ Experimental semester: Perhaps the biggest experiment this year is to take a very light course load this Fall semester, none of which is my Comp Science or Philosophy major. I wanted to see if I truly miss them, and if I do then which part of them do I miss? (absence makes the loving hearts grow fonder huh?) It is a risky bet, given that I only have 3 semesters left. What has this revealed? First, I miss the idea and thinking of technology and a space to muse philosophically. I wanted to learn to think and design in systems. On hindsight I wish I took an elective Comp Science class to keep sharpening the skill, but frankly I don’t miss programming as much. I had this “Fear of Not Doing Anything Technical” simply because of this belief that “technical = employable”. Another fear to overcome soon.
+ A second revelation is that I definitely don’t enjoy chilling that much, in the normal sense of the word – TV series, loitering around. I have plenty of time on my own to read and write and explore other stuff, which wasn’t bad at all, but I really thrive in doing purposeful work (including hanging out with friends and watching educational Youtube videos) It sounds terrible and hopelessly pragmatic, but it is pretty much how I operate. Good lesson relearned: I want to do stuff with people for people! Given my overthinking tendency, it’s easier to err on the side of doing too much and then scale back.
– I did one thing right: when I am not sure about what I want to do, it’s better to not commit to too many things and keep space for serendipity. Most if not all the cool projects, prizes and groups I’ve encountered comes from having time to do random thing that seems intriguing.
– However, remember that with the privilege of having diverse interests comes the responsibility to make all of those things relevant, for myself and for other people. Relevance creates values. As much as I learned to be present, planning for the future is still important: because I will not only have to feed myself but also bring my whole Self into it. Otherwise I will fall into this limbo experience again, killing myself with a dull knife.
– I have pretty good clues for what good work seems like to me now: that I am understanding and being understood, giving and receiving frequent and thoughtful feedback and being curious. People really bring the best out of me – an imagined reader for my writing, a real audience for speaking or a group who disagrees without being disagreeable.

Celebration

2015 is a year of much internal growth (surprisingly also with some external achievements). I looked at my journal – at least 100000 words since last year. It reminds me of how much work each of us has to do internally all the time. It helps to check in with myself often – I am the only one who will stay with me until the end, so it is always good to make sure we are on the same page. Once in a while there will be moments of self-doubt, insecurity or boredom. Feel them slowly and fully, let them reveal what my innermost is asking my day-to-day self to pay attention to. So much of the learning this year comes from accepting paradoxes. I am enough, and I can be more. The future is uncertain, yet we can shape it. Planning is crucial in order to be spontaneous. I need to take myself both more seriously and unseriously. That the wisdom of others is helpful, but I still have to blaze my own path.

I’ve become a lot wiser, more loving, bold, knowledgeable, charming, useful and fun to be with (depending on what “fun” means). I actually like what I see in the mirror! My relationships with people are blossoming too: it is a joy to be wide open with others (having crushes too often is a great dilemma). The journey has been rough at times when I get tested in difficult situations, when my ego took over me (aka moments of fear or stupidity under the disguise of “being clever”) Fortunately I am surrounded by kind people who make it safe for me to reflect and self-correct.

I have grown quite organically (certified by friends ^_^). 2016 for me will be giving and taking even more from the world. Knowing my reflective nature, the only way forward is more engagement. I have a hunch that a Force is reawakening inside. If it is truly so, may I respond to the Call!