Not Knowing

tufts-read-daily-commencement

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

 

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[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!