[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!

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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!

 

22 – A reflection

Why

I’m writing this note for two reasons. One is for me: to take stock of my life, celebrate what I’ve got so far and think about the near future. But if it is only for that reason then this note may never appear in presentable proses like this.

The second reason is that it is for others.

One thing that struck me from meeting more people is how each of us can learn the same few lessons from seemingly different experiences.  I’m a very practical guy, so I want to use my birthday for good. Last year for my birthday, I and a group of friends came together to share our reflection on the first year at Tufts, and I felt very fulfilled for facilitating that conversation. (making use of the extra attention I have). I thus want to write about what I’ve learned with the hope that you can resonate with some of it. If you can reflect, learn and share about your own life then I’ve have done my job well. Thank you for your time, attention and thoughts.

Intro

I want to start this note with my reflection on one of the most important tool I learned – this very thing you are reading – words.
Given the amount of journal I write for myself, I’m always curious about people who do not journal – how do they get in touch with themselves? I have never gone for a few days without writing my thoughts and feelings down somewhere. My pen, my notebook and text editor are the dear extensions of myself. I started having my diary as a kid because I was afraid I would forget my own life. Over time, I realized writing not only helped me remember but also analyze and synthesize my thoughts. The final step – the synthesis – is definitely the coolest part because it is where I become more. I started sharing my thoughts a few years back in my blog because I personally experience how important the process of reflecting and sharing is to everyone’s learning. It is a way that I make a dent in the world, and I want to keep doing it.

Celebration

Since it is my birthday, I’d like to celebrate a bit. Here are what I have made a lot of progress on:
Presence: It’s very nice to hear from people that I am developing a presence. People notice I am there. Presence inspires attention, and attention then strengthens presence. Mindful meditation helped a lot, but more importantly I think it is the practice of a rule I set for myself: when I am there, I am there. It’s really cool 😀
Self-respect: I don’t mean it in a totally egocentric way. A tree has to be well taken care of before it can bear fruits for people, right? Coming from a culture where I was not used to talk about myself, it is easy to sell myself short and then pity myself as “Oh I’m not that good”, or “someone else deserves it better than me”. If it is true, why should I try for anything in the first place? I try to be a good parent of myself: I know he has a lot of potential, but he is also very stupid some times. He needs freedom to grow but also discipline for character and direction for focus. He is scared of repeating mistakes, of hurting people, of doing the suboptimal thing. I try to steer him away from those, but boy sometime you have to let shit happen. Parenting is hard…
Community: I’m surrounded by good people, and I like them a lot. I learned that I am way more fulfilled when I don’t try to make people like me and instead try to find out how the people I am with are special in their own ways. You know, curiosity is my thing. Once I know how my friends are special, I try to make them even more special because if they keep getting cooler I can boast about them and get more ego boost :”) Joking aside, relationships get better as we become more honest and loving. And good community starts with one relationship at a time.

What have I learned about myself as I turn 22

This semester has been a strange one with the snow. I sort of hit the infamous sophomore slump for a while, losing a bit of enthusiasm with classes – they are interesting but I’m not too excited. I focus more on relationships, on community; I care much less about classes and grades. Compare to the Fall when I met my partners everyday for our computer science projects, this semester I do a lot of individual work, which means I spend more time alone. It feels positive but a different kind of positivity. I didn’t feel super excited or stressed like last Spring. Sometimes I feel a bit out of place for being not stressed out (how ironic). Sometimes I feel alone when I see people walking by. I know each has a cool story to tell but I’m afraid he maybe too busy for a random conversation. Plus, it is hard to have a good conversation with a stranger in only 5 minutes anyway, so I tell myself that I’d rather not do in the first place.

If you know me, you know I often ask Whys. When I meet with friends, I tell myself beforehand that I’m meeting because I want to catch up or know them better or discuss some ideas. With an intention I can be more focused and get more out of an experience. One real big lesson I learned this year is that sometimes I don’t need a particular reason to do anything. The real purpose of doing anything is that I just want to do it. I remember a few late nights where I devoured Alan Watts talks – a master spiritual teacher who explains the most abstract ideas with blazing clarity. I experienced a kind of spiritual enlightenment, an elevated sense of liberation that I can do and be whatever I want. It gave me a perpetual high, the kind of high-ness that people who do drugs talk about. I became much less self-judgmental, realizing that whatever I do does not really matter. That newfound sense of freedom was strange at first though; it’s like money: we don’t know how we really feel about it until we have it. A problem with being so free is that for a while I felt a bit aimless. I didn’t feel the pull of a vision, of a goal I had for myself. I experienced boredom, and I panicked! I have always been the curious and eager child in every situation, and I knew I loved Tufts so much. Why and how could I even feel bored here? It was like discovering puberty for the first time and feeling weird about it. I thought I had a problem, and being a typical me, I sought out for help.

You know what the best thing that can happen when you think you have a problem? To hear someone you trust explaining why it is not really a problem. I talked to my mentor about the experience. To my surprise, he laughed very gently “You have to suffer for it my friend. You have to experience boredom before you find a sense of a purpose”. I realize I was in a sense having a withdrawal symptom; I was missing the “good” time and wanted it to come back. That moment was when I learned again the second big lesson of the year: One simply does not skip straight to the good part of an experience I can’t expect to be a high all the time because then what does “high” even mean? Every experience is a new experience that I haven’t had before, and this time I learned deeply, not just intellectually, that “there is nothing either good or bad – only thinking makes it so”.

I thought I had a problem because internally I knew that I was not growing that much, comparing to how much I’ve grown last summer (an amazing and traumatizing project, an exciting and exhausting experience living on my own in another city) and last semester (an intense computer science class). This semester seems too relaxed for me relatively. I partly worried that I am not taking up enough challenges and becoming lazy instead.

But I am still growing. My mentor told me a nice analogy: just like a young tree has different grow spurts, I too cannot expect to grow fast all the time. I need to appreciate the stage I am at right now. The young tree is more fragile but also more resilient; its branches are not as strong but they can heal quickly. As the tree gets older, it may not be as resilient, but it is firmer and it can be a place of support for others 🙂 And you know what happens when a tree is almost done with growing? It starts bearing fruits. My tree is not just growing; it is bearing fruits for the world too. I am making a good impact on whatever or whoever I interact with. These are all good reasons to celebrate, and I do celebrate my life everyday when I wake up.

I often tell my friends that I am the happiest guy on campus because I really am. I can be the momentary ecstatic type and also the generally quiet, contented type. I can smile and tell people that I am super tired. I can be anyone if I want to. I am becoming more coherent within myself, between what I feel like doing and what I think I must do. That coherence gives me a lot of energy. You know the feeling when everything just clicks and you feel invincible? I just hit that spot. It is literally unlocking a source of superpower, and better yet I learning how to renew it (hint: sleep is the way). There is still a nagging sense that I am not growing as fast, that I am wasting some of my potential and that I am getting too comfortable — even overconfident. Perhaps I am. What I need is a clearer challenge to tackle now. And I know what it is: to figure out what the world needs and where I can channel my superpower to where it matters the most. Then I will achieve total coherence and become the Master of the Universe! I can play the Hero role in my life, the Supporter and Mentor or even Badass Villain role in someone else life – who knows? Let the stories unfold.

Other musing about life

  • One of the most profound experiences I had this semester was torturing myself with two application essays (one of them here). It was so hard to write it with honesty and compassion for myself. I almost got into a mini depression for a week, cringed and cried writing some lines, sacrificing some classwork. The application was not accepted (not me), but do I feel disappointed? Very slightly. I started writing the essay with the purpose of understanding myself, and the very struggle I had during that process brought me to the next level. I truly learned the lesson of self-acceptance, so much that I still joke with people “I wish I could hate myself”. Love blossoms with understanding. I am a very good friend of myself now, and I will make sure our friendship gets better. We go on date on paper, through food, by singing and dancing.
  • On praises and self-esteem Over time, I learn to see praises as one form of feedback. It’s nice to hear praises like I’m (insert-a-positive-adjective-here), but it’s less about the ego-stroking effect. Rather, I learn to see it as a feedback for what I am good at so I can focus on being even better. If you want to make me happy, offer me your feedback & observation (it doesn’t hurt to cushion it with some kind words too – my ego can be fragile ^^) It’s the best thing you can do for my growth.

  • The cycles of life. As I have more experiences, I started to notice larger patterns in my life. There are times where I am bored or on fire, mellow or passionate, stressed out or relaxed. One of the most beautiful thing I got from meditation is understanding the idea that what goes up must come down, and what goes down must come up. Literally, I cannot neither breathe in nor breathe out forever. I have to let nature take its course first – trying to do otherwise is a recipe for downfall. But it doesn’t mean I cannot do anything about it. As a human, I have the capability to reflect on my experiences. Analyzing the past can yield helpful insights about the future. I can find out what I like and try to do it again, and do it even better.

  • Dealing with boredom I can get bored with classes, but I never get bored with my own project of self-education. What can I learn from you and about you? How can I help? What can I contribute? What can we do together? What does life have in store for me today? I am on fire whenever I hear or ask a good question – the first ingredient to an education.

What is ahead?

I don’t know. I can tell you my plan for next 3 months (will be in the Bay Area till end of July, back in Saigon for August and then Hanoi for a week) but I don’t want to plan too much further. I have a few guidelines for myself though

  • When certain, be kind. When in doubt, be kind. But never settle for less; if I can get more without hurting others, do it. Don’t be stupid.
  • If I don’t know what I want AND I don’t ask for it, I will never get it.
  • Stay connected, engaged and curious.
  • Work, relationship and a greater purpose are what make life meaningful.

Gratitude

As a tradition I had since I turned twenty, whenever my birthday approaches I think about death. I pondered with that question last night in bed, and came up with the conclusion that if I were to die tomorrow, I would probably call a few people to say thanks, write a note and then relax. I don’t need a statue for myself after I die. I don’t want people to ask “Why is there a statue of this guy?” I’d rather them ask “Why isn’t there one”?

I’m contented and grateful for life and for all of you who have been part of it. I’m doing well. I have food (sometimes they are free!) and a safe place to stay; I feel belonged at Tufts; I know I am loved by at least 4 people; I have reasonable self-esteem and I continuing to have more cool transforming experiences. I am also trying to do more of what I really like to do, namely learning and helping others learn. I love seeing myself and others growing (and flowers too, as spring has finally come). It is fulfilling to see that I am making a positive and tangible impact on someone’s life.

Growing up is interesting. A lot of new experiences. Fun and meaningful and fulfilling, and I’m loving every moment of it. I hope I share a bit of that joy to you too. Thanks for reading.

Sleep is good for ya.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with sleep. We all have the experience of waking up feeling wonderful after a good sleep. If there is one change that will make us significantly happier, love myself and other people more, it is having better sleep. I hope we will all learn something from my experience.

Last night I went to bed feeling tired and frustrated because my suitemates were noisy at late time. I couldn’t sleep for an hour and had to come out several times to remind my friends to quiet down. In bed I was telling myself “Okay if I keep feeling frustrated this will do me no good anyway…how can I learn to appreciate this noise?” One answer popped up to me right away “It’s a challenge, a discomfort that will help me grow… there are so many more challenges in life and this is only one of them. Man uppp brah you can do it!”

This is one common way to reframe a difficult situation – let’s call it the “Can-do” attitude, a very prevalent mindset in the West. Optimism and achievement. Yes we can. Having that attitude helps in a lot of circumstances: when I need courage to dive into the unknown or tackling a new challenge. I can push hard for other pursuits in my life and have a lot of success. Not in this case, because one simply does not fall asleep by forcing oneself to fall asleep. I have to let myself sleep.

So I turned to my more natural way of dealing with adversity: embrace myself. I put my hands on my chest and belly and thought “Dear Khuyen, pity you, you are so tired and yet you can’t sleep… come here my dear boy come into my hands” In other words, I was being my own mom. It helped – I felt so good melting into my own love and into sleep. And boy that was a goooood sleep.

Have you ever been in a situation so stressful that made you cry? After that you felt so tired that you just felt asleep, and that was the best sleep you ever had? Yes? Exactly how I felt. And if it feels so good, why don’t we do it everyday before we sleep? That’s the real power of loving oneself. The next time you want to help someone going through a difficult time, ask this question: “How is your sleep?”. Having good sleep is The Solution for the thorniest personal problems I have ever faced, and I hope you agree.

A caveat before you apply this technique of embracing yourself before you sleep: There’s a difference between seeing it as a means to an end (“I’m going to embrace myself because it will help me fall asleep) and as an end in itself (“I’m going to embrace myself simply because it deserves to be embraced”) Only the latter is the path to overcoming of difficulty. And falling asleep.

Another lesson I learn from my experience with sleep (one can indeed learn anything from everything) is about acceptance. I can provide the optimum condition for a good sleep (dark, slightly chilly room, comfortable bed, relaxed body and mind, feeling full, silence etc..) yet I cannot guarantee a good sleep all the time. It is like growing a seed – I can provide the optimal condition of water, sunshine, temperature etc.. and yet I can only hope, not guarantee that the seed will grow. With that understanding comes an acceptance: every night is a new sleep, and I hope it’s a good one, but if I wake up feeling shitty then I just have to go with it. Such an obvious idea, right? Knowing the idea is not enough; we only truly learn it when we put it into our lives.

That’s it for today. Good sleep, my friends. Embrace thyself.

p.s: Isn’t sleep also like love? You don’t fall into love by wanting to be in love. You have to let it happen.

Love, a little bit more.

When I was younger, my mom used to cane me a lot for my addiction to gaming. She pulled my ears, slapped me in the face in front of my friends in the gaming hub. I cried too often; it freaking hurt. I hated these episodes, not so much because of the physical pain but because it made me feel bad: if I truly cared about my mom and wanted to make her happy, why did I still play so much?

As I grow up, I understand better. The one who makes us suffer the most is the one whom we care about the most. Chances are they care about us too – both have good intentions. We just don’t understand ourselves enough: we think we know what we want, from that we think we know what we should do. I thought I wanted to make my mom happy, so I tried to do well in school. In hindsight, I honestly just wanted to please her so that I could get on with my (gaming) life; I didn’t care that much about her happiness because I wasn’t happy at home.

Our lives are inherently intertwined, yet we never learned how to connect with each other lovingly. When my mom spanked me, she too was suffering in pain. She did it because she thought that was how she should love me, but no mother in the right mind wanted to cane her children. Through the burning sensation of my skin, I saw the deeper scar, the emotional pain that we have ignorantly caused to each other and ourselves. I cried because of the disconnection, because at the moment of her fury, I lost my loving mom. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, has said “Violence happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.”

I don’t know what I want; I don’t know what others want, so I have to find out. I need to learn to communicate better, to understand more, to help effectively. And it has to start with myself, because without the capacity for self-understanding I will keep judging myself harshly, and I will end up sabotaging myself again – mere stupidity.

I used to think that I can take on the suffering silently on my part so that other can be happy. Not true. People, especially those who care about me, can easily tell if something is going wrong. Emotion has an uncanny way to come back at us at inopportune time. If we don’t express, it leaks. We end up hurting ourselves and others who care about us. Big lesson: if I don’t know what I want, I can’t express it and will never get it. As a child, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that I wanted love and care. Now I know.

I have been there on the other side too, tasting the rejection when I tried to help someone I deeply cared about, but the person did not seem to want to receive my help. Another big lesson: connection takes time. Cannot rush. I can choose to stop caring and free my mind, yet I often find myself being so stubborn on this goal. I am a serial quitter; I quit a lot of stuff; I change my goals ever so often. But this belief in the human connection is such an essential part of me that I cannot even imagine giving it up. I would rather choose death – after all, what is death but the lack of connection?

We all know the advice “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged.” But there is nothing bad about the act of judging; the beauty of judgments lie in the very fact that we make them. I learn this lesson by heart: the real value of withholding judgments is that it gives me an incredible power – the power to wait, to see more clearly what is going on, first inside then outside, and use that for something I want.

Many of us can identify the tendency to be harsher with ourselves than with other people. Why? Maybe we are afraid of being judged by others as “a harsh person”? Maybe because we care about ourselves more, and we believe that being harsh trains our discipline? The funny thing is the harsher we are, the more stupid mistakes we make, and the cycle goes on. The golden rule says “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. I am going to omit the “want” and adapt it to my rule of consistency: “Treat myself the way I treat others”. Otherwise I am just a big damn hypocrite playing double standards.

I have friends who are activists fighting against injustice in their communities and in the world, and I respect them a lot for their passions. We condemn those who exploit others for personal gains because it is unfair, because it is not treating everyone equally. That is great.

Wait. I remember the story of the fool shepherd who goes around panicking about a missing sheep. He meets a lady and asks her “Dear Miss, did you see a sheep running around here? It has gone missing for a while; I’m so worried the wolf may have found it.” Guess what the lady says? “Wait, what are you riding on?”. He forgets to count himself.

Are we not the same sometimes? We run around too much, too often doing stuff for other people and forget ourselves. Why am I excluded in that equality balance, in that fight for justice? If I am being unfair to myself, how can I fight for fairness elsewhere?

I think if all of us can work a bit more on self-understanding we can all do a much better job. At the end of the day, the only person who can go with me through all the joys and hardships, who celebrate my pleasure and grieve my pain, is myself. I want that person to be my best friend, not an arsehole sabotager.

Indeed the more work I do internally, the easier external world becomes. Sounds easy? Not at all. It is like coming back home for long time finding our home in such a mess; like seeing our own kitchen sink full of dirty plates so we decide to order takeaway food instead of cooking. Sure it will work for a few days, but we cannot do that for long. Our mind is our home that we cannot, and don’t want to run away from.

What does it mean for me? I have to water my garden and take care of the flowers and clean up my home so that I can invite other people into my life, so that we can all be comfortable and enjoy each other’s companion.

This post has been the result of some reading by Thich Nhat Hanh, observations, experiences in my own life. A lot of self-torturing too. I write it to heal my inner wounded child; as he is healing, my relationship with the world is blossoming. I hope it can help someone else too; if you think so, please share. More than one person will be grateful for it.

Discomfort.

A recent discomforting experience showed my progress in the journey to be a better person.

I was returning a room key to a friend whose room I stayed in during the break. I received a very honest feedback from a friend about leaving his room in rather a messy condition. At that very moment I could feel my ears reddening; my field of vision blurring; my mental balance trembling. I think I stood numb for a few seconds. Or perhaps time slowed down as I sensed a peculiar sensation swelling up within, waiting to consume me.

But I did not lose to it completely. I managed to still have a tiny bit of conscious focus. I could notice in my friend’s eyes that it was not comfortable at all for him to tell me so.

You may want to say “Of course it is not comfortable to say it.” That was what I thought too, and that is just a thought that anyone can imagine. The value of the real experience comes from the noticing of what was going on: his tone, my body, his words, my response, his eyes. The whole scene became ingrained in my psyche.

The first thing I said was “Thank you for letting me know.” I could tell that I meant it; I was honest. Then I apologized and asked if I could do anything to help – now that was basic courtesy, the default contrived response I would usually say. As you can imagine, it was awkward.

Yet that moment was very inspiring for me. I surprised myself at how I responded to the situation, given my deep-seated fear of confrontation. Was my heart still racing fast? Of course. Emotion is darn powerful, and being with it, let alone making use of it, is hard. But I was more in control of myself, more observing, more honest. Celebrate the progress!

On the way back, I had an interesting conversation with myself. Part of me still yelled “This sucks. Go away lousy feeling!”. The more optimistic and practical me eagerly told the panicking voice “Use this not so good feeling to make sure you do better the next time.” So far so good: very typical of me, right?

But there was a new voice. It simply said: “This is discomfort. Feel it.” And I was tasting the sensation for real. Was it shame? Or guilt? I don’t know. I don’t want to and don’t have to name it that way. It was a particular sensation, and I remembered its texture. That was enough. I was experiencing “it” more deeply, touching its contour, sensing what it was doing to myself internally. It was very similar to the itchy sensation of a mosquito bite. The next time you get bitten, pause. Don’t scratch. Feel the itch. I bet you will realize that it is not that itchy after all. In fact, it feels quite interesting. Then after playing with the sensation enough you can even hi-five yourself “I did not scratch!” (I did. Silly? And fun).

What I learned was that many of us tend to perceive these discomforting experiences, whether they be physical or psychological, as something dreadful we want to avoid head-on. We want them to go away as soon as possible. We want to get distracted from the pain, hoping that it will go away when we come back. In other words, we see discomfort as enemy.

My experience taught me that discomfort was first and foremost a sensation. Remember the advice our moms gave when we had a toothache? “Just ignore it.” Not a very helpful advice: how can I ignore something painful? Paradoxically, the only way to let go of those sensations is to pay full attention to it. Not what we think “it” is.

Now that I have experienced discomfort fully and become more familiar with what it really is, I fear it less. I can choose to see it in a different light. What do I want to come out of such discomfort? A better me. This is not even about optimism; I just don’t want to be stupid with myself. So I choose to see it as an opportunity for growth.

It helps to be realistic too: I cannot expect to reap all the reward without paying the price. Our life experiences ebb and flow like waves. Without trough there can be no crest; without discomfort there can be no growth. On the other extreme, I also do not want to repeat the mistakes someone else has made. That is real stupidity. But getting advice helps but only so much. No one learns to cook just by  reading cookbooks.

It still sucks harddd when someone else tells me I am wrong, or he is displeased with me, but it’s a lot less now. How is that possible? I am not that courageous; I am still very afraid of discomfort. What helps me is that over time I become more and more committed to my own growth. Because growth feels (mostly) good! More importantly, at the end of the day, the only person who can go with me through all the joys and hardships, who celebrate my pleasure and grieve my pain, is myself. With that commitment comes the understanding that discomfort is an indispensable part of the journey. It presents a golden window of opportunity, a state of vulnerability that allows me to change, for better or for worse. If I want to dress on a new shirt, I need to take off my current one and be naked for a while right?

And how much I learn depends less on what is going on outside and more on what is happening inside my head. If you have ever tried teaching anything, you will find that it is very hard to teach if the student does not want to learn. When I put my mind into anything, I learn. Others can dismiss this trivial story of leaving-the-room-in-a-mess, but I can’t. Such opportunity is so rare, so good that I cannot waste.

I’ve been telling myself that I am becoming more aware and resilient. That is a nice positive thought, and I want it to be substantial. Now I had a glimpse of my progress, I am much more confident to throw myself in more challenging situations now. I will probably crumble, which should be fun.

2015: Experiments and Synthesis

Thoughts from winter break.
My intention for the break was to take a break, synthesize and renew my sense of direction (wow big words. They are actually quite simple.)

Why taking a break?
The easy answer was that the semester was rough. The truer answer is that I have become a prisoner of my own structure: planning, system, productivity, getting stuff done… At the beginning of the semester, looking at my own schedule and I asked “Omg where is my time for daydreaming?” (I did have some daydreaming time, but not enough). I wrote in one of my college essays that I was a productivity-junkie. A few years older and hopefully wiser, I think a better description would be that I have an addictive personality. Once I found something that I like; I tend to spend a lot of time there, often at the cost of skimping other stuff. In short, a tendency to dig deep and thus losing the breadth. Often associated with FOMO (fear of missing out).

It’s both a boon and a bane. The plus side, having the energy to pursue depth often gives good result. The downside: I need to be careful in moderating myself. Case in point: I often purposefully deprive myself of the thing I like so that binges can feel even more awesome and I don’t even have to feel too guilty. Like eating, reading, writing, meeting people. (Imagine when I start playing computer game again: how much I will savour it. Maybe this summer.) So far this strategy works pretty well for me. If there is only one thing worth going all-in for, it’s life. Living is a series of pushing to the extremes, taking sometimes to recharge and find a balance, then move on to the next extremes.

That’s probably I need many good friends (of course everyone needs good friends, but bear with me here) in order to pull me back once I go to the extreme. Definition of a good friend: someone who can also go to the extreme to explain to me that what I am doing doesn’t make sense. Use fire to counter  fire huh. Perhaps not surprisingly, I told my friends for my 21st birthday that if one day I become the next Hitler they should reveal to the world all the especially bad things about me so that I will not get what I want (I was only half joking). Any small thing can be addictive, let alone something big like power. Again, half joking only.

How was the break?

My focus has always been on appreciation: how can I appreciate everything and everyone (myself included) more? The answer is to try to live without those good things for a while.

For the break, I managed to break most of my structures. No planning, no reviewing, no time tracking. Just do whatever I feel like doing.It feels a bit weird at first, then refreshing, then frustrating. Darn, I’m not used to having zero structure at all! Another realization from this experience was the reason I have failed too often in improving on my perpetual non-punctuality. I have come to terms with is that I just value wandering and daydreaming more. I believe the real luxury of modern life is unrushedness, which I try to give myself more often. Now I can say I have found a new balance between effectiveness and creativity 😀

I experimented. Tried pushing myself to write everyday for a few hours. Much like self-inflicted torture. Most of them was started but left unfinished; I need to hone my skill of finishing. I have no clue where this will lead to. For now, I just subscribe to the hypothesis “Focus on building discipline and skill and I will enjoy a good life”. I experienced lots of boredom and frustration, but I tried to stay with these negative emotions longer before I gave in to temptations. It sucked, but I learned that I could do it with effort of the right kind. I have to do it first before I tell the world that it is possible, right?

Winter break is a good downtime where I can really taste my emotions. Boredom, fear, annoyance, disappointment, silliness, joy, peace, excitement, bliss, calmness, curiosity, nostalgia. Rejuvenating? Yes. Revealing? Yes. There are so many parts of me that I almost forgot, or haven’t explored.

Another experiment: knowing I am such a social animal, I tried a day without communicating with people by all means. I enjoyed the silence and tranquility at first, but it got rough towards the end. Pushed through. I wonder why I did not hug the first person I saw the next morning. Good experience. Love people way more than before. Intentional or not, absence does make the heart grow fonder. I did not have too many conversations, but they were good 🙂

Sometimes people and I ask myself “Why do I have to do that?” I don’t know. I remember an advice for writer, “If you cannot write well, you’d better live an interesting life.” Given my typical college student environment, I probably need to spice up my life more deliberately like that. They are low risk, high reward (in terms of self-knowledge at least). Any suggestions and ideas are welcome 😀 (Seriously, please do. If I get into some wild adventures because of your ideas I will give you most of the credit)

That is it for synthesis. Let’s see my renewed sense of direction: looking forwards to 2015 (it’s already here)

Theme: Experiment and Synthesis.
Values: Space, clarity, giving.
Words to live by:

  • Always celebrate the process, then the outcome.
  • Failure is just as good, if not better.
  • Remember to be silly.
    Some guidelines:
  • Follow someone I admire, support to my best ability. I will learn a lot from that.
  • Surround myself with more people whom I may not know but whom I trust.
  • Learning to care more wisely.
    New year – New actions
  • Minimize use of generic terms to express myself. I’m better than good, finer than fine and worse than bad. Be more specific with what I want to express.
  • Encourage people to reflect and write more. Demonstrate by example: write more often.

That’s it. 2015 is going to be awesum. Nobody knows what this guy will turn out to be. Regardless of the outcome, CELEBRATE THE PROCESS, STILL.

2014: Practice and Exploration.

A day is long, a year is short”.
It’s funny how our memory works, isn’t it? It’s time to decompress the year to look at its full complexity.

As you know, I like to reflect regularly, and I like to verbalize these reflections so that I can see my own growth over time. Reflection comes very naturally when I look back at my note for 2014.

My theme for 2014 is Practice and Exploration. I wrote in my note about some guiding stars to remind myself of what matters; looking back at them now is very satisfying: I’m meeting my expectations well.  Here is what I wrote for work.

Work: challenging and engaging. Right now my main occupation is as a student, so I’ll focus on learning as much as I can.

I’m glad that I had a decent relationship with my work as a student with a fair balance among learning facts, drilling skills and expanding learning capacity

Academically, I did push my boundaries, especially with a comp science class this semester where I spent about 25 hours per week on its assignments alone. Challenging? Ticked. Engaging? Damn ticked. I learned a tons in that class, beyond the technical. Personally, it definitely expanded my zone of fearlessness. The class taught me that in real life, real shit is hard. But I could learn anything if I put my heart and mind into it.

I set a rule for myself for my college life: take at least one non-major class per semester. Last semester was Child Development, this semester was Art History. Both went beyond satisfying my intellectual curiosity; they actually inspired me to do something on my own. Embracing my own nerdy side without worrying about other stuff is such a privilege that I’m infinitely grateful for. I love my classes. Every single of them. I wrote in my note upon coming back this fall about how much I missed schooling over the summer. But I’m starting to doubt my ability to make judgments for what is good for my growth. I have such a strong tendency to make sense of my own choices that you can probably force me to dishwash for a year and I think I will learn to love it. (Who says dishwashing doesn’t teach you a lot?) Will explore what this may mean to my direction in future posts.

Summer was rewarding. Project Malaysia 2014 was a “lifehack” as a dear friend called it. It really was, given how much real learning we packed into two weeks. I have written at length about it, but never enough. For now all I can say is the whole project was a significant milestone for me. Again, in real life, real shit is hard, and I could not rise up to the challenges without the help of others. Struggle was real, and out of real struggle genuine beauty emerges. The project has officially ended, but it was just the beginning of my own project: learn, and help others learn.

The second part of summer was Saigon. It’s funny how I was panicking in April about not having a summer plan. In hindsight, “just book a ticket and figure later” turned out to be the best decision. Lived in a different city on my own (not quite, as I received amazing hospitality from my host parents), finding a job, earning just enough income while still having a lot of personal exploration & fun? Ticked. I’m very lucky to have this experience for my freshman summer; it was a good transition to adulthood. It also made me appreciate how safe the family and college environment are. Really.

I worked as a part time English teacher in Yola to support my living. When I first started at Yola, I expected the job would be rather easy, given I had tutoring experiences before. Nope, managing a classroom of 15 hormone-raging 15-17 year old was freaking tough! (especially for an inexperienced teacher like me. Imagine the youngest teacher in Yola, only 4 year older than most students. I’m normally a chill kind of person in class, so I must fake being authoritative until I become so ._. )

Every student is different in his/her ability, intention and focus. Some are such a joy and honor to teach; others are more difficult. Some almost never said a single word; some openly resisted me. Thanks to all of them, I became a lot more patient and flexible. As one of my professors shared with me last semester, “Every class is different. Some are not as responsive as others; these take more effort but also more rewarding. In the end, I teach because it is my nature.” 

I had my first experience of managing expectations between my manager and clients (my students) when the latter did not do well for their exams. Should I choose to finish the syllabus, or go back and explain their conceptual misunderstanding? After so much mental wrestling, I chose the latter. It was not easy. I even wondered why I was so silly to agonize over such decision and asked myself: “Why should I even care that much? Why couldn’t I care a bit less and enjoy my summer?” . I thought of my mentor’s words “In order for you to grow, you want to be responsible for more people.” The dilemma I had as a tutor last year resurfaced; this time much intensified as instead of two I had 30 to care about. I think it was good for me.

Dealing with others was hard, but dealing with myself was even harder. Most importantly I learned to manage my own expectation. I wasn’t sure how disappointed my students were feeling, but I was pretty down. Not so much because of the result’s reflection on my newbie teaching but rather the feeling of disappointment and frustration that I couldn’t help those I wanted to help. Teaching definitely has toughened me up, but I don’t think I’m tough enough to teach. I need to learn to expand my capacity to care, and also to care more wisely, like I argued here. Caring too much for the unimportant details and I will risk burning out. Khuyen, beware. You have a lifetime to make an impact, don’t rush. But also start now.

The other major blessing of the summer was Cloudjet Solution. I got to meet a great CEO, from whom I learned a ton not just about the startup world but also about leadership, relationships and life. I got to observe and be part of an unfolding adventure full of risks and rewards. The experience was undoubtedly the most important motivation for me to continue with an entrepreneurship program once I came back to school. I still have a lot to learn, but I too already have something to share. I encourage you to do that too. I feel like a hypocrite all the time, but we are never going to be good enough. So we may as well start doing and sharing what we learn.

I also experienced a real burnout for the first time (Did I really never push myself so hard in the past? I’m somewhat ashamed…) I remembered looking at myself in the mirror on morning and wrote in my journal: “Wait, I don’t like what I am seeing.” In hindsight, that habit of regularly checking in with myself turned out to be very helpful. I took a break. Otherwise my body would have forced me to stop, and that’s not cool. I can do anything, but I cannot do everything, yet. Many of us who have just started college or working or doing anything new may have shared this experience of overwhelming ourselves with cool opportunities. How could I not say Yes more? “If I don’t take on those now, I will regret in the future”, right? This quote has soothed my mind a lot: “When I say No to something, I’m saying Yes to something else more important”.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the result of this lifelong project of self-discovery. I wrote last year that 2013 was the year of a lot of endings: my teenager years, my time in family, my gaming life. I expected my twenties to be pretty substantial, and 2014 did not fail me. It was my first full year in college and also some real life experiences.

Growing up is pretty scary, but seeing the progress makes it less so. How do I know I have grown up? Here is my measure of progress: how quickly do I regain my balance after hitting shits? In other words, resilience. Faster recovery means more chances of hitting the bigger jackpot. Whatever that jackpot means.

What does 2015 have in store for me? We shall see. Please witness 🙂

p/s: This post is way too long. There are tons of things I want to write about: my relationships, communities, practices, theme and directions for 2015. Let’s see if I can finish writing before school starts.