“Education is not selfish”

This is a follow up from my ranting about Theory vs Experience . I am still asking myself the question of “Why am I in college?”

And I am still struggling with answering that.

Learning in school is so much fun for me, but when I hear my friends mentioning about the usefulness or lack thereof of their classes I cannot deny. They too are right. I may just be justifying to myself that what I am doing is good.

Now I can argue with you the value of learning calculus or the art even if we will never use them again to make a living. Part of me loves learning for its own sake; you can put me in lectures, doing problem sets or writing essays for the whole day. Even philosophy, the seemingly most impractical subject, does one good thing for me in addition to messing up with my brain. It gives me some ideas to practice in thinking, and boy, thinking hard is uncomfortable and exciting. It wouldn’t be too surprising if I really become a philosopher, thinking through worldly problems and conversing with fellow pipe-smoking philosophers.

But I have yet to reconcile within myself with the mantra that “Education is not selfish”. It’s such a privilege to be able to study just for fun in a good college, isn’t it? The other part of me yearns to show to the world that “Hey, what I am learning matters”. And that’s why I have to build things. I know that there is little point in arguing with people if my goal is to persuade: nobody cares if I am right. People care if I am useful for them. (some people just care because it is me, but those are exceptions that I put in my “to-treasure” list)

On a side note, while I know that it is impossible to change other people’s minds, I have a strange feeling that the rule does not quite apply to me. I change my mind so often, especially if you give me a good point. Maybe that is a side effect of being a student of philosophy. A common experience is that I read one text and thought “Omg, the author made so much sense!” and became so inspired that I started sharing with people about the point he made. Then the next day I read another text whose author completely disagreed with the first one while still making so much sense, and I was simply mind blown. How on earth am I supposed to write anything for or against anyone when I am totally sold by both, and how am I supposed to have my own view? It is a very humbling experience.

It is easy to dismiss philosophers as great hypocrites who simply talk about big and impersonal issues. I can talk about saving the world all the time and here I am not doing anything much. I see the point. I can say that I am now equipping myself with the thinking and doing skill so that I will be even more useful in the future for the world, but isn’t just my excuse for having fun learning random stuff here in school? This is perhaps the most honest line of the entire post: I may just be a petty guy trying to appear to be good to himself and others.

Dang, sometimes I wish I could just be innocent. But I’m like a huge stone rolling down the hill, already set in motion towards the direction of “figuring thing out” that it is almost impossible to stop this mode by myself. Question is the simplest and most effective way to direct one’s attention. It can mess up or enlighten our mind, however we choose to see the effect. As such, the ability to ask questions is both a boon and a bane, and I’d better use it wisely. It is okay to experiment on myself. I dig in myself pretty much, questioning even personally taboo topics. They are shit scary, like taking a cold shower in this freezing weather. But not everyone is ready for more difficult questions about his lives. People who are way wiser than me will probably tell me that I too am being overly confident, that I can deal with questions that can shatter my innocence. They are kind enough to not ask.

If someday I go really crazy you should just slap me in the face.

p/s: Thinking too much is no good, so I’m experimenting with no-thinking activities. They work pretty well and I’m reasonably sane.


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.

On Choices. College is one of them.

Some quick updates:
Going back to school has been so good. I missed it. While it’s true that this initial excitement will soon fade as mid terms come, I’d rather enjoy it more right now. It is now the 4th week of school, and I still find the experience of being in a class, listening, taking notes and contributing to be quite surreal. I miss this kind of studying, especially after the summer. Learning is fun, whether it’s from doing in real life or from bouncing off ideas. I’m taking a challenging Computer Science class that takes roughly 25 hours per week excluding class time to finish. Now I understand what people mean by “common suffering unifies people”. Joke aside, I think the juicy part of the college experience is when there is struggle. No challenge = no learning = no fun.
Catching up with friends were nice too, but doing too much of that in such a short amount of time can be rather tiring. Instead of rushed conversations with too many people in the dining hall like last year, I scheduled walks with one or two this year. It’s a lot nicer to walk around, enjoy the air and chat.
Nature has been amazing. I didn’t realize that it was one of the things I missed the most from the summer. Note to myself: go out more often. Especially when I’m taking that 25 hours/ week class. Seriously. School work can wait; the good life can’t. Also, going out = exploring + enjoying. I’m very excited for all the opportunities this year. Do less, do better.


Done with updates, now to the point of this post: Our choices.

I have been asking my friends the questions of what excites them the most coming back to school this time. I received many different and interesting answers, yet I realized my questions presumed that we were all coming back to school. Haven’t I been saying about how awesome college is?

How about a gap year or even dropping out?

I did think of that, not because I badly wanted to do so. I just want to make sure to myself that it is not unthinkable. In evaluating that option, I’ve come to be more certain of my current choice of staying in college. Education is life, and college is just an experience in that. I still follow the traditional path, but I chose to do so while considering the other paths too.

This mantra has always served me well. “It’s my choice.” When we deliberate our choices, we become more of ourselves. We become that slightly better version that we think we want to be. The more difficult the choice, the more deliberation we have to do, the more we become. When I decided to go out with friends instead of calling my family, I’m becoming a bit more sociable. That’s not too difficult. When a friend of mine decided to send me an email telling me how what I did upset her, she was becoming a better friend. It was a more difficult decision, because it required her to have a more complex self-image: being a good friend now did not just mean that we always complimented each other. A good friend now means someone who thinks for each party and for the relationship. It was difficult because who would like such a big change in how one thinks of oneself?

I keep that in mind when I meet other people, often those around my age who believe that they have to do certain things. Some believe that they have no other choices. I often point out to them that choosing such belief is already a choice they make. Being aware that we make choices all the time, including what we believe in, may be the most powerful realization one can have. Some people tell me afterwards that they still stick with their original choices, like a major or job or a partner. I’m more that happy to hear that: once we deliberate, we have more conviction in what we do. We will do well, whatever that endeavour is.

Recently a friend told me that college students, those in liberal arts especially, all had the right to be confused about what we wanted to do. I think calling it a right can be misleading: where does that right come from? Does that mean some other people do not have that rights?

I like the ethos of that saying though, and here is my version. I choose to explore different options, which can be confusing, so that I can figure out. College does not suppose to give us a direction. Quite the contrary, it exposes us to different viewpoints and to the world of ideas (borrowing the terms from Computer Science – who says it’s only about machine and code? Technology, after all, is created by human, for human). If anything, college is supposed to disorient us in a good way. College may facilitate or hinder our quest to find a sense of purpose, but after all is entirely up to us. Only once we start asking that question can the answer emerge.

At least I should not be confused by this one decision I make everyday: I choose to be in college. Being aware of that deliberate choice alone can change the whole experience.

Relevant links:
– Ruth Chang knows why difficult decisions are tough. And important. One of my favorite TED talks.
– College does a lot of thing. But it can’t do everything.
– For those who may be a bit confused about what to do, I may have a solution.

On rejections and (potential) romances.


(Via sunnyydoodles.tumblr.com; outdated since Stanford charged $90 in 2012. Random photo online for illustration purpose, because I waived the $80 application fee)

This morning, my phone shuffled to a song that invariably reminded me of a college that I really wanted to but didn’t get in. I don’t know why I haven’t deleted it from my favorite playlist yet, but usually I will skip whenever the playlist comes to the song.

That makes sense right? I won’t be reminded of my failure. I notice that I make excuses “oh it’s really hard to get in. Oh it’s out of my control. Oh it’s pure luck” so that I won’t consider not getting in as a failure. Whether these are indeed excuses to avoid the blame on me or these are facts, I still keep these thoughts because they make me  feel better without harming anyone else. If I think like this, chances are I’m not a failure.

But how about pain? Even when I don’t consider rejections as failures, they are still painful somehow. Thus, I should still be justified in skipping the song, for it reminds me of all the wonderful things that I could have had if only… Ah, here comes pain’s close friend, regret. “I wish I spent more time on my essays instead of slacking around”. That sort of thought can actually ease my mind, for it tricks me into thinking that I know how to “get in”. Well, obviously not. No one knows. Now that’s the real comforting thought. That is a fact even. The serenity prayer suddenly comes to my mind “God, grant me serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (I’m not a Christian, but I’ve heard this before).

The difference this morning is that I was brushing my teeth. Perhaps I was too lazy (or busy? <- catch myself making excuse right here) to change song. The familiar melody played on, and a very strange thing happened.

I still liked it so much. I liked the melody, the voices, the script. I still sang to each word of the lyrics in my head just like I did last year in the exam hall. What on earth is wrong with the lovely song? What has transformed love into hate, if it ever happened? I realized how my mind worked: I associated something irrelevant like a song to a decision made by a bunch of people who cared about anything but that song. The latter repulsed me, and so the former was affected. Irrational as it was, it worked pretty well in soothing me.

Then, what has transformed hate into love again? Clarity of mind, which comes from time and adaptation. It needs time, for time dilutes memories and thus allows me more room to think. It needs adaptation, for the more I try to think clearly, the easier it gets. I think the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is slightly misleading. Adversity doesn’t make me grow; the process of recovery from it does.

As a creature who loves to overthink, I inevitably imagine this scenario and I’d like to invite you to do so, just for the fun of it. It maybe even more fun if you are in a romantic relationship when all the passion is driving you crazyyy (I’m not and so I’m super curious to hear your thoughts). Imagine you just break up with your partner after for some reasons. Depending on your personality and genetic disposition, you can tell yourself that it is not your fault and wonder why you fell in love with such an a**hole in the first place. Or you can take all the blame and feel absolutely  terrible.

Regardless of your reaction, you will still have to move on in the face of the unpleasant experience. Will you throw away all the photos and gifts or delete the favorite songs that the two used to listen together – anything that can remind you of the memories? Will you try to shift the blame away to soothe yourself? I’m tempted to say yes now; I know resisting my natural reaction is tough. Yet, after the weird realization this morning with the college song, I hope I will remember to remind myself then that some pains and regrets are perfectly okay. Attachments make me vulnerable, but on hindsight I’m willing to trade some vulnerabilities for humanness and the potential to bounce back stronger 🙂

Really curious to hear what you think of this thought experiment.