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.


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,


Nỗi niềm của một cậu gia sư tiếng Anh – A private English tutor’s dilemma

Nếu đã quyết tâm vào đại học thì cố gắng vào bằng cách xứng đáng nhất nhé!

The English version can be found below. I put the Vietnamese version in front because it is more relevant, but no matter where you are from, your thoughts are always welcome here 😀


Mình không biết mình có được gọi là “gia sư tiếng Anh” không nữa, vì thực sự việc làm thêm của mình chỉ là dạy học sinh làm thế nào để thi qua mấy kì thi tiếng Anh – một điều chắc chắn không phải là tất cả mục đích của hai chữ cao quý “gia sư” (“sư” đã có nghĩa là thầy rồi). Đây là việc làm thêm dễ kiếm tiền nhất ở Việt Nam cho một đứa mới học xong cấp 3 như mình nên cũng không ngạc nhiên khi có nhiều đứa bạn ganh tị với mình:  “Kiếm tiền dễ thế còn đòi hỏi gì nữa”. Công nhận là mình rất may vì qua cái việc này mình mới thấu hiểu nỗi niềm của người “gõ đầu trẻ” (vì trước giờ và kể ra sau này nữa thì mình vẫn là học sinh mà). Được trải nghiệm với cái dằn vặt này bây giờ cũng tốt vì đây là những cái kiểu gì sau này đi làm mình sẽ phải trải qua.

Hôm trước mình có nói với 2 em học sinh (sinh đôi nhé) lớp 12. Học được mấy buổi, cho làm bài thi thử thì mình thấy 2 em dễ dàng được 8 cho môn Anh. Để đỗ vào trường 2 em chọn cần 16 điểm tức là Toán Văn phải được trên 5, chuyện nhỏ như con thỏ với sức học của 2 em ấy. Đây là sự thật, biết mình biết ta qua các bài thi thử chứ không phải là tự kiêu gì. Lạ quá mình mới hỏi “Trường lấy có 16 điểm, tiếng Anh em ok thế này học với anh làm gì nữa?”. Hai đứa bảo tôi là tại mẹ em lo quá mức, rồi còn xin tôi bảo mẹ cho 2 em ấy thỉnh thoảng xem ti vi tí.

Tôi không quá ngạc nhiên nhưng vẫn hơi buồn.

Công nhận là mẹ hai em có lý: chẳng ai muốn con mình tự  kiêu rồi chủ quan trước kì thi to thế này (mặc dù to hay không tùy vào cách người ta nghĩ thôi). Hơn nữa, nếu không đi học thêm thì bố mẹ sợ con lại ngồi nhà chơi. Hiểu là thế nhưng mình vẫn thấy không ổn kiểu gì ấy. Qua một thời cấp 3 học xa nhà mình mới hiểu thêm 1 điều về việc dạy con: hầu hết bố mẹ đều muốn cái tốt nhất cho con mình, nhưng không phải ai cũng biết cái tốt nhất đấy là gì.

Đây là công thức để trưởng thành của mình: Trưởng thành = Điều kiện kích thích (khó khăn gian khổ) + Khả năng học hỏi (từ những khó khăn đấy). Đành rằng cho con em theo học ở những nơi tốt nhất sẽ tạo điều kiện tốt nhất: giáo viên giỏi, môi trường chất lượng thì mới thử thách các em được. Tuy nhiên, cái vế sau thường hay bị bỏ qua: liệu bố mẹ có biết con mình thực sự học được nhiều điều từ những “cơ hội” mà các em bị bắt phải chộp lấy như thế? Nếu không thì các em chỉ bị vô cớ ném vào cuộc đua học gạo để thi đỗ. Mà chuyện này thì chắc mọi người cũng rõ rồi, chưa kể bây giờ các em chết mệt mà sau này nhìn lại chỉ thấy vừa ghét vừa lãng phí cả quãng đời học trò.

Mình hỏi tiếp 2 em: “Cứ đủ điểm là đỗ, cao thấp bao nhiêu không quan trọng đúng không”.  Gật đầu. “Thế ai sẽ vui nếu hai em được điểm cao như vậy? Trừ phi em đỗ thủ khoa 30/30 may ra mẹ em còn đi khoe với bạn bè được (mà anh nghĩ chả có đứa nào thích chuyện khoe con này). Sau này nghĩ lại điểm có để làm gì đâu? Thế thì cày thi làm gì nữa? Thi xong mà cần học Ai eo Tóp phờ thì nhờ anh còn có lý.” Hai đứa khẽ lắc đầu nhưng vẫn có vẻ chưa tự tin lắm. Có thể hai em chưa quen với việc tự mình quyết định những thứ như thế này.

Mình quyết định giãi bày với hai đứa nỗi niềm của gia sư như mình.

“Hai em là kiểu học sinh mà gia sư dạy thêm như anh thích nhất, chăm chỉ, hiền lành, dễ bảo. Anh có thể cho em một xập đề đại học mà anh lấy trên mạng hay mượn của mấy đứa bạn đã từng đi học lò rồi bảo em về làm hôm sau anh chữa như mấy lò luyện thi khác. Bọn em còn lạ gì mấy lò đấy, một buổi có khi cả 500 người, kiếm bẵm lắm. Thay vào đó, anh chỉ cho em trang nào kiếm tài liệu, sách nào rồi list từ vựng nào để học, rồi kinh nghiệm thi cử, làm bài thi thử xong gặp câu sai thì tra và học từ đấy thế nào.

Anh hoàn toàn có thể chọn cách đầu tiên để kiếm tiền, vừa dễ vừa nhàn, rất hợp với thằng lười như anh. Nhưng mà anh thấy nó không phải với bọn em hay với tiền anh nhận. Hai em phải hỏi anh trước hết  bằng cách nghĩ là việc quái gì mình phải tiêu tiền của mẹ cho cái anh này dạy mình cái mà mình có thể tự học được nhỉ? Suy cho cùng thuê gia sư là để cho em tự tin hỏi vì ở lò đông người khó hỏi mà. Anh bảo em những cái này là anh đang tự mình hại mình vì anh đang vứt tiền đi đấy, nhưng mà thà thế anh còn thấy đỡ hơn”.

Công nhận là vì điều kiện các gia đình khác nhau nên nhiều bạn học sinh không có động lực “vì tiết kiệm tiền cho bố mẹ” hoặc “nóng thế này đi học thêm chết ngốt à” (lý do yêu thích của mình hehe). Có những bạn đi học thêm vì phải có người bắt học mới chịu học được, nhưng đối với sĩ tử lớp 12 thi đến nơi kiểu này có lẽ vẫn đề chính là các bạn tự học như thế nào. Đó là cái mà mình có thể giúp khi mình đi gia sư. Mục đích thật sự của người gia sư là để cho học sinh không cần gia sư nữa.

Khi đang viết những dòng này mình thấy mình có thể khá là đạo đức giả. Ai chả cần tiền (đặc biệt là sinh viên đi làm thêm), nhưng mà mình cũng cần phải cảm thấy đúng với chính mình chứ. Có lẽ cách tốt nhất để mình bớt cái đạo đức giả là bảo mọi người về nó… Mình bảo mấy em học sinh khác về tự hỏi chính các em và bố mẹ là liệu anh gia sư có đáng đồng tiền không. Mình có thể bị tổn thương nhưng ít nhất còn đỡ phải dằn vặt thế này.


I doubt if I’m entitled to be “a private English tutor” because what  I am working as now is essentially to teach students how to crack the various English exams they are undertaking very soon, which in my opinion is definitely not the whole purpose of the noble job of “tutor”. It’s the easiest, most bang-for-the-buck part time job in Vietnam for a recent high school graduate like me. Not surprisingly, this “easy money” is enviable by almost every local college student. I’m grateful, for this job gives me a lot of insights about the teaching profession (since I’ve been a student for most of my life, and perhaps for years to come). More importantly, the job exposes me to a very real life dilemma that I  certainly will have to face when I finally join the fully fledged world of  adulthood.

To begin with, I had a conversation with two of my students (they are twins) yesterday who will be taking the university entrance exam in 2 months. After a few lessons and a mock exam, I predict that they could easily get 8/10 for the real one. To get into their chosen university, they only need 16/30 for 3 subjects, Maths, Literature and English, and I’m sure getting 5/10 for both Maths and Lit for them is a breeze. Confused, I asked them “If your target is so low then why do you even need me?” To my dismay, they said their mom worried too much. They even begged me to tell her to let them watch TV sometimes.

I wasn’t too shocked, but saddened a bit nonetheless.

Their mom surely has a point. No parents wants their kids to be complacent, especially before such a big exam (although it’s only big if they make it so). Plus, if their kids are not going to extra lessons they may be slacking off at home. Understandable concern, but somehow still discomforting to me. Plowing through high school away from home taught me one thing about parenting: almost all parents want the best for their kids, but  not many know what that best thing is.

Here is my equation for growth: Growth = Stimulus + Recovery. Admittedly, sending children to the best classes provides good stimulus: exciting environment, quality teachers and so on. Yet, very often the second part is neglected: recovery in this context requires parents to check frequently if their children are progressing from all these “opportunities” they are forced to take up. Otherwise, children may just be inadvertently thrown into the rat race, which likely results in burning out and/or a sense of intense hatred and waste upon looking back.

I probed the twins further: “Would high grade or low grade matter as long as you get beyond the entry grade (16 in this case)”. They nodded. “Then who would be happier if you score higher? Unless you score 30/30 then maybe your mom can brag to her colleagues (something that few of us as children like). In retrospect these scores make no difference anyway. Is drilling the college exam paper over and over again worth pursuing? After the exam, if you want to study for IELTS/TOEFL then I maybe more useful there.” They shook their heads, but still looked somehow held back. Perhaps they weren’t used to make this kind of decision.

I decided to tell them all about my dilemma.

“You are the ideal type of students for a part time private tutor like me: hardworking, meek and unquestioning. I can just give you tons of exam papers which I easily download from Internet, ask you to do and then I will correct when we meet just like any ultra profitable tuition centers, some up to 500 student per class here. Instead, I taught you where you can find materials online, what books and word lists to learn from and how to perform mock timed exams and learn from the mistaken ones.

It’s tempting to choose the path of least resistance to earn that easy money. But I can’t. It just feels wrong, for you and for your mother’s money. You have to question me by thinking to yourselves “What the heck? My mom is paying for this guy and he’s teaching me something that I can easily learn on my own?” After all, isn’t the whole point of private tuition to give students some autonomy like that? In telling you all these, I’m shooting myself in the foot in the sense that I’m simply throwing away easy money. But it gives me peace of mind.”

Admittedly, due to different backgrounds, many students are not much motivated by the save-money-for-parents argument. Or the oh-my-god-it’s-so-hot-outside-why-must-I-go one (my favorite by the way) Some go for extra classes because they can’t find enough self-discipline to study, but for the case of grade 12 students preparing for exam in 2 months like this it’s more likely that they don’t know how to self-study. That’s where I think I can be most helpful. The real purpose of a tutor is to free his students from himself.

At the moment of typing this, I feel like a freaking hypocrite. Everyone needs money. But we need to feel good about ourselves too by living up to our own purposes. The most effective (and also painful) way to combat against my hypocrisy is to let others know about it. I told my other students to ask themselves and their parents honestly whether my tuition is worth their money. I maybe hurt for a while, but at least I will be free from this dilemma.