Not Knowing

tufts-read-daily-commencement

Tufts graduates reading the Tufts Daily – by Matthew Healy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boldly yours,

Junior self

 

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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!

 

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.

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.

Thinking through my letter to mom.

“So it’s going to be my 5th year staying away from home. It’s the 11th time I go to Noi Bai airport for an international flight. Mixed emotions, and I guess you too, mom.

This 9 month staying at home with you has taught me a lot. I was used to the communal living style in the boarding school where I was constantly surrounded by people. In contrast, I’ve been living alone from 8am to 7.30pm on most days at home. Only then did I realize I had taken the human warmth for granted. Do you remember I often sulk when you come home later than 7.30pm without notifying me? I have been waiting for someone for the whole day!

I thought you felt the same too when you came back to the hauntingly empty house after a long day at work, and that’s why I always wanted to wait for you for dinner: to compensate for the time that I’m not around. My number one worry before I leave this time is how you will live alone again. I asked you that question and of course I didn’t trust your answer “Don’t worry, I’m fine”. Now I’m glad to tell you that I no longer worry about that: observing you for the past few months assures me that you indeed had been and would be fine living in solitude.

And that’s the first lesson you may not know you’ve taught me. I thought I was the extroverted type who always needed other people around, but I’ve indeed learnt to spend time on myself. I have lived slowly. I’ve lived more contentedly in the first half of the year than I thought.

Another lesson you taught me was that the deepest influences come from leading by example. Nothing touches the heart more than true authenticity. You may not be as funny, stylish or intellectual as other mothers, but you walk your talks. You teach me to be nice with people, and times and times again people come and whisper to me how nice you are. That coherence is what matters.

It meant a lot when I came home at 11pm and found the hot soup on the table while you were asleep. You didn’t do that to show me that you were a caring mom; you did that because you were a caring mom. In juxtaposition with you I feel I’m so petty. Many times I do things because that would make me look good in the eyes of others.

You have taught me a lot that non achieving is the real achievement. That developing relationship should be my goal.

There are things that you may not be aware, but I’ve learnt from you nonetheless. That the fact that we are all fallible and idiosyncratic sometimes just makes us more human and loveable. That we have hope. That a quiet life has nothing to do with a meaningless life.

And there are things I have yet to agree with you. While I’m fully aware that when I’m 50 I may just want to take care of my family, for now I don’t want to settle yet. I still want to maximize my impact. [……]”

<I wanted to share part of the letter so I translated it into English.>
A few more thoughts when I looked at that letter again recently.

I may sound like idolizing my mother. Yes, she is a great mom, and I do feel immense gratitude and admiration for her singlehandedly taking care of the family. It’s not easy being sandwiched by two naughty boys and a grumpy mother-in-law without going crazy. But she is not perfect, and that is precisely what matters.

Living with such a humble person definitely makes me more mindful of myself, because I have a constant reference point.  She once told me about her Buddhist beliefs and practices “I’m not as bright and eloquent as you are and so I can’t express the ideas clearly to you, but you have to practice in order to see it”. I was deeply touched at that moment: here she was, a humble and loving mother, aware of her own weaknesses and still wanted to do her best to help. Perhaps (some) maturity and more conversations helped me seeing her in this new light and gave me a fuller understanding of her as a human.

Now is the strange part: once I start seeing her not only as my mother but also as an ordinary person I feel even closer to her. Couples often talk about how they love each other’s idiosyncrasies. The common sense explanation is perhaps that the romantic passionate love usually overcompensates these flaws (think “love blinds”). Apparently it doesn’t apply to mother-son relationship. I’m well aware that I’m endlessly indebted to her, but that has nothing to do with also accepting her flaws and mistakes. I accept because I have learnt to see her for all she is: a human.

I’m probably the top 0.01% luckiest people on Earth for not having the pressure to return a huge financial investment by parents in their kids’ education. Because of that, I’m freed up to think about how best I should pay back my unfathomable debt. Some people advise me to make my mom proud. It certainly feels nice to hear “Oh your son is so good he achieves this and that”, but I suspect if that good feeling lasts long. Most importantly, isn’t it true that how much my mom is proud of me depends on her more than on me? I think any mom can be immensely proud by the amazing fact that she is a mom. The advice should be for moms, not children.

For the New Years that I was away from home,  she asked me to call and wish happy new year to a few people who have helped her a lot throughout her life. I used to feel very awkward and even fake when I wished someone whom I didn’t have a strong personal connection with – after all, my cynical self asked “Do you even care that much?”. But I stopped fearing that awkwardness because of what they always said after my wishes “Thank you. Your mother must be very blessed to have you”. Then they would text or call my mom to say exactly the same thing: “You must be very blessed to have your son”. Then my mom would tell me about that text or call, and I would be deaf if I could not sense the immeasureable joy in her words. That is what she cared about: building relationship. She wanted to express her gratitude to these people – how better can one do so than saying “Not just I but my entire family is thankful of you”? And of course she walked her talk right there. She really wanted me to be thankful.

Ultimately, the only thing she cares about my decisions is whether they will make me a good person. Same for what I want to her. She is generally more contented than many adults I know, but she too has to deal with the vicissitudes of daily life. She too is on a journey to become a better person, and I am a part of that journey. For how can a good person not be a good child, and a how can a good child not want his parents to live truly better?

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.

Dear Khuyen-20, from the Solemn Me

Random thing I do on my birthday :D The bubble maker (is that the name?) is a gift from a primary school friend. We visited our alma mater today. To be honest i never bothered buying this before. Always made my own.

Random thing I do on my birthday 😀
The bubble maker (is that the name?) is a gift from a primary school friend. We visited our alma mater today. To be honest i never bothered buying this before. Always made my own.

 

Dear Khuyen-20-year-old,

You find yourself amused by the fact that people, including yourself, celebrate birthday. Think of people who were born on 29th Feb. They technically have fewer birthdays, but you suspect they would choose some other days to celebrate to make up for that. If “a year” is such an arbitrary concept then why on earth must you celebrate it once “a year”?

You try to trivialize your own birthday for yourself by saying: “I shall have fun everyday, not just today”.  Yet, you have to admit that it’s a powerful reminder for your mind, which will unavoidably be fluctuating to the ups and downs throughout the year, to be grateful that you’ve survived for that long, and more importantly that you were born to be a human. After all, out of the tiniest chance of all these atoms and quarks combine in a particular way, you came to life. You even have a name: they don’t just call you “a human” but “Khuyen”. Don’t you realize the preciousness of what your granddad gave you beside parts of his genes? Naming, just like time, is a human invention to make this wondrously complex world a bit more comprehensible to our mind. You have already inherited that invention from your predecessors. You already owed the world something.

Birthdays invariably remind you of death. That’s a good thing, for it trains your mind in time of peace so that you would face adversity with more preparation. What if you would die at 12:00 tonight, and no the world isn’t going to end with you? Would you not panic at its inevitability? I hope and trust that you would face it with acceptance and gratitude. Maybe a bit of unfairness too: why is it your death but the world’s loss? It has to add in something good to the world! Remember telling people around your deathbed so. They must be better off.

Now try to think in their shoes. Let’s be more concrete by imagining the most morbid situation: your beloved mother  just passed away. If tear feels natural, cry; if it doesn’t then don’t. You may experience what they call “sorrow” or you may not. I know you can easily cry in front of the livings but never at the dead, and I want to assure you that’s perfectly fine. Your loved ones don’t want you to mourn for them.

Do people only think of themselves when they are dying like their accomplishments and regrets? You hope you won’t, because that will just make the matter worse. There will be a tendency for people to focus on the one who’s leaving because he’s different and deserves special attention, but you should try to resist that. Your last moment should be a casual conversation with your loved ones and then oops.

Enough of grave talk. Let me tell you about what I know better than you: your past. You have been brought up believing that you are very lucky and sheltered kid. Indeed you are, way more than many others. But you still see people, especially those close to you, suffering sometimes. That really sucks. Worse yet, you are, once in a while, the reason. All these should have convinced you that you are inextricably tied to others and so here my birthday wish: May you always bring joy to others and thus find your own happiness 🙂

Khuyen Teenager.

p/s: Okay birthday is supposed to be more fun. Oh please stop asking what does “fun” mean in this world or how you can recreate the “birthday mood” in every other day… I allow you to procrastinate thinking about that for today.