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

 

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.

Gratitude

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,
Khuyen

[Letter] Last summer work

It is no accident that some of my better writing are letters to people – they have more contexts and therefore meaning. When we do something with a sense of meaning, we do it better. I share because I think they are worth sharing, even though you may not understand most of it. It also gives you, my reader, a better sense of who I am.

Context: From my from my internship over the summer when I received feedback about my work and my reflection on it. You can read more of the original story here – Getting punched, kind of. This letter is another reflection 6 months after. You see, I do dwell on the past 😉


Hi [my boss],

I hope this finds you well. I am writing to say thank you for the summer and the pieces of feedback you gave me.

I’ve been thinking about it more recently. The more I think about it, the more I am so grateful that you gave me so much feedback. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but I’m so thankful that you decided to trust me that I could take it. (I wonder if you would have given feedback to another person that way, because some may have PTSD instead of post traumatic growth. Of course it wasn’t anything too traumatic compared to near-death experiences or losing of a loved ones, but it was hard nonetheless) I think I recover well from setbacks, have a pretty healthy self-esteem and don’t dwell too much on past mistakes, but there was so much to learn from that experience I can’t waste it.

I grew up a lot as a person from the incident, and I am happily surprised at how I took it. Now reading the emails again, I thought about how defensive I still seemed then. I remember when I was writing and preparing to meet you in the morning, I tried to be as open as possible. I think I was, but I could have been a lot more.

I was lazy too; I definitely took the intellectually easy way out. I told myself that we had different ways to learn; you might enjoy reading papers while I prefer browsing through more accessible books. Now reflecting on that, I was just giving myself excuses. I was simply lazy. I did read a lot, and I chose to read what I think was useful but perhaps they were just more interesting to me, and that’s laziness.

I’m saying this as a matter of fact, not feeling bad or guilty at all. Laziness is just as real as entropy – the physical law that the universe is tending towards disorder. And yet there is evolution – when a living being or a species adapts and become more and more organized and complex. These two forces don’t seem to go together, yet we seem to be evolving rather than regressing. Does that mean evolutionary force is stronger? I don’t know. Speculation aside, I have to keep working. I can’t be lazy if I want to love, because love takes work. A lot of it.

I wonder why I was so bad. I think part of it was that I didn’t know how much effort should I put into the work – was it a 9-5 job or was it just get as much done as I can? When should I leave work? How much is expected of me? I didn’t expect much for myself, and in hindsight that wasn’t a good move. One grows from the expectation one makes on oneself, and I wasn’t really consumed by it and therefore didn’t grow as much. Good lesson learned. There are positive too though. I’m getting a lot better in being with people and communicating. That’s one of my strengths. I don’t enjoy being technical at all – I guess I will have to be somehow in the near future, but so far from my experiences I enjoy and am also more effective with people.

This summer was a weird time for me; I was in a limbo zone, not knowing what I wanted to do, not sure how I should use my time in the Bay Area effectively, fantasizing that I could have had a more formal internship in a tech firm. I did notice that last thought often, and I told myself “Khuyen, be in the moment. You have committed to one thing, you have to put everything into it.” Still, having that thought perhaps made me less willing to work, at least at the subconscious level.

Keep me updated on your adventure and learning lessons. Life is too short to learn from one’s own journey – must learn from other’s experiences too!

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!

 

Exploring regret

Yesterday I was going out for dinner with a group of good friends and afterwards everyone wanted to go to karaoke. I wasn’t in the mood for it, and I guessed from past karaoke experiences that I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Pressure was high, so I caved in to say Yes, but at last I didn’t go. Instead, I went back, had a good chat with a friend, slept early and woke up fresh.

I made the right decision; I wouldn’t want to trade my sleep for something I didn’t quite enjoy. Yet surprisingly, a part of me still thought of not going for that karaoke. Was that regret? If so, why should I regret something I didn’t want to do and feel like doing?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff”, you say. There’s no point to regret, right? What happened already happened.

There is a point to regret actually. It is a thing I can explore. You know, every person is a curious thing – including myself. In the past, I would dig into myself with these kinds of introspective questions. Now I’ve got a better tool to dig – meditating directly on my sensations – and I wanted to play with what I found. Plus, given that in the future I will make a lot more important decisions I may as well get used to that feeling of “Darn, what a dumb move”.
Regret is like my uncle who doesn’t visit me often, so I want to hang out with him more when he comes. What is regret really like?

In reality, I don’t think my friends cared that much about me not going – they are good friends after all. Bear with me though for the sake of this exploration.

As I closed my eyes, sometimes regretful thoughts would pop up. My face would cringe; my lips would tighten. I must have looked from outside like I was in pain. Interestingly, this state was very similar to the state of intense focus. I did not have too many self-loathing thoughts like “Omg you stupid freaking anti-social hermit” but rather critical questions: What would have happened if I were there? What did I miss? Who were upset by me?

I was mostly calm throughout. However, specific thoughts triggered these intense sensations. These thoughts went like this: “I wasted a chance to be with the group of people I enjoyed being with but would rarely have the chance to see them again. I also wasted a chance to see myself and other people shining (or being silly, at least for me) in singing. More importantly, it was an opportunity to practice finding something fun in what I don’t usually enjoy, for the greater sake of being with people I want to be with. Basically, I was being stupid. I might have hurt my own image in my friends’ eyes. Worse, I might have hurt my friendships.”

I had no valid excuses not to go; I had all the time in the world. Even my friends who would have exams and work the next day decided to go, what excuses did I have? None. Because it is the nature of excuse; it is something we used to mask the only reason – the real reason – we do anything. I did not go because I didn’t feel like going. I knew I should have gone, but I couldn’t help it. Would it have been fun? Most likely. Then why the hell did I not go? Because I didn’t feel like it.

I learned quite a few things from this short meditation. I realized my deeper fear is no longer the fear of regret but rather is the fear of being stupid, of not doing what the situation is best for, and lastly of upsetting other people. Another interesting observation is how hard it was to hate myself. I did tell myself “You were dumb, Khuyen” but not as a fuming boss but rather a half-joking friend. I also faced the fear of upsetting other people, something many of us shared. This experience is a good preparation for the future where I will have to make difficult decisions that affect even more people. I will have to say No to a lot of temptations and less important stuff. I will have to stick to my guns. Every decision divides, and I have to accept it.

I used to hate my over-musing tendency. I hated the inner chattering in my head – why couldn’t he shut up? Now I accepted that he would always be there anyway, so I’d rather understand and be a better friend with that guy. Some times he can do a lot of good thing.

22 – A reflection

Why

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

The second reason is that it is for others.

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

Intro

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

Celebration

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

What have I learned about myself as I turn 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other musing about life

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

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

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

What is ahead?

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

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

Gratitude

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

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

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

Sleep is good for ya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, a little bit more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015: Experiments and Synthesis

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

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

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

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

How was the break?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014: Practice and Exploration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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