[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!

Getting punched, kind of

This is a story from my internship over the summer when I received feedback about my work and my reflection on it. Digging deeper on these moments yields a lot of self-insights.

11.30pm. A Gmail notification from my boss. The subject was simply “Feedback”. I clicked. The first line was “ I would like to pose a few questions”, followed a list of reflective questions and thank you. The email was long. Long feedback emails that started with thank you — usually something not so good. I skimmed through and felt a shiver running through my spine. Serious feedback. Many bullet points. I also saw the word “disappointed”.

I paused and took a deep breath. My first thought was “Thanks goodness. Finally an emotional highlight for this summer.”

Strange response? Let me explain.
This summer was the first time I worked in the US. The nature of work varied: doing research, interviewing people, designing workshops. I can boast with my friends about how cool my work or internship was, but I knew the reality of many day to day work, at least for inexperienced youngsters like me, was mostly dull. You know, going to office, meeting people, chitchatting, writing, reading, social time, lonely time. Nothing too special. I felt flat, but then assured myself “It is good to be stable. Most people don’t even have that stability”. Yet secretly I was yearning for something to happen. Anything, good or bad, so that I would have something to remember — you know, that kind of memory that makes you quietly smile to yourself? I wanted the summer to be not only useful as a student exploring career paths but also fulfilling as a young adult growing.

I once asked my mom who had been working the same menial job for 26 years “How can you stick with it? Don’t you ever get bored?” She nodded in resignation: “What else can I do? What I needed the most at that time was stability”. I understood that sentiment. Growing up in a family ethics of hard work, I have been taught that most of my work will not be fun, but I have to do it anyway. I knew that the day to day work mattered and that I couldn’t expect every moment to be memorable, but that dreary, monotonous prospect of future work still scared me: boredom is the real nemesis.

Now you can understand why I could be excited seeing the feedback. I was mostly shit scared though — you bet. Yet somehow there was a subtle appeal to the email. For guys, remember how you felt in primary school when you were peeking into the female toilet as you passed by to get to your own haven? (if you didn’t, good for you…) It felt like breaking rules, a blurred mix of anxiety and excitement.

I dived in slowly, slightly cringing. After each paragraph, I paused to take a few breaths to internalize the feedback and to make it less overwhelming. I knew some feedback would be coming, but it was still tough to take everything all at once. After a month of casual chitchatting, this was like someone just poured a bucket of ice over me: painful enough to make me cringe but also refreshing enough to bring me into the moment.

I’ve been there; I knew how it felt to receive an email like that. My ego thought it was being attacked, so it rumbled in an attempt to defend itself.“Wow, I didn’t know my performance was that bad. Almost nothing positive! So many things behind the scene my boss didn’t know. I had to explain myself.”

After rereading the email a few times, I regained my perspective. Everything my boss wrote had a lot of truth in it. I would eventually need to provide my perspective too, but before that I had to acknowledge the frustration behind those lines first. It happened partly because of my unmindful actions. As I was drafting my reply, I asked myself “How can I be compassionate to the person who gives me the feedback and to myself?” With that question in mind, writing became a cathartic process. I went to sleep feeling wonderful, not because I have justified myself but rather because I have done something to alleviate our frustration.

We had a good chat a few days after. I was satisfied: summer work ended on a beautiful note.

A few lessons I relearned much deeper from this episode:

  1. Slowing down helps seeing things more clearly. The ego often gets in the way, but remember I am more than my ego.
  2. Being kind and authentic to myself and others can do wonder. It also feels good.

It is always a pleasure to see myself growing. I was open to the experience as it came and got a lot out of it.

Last fun story: My boss was the first female boxer I ever met (!) On the first day, I asked her “How did it feel like to be punched in the face?” She said “I felt in the moment. You know, the adrenaline rush. The game is on”. I told her afterwards when we met after that it was exactly how I felt receiving her feedback email. In a way, I got such a good punch in the face.

P/s: I shared with my boss this story. She liked it and commented on her own email that she asked the questions first because she knew she had something to learn as well, that there’s always another side to the story, and that questions up front are better than feedback. Learn first, share second. It was hard for her to write that email, just like I weren’t excited to read it. I’m proud and satisfied that we both did the hard thing with a purity of intention.

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.