Contributing to the world, as myself

What would not get done if you were not here?

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be myself, to actually have things that I stand for and believe in. I fell upon this question while reading Improv Wisdom this morning, and was wondering that if I were asked this question in high school, I wouldn’t have had an answer. I think this is an important question to think about too, so you should take some time right now to think about it! If I was not in high school, people would have continued prepping for standardized test, doing extracurriculars, etc. I think that I can now pinpoint this to a specific thing – competition. Competition is a rat race, if somebody drops out, that’s just one less person to worry about, right? So let’s go back to the question, when you are competing in something (college admissions, interviewing for internships, etc.) you’re not really adding anything unique.

Consider your unique vantage point, your talents, your loves, what you have been given to do. What are you here to do?

Competition is a zero sum game. Not many people remember the losers, which sucks. For myself, I think that if I continued competing, climbing some corporate ladder for my whole life, I would never be able to answer the question: what would not get done if I were not here? But I do have answers to that now. For one, this blog. If I were not here, nobody would be writing this blog. To show my unique vantage point, talent, passions, loves, my purpose, I have to create. In my philosophy seminar this semester, although everybody was reading the same texts everybody would contribute different and unique perspectives every class. Depending on how we were raised, what environment we put ourselves in, different things are more apparent to us. So by participating in a class discussion, posting your thoughts on the internet, filming YouTube videos, making a movie, or whatever creative medium you choose, you are doing something that nobody else could do.

So here’s my idea: Don’t compete, create.

I’m going to adapt this from an answer I read on Quora. Let’s say that 100 people spend 100 units of energy each competing for some award. In the end, there is only winner, so only 100 units of energy (out of 10,000 units) are recognized. If everybody decided to go out on their own and try to create something, they could’ve each spent the 100 units of energy making something unique. That’s an overall win win, adding 10,000 units to the world. The effort that you put in will still count for something, even if you don’t win. Furthermore, since everybody was raised differently, everybody has value to add to the world. 

So this is a challenge for myself next year. To spend more time creating, spend more time writing content for my readers because that is something unique to me. And I’ve been practicing a lot of piano improv lately, so I might start uploading my improvisations onto YouTube to I guess make my dent in this world. Writing this, I’m starting to realize I’m mainly using the internet to publicize myself, which might change or grow in the future. Also another big thing I will plan to do is not search and compete for any jobs this coming summer. This is a pretty big jump for me, since I would love to land a nice internship so I can more easily find a job in the future. But I think creating something by myself, making something I can be truly proud of of is more important to me right now than spending time competing for an internship.

So you know what, I’ll go with it. With this mindset, I’m interested to see what kind of future I can pave .

Integrity: Why I cared so much about prestige

I’m back home for winter break, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with members of my family. Being raised in an Asian family, the topic  brought up the most in family dinners is college. Which college my relatives got into, which college I’m attending now, etc. And I know many people who go to a relatively small school can relate – when people ask me where I go to school, I already expect that the person asking will have never heard of Swarthmore. Even before the semester started, when my peers were talking about matriculating into extremely reputable institutions, I was uncomfortable – I would even say shameful, when I would tell people where I was going. Why was that? Sure Swarthmore is a reputable school in the academic world, but my family here doesn’t know anything about it. Many people my age in California haven’t heard of my school before. So why was this?

I wanted to have a name brand school under my belt so that I could show it off, or as one of my friend put it: “I wanted to cower behind a Harvard label so that every time someone asked me where I went to college, I could pretend that I was really smart and successful.” I truly believed that my self worth was defined by what college I attended, and what everybody else thought about it. I had judged people based on what colleges they attend, and being on that other side of the judgment now has taught me a lot about what I valued. Throughout high school, I had some insecurities about what I was capable of, how “intelligent” I was compared to other people. And I thought that if I ended up attending a brand name school, I would be able to patch up those insecurities and (falsely) reassure myself. But that’s just the easy way out, it doesn’t tackle the real problems at the core. One of the most difficult experiences I’ve been facing so far in college is finding out what I value, and more importantly, holding a sense of integrity with myself. I don’t want to be somebody who isn’t comfortable with himself, and going down this path, staying true to myself, would require much more thought and hard work.

I was talking with my friend the other day about how we judge people first by their college. And then after this segment of life, we judge them by their employer. Judging somebody that works for a prestigious company (Goldman Sachs, Google, etc.) differently than somebody who works somewhere else. It truly is sad how the majority of people judge like this, but there isn’t much (or anything) I can do about changing how other people think. If I want to uphold some sort of integrity with my life, might as well figure it out now right?

Most people associate things like intelligence, social capacities, whatever else based on an institution. But I don’t think that it should be this way, rather, it should be with qualities. For example, with my insecurity of intelligence, instead of complaining about how I won’t have some brand name label to cover up my intelligence, why not just actually study and learn. Fix the root problem here. This is what I’ve started to realize: The most important things are qualities, like discipline, passion for learning, hard work, generosity, compassion. I shouldn’t be associating myself with institutions, but with qualities. But wait, don’t people already do that? I do know people for their friendliness, passions, etc. But you only really get to know these sides of people when you talk to them and really get to know them. So my solution is to make those qualities about yourself extremely salient. To wear a badge of compassion like you would a logo of your alma mater. To be proud and confident enough about your passion for learning that that is the first thing people think about when they hear your name. That’s the way I would want to live, because those qualities are things that I have to built up by myself. I have to deal with them everyday, and it would be amazing if all of those qualities were true. Sure I can say I am hardworking, I can say whatever the hell I want. But if I’m at home watching tv shows, wasting time, I am not being integrous to myself. I wouldn’t have to always be acting on my “A game” because that’s who I really am.

Sure this is a much harder path, but I chose this path exactly because it was hard, because it’s the only way I’ll be true to myself.

first collection
Swarthmore Class of 2019’s first collection

Psychological Inertia

How can always doing random shit keep you young and lucky?

I thought of this theory about a year ago, and I got inspiration for this idea during my practice for discipline, which I describe in detail here in my Quora answer. Tl;dr: I put myself through small challenges for about 3 weeks each, like waking up early everyday without snoozing, doing 20 pushups a day, meditating at least 10 minutes a day, etc.

The hardest part about these challenges was getting used to changeif I wanted to adopt a new habit, I would have to change my daily routine. Waking up before 8AM everyday at the first ring of my phone’s alarm was annoying, it was uncomfortable. To be honest, I didn’t even have to wake up before 8. I could’ve easily woken up at 8:30 every day and still arrived to class on time, no problem. It’s so cold too, waking up so early in the morning. I could list an infinite amount of excuses, but at the end of the day I was determined to follow through on this challenge. So for the next 40 days, I kicked off my blankets at the first ring of my alarm.

My main blocker in this challenge was moving past the thoughts of discomfort and putting it into action. So the way I went about solving that blocker was to tackle on that discomfort head on. The idea of cold is really interesting because that’s usually where people are most uncomfortable. Ice cold showers suck, so I needed to start there. For one day, I wanted to try something completely new. I was going to get up exactly at 7:30, take off my clothes, and jump into a cold shower.

To be honest, it sucked, a lot. I had this glorified view that after doing this, I was going to be super disciplined, but in the shower I was just a kid shivering his ass off. But what drove me to continue was my desire to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. From then on, I became more impulsive with random things. I started doing random challenges that sometimes made no sense at all. I thought wow it must suck to not eat meat anymore, so fuck it . I’ll be vegetarian for 40 days.

What I started to notice that this mentality started to permeate into my decision making. It made me open to change, hell, it became a habit for me to seek change. Do you know the weird feeling you get when you skip brushing your teeth for a day? I had that weird feeling whenever everything was the same.

At this point in my life, the most important decision that I’ve made so far was coming to Swarthmore. And that was one of the luckiest, and most impulsive decisions I’ve made to date. I was thinking about how much I would succeed if I followed the conventional path of going to a technical school to study Computer Science, then chucked it all out the window when I decided to commit to a liberal arts college with a flip of a coin. This is where the second part comes in: getting lucky. When you decide to do something completely out of your ordinary, you might discover something that you really like. And if you don’t, you will have grown from it and now know what not to do.

If you are evaluating a set of options (people, food, etc) don’t just go with the one that seems to align best with you. Occasionally take a chance on an interesting “bad” option just because it strikes your fancy. Come up with quirky ways to make decisions and use them.

Think of all the possible outcomes you wouldn’t want, say fuck it, and then do it.

Go do random things, get comfortable with the uncomfortable, always keep your mind in motion so that you will never grow old.

References used, you should check these out!
1) Telegraph article on being lucky

2) Yishan Wong’s answer on luck

Collecting life experiences

What’s the point of trying new things?

When I came back home from college, I realized that I was able to more accurately represent and describe what was happening in the present. The things I’ve done so far have given me the context and the language to understand what I was doing. For example, I’ve never been as thorough in studying something before except in my computer science class this past semester. I would go over every lecture, ask my professor questions, and look for further readings to make my knowledge fullproof. I got into the habit of finding people to teach what I was learning to make sure that what I knew wasn’t based of rote memorization, but that I could prove everything. I approached my learning in a way similar to what I read on Quora.

Here’s my short summary of it: The way you should approach learning is to throw out all previous biases and beliefs you have about a subject because they are (probably) unsubstantiated, and because you haven’t proven them for yourself from scratch. This reminds me a lot of mathematical proofs: Of course what you’re reading from the book makes sense, because it’s telling you exactly what to do. And I think that this happens a lot in lectures: of course, whatever a professor says in a lecture is going to make perfect sense to you, but I believe the real test should be whether or not you can convince somebody with no prior knowledge that something is true ,which means that you should be able to build all the basic principles, essentially the entire curriculum, from scratch. (It was an extremely well written answer and I would recommend anybody to spend the time to read it!)

So what did this do for me now? Now that I have more free time, I have picked up learning new things like new web frameworks and machine learning / neural networks. Going through new material now, I noticed myself referencing what I did and how I did things while in that CS class: I tried to replicate my past experiences to make my understanding of any new topics fullproof as well.

This reminded me of the movie Inside Out, how Riley had her memories stored inside orbs. Joy, and other emotions, were able to look into the orbs to remember specific past memories.

INSIDE OUT

Throughout my whole life, I have been storing memories into orbs, shelving them away. In my sophomore year of high school, I used to play a lot of video games – League of Legends. Oh boy. I remember the weeks when I would get home from school at around 3pm then play till 11pm everyday. While I did learn many things from playing League, like goal-oriented practicing, team communication, etc it was ultimately a negative influence in my life. I ate unhealthily, gained a lot of weight, and my performance in social and academic situations suffered. This was definitely a low of my life, especially when I was trying to discipline myself out of playing. After about a year, I figured myself out and was able to stop playing. Like in Inside Out, plop came down a memory orb on stopping my addiction to video games.

At school, there were times I would catch myself falling into the traps of some distractions (watching YouTube videos, playing mobile games, etc.), but this time, I knew exactly what was happening to me. This has happened to me before – getting addicted to something. At times it was even funny, thinking of how I used to be, now that I have grown out of playing League of Legends. I was now confident in my ability to quit anything cold turkey.

Furthermore, I have picked up on a lot more experiences that I can now add to my arsenal of memory orbs: socializing with friends, having fun, playing music, etc. and it only goes up from here. I feel like this is an interesting way to think of going about life – by acquiring experiences.

From now on, I want to enjoy and experience more thoroughly the present, so that I won’t waste time in the future falling into traps I could have avoided. So that I can focus all my effort on experiencing the new, uncharted parts of life. 

The Cave

It’s the world’s most comfortable place
Comfort zones suck they say, we have to get out
It’s not as simple as it sounds though
It’s not as simple as “stepping out”
It’s so engrained into our brains
It’s engrained in the very essence of our society
Meritocracy, bureaucracy, even our beloved democracy
Each world has a cave of its own
With prizes, titles, time slots to play in a Carnegie Hall recital
To become the president, get tenure, become Silicon Valley’s next billionaire
To enter the elite bubble, stay up there in the untouchable haven
Finding a job will be easy, I’ll have money, It’s so great to be at the top
It’s every high schoolers dream to penetrate those bubbles into Cambridge and New Haven
I know that’s when I’ll have everything on lock
I had to step out my comfort zone to get there
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing is. After all, all we really can see are those dancing shadows
We choose our cave, climb to the top, fight our uphill battles
There really isn’t anything wrong with that though,
People live such happy lives basing it on that
But maybe it’s the comfort of climbing that has made those caves so damn binding

How to not hate your job

It is widely accepted that motivation to do work goes beyond just the paycheck. People don’t work just to get paid, we want to feel challenged, have independence in our work. We want to get good at stuff worth getting good at, serve a purpose larger than us.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

The dreaded nine to five is commonly used to describe the absolute minimum number of hours people have to work a week before they can get the hell out of the office. A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that around ~90% of Americans either actively hate their jobs or go through their workday mindlessly on autopilot. That’s ninety percent of adults who spend half their lives doing something they don’t want to do.

Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore, conducted an experiment to study motivation in a group of nursery school children. The children were given time to draw, and Schwartz then awarded some children with a special marker. The next time they were instructed to draw, those awarded with the markers were less likely to draw at all, and drew worse pictures, than those who were not given awards. Children draw because drawing is fun, but introducing a reward took away from that internal fun – it transformed an activity that wasn’t instrumental to an activity that was.

This idea of intrinsic and instrumental activities is interesting. Consider why a painter paints: to produce beautiful art AND to make a living. However, there is an intricate connection between producing beautiful art and painting – the only way to make beautiful art is by painting. Painting and making money, on the other hand, have an instrumental relationship. There are many other ways to make a living, not just through painting.

Isn’t this counterintuitive? Wouldn’t giving people two reasons, rather than one, be more motivating for people? You can draw because it’s fun and there is a reward for outstanding students! You can paint because you can make beautiful paintings and you can make money! You can take this course because it’s interesting, and you can fulfill requirements! Don’t more rewards motivate you to do these activities? No, in fact, the very notion of separating “work” and “play” perpetuates the instrumentalization of activities that we might enjoy. So many people feel miserable about their work because they are making connections between intrinsically and extrinsically related things. There is only one way to make beautiful paintings, and that is by painting.

Classes are fun, they are play. Grading classes turns them into work. The importance of play is that when you are playing, consequences do not matter. Turning something into work (grading) inevitably brings up those consequences. (I need this GPA to get into med school, etc.) In turn, the rewards (higher income, social status, school rankings) shifts the intrinsic fun that came from learning into an instrumental one.  (I should start taking easier classes to boost my GPA), do things that I might not like to achieve a goal. When there is a misaligned connection between intrinsically and extrinsically related activities, people will subject themselves to unpleasant forms of activity of anything but play to achieve that thing.

Let us look at a another example of this happening in the real world. A daycare was having issues with parents coming to pick up their kids too late, so it imposes a fine on parents who come late. They thought that this would give a new reason for parents to pick up their children on time:

Reason 1) Parents have a sense of responsibility for staff and children

(New) Reason 2) They won’t have to pay the fine.

The result? Lateness increased, and when the daycare revoked the fine, the lateness increased even more. After introducing the fine, the responsibility to show up on time was completely thrown out the window, it then became all about personal interests. Sure, I would pay a small fine to come a little later. The worse part is that once the instrumentalization happens, it seems irreversible. This phenomena draws many parallels with the college admissions hustle of high school. For many people, the whole experience of high school was instrumentalized into a process to build up impressive admissions files. Similar to the daycare scenario, we have become, in a sense, jaded to many aspects of school; transformed in a way where the initial desirable motivation – the fun – is lost.

Well, shit.

So how can we achieve a pure form of success solely fueled by fun, internal desires?

Several years ago, Interface, a carpet tile company launched a mission to reduce its carbon footprint to zero. The company was prepared to lose some money because it was going to focus its efforts on upgrading the infrastructure used. However, Interface didn’t lose money, its profits had actually increased by a great margin. Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, had instilled a sense of civic responsibility among his employees. The workers who just showed up to make money were transformed into people driven to save the world. Employees worked harder and worked more, flattening the hierarchy of the company because supervisors saw how enthusiastic workers were. Supervisors were excited by employees’ motivation to learn more, so employees were offered more leadership roles and autonomy.

Finding and making salient a sense of purpose, whether it be a sense of civic responsibility or a drive to expand and mature your mind, is the key to making the world your playground. The process of finding and aligning with a sense of purpose will permeate throughout all aspects of your life; it will deter you from the common notion of separating your life into work and play. You’re able to throw any instrumental consequences out the window, throw the work out the window. The bigger picture is not learning to make money, it is learning to have fun.