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.

Fall Break: How I’ve been, and What’s Next

It’s been about two months since college has started, and now that I’m on fall break I have time to reflect on what I’ve been up to, and (moving forward) also think about what I want now and why.

What I’ve Been Up To

I’ve been pretty lucky since the beginning of the school year – I didn’t face much of a social transition from high school to college. I feel that my strength of being sociable really gets a chance to shine here, since everybody lives on campus and there really isn’t anything stopping people from hanging out. Something that I will note though is that my schedule feels extremely cyclical. 4 classes on Tuesday and Thursday means I have only two days to finish the majority of my homework before it’s due by next class, and it can really feel like a drag knowing that these every week, these two days will always consist of heavy studying. Also, while I feel that the always-studying mentality at Swarthmore can be harmful for some, I feel that I’m feeding off the pressure quite well. In high school, I’d prioritize socializing over studying, so studying in a sense actually gives me a break from messing around all the time. I also enjoy the feeling of actually engaging my mind and challenging how long I can focus while studying.

One thing that I’ve picked up is always studying in different locations. I hear many people say that they can only study in one library, and I really don’t want to create an association between the amount of focus I have with a specific location on campus. The buzzing silence of McCabe’s basement also creeps me out, so I’d rather study in a lounge or common area. So one way I accomplish this is to segment the type of homework I do according to professors’ office hours and help clinic sessions. For example, on Tuesdays during my math professor’s office hours, I’ll just sit outside his office and do only math homework. The benefits to this are that first I don’t have to prioritize which assignments to do first, and second, if I need help, I can just take a couple of steps and walk into his office. Outside of office hours, I like to move around to different popular places to study so that I can interact with different crowds of people on campus.

Stress wise, I feel that I’ve adapted my work ethic efficiently and am pretty proud to be stress free. Since I’m putting in the time to thoroughly do my homework, I didn’t have to cram/study much to do well on midterms. I’m pretty happy to say that I haven’t procrastinated at all, and I’m confident that it won’t be a problem for me in the future. The consequence of this is actually quite a bit of free time, which can be a bit boring when everybody else is studying. Extracurricular wise, So far I’ve written an article for the Daily Gazette, dance ballet 2x a week, and work out 4 – 6x a week.

What I Want Now, and Why

  1. I want to get into a serious relationship. I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and the reason isn’t because there’s some void in my life I want to fulfill to be content. I want to share the feeling of completeness with somebody, which I feel would push me to go on and do bigger things with our lives. I’m pretty happy with the type of person I’ve become right now, and the only thing (I can think of right now) that will round off that feeling is being in love. What’s important though is that this won’t make me complacent, in fact, it’s the opposite. What I mean by going on to do bigger things with my life is that experiencing the ideal sense of wholeness I have in my head right now will enable me to create and imagine bigger goals I probably can’t see right now. Also, it’s really nice to share your life with somebody you care about 🙂 One thing I’ll be cognizant of though is that I don’t get too caught up in this, or I might end up getting into something where it’s mainly physical attraction.
  2. I want to get better at freestyle rapping. I met a friend that’s pretty good at it, and tried it for the first time at a party. I want to get better at it because freestyle rapping taps different parts of your thinking: the way you speak, your attitude, rhyming, and rhythm that makes you speak your thoughts in such a new way. Also something really interesting is battle rap, where you mainly have an aggressive attitude to roast your opponent. In that video, it’s amazing to see how Dumbfounded weaves in his criticism on society while staying in character to denigrate Conceited.
  3. I want to get deeper in academia. Before I thought college was all about preparing for a job, but being exposed to research papers and books has showed me this whole new world of research and the unknown. Researching creative ways to develop faster algorithms, studying children to make a TV show like Blues Clues so captivating, this stuff is crazy! Like this is a whole new world that I’ve never been exposed to before, and I want to get in that world. From my cognitive science professor, I learned that I could build neural networks and train it to learn sentence structures, play chess, etc and I’m really drawn to this because unlike making a website or a mobile app, the results aren’t all charted out already. There aren’t meticulous tutorials to guide the way, and my thinking just might solve some important problems.
  4. I want to write more. Every time I read a good book, blog post, or op-ed, I wish that I could articulate myself as well as the author could, and I don’t think I’ve been taking advantage of Swarthmore’s liberal arts college curriculum as much as I could be. So next semester I’m going to take more writing courses, read more, and write more in my free time. I feel that if I were applying for a journalism or writing position, it would be so different from going to an interview for something like a software engineering position because in the latter, I would be walking in to show off my expertise in computer science. But in the writing situation, I would want to get the job to so that I could learn how to write better, and I would actually be comfortable expressing that I’m not that good at writing yet.
  5. I want to spend more on others. More time, more money. Sure I can buy myself new clothes and other things, but I’d rather spend it on things like a meal with an acquaintance or a train ticket to go visit a friend. Because for me, spending time with other people gives me more happiness and is what lasts. This gives me a different perspective on spending money, and I think it’s for the better.

Transforming into Ugly

Let all the violence and anger from your past run wild

Today, I took an African dance class on whim taught by Nora Chipaumire. She taught us a dance she had made back in 2008 regarding the revolution for independence in her homeland, Zimbabwe. It was interesting because as we learned her dance, we got to learn more about her character and history. Unlike ballet, where the dance is mainly graceful and elegant, this dance was the culmination of all of a nation’s mustered up violence. Chimurenga, the name of the dance, (which in Shona, stands for both revolution and cry) had nuanced emotions of just pure rage. Nora explained how it might be difficult for some to fully relate to the dance, as the dance culled heavily from her past having survived a revolution.

What stuck out most to me was how important it was to feel the emotions while I danced. I needed to let violence, contempt, disgust pulse through my veins. In the choreography, there were instances where we had to lift up and stick out the bottom of our foot (equivalent to flipping somebody off), throw rocks, wipe off blood and froth from our mouths. To be completely honest, it was startling and even scary to see Nora transform into a completely different person when she danced. But I wouldn’t say that this dance was beautiful. In fact, It was ugly, and I could feel the hatred leaking from as she danced. She told us about her experience with apartheid, her childhood growing up in time of political tension, and it struck me when she offhandedly exclaimed “You promised us independence.”  At the same time though, I was amazed at how well she was swayed me. Using dance as a medium, she told her story and passed a part of it onto us. “Everybody has violence inside of them, no matter how hard you try to suppress it. It is part of our human nature.” I could emulate how she felt in her past, and in a sense, I was performing vicariously through her life.  I wouldn’t call myself a violent person at all, but she convinced me to open myself up to play with the idea of it. What if I was violent? Let’s see, something along the lines of: HEY! YOU KILLED MY FRIENDS. FUCK YOU. 

This type of dancing was a type of zen, but rather manifested hatred instead of peace. She told us to truly perform her dance, we had to transform into a different character. Nobody should be able to tell that I was the same person dancing. But it’s not just about transforming yourself, it’s also about how you can transform your audience. Today, it was through African dance, and I want to explore story telling in other types of dance, music, poetry, spoken word, etc.

Parenting: Malleable Mindets

For my cognitive science class, I was reading about classing personality traits like happiness, resiliency, and helplessness into two mindsets derived by how people thought of themselves. There’s the fixed mindset, when somebody believes that their qualities are carved in stone. It can create an urgency for that person to prove themselves over and over. The second mindset (which in this context is the advantageous one) is the malleable mindset. People with malleable mindsets believe that cherished qualities can be developed through effort and dedication.

Also, there was an experiment done gauging the effects subtle linguistic cues in praises could have on children’s motivations. Imagine that you had kids A and B, who are instructed to draw a picture. Kid A is given a generic praise, “you are a good drawer.” Kid B is given a more specific, non-generic praise, “you did a good job drawing.” The study showed that children like kid B who were given non-generic praises had less extreme emotional reactions to criticism and were motivated to correct themselves. While when children like kid A were criticized, they started to cry and gave up drawing. I feel that what contributed most to those outcomes is that giving generic praise, or even too much praise, implies to children that they have a stable ability that underlies their drawing performance. They become emotionally attached to that identity that they are stably good drawers. Mistakes then reflect on that stable ability, and can demoralize their perception of their ability. However, what makes the non-generic praise not so generic (haha) is that it comments on a specific instance of drawing, not the child’s skill of drawing itself. ex. “You did a good job drawing that yesterday” vs “you are such a talented drawer!” so the child doesn’t attach as strongly to this identity as a “good” drawer. They can then continue along with their lives drawing, still motivated to correct their mistakes and become better.

I thought it’d be interesting to bring these findings together and think about how I would raise my own kids to develop malleable mindsets. So that in the long run, they won’t be overwhelmed by emotional distress and will be able to jump into any field (whether it be academic or not) with the confidence that they can master it. When a child receives a lot of affection from, let’s say, a mother, the child will naturally grow close to her and come to her in times of loneliness and stress, kind of like a secure base.  There was a study discussing the behavior of these securely attached infants. In an experiment, a group of infants A were conditioned to not see their mothers as secure bases, and the scientists recorded how their behaviors when their mothers left the room they were in (how long they would at her after she left). The group A of infants made no discrimination to their mothers when they left the room; they even showed signs of surprise when their mothers came back. These infants had different expectations about caretakers than babies who were trained traditionally to go to their mothers in times of stress. I think this relates to the idea of attaching to an identity in the second experiment. However, rather than attaching to an internal identity, the child can become attached to an external entity (in this case, a parent). And if a child is pampered heavily, he or she will become dependent on somebody else, which I feel will perpetuate a fixed mindset. So how should we go about parenting? Do we have to sacrifice some of our attention for the long-run goals of independence and malleable mindsets?

Quaker Query: First Question of Reflection

Today was the first official day of school (orientation) at Swarthmore, and as a class we partook in a traditional Quaker query. Sitting down in the outdoor amphitheater, we listened to students and our newly elected President reflect on questions that would be posed in a query. There were three questions, and I want to start this reflection as an indicator of myself at this point in time, this period right before I start at Swarthmore.

Who am I, and what are my core beliefs and values?

I was born in the Bay Area about 18 years ago and was raised by two Burmese parents. As of my senior year, most of my world has revolved around technology. I worked in San Francisco almost everyday of the school year and have been surrounded by tech people in the Silicon Valley. I started reading a lot more books in the spring semester of my senior year, especially on books about education and self discovery.

I feel that my core values have really been shaped by my ongoing discovery of Theravada Buddhism (more specifically Vipassana and Samatha meditation), especially since I attended a Christian school up until around 12 years old. Thus I feel that one of my closest core values is mindfulness, as it helps me stay grounded and gives me a way to control how external factors influence my emotions and mental health.

Another thing I strongly believe in is a person’s ability to change themselves. Or how strong (and even plastic) one’s willpower is. And I feel that this has permeated throughout a lot of my behavior. The things I worked most on in high school was building up discipline and inner confidence, and I feel that I am confident to adapt to any lifestyle changes.

I feel like as I start college, the image of myself that I am (and want to be) giving out is a combination of not just all the characteristics I am proud of, but also of best friends in high school. I was really sad when leaving my friends to go off to college, as I wouldn’t be able to see them as often (or maybe even never at all), but something that helped me make sense of it was thinking of the legacy that my friends had left upon me. When I go out and interact with all the freshmen during orientation, I am carrying the legacy of kindness, intelligence, and confidence of my closest friends from back home. And when I go back home, I want to be able to bring back a part of the friends I will make here with pride.

Through the Lens of Music: Engineering Creativity

I thought that creativity was one of those things people were born with, something I didn’t have. Everything cool was either already thought of, or somebody would think of it before me. Is it even possible to think of new things? Everything seems like it’s been thought of before. It’s not just me though, many times I hear people saying “Why didn’t I think of this before?” after something has been invented. Especially now, as creativity is seen as a valuable commodity for certain jobs, many people might feel the pressure to try to become more creative. That’s why there are tons of articles floating around listing “10 things creative people do differently”, etc.

I’ve always seen creativity as something nebulous, something that happens when somebody is staring into space — then click… a new idea is formed!

Can creativity be engineered?

Can it be broken down so that people can build their creativity? After getting my feet wet in the world of musical improv, I’ve grown to see how creativity can in fact be created. My curiosity in musical improv began with this video: it’s a video of Kyle Landry playing the piano, improvising on top of Canon in D – Pachelbel. My first reaction was — WTF? I know how to play that song, but I could never imagine myself playing it like that. No sheet music or anything for the improvised parts. Just like with jazz, I was always awestruck by people that could come up with cool solos off the top of their heads.

My next question was — How can I do that?

I searched YouTube for tutorials, and found that almost all tutorials were based on chords and scales: pentatonic, major, aeolian, blues, etc. I practiced iterating over simple chord progressions: D Major > B Major > G minor. I could play the chords in my left hand, and I was slowly experimenting ways to play the melody in the treble clef. In the beginning I couldn’t think of things to play on my left hand. I could only make one note melodies: go up and down a scale, I even felt frustrated because with over 10+ years of piano experience, I couldn’t do more then walk up and down a scale or play triads. It was also somewhat embarrassing playing what I thought sounded cool in my head out loud, voicing it out to the world. But usually after about 20 minutes of getting into my groove, I would loosen up and get into state of “musical drunkness”. I was more confident in my ability to create rhythms and melodies, but what is interesting is that every phrase I was playing was part of a particular piece of music that I had listened to or played before.

My favorite pieces by Chopin and Liszt were recurring tropes within my improvisations. But after studying chord progressions and learning the technicalities of consonance and dissonance, I began to grasp the freedom I could have within these pieces. I started to play with the structure of a peaceful song like Yiruma’s “River flows in You” to make it more march-y and violent like a waterfall crashing down. What perhaps was more interesting was testing the freedom that I couldn’t have. Trying to mash sounds together that weren’t socially “harmonious.” Something like a G major > C# minor.

Creativity really comes into play here: experimenting to see what you can make by mashing two things together: Listening to what happens when you thread a rubato filled romantic melody with the demanding technicalities of a baroque bass.

Something cool that Kyle Landry does as well, can be seen in this video, is that he has a big variety in his “improvisation arsenal.” He has a background playing classical, romantic, jazz, disney, and video game music. And throughout his improvisations, he can call upon the tropes in those genres of music to convey different things. The cool part is that different sounds resonate with unique emotions for different people. For example, I see a jazzy chromatic progression as kind of rebellious and sassy way to say something. In a way, listening to somebody write music is experiencing their past with them, experiencing the memories they grew to associate with certain sounds.

Everything starts from something before it. Improvisation cannot happen without exposure to other music. Only then you can draw on specific elements from separate genres, songs, phrases, even scaling down to as small as rubato patterns and the sound of 2 notes played together.

So how can you get more creative?

Expose yourself to every form of music. I’ve never been into jazz in the past, but after listening to it more and more, I’m starting to grow a liking towards it. What is most important though, is that you don’t see this exposure to other fields of music as a stepping stone.

It is imperative that you live and experience the time you are spending inside a genre, as forming those resonant, emotional links with the music is what’s going to be added to your “improvisation arsenal.” It’s not just about the breadth of exposure, it’s also important (and fun!) to go in depth into the nuances, finer details, and ornaments from each era: rubato in romantic, chordal structure in pop, swing in jazz, chromatic progressions in jazz and contemporary, etc. An exercise that I find really helps is trying to imagine a song you already know in a different genre. Like in this video. Scott plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star across different eras in music: waltz, reggae, jazz, rock, and even dubstep.

Taking off the lens
This post was actually a way for me to experiment talking about a concept that’s been on my mind but through a different perspective: music. Like Scott playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in ragtime, thinking about topics in a variety of lenses like this could build our creativity.