Happy Anniversary

Wow, it’s already been a year.

One year ago I started this blog, thinking that I would just write for myself. Never wanted to show it to anybody. I wrote because I knew it would help me understand myself better, understand why I chose to go to Swarthmore. I kept my blog private until my friend encouraged me to make it public, and you can bet I was embarrassed as hell – what was I thinking, writing about love. Before I dreaded writing, especially in the common app days. Now?  It is my foundation.

What excites me?

The fact that exactly one year ago, I could’ve never imagine myself as a writer, that I could bear writing alone when everybody else was doing other things. Staying up after doing homework to write, even writing to procrastinate from homework. But this is just the beginning. I took my last final today, and now my freshman year of college is over. I have changed so much in one year, and writing is something I never imagined I would be doing. I am excited about what I will become in the future. Will I continue writing, stay in college, do something completely different? Who cares, what I have learned is that it doesn’t matter. If I held my preconceived idea of what I would be doing in 5 years, no way would I be writing in my free time. I would probably be forcing myself to make some programming side projects. What comes to mind are two professors from Swarthmore – Barry Schwartz and Steven Hopkins. When asked why they decided to pursue psychology or religion, they said that they didn’t really choose it. They tried it out and fell in love with those subjects.

Almost none of the big decisions I have made in my life felt like decisions. I applied for one job what was my decision? Do I take it or not take it? So I fell in love with psychology as a freshmen in college—I never in some sense decided to be a psychology major; there was no “Plan B.” I was really enthusiastic about it so I took as much psychology as I could and I was a psychology major. So it feels to me that most of the things that looking back were decisions felt at the time more like things that happened to me rather than things that I chose. – Barry Schwartz (interview)

So my answer to the question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? I don’t know, and I don’t think it really matters. I will continue putting all my effort into the things that interest me, and if those interests change, I will simply shift my efforts. I’m open to change, and I will take things as they come.

My Biggest Change

I came into college thinking that everybody had some sort of plan, and the purpose of college was to pursue those plans. College was a time to be selfish, do everything for ourselves. Define ourselves by our successes, build up a reputation, develop personality traits that will eventually become marketable business skills. Every action was chosen because it would benefit me in the future. Or as the Little Prince would say, everything was a matter of consequence. But learning for the sake of learning then became an empty phrase that I said to distinguish myself from others.

In my freshmen year of college, I have transitioned from wanting a successful life to a meaningful one. And living a meaningful life means being open and vulnerable. Now I am noticing a transition from a sense of identity defined by what I do for myself, to one defined by what I do in relation to other people. I thought that life was about building myself up to be the best, but it is others that make life fun and significant. Life’s not about optimizing. What exactly is the “best”? Nobody knows the answer to these questions, and you will torture yourself if you are committed to finding the best.

A lot of my thinking has been influenced by the Lun Yu – I feel like I have grown to understand what it really means to do something for the sake of doing it. Again, when I first started writing in this blog and my personal journal, I wrote because I knew that writing would give me benefits – understanding, writing skills, etc. But now I write because writing is fucking wonderful. 

So now as summer arrives, it’s time to keep things moving (and cut all the weight I’ve gained from my bulk :P). I have changed so much over the past year, and I’m not done yet. I’ll be headed to Kyoto, Japan and Shanxi, China to practice meditation alone in some monasteries. Planning out my summer plans reminded me of my mom’s disapproval and fear when I told her I was committing to Swarthmore. But I know that I would’ve never grown like this if I hadn’t come here. Maybe I should just continue doing the things she is scared of in order to grow. But on a more serious note, my mom is really an indicator of my comfort, and going against her will probably bite me in the ass in the future.

But when that does happen, you better believe that I’ll be writing about it here.

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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

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.

Casting away the chains of comfort

Why did I choose Swarthmore?

A question difficult for me to answer, and also the question that’s been on my mind ever since committing to Swarthmore. I’m going to take this time to put my thoughts of decision into words.

I come from a traditional asian family, with parents who don’t seen the point of going to a liberal arts school, especially compared to other top schools that I could’ve chosen. Given that I wanted to major in computer science, we all thought that it was going to be a no-brainer to choose a school with the more reputable computer science program.

When I visited Swarthmore, I wasn’t immediately captivated by the campus. I didn’t have that “love at first sight” feeling. To be completely honest, I felt pretty uncomfortable being there. I felt outclassed by everybody there choosing between Swarthmore and other ivy leagues. I was intimidated by the tremendous academic stress at Swat. I felt confined in the small campus. I had always seen myself going to a big university. I had heard many perspectives of the computer science program from other Swatties, and one thing that was apparent was that Swarthmore wasn’t really the place to go if you wanted to be surrounded by tech recruiters offering students internships left and right. Being in a tech internship right now, I am in love with the type of people I work with and I can see the definite benefits of having many internship experiences. My parents are constantly telling me how I’m going to make more money going to a technical school to study computer science. And to top it off, Swarthmore isn’t really a household name that is thrown around, so not many companies know about it. To the outside, these reasons should be as clear as day for me to not choose Swarthmore. But something inside me kept urging me to go to Swat, and what made it worse was that I knew exactly what that was.

Looking back, the people I looked up to the most weren’t necessarily extremely smart, extremely rich, etc. They were people who were grounded by their human values, people who could genuinely connect with other people, and people who truly wanted to expand their minds. During Ride the Tide at Swarthmore, I made a new friend with a senior who asked me to help with a dance choreography she was working on. I asked a Swattie questions over Facebook, and she invited me to video chat her over Skype for a more personal experience. I strive to be as friendly as them. This is the type of person that I want to become, and I noticed how there was nothing related to computer science here. Interests are plastic, and they will continue to develop or change as long as I’m open to them. Hell, I thought I wanted to study medicine for my whole life until I started my engineering internship at Caviar the summer before my senior year in high school. I pretty much had no experience with programming before officially starting my internship, but once I started, my dedication to it grew like wildfire. I would come into the office almost 10 hours everyday to learn from other engineers and try out new things myself, and the people I met there are some of the coolest people I know. How awesome is it to say that I loved going to work because I’m in an environment where I’m constantly challenged, where I’m surrounded by my friends. We had our own inside jokes, we knew about our quirky habits, and we had so much fun. As I have dedicated myself to many different hobbies: badminton, pen spinning, card magic, programming, weightlifting, etc, I noticed that each of these hobbies/interests had their own worlds that I completely immersed myself in. The pen spinning community had it’s own community, with its own inside jokes and even a language we developed over time. It’s kind of like that word sonder.

sonder – n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

In the context of academics, every major has a whole world and community behind it, and I want to be able to experience those worlds. And more importantly, I wanted to genuinely connect with these new people who were crazy in love with the things they did. Hanging around with students exclusively from your major would, in a way, feel confining. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can find passion or fall in love with anything, as long as we’re open minded and willing to enjoy it.

Going back to the discomfort I felt at Swarthmore, I knew that in order for me to grow as a human, I’m going to sooner or later have to face that discomfort. I knew that if I wound up attending an engineering school, I would be extremely comfortable there, I would have tons of fun with people who I shared interests with. We played the same video games, we had the same quirky internet behavior, etc. But at the same time, the thing I want most is to progress, to change. How much would it suck if I came out of college exactly the same as I was right now in high school? Something my Swat admissions staff told me and something I agree with is that yes, Swarthmore is going to be extremely challenging. Honestly though, that is how I’m going to grow. I’ve been coasting throughout my whole high school career, and although it was fun, it left me bored and ultimately unfulfilled. If I’m going to be coasting through college all four years, then basically it’s like me wasting my time at an expensive summer camp.

At a technical school, I see myself graduating, meeting people who will become my best friends, and probably working at some tech company — which indeed is a great life. At Swat, however, I honestly have no idea who I will become or where I will end up, but maybe that’s the why I want to go there so badly. I would’ve never seen myself going to a liberal arts college, but hey, that’s a whole new world that I will be able to be a part of.

I’m still scared of how much work I will be doing, how well I’m going to make friends, how far I will be away from home. I’m thinking: fuck me, this is going to be very, very hard. But that’s why I chose Swarthmore, I will face these fears in order to grow. My best friend told me something that I will hold onto as I go on exploring my life in college.

“You need to cast away the chains of comfort to become the man you never were.” – Andrew Guan