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.

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.

Chasing a Feeling

sam_chasing_a_feeling

On day 4 of my trip to Taiwan, I visited Tamsui (淡水), and that’s where I got a watermelon bucket hat! We took a boat from Tamsui to Bali, a separate island. I thought it was super cool how everything was unified by the easy-card. I could pay for train tickets, food, and now a boat ride with just one card! It’s similar to the Bay Area’s clipper card, which uses NFC, and could probably (if not already) be integrated to add balance from a mobile device.

In Bali, we rented a four-seater bike and rode all around the island. We had no plans, no guides to follow, and no train schedules to keep track of. It was just biking on the island, following whatever looked interesting. We stopped to exercise at public workout stations, biked slowly to watch the city line on the other side disappear into the fog, and rode off trail to get better views. It was fulfilling to be free from the typical touristy trip structure – I have to hit city A, restaurant B, museum C, etc. Rather I was chasing a feeling inherent to those “touristy areas” – the joy of immersing in Taiwan’s nature and culture. The pleasure I would receive from visiting that famous art museum would be quantified by a scale of how fully I participated in the Taiwanese lifestyle there (at least that’s why I travel). And while riding that bicycle, free of any planned stops, I felt that I was chasing a raw curiosity and joy rather than trying to squeeze out enjoyment from lets say a popular museum or a recommended restaurant.

So I’m thinking that for my college experience, I want to chase the feelings. The feeling of challenging why I make certain decisions, the feeling of reflecting on my life (by writing this blog!), and the feeling of truly connecting with other people. I don’t want my life be bound by specific things in college like majors. I find myself not necessarily passionate about a specific subject like Computer Science, but more so passionate about the gears behind that subject like designing new things and logical reasoning. When I was biking in Bali, I ended up in alleys I would have never expected myself entering. As of now, I’m pretty set on studying CS, but who knows, chasing those feelings may lead me elsewhere. Finally, I feel that what’s most important is to not be afraid of ending up somewhere where you would’ve never expected because of the fear of leaving somewhere safe or whatever else.

After all, if you’re chasing a feeling you truly enjoy, won’t you be happy wherever you end up?

Resonance

I don’t feel my previous post about why I chose Swat gives the full story behind my decision, it was more about what I didn’t feel comfortable with rather than the specifics I liked about Swarthmore. So in this post I’m going to be talking more or so about the idea of resonance, especially that among a group of students.

So to talk about this topic, I think it’s most fitting to start by talking about role models — the people I meet in real life and online that I look up to. The type of people I look up to most are the people that are constantly thinking about how to improve their lives, and that in turn makes me think about my life. When I first visited Quora to read about colleges, I honestly spent hours on it not even reading about specifically colleges, but also things about like growing old, finding love, etc. Things that ground us as humans. Reading people write about these things was sort of addictive, it was so captivating in the way that it would always bring me on the ‘feel‘ trips. I loved to get lost in my thoughts thinking about my life, asking questions to myself. It’s kind of like when you’re listening to a song and although you’re kinda tuning out the lyrics, you are staring off into space lost in thoughts about whatever the song is about.

So from just talking with students at Swarthmore, both in person and online, I was captivated by the fact that people were thinking about their lives in such ways. Questioning why they’re majoring in Computer Science, questioning why they are even trying hard in college. And I feel that at all the other colleges I was admitted into were so focused on the pre-professional world that this whole humanistic side of our lives is lost in that job-crazed vortex. I kind of realized this when somebody asked me why I would go to college if I could already make enough money to sustain myself and be happy. Huh, I was thinking about that question. My parents, (and I think I can safely say most asian families) see college as the just the transition to getting a high paying job. Pushing so hard in high school was important so that we could into top colleges, and then college will be a breeze, then we’ll be making bank. I think this is apparent by the fact that my parents (and maybe many other parents) don’t really care or worry about the actual events in college, they just care about trying hard in high school to get in. So going back to a Swattie questioning why she should continue pursuing computer science – that struck me pretty hard because I don’t think many people would even question something like that. Especially for me growing up in San Francisco / Silicon Valley where it is clear as day that comp sci is one of the most lucrative professions, seeing somebody question showed that Swatties do care more about just making money. And I talked about this in my previous post, how I would be interested in majoring in pretty much anything.

I’ve also noticed that students at Swat are actively trying to become the best versions of themselves, not just in their majors (programming, math, physics), but also in their humanistic side by challenging their values, developing meaningful relationships, etc. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I look up to the people who embrace and want to improve their human side. And for myself, all of these things that I’ve talked about have been filtered through my lens, so developing that human side is something that means a lot to me. I will be going to a school where I would be surrounded by people with this sort of intrinsic desire, and it doesn’t even matter that we are studying different majors, since we would all be held together by that inherent glue.

So talking about all this stuff might make it seem like I have a whole set plan for myself in college. But it’s in fact the opposite. I have no clue what is going to happen to me going here, and I think what best sums it up is a metaphor regarding this legendary piston Tesla talked about. tl;dr it is about a tiny piston that, when moved up and down at the perfect frequencies in an oscillator, could even cause an earthquake. So at Swarthmore, how (maybe at least I think that) since I share that inherent glue, that matching frequency with everybody else,  even if I have no idea what’s going to happen to me, I know that oscillating at that frequency, that vibe I care most about most, will empower me to shake the world. And perhaps what I love most about this is that even if I end up in a place completely different from what I’m imagining now, I will be happy.

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