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.

College is…

Chasing romanticized ideas of some things, then realizing the reality of them.

Having my eyes wide open in my seminar. Soaking everything in, learning so much that I can’t imagine to be asleep. Pages flipping so quickly as everything in my brain is clicking together when looking at past readings.

When relationships get nuanced.

Maturing my naive feelings, and the joy of chasing those matured feelings.

Sitting in the chair of the music library, completely entranced in my readings. I don’t feel my neck pain anymore, because the ideas in my head are flying everywhere and making connections with each other.

Walking frustratingly into office hours driven by questions rather than trying to impress.

Questioning… Questioning why the hell I’m here.

Questioning why I care about prestige.

Not knowing what I’m going to get myself into, then doing it anyway.

Feeling like you’ve met a spiritual sage talking to your professor.

You know that feeling when you have to write a paper that is 7 pages long, and have no idea how the hell you’re going to complete it? But there is the beautiful moment when you get so immersed in the content that you forget about small details like page length. Getting so dedicated to trying to tell the best story, forming the best arguments – then by the time you know it, you’ve exceeded the page length requirement.

Having the autonomy to do what I want, and focusing the things that I actually care about. Then riding on that positive wave of confidence where everything just seems to be getting better. Hitting new PRs (increasing my lifts) everyday in the gym, sleeping better and better, classes getting more engaging and challenging, becoming happier and happier in general.

Being unable to sleep, then playing pool, talking about life, and cooking with friends until 5 AM.

Reading about my culture and things from my childhood – but scribbled in the margins are the confusing inconsistencies stuck in my head, questioning how my values are conflicting with what I’m reading.

Being completely captivated by your math professor.

Doing random things just to spice things up.

Having people you care about that do those random things with you.

Maturing relationships with parents and friends.

Having a lot of things to do but ending up writing anyways because that’s what is more important.

Eating by myself.

Making mistakes, feeling terrible, and vowing never to do them again.

Going to New York during finals week.

Talking late into the night not just about academics but about living life.

Waking up in the morning, jumping out of the bed and skipping to the bathroom with a smile plastered on my face. What a time to be alive.

Having lots of homework to do, then dropping all of it to do something spontaneous with friends. Just to spice things up.

Having friends who are genuinely happy and passionate about life.

 

[This was extremely fun and nostalgic to write! I’m excited to write another every semester/year to see how my college experience matures]

Pass Fail Never Ends

Back in high school, all I cared about was boosting my GPA. I never thought I could learn so much from failing.
I didn’t come to Swarthmore to continue doing the things I excelled at – then college would just be an expensive summer camp. Pass/Fail meant that I could spend time on myself, I could take that seminar on Philosophy, a topic I thought I’d never study. I could spend my time with new friends, maybe get into a relationship, exercise to maintain my health, all without these dreaded grades pressuring me, right? Most people I know failed at certain subjects in school (maybe not getting F’s, but by struggling) and now have simply decided “I’m not a ____ person” or “I just don’t get _____” e.g. “I’m not a Math person.” That absolves them from trying, which keeps them from failing, which keeps them from learning.
At a place like Swarthmore, too many people are killing themselves working to get that perfect GPA. Make sure you get a B, and do it early. Once you do you’ll stop worrying about having to get a perfect GPA because it’s no longer attainable. Only then will you be free to actually get an education. College is the time to take risky courses in topics you don’t understand, in topics you aren’t sure you like, and in topics that appear beyond your grasp.
Successful students have been taught to rely on talent, which makes them unable to fail gracefully.
But I challenge you to go out there – challenge yourself and fail.
 
Fail to make your time worth it. 

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

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. 

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?