journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

keep on trying

I think I’ve mentioned a few times that I don’t really have much faith in humanity – there have been too many instances where we have collectively chosen the easy over the difficult, the short-term versus the long-term, the choice to perpetuate negativity over positivity.

It remains a disconnect, between my entire cynicism of humanity and my idealism for change. I think my idealism is sustained by the fact that history does not depend on the majority to change, and that time and time again, we have shown tremendous resilience despite the damage some of us have chosen to do. You do not need everyone to believe you in order to start a war, but you do not need to get buy-in from everyone to start building rockets too.

Sometimes I think we tend to over-focus on the current slice of time, forgetting the progress we have made over thousands of years. Similarly, we take for granted what has been handed to us on a plate precisely because of the work that has been done by the previous generations.

I find it difficult to take my privilege for granted, and I want to say that the concept of meritocracy is bullshit. It annoys me to no end when people say success will come when you work hard. There are people in this world, billions of them in fact, that will not see the light at the end of the tunnel no matter how hard they work. They are screwed over by their socio-economic factors, which are largely dependent about their geographic location. I resent it people tell me that I deserve my “success”, as opposed to other people not deserving theirs because they didn’t choose to work hard enough, however “success” is being defined. I cannot tell you how many times I had to depend on the random colliding of events to even be alive, much less anything else.

Yes, I worked hard, yes, I showed up too, and I took giant leaps of faith. But I recognize the fact that I was born at the right place, at the right time, and that made all the difference to my life. I am sorry, but it doesn’t take an economist to point out the fact that I could work my bones off but it wouldn’t have mattered if I was born in a place where even basic literacy is a challenge or if I was born at a time when gender-equality or technology was not in my favor. I also consider myself very lucky to have my skills recognized at a time when they are in demand, but I remember the early decade in my life when I had to fight really hard to work in design.

I could look back in time and said that I made the right bets, but who knew?

I think about all the people who have suffered in order for me to be comfortably typing this piece in my chair today. I think about people like Alan Turing, the activists who gave up their lives and security, I think about the countless people who lost their lives in wars, so that I can have a taste of peace.

So I won’t lie. I find it incredibly frustrating when I see us focusing our effort and energy into things that do not matter at this point in time. Yes, when we have achieved world peace, I don’t care if we want to make the next generation photo-sharing app, but right now, there are really more important problems to solve.

Yet, it is easy for me to not even try, because I genuinely do not see how we can dig ourselves out of the massive hole we’ve created, so I may as well sit back, or retire in the mountains. If I truly believe the end will be the same, why do I repeatedly put myself in uncomfortable situations just for the hope of a little change? I don’t enjoy putting myself out there all the time, I don’t enjoy facing so much demoralization because well, guess what? The people doing the work can’t help but be cynical too. Time and time again, we are being let down collectively, time and time again, we grab on to the tiny silver of hope we can have.

How many times can you have your heart broken? I ask myself this everyday. But I keep on trying anyway. I no longer even have time to feel like an impostor, because to be even in that position to ask that question is a luxury. The people in poverty do not wake up everyday to ask themselves if they are good enough for something, because every single decision they have to make will result in their families having enough to eat or not. I know that if I incessantly worry whether I am capable of doing the work, I am giving up precious energy to do the actual work instead.

I keep on trying, because I care deeply, and when you care this deeply, a lot of things cease to matter. It is like loving someone because you simply do, you do not love because it is tied to some condition tied to success. Maybe I don’t wish to admit this, but despite all the disappointment I have felt, the love I have for humanity is unconditional – because no amount of logic or rationality can explain why I keep on trying, despite being made to feel like having ideals is wrong in this world where we celebrate cannibalizing our own people economically, and yet holding that potentially misguided faith that one day, we could take that giant leap into a world where it is clearly evident that our survival is really dependent on each other, that doing well at the expense of others is not going to be sustainable.

finding balance

I’ve been unwell for the past two weekends. I’ve had one of my chronic migraines last weekend and this week, I’ve been having a headache with chills. Having chronic pain to me is worse than being outright sick like having a flu, because at least with a flu, you know it is going to go away eventually with the appropriate treatment. And it is not your fault that you are infected with a virus.

With chronic pain though, I start to wonder what went wrong and when. Was it my diet? Have I been thinking too much? Lack of exercise? Each time I try to do anything with my brain – think, read, write, all the favorite things I like to do, my pain and fatigue worsens.

I haven’t been sick for two weeks straight, in a very long while. It is making me ask myself some difficult questions. I have always been constitutionally weaker than the average person I would guess, in a different way. I don’t get colds or flus as much, but any shifts in my diet, sleep or environment will trigger something from a full spectrum of chronic issues.

I wonder if I have a finite unchangeable amount of energy I need to be careful of depleting, and if that means from now on I just have to be really picky about the things I choose to exert my energy on? I’ve just been reading a lot of research on chronic migraines, and apparently migraine sufferers have a different brain structure. It makes me wonder how much of it I can change, and how much of it is about learning how to cope.

It may mean that despite my obvious enjoyment and satisfaction from activities that require thinking, I may have to cut them down while I try to regain some balance to my health. It will take a lot of experimenting, and it may be possible that this can be something I cannot change, and therefore I need to decide where I want to focus my finite energy on.

I guess it is also a timely reminder that like everything else, life requires balance, and there’s perhaps no way I can get away with infinitely thinking without suffering any consequences. It is now time to incorporate less-thinking activities into my life – yoga, meditation, any suggestions?

an internal vacation

Everyone’s gone for the holidays. Last year I had a two week road trip, so this year I was wondering if I should be doing anything. I contemplated visiting San Diego, I haven’t been there, and traveling always brings me unexpected gifts.

But I’ve always had this fantasy of having all the time in the world to do all the things I never had time to do – read, learn, cook, code, write, whatever. The truth is I have a fear of missing out, but not the regular FOMO that people have, but rather, I fear missing out on some potential self that would exist if I don’t keep on searching. That is why I travel so much, it is a search for all the potential selves that exist.

I am exhausted from all the traveling I did this year, not just physically, but also mentally. The travels were catalysts to major life changes that resulted in several shifts in my life, both externally and internally. More about that in my upcoming end-of-year review posts.

So this year, I am going to take an internal vacation. I’m rediscovering the delight of consuming people’s work, and through that I get a peek into their hopes and imagination. That spurs my desire to create, because I want to participate in this beautiful collective consciousness we tend to take so much for granted. Yes, the world is ugly too, but we often don’t remember all the progress we’ve made, how far we’ve come along, how much work our ancestors have put in. I don’t have the answers to deal with the ugliness, for now I am choosing to consciously focus on the good – how can I be part of the good, how can I appreciate others for being good, how to make the world understand that being good is not “being nice”, it is the only sustainable way we can survive.

To have the time and space to freely consume and create, is a huge privilege I don’t want to ever take for granted. It is a theme that comes up a lot in my writing, because the seemingly mundane act of reading a book or trying to create anything requires us not to be in the constant threat of danger. We forget, how good clean water tastes, how great are hot showers, how magical it is to be reading a sequence of letters that conveys complex meaning.

I have spent too much of my life always trying to go somewhere, trying to do something, to find that elusive joy and meaning, only to realize the magic of life lies in having the capacity to notice the extraordinary in ordinary.


In other news, I’ve started a tinyletter. You would think I would have no words left in me after writing so frequently. I am not really sure what I am going to do with it yet, except there’s this desire to connect in a more personal manner with the people who have been with my writing and me for a while. I want to know who my people are, and I want to be your person too. It’ll probably be more of a dialogue, you could directly reply to me in my inbox, and perhaps we can wax lyrical about provocative socio-political theories.

the more I read

It is ironic how much I’ve evolved when it comes to goals, routines and habits. I remember so much of myself having an “artist temperament”, which loosely translates to “do anything I like at anytime”. If only they told me earlier that many of these artists had strict routines and practices.

I’ve written about some of my favorite habits, as well as the realization that I’ve to force myself to travel, all designed to overcome my lizard brain.

This year, I’ve set myself a goodreads reading challenge of 68 books, in an ambitious attempt to better my previous year’s goal of 50. Why? I know if I didn’t set myself a conscious goal, I’ll not prioritize reading among all the busyness in my life. I’m also trying to make up for all those years I’ve spent blindly living. Years I’ve hardly finished five books, much less 50. It also helps to realize that even if I tried really hard, there would still be a very finite number of books I can finish in my lifetime. Maybe not even 2000 books if I keep to a book a week for the rest of my life?

I’ve entered December with 22 books off my goal, so I did the next best thing. I picked books that were highly recommended but short. It was a great decision on hindsight, because I started reading books I might not have read otherwise.

Among them were “A room of one’s own”, “The awakening”, “Invisible cities”, “The lathe of heaven”, and “Too loud a solitude”. Books are like micro-worlds, like little travel experiences. The best ones not only bring you to another world, but they make your heart churn with their beautiful prose. They make you think, what sort of mind is capable of stringing words like they were never meant to exist otherwise?

The more I read, the more I yearn to read. For they remind me of all the other books I’m missing out on, the elasticity of the human mind, the worlds we could build, if only we give ourselves that time and space – to be, to create, to think. That books are evidence that we have a collective consciousness, that this consciousness will expand if everyone is free to share and access.

Imagine a world where we all hoard our knowledge, ideas and imagination?

death transforms

I flew back into San Francisco yesterday, and people have been asking me how I’m doing. I tell them I don’t know.

All I know is that death inevitably changes us. Sometimes it takes looking at a body in a casket to understand how final death is. That finality has made me re-examine my own assumptions on how I want to live.

I haven’t fully processed my thoughts or emotions yet, and I am not sure if I ever will. But I want to capture a snapshot of my mind at this point in time:

I think at every moment in life we have a conscious choice – do we experience regret over the previous moment, or do we endeavor to make the present or future moment count?

My grandfather left my grandmother, so she became a single parent in her early 20s with my mom as her only child (think about being a single mom in those days). I think about everything that my grandmother had lived through in order to enable the life my mother has led, I think about everything they had to overcome in order for me to have an opportunity to own my hopes and struggles.

I think about the stories they had to be part of, for me to tell mine.

I can spend the next few months in grief and guilt, for all the time I couldn’t spend with them. Or I can make my own life count. And hopefully, by trying to make my life count, I get to help others make theirs count as well.

I’ve always known that the promise of death makes many other things look trivial in the grand scheme of things. This time, it took death to make me start comprehending what it means for an entire life to be lived and lost, relative to mine. I have lived most of my life with tons of insecurities and fear – while this year has been transformative in terms of self-empowerment, experiencing my grandmother’s passing while I’m 8,000 miles away took that to a whole new dimension.

It would have been terribly dishonorable to let myself get in the way of my life’s work, not only because of the struggles the women in my life had to go through, but because I have traded off my grandmother’s missing of her grandchild, in exchange for my self to feel alive.

It is something I will have to live with, and I want to make it worthwhile.

endings

My maternal grandmother passed away yesterday, and in a couple of hours, I will be on a plane back to Singapore for the funeral. She was 82.

It is a strange time to be writing, but writing has always been the only way I know how to cope. There are a lot of complex thoughts and feelings, so perhaps for once, I would process most of them privately.

But it made me hyper-aware of the tradeoffs I have to make in order to be here. I knew this phone call would come sooner or later, I know it may not be the last I will receive in the time to come. I knew it would be inevitable that one day I would have to take a 20 hour plane flight before I am able to be there for the people I love, at a time when they need me the most.

I know that 20 hours could mean a huge difference between during and after.

The tradeoffs I have made so far have shaped me significantly, everyone of them has broken me and strengthened me in places I would never have imagined.

I don’t know who I’ll be when I return, I don’t know how much of a human being would be left of me each time this happens. Maybe it could make me more of one.

I know I will have to live with the conscious decisions I make and the regrets I would accumulate, but this I believe:

That love transcends time and space – whether it is to make myself feel better or to keep the faith for this world – I hope that the people I love, will know that I love them wherever I am or who I will become, that I am sorry to be so broken, that attempting to carry out my life’s work is the only way I know how to love them back.

Goodbye Grandma. I love you, no matter where you’ve gone, and no matter where I am. Till then.

transition

I’ve been having a weekly sunday publishing routine for probably more than a year now. Most of the time, it is my favorite time of the weekend. Sometimes, like today, I don’t feel like I want to publish anything. But I guess that’s why long-running streaks are powerful. No matter how much I don’t feel like writing, breaking my streak feels worse.

Since I don’t have any particular theme I want to write about, I’ll write a snapshot of my mind at this moment in time. That’s a really good fallback, because I always have a million things running in my mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot on morality lately, how people, including myself, seem to like taking the moral high ground without considering the nuances of the narrative and viewpoints of all parties involved. I think about how easily we’re actually manipulated (obviously I’ve been watching too many political dramas), and the line between right and wrong is constantly blurred all the time. Also, how do we decide on what is right and wrong without the capacity to observe the impact of the event for years to come?

Another subject on my mind is vulnerability and connections. Great connections with people come when we throw ourselves wide open. I’ve read Amanda Palmer’s new book in the past week, and it set me thinking a lot. One of my favorite part of the book is the foreword by Brene Brown:

I’ve always considered myself to be really open, only to realize that it is only true to a certain depth. I’ll give almost all of myself to anyone who’s willing to connect with me at the depth, till like 80%, and the last 20%, I don’t even know I can reach that depth with myself.

That said, I’ve also realized that I’ve been spending the past three years working really hard on myself, because prior to that I was just too busy coping with life to even take a good look at the person I am and who I want to be. I feel like I am still in transition, still trying to suss out who I actually want to be. The older I grow, the more I learn that I don’t actually know myself very well. I have proven myself wrong so many times in the past three years that I don’t even know who I am anymore.

So I’ve spent these three years mostly isolating myself, mostly because I needed some space to recover from my old self – basically unlearning a whole lot of what I knew. I think I am still a work-in-progress (and always be, but I mean foundationally), but I think it is time to climb out of that self-made shell.

I’ve surprised myself by how life has unfolded for the past six months, so I no longer have expectations of who I’ll be, except that I hope to be always open to risk:

writing for broken people

I just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’s latest book: “The slow regard of silent things”. It was a strange book, but I liked it in a way that was strange too, and I understood why when I read the author’s note at the end of the book:

and

And he signed off with:

“This story is for all the slightly broken people out there. I am one of you. You are not alone. You are all beautiful to me.”

I got all choked up reading that last sentence, because it served as a profound reminder of why I write what I write. There are many great stories written for the world, and then there are the ones who will never be as widely appreciated, but they possess their own magnitude. They are written for people like me, to remind us that we are really not alone.

I write for broken people, and I am one of them.

growing up together

This trip back to Singapore I made a very deliberate effort to meet up with people I deeply care about. I packed in all the meetings I could while spending time with my family as well. I had to spend a full day in Seoul recovering from a migraine that happens every time I over-stretch myself, but it was very much worth it because I got to be present with the people I love.

Us Singaporeans are a strange bunch. To me, it takes incredible resilience and courage to carve out our own individual paths in a place where conformity is hugely prided. I have found so much inspiration, solace and strength through an unexpected peer support network. These people have seen me grow from a nervous, shy, stuttering person to someone who is able to look at any stranger in the eye and have a conversation on equal footing.

Today, I just wanted to spend a little bit of time to express my appreciation to these people, because age has taught me never to take people we care about for granted, especially the ones who are willing to be there as witnesses to our growth.

Spending time with Danny is a must each time we are in the same city, be it SF or Singapore. I have spent countless hours in deep conversation with him, including nights when we stopped only because the sun was about to rise. We have very similar philosophies in life on a macro level, but we end up in non-conclusive debates on a micro level because we operate on different frequencies. There are some people who are great to be in disagreement with, because they serve as important checks to our lives, and Danny is one of them. More importantly, he was there when I had to make several life-changing decisions back in 2011. Neither of us saw what was to come in both our lives for the next few years, but it has been incredulous.

Then, there is Adri, but I have written what was virtually the most romantic platonic love letter ever, so I’ll save the words this time.

Alex and I worked together for a really short while in 2005, before he went on to build one of the best design portals in the world. We lost touch for half a decade before reconnecting again, only because I needed his help in verifying my employment during that period (yeah, visa). It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because since then we’ve connected every time we are in the same city. This is special to me because we knew each other at a time long before our current trajectories, before all the extra weight we hold now.

Cheekiong goes way further back, all the way in 2002, when he gave me my first job in graphic design even though I had zero experience in print. We can only connect the dots backwards, and his decision enabled me to spend the next few years of my career picking up all the design fundamentals I needed while working on print. Having a print design background was key to my development as a designer. It was those days that I learned grids, type, offset print proccesses, branding principles. There is nothing like having to design for a print run with no point of return while praying fervently that I didn’t make a typo or accidentally included a low-res image. Some days I still miss running my hands over ink swatches and maiming my fingers while working on paper mockups. Print is still something I deeply love.

I got to visit Google Singapore while meeting Lucian. Lucian has been writing on the web before blogging was even a thing. I have been reading him for a long time before we connected over twitter in 2008, and we eventually bonded over a common purpose in trying to make things around us better in the ways we know how to. I admire him for the love of his country, while he has been patient with me for the resentment of mine. Same country, vastly different feelings.

I somehow see Audrey and Min as the same entity. This time around I only managed to see Audrey, only because I know I’ll get to catch up with Min soon in the Bay Area. There wasn’t a typical ramp up period while getting to know them. I met them separately, and since then it was like we were separated from birth, almost. Well, we can’t be separated from birth since they’re more than half a decade younger, but I find tremendous comfort and pride with the work they have been doing despite the tremendous challenges they face. I met them when they were 23, and it has just been amazing to be a witness to their journey, the same way they have been to mine.

Bernise is the most recent addition, but a profound one. Time doesn’t make a difference when it comes to forming deep connections. We only met up last year because I happened to see her tweet that she was visiting SF. I have been observing her work on social impact for a long while before getting to know her. Since then it has been inspiring and energizing witnessing her relentless dedication to the work she believes in. Just having her in my life is enough to make me feel less delusional about the change I am hoping to make, because she is already walking that talk in ways I can probably never match.

Finally, there are several personal friends that I met up with but are not named here, not because they are less important, but they belong to a different space in my life. I have a bunch of friends whom I’ve known since I was 17, and it matters a lot to me because they have seen the worst of me and somehow they are still around for me. There are other ones who have known me way before my life in San Francisco became a remote possibility – these are the ones there with me when I was a crying, whining mess, before I knew what to do with my life, before meaning found me.

There are other people I couldn’t meet as well due to scheduling constraints, but connections are not measured by the time we spend together, but rather the immediacy we feel after all that time apart.

I am writing this to express my immense gratitude to the people who are with me in my life, because I would be very much less without their stories, growth, empowerment, support and their individual desire to make the change they want to see in this world and in their own lives.

I hope we can all continue to grow up together, and for a long time to come, bear witness to each other’s unfolding journeys – where we lend our strengths to one another, while we continue to be unafraid of falling and picking ourselves up, over and over again.

enforced travelling

I have come to a point in my life where I don’t actually look forward to travelling anymore. I feel like I haven’t gotten enough of SF even after two years, so I am always leaving her with my heart heavy.

I have fallen in love with other cities, but it is always SF that feels like home. It doesn’t matter where I go, how much I loved my experiences while travelling – ultimately I still want to be back home.

I have flown into Seoul with a serious case of homesickness. I was supposed to stay here for 10 days, only to half my trip so I can be back earlier. It isn’t the first time I have written about feeling this way, and probably wouldn’t be the last.

But being in Seoul reminded me why I force travelling upon myself. As much as I love being in SF, it has admittedly turned into a comfort zone for me. In some ways I am so blinded by the peace I feel, that it has become more challenging to have my thoughts and emotions provoked.

It is during my travels that I become acutely aware of the diverse beauty of humanity, that no matter where I am, grace seems to find me in unexpected places. I found myself thinking today while looking at the people attempting to make the best out of their own lives, in ways they know of – that this world is worth saving, it is worth working hard to preserve the work of our human forefathers.

I don’t always believe that is true. Half the time I really don’t feel any sympathy if we self-destruct. Considering that we pride production over preserving our source of oxygen and that we seem not to mind using the ocean as a garbage dump, it is difficult for me to envision us surviving the rate of destruction we’re causing to this beautiful planet.

Yet it is during these travels, these travels I force upon myself, that I get reminded over and over again, we can be a species capable of so much depth and intensity.

I just wish we can be much better at maximizing our human capital instead of putting our kids through factory lines of numbing education and false narratives. Or that one day soon, we will recognize that diversity is neccessary to our own evolution, so we can stop treating poverty and disempowered minorities like it is not our problem to solve.