journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

In pursuit of knowledge

I was browsing my facebook feed this morning when I came across a link that my friend Yu-mei has shared. I had goosebumps rising all over me while reading it and it provoked me into thinking about my younger self. Apart from the couple of years I wrote essays for my political science modules, I don’t think I spent much time thinking critically. At least not in the depth this young writer seemed to be at ease with.

Perhaps it is unfair to be so harsh on my younger self, for I have spent those years as part of a spiritual journey to find the meaning of my life. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be otherwise, on hindsight. There is the thought that one can possess intellectually, but having a spiritual core to process that thought is important to me as well.

So now the question is, at this point in my life, where I am slightly 2 months over 32, can I still pursue knowledge? Can I still fill up my soon-to-be middle-aged brain with all these complex thoughts and concepts by various thinkers throughout history and resurface with my sanity intact? Can I still develop my mind to process thought in multiple dimensions?

It is during recent years that coincided in my growing interest for a better humanity when I started to get painfully aware of how ignorant I am. My knowledge of history is extremely superficial, I never questioned the impact of colonization, I am only starting to learn how specific movements led to the evolution of societal culture.

While I hold idealistic, potentially naive ideas of how humanity can be, I find myself questioning – am I truly naive because I don’t understand the full complexity of the issues, or is my perceived naivety simply so because the majority says so? I find myself wanting to devour texts on economic theories, history, philosophy, politics because I needed context and a basis for my ideas. I will have no idea where they stand, if I didn’t know what was there before.

I watched this video interview of @ev last night, and he mentioned that if you’re trying to make something new that never existed before, there is no way of knowing how it would work or be successful, or how long or far it would take. He was referring to a product in the context of technology, but on the same parallel I was having an email exchange with a friend on Sugata Mitra. I told her when I first watched his talk (which is the TED prize winner for 2013) I cried my heart out.

I cried my heart out because this individual, had a beautiful idea in his mind and pursued the execution of the idea for decades of his life. We see him making a wildly successful talk at TED this year, but how many of us saw the prior decades of research which made a 20-minute talk possible?

What is that thing that drives someone to devote decades of his life with no way of knowing how it will turn out in 10-20 years time, to one idealistic idea?

This is an era of instant gratification. We no longer seem to hold any form of patience to see things out. Would individuals like Sugata Mitra cease to exist with the next few generations? Everything is about having a quick response, every idea needs to validate within a month, or perhaps in some rare case scenarios, a year. Sugata Mitra took more than a decade to fully validate his idea.

I have been a victim of instant gratification and social conditioning. The fact that I even question whether it makes sense for a 32 year old to pursue knowledge is a testament of that. Most of us are so obsessed with our age milestones, we spend so much time trying to retain our younger self, that we forget that we have an older self to nurture.

Who is the 40 year old do you want to be? I ask myself these days. I feel very optimistic that if I am now very conscious of what I want to do with my life, if I make a deliberate effort in the remaining 7 years 10 months to just better myself in the areas I choose to, I could have a good shot of becoming the 40 year old whom I want to be.

Why I want to always feel pain

Over the course of the past few weeks, I couldn’t stop feeling an immense sense of gratitude. I feel really, really lucky. I don’t think that I have gotten here only because of my own hard work. You can work really hard but that wouldn’t matter if there was nobody there to recognize it. Sometimes it is worse because the hard work that you do may not be typical hard work, it is work that goes behind the scenes, in-between the lines, riffs into the subconscious.

Sometimes all you need in your life is just for one person to believe in you. And having that person to me, is a combination of luck and timing. The teacher appears when the student is ready, the old cliche goes, but I often found this to be true in my life.

The key factor is, the student has to be ready, there has to be a sense of self-awareness that you desire more in your life. You could have the worst self-esteem in this world, but it would work as long as there is this little voice in your heart that knows you want more out of your life.

There are very special people in this world, who are able to recognize this little spark in other people. I have been incredibly blessed that I have met quite a few of these people in my life, because without them, I am not sure where I will be right now. Life wasn’t always kind to me, and I had spent my entire 20s almost believing that I will never live to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

But the key difference was, no matter how self-deprecating I might have been, there was always this little spark. The first person to recognize that was my dear friend Julia, whom I had met at my first job. She was the very first person who told me it was okay to be different. It is okay to be different. How simple is that statement but how many people have struggled with not knowing it. Last week I sent Julia an email, because I keep going over and over in my head, that she was the person who kept me alive in the first place. For years she was always there to listen to me whine about my life, somehow she displayed a tremendous amount of patience for me despite my incessant attempts to be in the victim mode.

She probably doesn’t understand the full entirety of her impact on my life, she always insisted that she didn’t do all that much for me, but it was precious to a 20 year old having existential issues. She didn’t simply have a few conversations with me, she stayed throughout my life for a good number of years, always reminding me that it is okay to be an individual and pursue what I want in life.

Pursuing what I want in my life. Something that is the very basis of humanity and the foundation of any individual, but it is made to feel like a crime in many societies and familial constructs. I was always made to feel less because of my intense desire to pursue what I want in my life. I didn’t know it back then, that my rebellious behavior was precisely because I took my life very seriously. My existential issues occurred because I didn’t feel right living like a herded sheep.

I didn’t like living back then, because I love life too much.

That was one of the biggest epiphanies I have made a couple of years ago and that set the stage for the person I am today. But I will never forget the pain I had felt all my life. Because that will drive me on for my life’s work. That because I will never forget the pain, I will also never forget the people who made it easier for me to carry on, and for all of that, I will always remind myself to be that person Julia once was for me, to other people I come across in my life now.

That me, of all people, will always remember how it feels like to feel less, to feel all the disappointment felt by all the people who cared for me simply because I was not the person they expect me to be, to feel all  that disapproval from authority figures, that shake of a head made by so many people because they measured me by conventional metrics.

That pain I will always carry with me, because now I will require it to identify others out there who were like me before. That sometimes all they need in life is for one person to believe in them. That not everybody is blessed with innate confidence and self-healing abilities. That there are plenty of people out there who require one other person to tip them over to what they are truly meant to do. That the people we are always so quick to reject from society, are exactly the people who would turn out to be beautiful, creative contributors if we give them the space to be.

If you have gone over the stories of all these exceptional human beings we see today, you will find a recurring pattern. Plenty of them went through a series of painful struggles, they were always misunderstood, but there was always someone who believed in them. Sometimes it is not enough, in cases of David Foster Wallace and Aaron Swartz, but there will always be people like Abraham Lincoln who channeled his pain into a greater purpose.

I look back at my life and here comes the ironic twist – I am absolutely grateful for all of that shit I went through. I would never be able to become the person I am, had I not gone through enough personal battles and crises. I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to discover the graciousness of humanity because there were so many people who went out of their way to be kind to me in difficult situations. I wouldn’t have had the inner strength I possess now had I skipped those obstacles and endurance training. There is no way I can take anything for granted now because I came from such a bad place that I am simply lucky enough to be healthy and alive. Anything else is a huge bonus.

And this is the most important of all. I would not have developed the empathy and the ability to look at everything in multiple perspectives. Of all the gifts I have been given, this is the one that is the most precious to me – my empathy. Everything I do, stems from my empathy. I listen, I write, I design, I talk, I learn, I give, I cheer, I encourage, I nurture, I nudge, I do everything – with my empathy. And I believe that it has direct co-relation to the luck and positive outcomes I receive in life.

It also has direct co-relation to the pain I had received in my life. The pain I feel develops into this intense awareness of how other people feel. And you know what, that quality is absolutely important to my work, whether you want to refer my work as a professional designer, or my life’s work as a storyteller.

I will never, ever, want to lose my ability to feel pain, or to forget how it was like to feel so much pain earlier on in my life. It keeps me very grounded, it doesn’t allow me to be complacent, it makes me grateful for everything, I want to always have that intense awareness and I will consider it a huge handicap if I ever lose that ability.

Everything can be a blessing or a curse. It is up to you, to decide what you want it to be.

p.s. some people asked me why I don’t post these to Medium. The short answer is that I am writing these spontaneous spur-of-the-moment posts here and Medium contains more of my thought-out, edited long-form writing. It may or may not change in the future, I am still getting a feel on how I want it to be.

When you love people

Have you ever felt every single micro-second of your life was incredibly joyful, every cell in your body is in exhilarated excitement, every beat of your heart is filled with immense love, every inch of your soul is unbelievably grateful?

That has been me for the past two weeks.

People ask me, ‘how is it going?’ and I reply, ‘having the time of my life’.

Coming to San Francisco in 2011 was like realizing I am not the only alien on this planet, and since I’ve started work at Medium, it is almost like finding out that not only other aliens exist, but an entire bunch from the same planet is gathered together in the same room.

There is not enough words in the dictionary to describe how that truly feels, if you have ever felt alienated in some ways before in your life, simply because the way you look at life is simply different – then perhaps you may have an inkling of how I am feeling right now.

For the past two weeks I also had the opportunity to get to know some of the most amazing human beings I have ever met and listen to their stories. Each time someone tells me his or her story, I fall in love with humanity a little bit more. This is coming from the same person who wanted to be a hermit.

What I’ve learned so far just by listening to people telling stories, not only at Medium, but for the years leading up, that human beings possess extraordinary strength.

You have no idea the sheer number of people I have known who have gone through horrific incidents in their past and yet has risen above that, not only to become amazing people, but to demonstrate their ability to love people, even though they have been hurt badly by other people before.

Love people. How simple those words can be but how complex it is to execute. I have had the blessing to know someone who tries to shower love on every single person she comes across. And to be honest, I was taken aback at first. Taken aback, not because I doubted her sincerity in doing so, but because it was actually happening right before my eyes and my mind simply couldn’t compute that it was possible.

It was not too long ago that I seemed to live in a society that does a little eye-roll at the mention of any other human being apart from themselves.

How can someone like her possibly be so full of love and joy every single day?

So here’s what I have discovered for myself. The more I simply let go and love, the more I am surrounded by love. And I don’t mean love in a romantic sense. I am specifically referring to love in its truest sense, the love that has propelled humanity forward. That love you might have felt, when you watch people in the public service brave their lives during disasters. The pride that might have welled, to subconsciously feel that it is really amazing to be part of the human race that is capable of displaying so much courage.

And here is why. Or at least it is my reason why.

Being a human being, you have the conscious ability to choose love above everything else, even in the worst, darkest situations, you still have the free will to choose love. Your body and spirit can be broken by external factors, but there is no one else who can dictate whether you love or not.

When one is able to operate in that spectrum, for me this is where magic happens. Life becomes a state of flow, because you become aware of that indestructible power to choose. And when you exert that power, you may realize that anything is possible. And you start loving everybody freely and seeing their eyes light up, their bodies relax when they are in your presence. Because we, as human beings, have an innate capacity to feel love. We know it on a cosmic level when someone is radiating loving energy. You can attribute it to hormones and chemical reactions but there is no denying of it taking place.

I am not there yet. My journey is only beginning. I have experienced moments of it, that pure state of bliss. In fact, the past two weeks have been such, but being my cynical self which I am not afraid to display too, I have my doubts how long this ‘state of bliss’ is going to last.

But. I have the blessing of having such extraordinary people in my life, the people who have consistently chosen to love despite of and in spite of. And that is how I know how amazing it can be, because I have experienced the visible and visceral change, when other people come into their presence.

One of the best things to experience in life, is to see people’s faces light up. And many times all it takes is to take the effort to see them.

When you start to love people, you start to experience mass amounts of generosity. You suddenly become aware that there is so much love in this world. That through loving people you strengthen your own ability to touch people’s lives. Through touching people’s lives, you may learn that you are actually the one who’s being touched. That you think you’re giving, but you may discover all you’re doing is to redistribute energy. And when you expend that effort to redistribute energy, it has this uncanny way of coming back at you when you need it the most.

And one day, perhaps it may all come together in an epiphany. And it suddenly all becomes clear. You marvel at the beauty of life and along with it, comes with the intense desire to be fully alive.

What working at Medium truly means to me

I just completed my first full week working at Medium yesterday. For the past month or so, I have been thinking constantly on the full implications of having the opportunity to work at Medium. I don’t think it is possible to understand it all yet, but here’s what I think for now.

This has been nothing but short of an impossible journey for me to make.

Working at a startup like Medium is a dream come true for many designers but that is not the true impact for me. The true impact is when I consider, that if you told a girl who:

  • Had grappling confidence issues because of a complex emotional growing up process
  • Did badly in high school
  • Dropped out of college, twice
  • Drifted through eight companies for the first six years of her career with plenty of in-between periods when she spent months burnt out because of a relentless, unforgiving, soul-draining, purely profit-driven industry
  • Struggled with self-worth a lot because for the reasons above, she was made to feel unworthy warranting a place in society by the closest people in her life (and everyone else – Singapore is really serious about completing a certain set of checkboxes else you are made to feel as if you belong to the bottom of the so-called meritocracy. And because of the confidence issues mentioned above, she was not able to believe otherwise)
  • Contemplated the reason for her existence a lot
  • Found no meaning in life until a year ago
  • Developed a phobia of people so serious that she would refuse to meet anybody new for a period of four years
  • Only met her twitter friend (or any new person) for coffee for the first time four years ago
  • Would be extremely uncomfortable in face to face conversations where she peppered with tons of stuttering and awkward silences
  • Have a huge phobia of crowds
  • Even a bigger phobia of speaking in front of an audience

…that she would be working in San Francisco today, much less a startup like Medium, anybody would be like, you must be kidding me.

I felt like I didn’t and shouldn’t belong anywhere. But San Francisco made me feel like I belonged somewhere, for the first time in my life. That was in July 2011, and the personal transformation process began. I discovered the meaning of life for myself and through that I found a sense of purpose.

So what is my sense of purpose? I learned that what I really want to do, is to be a storyteller. Through recounting my own ridiculous story to various people of the past two years, I saw so many people’s eyes light up, as though if such a broken person can find some sort of equilibrium in her life, then perhaps they can, too.

Through encountering a spectrum of personal stories recounted by people from all walks of life, I felt my own eyes lighting up. Through the darkest times of my life I have relied on these stories to give me some sort of a light at the end of the tunnel. I have come across stories of people who have gone through death of their loved ones, pain, rape, war, or whatever horror that can happen to a human being – yet they survive, not only they survive, they do it brilliantly.

And for so many times in my life, I had to ask myself painfully and honestly, if these people can make their lives count, why can’t I?

Therein lies the true power of storytelling.

And why I spend the effort to write on this public journal.

So when I had the opportunity to work at Medium (which is another ridiculous story I hope to be able to tell one day), I grabbed it with both hands, legs included. Like seriously, to be able to merge my purpose and career into one? To be able to write endlessly at work and I don’t have to apologize for writing long essays? To try imagining how the future of digital storytelling can be, so that more incredible stories can impact people over and over again? To be in the same room every working day with people who made blogger, twitter, bootstrap, the list goes on…?

Working at Medium marks a personal milestone in my own story. That I was able to overcome so many personal issues to find some form of inner strength that I need to be able to work there. The inner strength was only made possible by me making the conscious decision to survive brilliantly , overcoming the odds and obstacles. That above all, I wish to weave a story I would be proud of, at my deathbed. That there are people in this world who sees me for who I truly am, that my perceived flaws are only the basis of my potential strengths. That there is someone who understands beyond this uncertain insecure facade, there is a heart that beats for the continued hope of a better humanity. That the drive, desire, motivation, intention and faith matters a lot more than anything else.

I feel very, very blessed and grateful. Scared too. But I have learned that I thrive best in great discomfort.

My first week was tremendously intense, intimidating and yet extremely fulfilling. One of the best feelings in life is to feel thoroughly used. There was nothing much left in me by the time I left work yesterday. I finished my day with standing in front of my new coworkers, all 40ish of them, telling them a little bit of myself.

With that, it seems like the girl whom had a crippling phobia of speaking in front of a crowd has a chance of being a real storyteller, after all.

Heartfelt gratitude to the bunch of people who witnessed my personal transformation through these years and who were there to tell me to hold on during those difficult times. It is always easy to find people to celebrate good times, but the ones who hung around when I needed lifting up – those are the truly precious ones. I am very blessed to have a bunch of those. And again, I will pay it forward.

Why I write

I should be blogging about flat design vs skeuomorphic design. Am kidding. Or not.

But I don’t. I have written a couple of design articles in the past, but innately I have always felt the urge the pour out my heart and soul into writing pieces like this. Fragmented pieces of my thoughts, feelings and ideas, sometimes introspective, many times questioning, other times vulnerable.

I think there are plenty of designers out there writing awesome articles about design, and I don’t think adding my 2 cents is going to make any dent in the universe. I don’t think I can contribute to better pieces that is already out there. Inversely, there are not many people, much less designers, who write authentically about themselves. I wish to add to that statistic instead. Life is so short, ultimately it is important to choose where to spend your energy.

I have been asked how do I keep to a point in my essays here. I replied that I don’t. I simply write and there shouldn’t be any rules because this is pointedly my journal. The point of keeping a journal is to write mainly for myself. To document my ideas, thoughts and feelings but I choose to share it publicly. Why? I guess I am a thought-voyeur, I learned so much from reading other people’s long-form writing about their thoughts that I thought perhaps someone would like to read mine. In any case even if nobody reads it I am fine, because the biggest benefit is when I read my own entries periodically. It has been an intriguing self-discovery process when I go back in time to read my own writing. Sometimes I do not recognize myself in my own writing. Other times I get reminded why I make certain choices in my life. Often it becomes a milestone marker, of how much I have come along so far.

Writing here feels lonely sometimes, I will admit that. There is a select bunch of people who faithfully reads every post I put out, and I appreciate them with all my heart. I would arguably gain a much larger following if I had chosen to blog about design instead, but instead I have made the conscious choice to write a bunch of posts that very few people will read. I am only but human and sometimes it is nice to get some echoes back you know? 😉 Yet once in a while, I receive an email from some random stranger, telling me how much he or she can relate to my writing, how much it has meant for them to discover another kindred soul out there. That through my personal struggles they empathize, through my wins they feel like they have some kind of hope.

That makes that loneliness worthwhile. It reminds me why I write. It makes me remember that what I really want is not mass approval but a deeper connection to a niche of fellow kindred souls. It is like friends in real-life. Do I want a huge social circle or do I want a handful who truly connects with me?

Once in a while I go into paralysis, because blogging has become such a act of personal branding, that I can’t help but feel like I do not want my professional peers to think less of me because I write less-than-flattering stuff about myself. It seems like some industry standard to project some sort of image just to meet certain expectations. Time and again I tell myself, if I have worked so hard professionally to have some moderate success in my work and yet I am still afraid to be myself, what gives for other people who did not have access to opportunities like me? Would they have to live in whatever closet they are in, forever?

I am writing in hope that someone out there could perhaps derive from all my little stories that it is okay to be honest, imperfect, vulnerable and yet have a good shot at the game of life. If I want to be the change I want to see in this world, then writing here is the start. I want to be blunt, I would like to bare my soul, I would like to admit all my fears and insecurities. I want to be as authentic as possible because I truly believe the world will be a much better place if less people are afraid to be who they are. But I cannot be a hypocrite and say that is the world I want to live in, and yet only write about the good things in my life.

You see, that is precisely what I am against. I am against the glossy magazine covers of seemingly perfect people, or the glorification of wins. Winning is not pretty at all, but we like to cover up all the pain and sacrifices. Not many people talk about the loneliness, the burnouts, or the relationships destroyed. Or the self-doubt that plague our consciousness, no matter how many wins one can have. Being unable to talk about our flaws and weaknesses is contributing to a society rewarding superficial successes. It perpetuates a vicious cycle of people being unable to express themselves which leads to too many painful repercussions.

I cannot guarantee that there is anything to derive from my posts, or that my writing would be coherent, neither can I promise quality or substance, but I can assure you that I will always try my best to bare my soul in my writing, if that counts for something. I hope to always have the courage to be able to share my journey here with you and to be able to reconcile the tradeoffs I have to make in order to write this way.

With every post I manage to publish, I feel as if I am edging a little closer to being more comfortable in my own skin, slowly but surely. With every word I write, I am honoring my intentions by letting them move freely in cyberspace.

Disobeying the lizard brain

I am the happiest when I feel fulfilled.

Since I seem to have such a great sense of self-awareness, my life should be all meaningful and zen right? Well, the brain does not work that way apparently. I think we spend a lifetime fighting instincts that have been hard-wired into our DNA for the sake of survival, along with all the traumatic experiences accumulated while growing up.

Survive, the lizard brain says, forgetting that we’re now living in the 21st century where we will not die tomorrow if we eat less carbs. Seek comfort and security, I am told, well to be fair, not only from my lizard brain, but by the Asian society I belong to as well. This advice has been dished out to me on such a consistent basis that it seems to be my default mechanism even if on an intellectual level I know what is truly good for me.

It is fascinating, the human brain. We think we learn from past experiences but we sort of don’t. All my past experiences have been nothing but conclusive that I decay when I pursue comfort and security, but like an addiction or a genetic impulse, I continue to gravitate towards it unconsciously. I thrive on new experiences, adventure, rollercoasters, I am at my happiest, most alive, most creative when I am engaged with life, therefore my choices should have been on automatic-pilot to choose the thrill instead of the safety, right?

Not really. Fighting against what has been programmed into me for the past few decades is really hard, I will be honest about that. There is this very human part of me who wants to be surrounded by my loved ones and create a nest with someone I love, lead a simple life and farm my own food. When I was a child, my life goal was to be a hermit. That is how much I desire to be away from the madness of modern society.

It is ironic that I ended up falling in love with tech, where we’re bombarded by as much noise as possible on a micro-second basis. I am constantly swinging between my love for the promise of creative empowerment brought by tech and my love for solitude and nature.

But perhaps I am starting to entertain the thought that I may not crave solitude as much as I am seeking to escape from inauthenticity. I have always believed myself to dislike human to human interaction (yes that’s probably why I prefer human-computer interaction), only to slowly realize that it isn’t human to human interaction that I dislike, but it is the inauthentic interaction that takes place in most social settings that I dislike.

My old self keeps thinking, how wonderful it would be if I could go on a long vacation, just so I can stop thinking for a while. And the moment arrived when I realized, I don’t actually like having vacations for the sake of vacations, what I really want is to have the mind space to think about things that are meaningful to me.

It suddenly occurred to me that the best vacation I can take, is to be fully immersed and engaged with work that I love. If the purpose of taking a vacation is to recharge, I find the most energy from stimulating work and conversations. I need to unwind still, but that’s because energy needs to be discharged before it can be recharged again.

Perhaps it is a fallacy of my old self that I needed to be in non-motion in order to recharge. I think that holds true if I am unable to receive the stimulation I need and instead I am charged with negative energy. That is when I need to go into recovery mode just to have a reset.

There is only so much I can do with epiphanies, real-world application into the daily grind of life is hard. I have this hypothesis that I will be a lot more energized if I can somewhat insert the right amount of stimulating activity in my day to day life, but my lizard brain keeps telling me otherwise. For years I believed I must rest a lot if I want to have random spurts of creativity, but what if that is a fallacy as well? What if creativity is not as random as most people think it is, but it is actually sustained, intelligent discipline mixed with conscious, deliberate surrendering?

Well, I am glad I am not the only one with lizard brain issues. The first step to progress is awareness, I suppose. It is amazing how much of what I think I need is not what I truly need.

I am not sure if I am going to win the battle, but I need to start somewhere. 😉

What keeps me awake at night

Lately I have wondered if I have gotten too serious for my own good. Somebody asked me what I do in my spare time, expecting some hobbies to be recited in return, and I answered, “I contemplate on my life”. Lol.

I personally think I am a ridiculous joke many a time, because I look at the mirror and wonder which part of me has it in her to have big dreams? I am my hardest critic, self-doubt is a familiar visitor when I sleep at night.

I treat people with the same seriousness and honesty, new people included, and I have wondered if I should tone myself down a little. I just want to be authentic, that authenticity includes being the raw, vulnerable, emotional self that I am, but most people are not used to it.

When things get tough, I retreat. I retreat to a little corner and read. It has been a predictable pattern so far, I seek most comfort and inspiration in the books telling stories of politicians – Lincoln, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, the Obamas. They all have something in common, they made incredible tradeoffs and personal sacrifices, sometimes questionable decisions, to work towards a cause they believe in.

When I think of the tradeoffs I have made, they seem to amount to nothing. I think of the possible tradeoffs I have to make, and I wonder if I have it in me to make them?

I too, want to work towards a world I want to live in. I do not have much clarity how, at least not yet. But the desire has been bubbling in me for the longest time and when things get tough, it is what that keeps me going. That setbacks do not matter as long as I keep my dream alive. I try to think of the small ways I can contribute, but I do not stop thinking of how I can eventually be in a position to do so on a maximized scale.

I am 32 this year, there are plenty of times I do feel age catching up on me. I question myself, if I already feel slower and older now, what do I really have in me that will allow me to endure the marathon ahead? I start to mentally list people who only found their way in their 40s and I start to feel more encouraged.

I give myself a timeline of 20 years, starting now. In two decades time, assuming I am still alive, I will be 52. It is an age whereby there is still a high possibility of being mobile and still having some best years ahead. It is a realistic timeline – I have covered so much distance in the past two years, who would know what are the possibilities in store for me if I multiply that 10 times?

Only if I keep myself on my toes all the time.

I stumble and I fall. Rinse and repeat. It is not how many times I stumble but how many times I want to pick myself up. At the end of each cycle, do I give up, or do I try again? I choose to try again, despite not even having the basic belief in myself sometimes. I should at least try.

Perhaps people find it difficult to understand why I have to contemplate so much on my life, why do I have to be so serious? I find it hard to explain to most people, I really do not see the incentive in living otherwise. Having an ordinary life does not interest me. Having an extraordinary life does not interest me too. But having an extraordinary effort despite being ordinary vastly drives me on.

I consider myself to be broken, in some ways I have been damaged, just like anybody else. In societal standards there is really nothing extraordinary about me. I could list plenty of points in my life when things simply went wrong and should have gone wrong. I should have rightfully been a blip in the universe.

But still I managed to carve out an extraordinary story for myself. And it makes me wonder, what if more ordinary people out there, with no seemingly natural advantages in this world, have the courage to live more extraordinarily?

 

turning 32 & my wish for this world

I seem to have made a habit of writing reflective birthday posts in recent years and I would very much to like to carry on the tradition. While new year posts seemed to be more milestone focused, my birthday posts were mainly posts of self-reflection.

I am spending today in contemplative solitude and silence, I was never really into celebrating anything anyway. If anything, the anniversary of my birth serves as a constant reminder for me to reflect upon on my personal growth and why I was given life 32 years ago.

At 30 I have found myself, at 31 I discovered the meaning of life, at 32 this year, I am learning that finding myself and the meaning of life is only a small step towards a long and winding road ahead. If I compare myself to a computer game, it is as though my character took this long while to be trained in order to acquire enough XP so that I can embark on real challenges. Game on.

I am reminded of this quote by Steve Jobs I read a couple of days ago, that people misunderstand that having a great idea is 90% of the work, but the magic actually lies in the process of execution. Nobody really sees the nitty gritty details that goes into an execution. They do not see the tradeoffs.

Great ideas come by easy, so do great ambitions. Having the belief and the perseverance to see things though, is a whole different matter. Having the persistence and the patience to get people to buy into your ideas, takes the game to a whole different level. People stop playing games because they run out of patience to go through difficult challenges over and over again. You get worn out over time and you question why you bother in the first place. Life, is the same.

I have learned that life does not unravel in spectacular fashion once I have found myself. I had the naivety to believe that once I have found myself and my meaning, everything will fall into place. I was very wrong. It only opened my eyes to the gigantic mess I have to navigate through in order to have a stake in my dreams. Life gets harder, not easier. Like a game. You do not go through easier levels as you complete each one. It gets more difficult because that is how you will know how how far you have come along as a human being.

I am starting to take a very sombre approach to life now, once I understood that the magic we see in this world did not come by because “the universe consipred to do so”. It is because certain human beings continuously make difficult choices to see things through. The privilege some of us have in life, just to be able to live in a first world country and not having to go through war, is only made possible by individuals fighting the impossible dream. Liberty and rights, no matter how much we take for granted now, no matter how often we seem to talk about sexism in tech, we tend to forget that it is only decades ago that women are not allowed to vote.

I still believe in the magic of the universe, but the magic I believe in now is not all hunky dory with golden sparkles. The magic I believe in requires the conviction and courage of many people. The universe can conspire to help us, sure, but the difficult choices still have to be made. The tradeoffs and the heartbreaks still have to be chosen.

I have learned that life has to exist in paradoxes and contradictions. That sometimes loving something means having the courage to let it go. That holding on may seem selfish in retrospective. That losing a game may mean winning in the long term. That walking slower can mean finishing the race earlier. That acceptance may not mean resignation.

I have come to accept that life will always be full of trials and tribulations. That sometimes it is simply better to go with the present flow instead of stubbornly hanging on to a rock. But other times perhaps it is worth injuring yourself holding on to some rocks if going with the flow means losing your sense of self. There are no correct answers. No proper directions. We can only hope to try our best, that whether we stumble or fly, win or lose, our effort will mean something to this world some day.

Unlike many people I know, I do not wish to live forever, nor do I have an obsession of staying young and keeping my age a secret. Inversely I am proud of my age and I am grateful to embrace the fragility of life. I do not work this hard because I want to leave my name in history. In fact plenty of times I question my own motivations. What is it that I really want, out of this life?

I guess for now, on this day, my answer will be: I am fighting for many others to have a chance to feel alive. There will always be shit happening, there will always be hurt, I do not believe in a utopian world because I think an imperfect world is necessary for people to experience what it means to be alive. But I do believe that everyone should have a fighting chance to live life feeling alive. To have a chance to be a contributor to this world.

The beauty of life doesn’t lie in a perfect fairy tale, but the continued desire to struggle for better even with all that imperfections. I do not have the audacity to dream of ending wars or poverty. I only wish for creators to have more opportunities to create. That their self-worth will not stem from their ability to shut down their dreams.

Why does it matter to me anyway? That more people have more opportunities to create? That they do not pursue career paths deemed worthy only by social expectations? I guess I have experienced that magic, the magic only made possible by stubborn people not afraid to make a hundred tradeoffs, I have seen what can be possible by sheer human will and determination. And selfishly, I want to experience more of it. To experience the fruits of other people’s imagination and audacity, it is one of the greatest joys in life.

I am typing this with my MacBook Air, made possible by the vision of the people at Apple. I am privileged and enabled today only because there were others before me who fought for my rights and made tools for me to use. I am only able to experience what it means to have the liberty to create and have a chance to fight for my own dreams because of such people.

I think it is only right for us, borne of the later generations, to try as hard, if not harder, so that the ones of even later generations will not inherit a world devoid of magic.

For my birthday today, I do not wish for a perfect world, or even world peace. I wish for a world, with endless possibilities, enriched by the limitless imaginations of her people.

The audacity to dream

I tell people my dreams – that I hope in a decade or two, I’ll be somewhat involved in politics, improve the education system, change the way people feel about mental health and hopefully, fund economically unviable social initiatives that would give a return of investment in intangible forms.

Apart from a close-knitted circle of friends who share similar dreams, I typically get that look of sympathy from people’s faces that almost spells D-E-L-U-S-I-O-N. I am used to it by now. I no longer feel bad, neither do I feel undermined. I have come to accept that everyone operates within a different framework and I don’t have to take it so personally that they do not share mine.

Those who do, I am extremely grateful for. Have you ever liked something so ridiculous that you are convinced nobody but you appreciates it? And when one day you find just one other soul who feels the same way, even if you do not know who the hell is this person, you feel an inexplicable connection to him or her? That is how I feel when I meet people who understands my world view. They are hard to come by, and they are extremely precious to me.

I guess this is an important part of the reason why I love being in the Valley. The density of such people are arguably much higher than anywhere else in the world. This is the community of people who doesn’t bat an eyelid when they talk about launching spacecraft like the SpaceX. Compared to launching spaceships, I think my dreams are relatively minuscule.

Sometimes I question myself too. Are my dreams too lofty, too impossible, too hard to achieve? But I honestly believe, if we choose to dream, the dreams might as well be audacious, isn’t it? That is why they are called dreams. By the time reality knocks it into shape, it is probably half of that dream left, so the boundaries have to set bigger in the first place. It leaves us half of a dream that we can be happy and proud of.

My dreams are like my north-star. They are my guiding light. Each time I have to make a difficult decision, the first question I ask is, would this decision be aligned with my dreams, my purpose? When I have to make tradeoffs and sacrifices, I ask myself, are they worth it in relation to my dreams?

These dreams, they put everything into perspective. The pain of separation from my loved ones I have to endure seems bearable when I put it in relation to my dreams. Walking on such a path is extremely lonely and tiring, we get misunderstood all the time, we may seem detached and aloof from the rest of the world. That relentless pursuit can potentially hurt the people around you, there is a innate understanding that there could be a tradeoff in terms of personal happiness with the hope of longer lasting impact.

Pursuing audacious dreams – they are a gamble. There is no guarantee of returns, the percentage of a win is extremely small, there is almost no timeline to rely upon. It could take a decade, it could take a lifetime of waiting with no finishing line in sight. Sometimes we put in all that blood, tears and sweat with no visible returns, but in hope that perhaps a baton could be passed on to the next generation.

So why have audacious dreams?

Because humanity has always made giant leaps of progress with seemingly impossible dreams made by people. Because I cannot quantify or reconcile my own existence with anything less. For me, it is almost like a drug. I need to have these audacious dreams to feel alive. Without them, I am as good as dead. I cannot picture an existence whereby I go through the motions of everyday life without something to dream upon.

That is the almost sad truth, for me. I have to dream audaciously in order to keep myself alive. Because I am afraid to feel like I am living for nothing in particular. Because I am fearful to wake up with a sense of dread, that I have nothing to look forward to. Because I am paranoid of looking back at my existence and not being able to feel like I have at least tried to reach for the stars. I don’t want to be on my deathbed and all I can remember is going to work and knocking off work, everyday with the same clockwork routine. That scares the hell out of me.

I am writing this to remind my future self, in case one day I forget why I have these audacious dreams. That I am able to write this post and talk about my huge dreams, with that persistent light in my eyes. That desire to feel passionately alive, the immense amount of love I feel for this world, buoyed by my lofty dreams.

Perhaps one day, my little gamble could pay off. But if it doesn’t, I must have at least tried to roll the dice. There is nothing worse than being plagued by a lifetime of what-could-have-been-s.

Sayulita: remembering & accepting the path

The unexpected opportunity to take a vacation came by, I took it, because the traveler in me never resists a vacation.

So here I am in Sayulita, Mexico. I expected myself to be sipping a coconut on the beach, looking at waves, but I found myself in a strangely contemplative mood since I’ve gotten here. I look around, instead of beauty I see poverty, despite Sayulita being pretty developed compared to other Mexican towns.

Having travelled in South-east Asia a lot I am used to beach towns like this, so I am uncertain why this time it feels so disconcerting to me. Is it the sudden contrast between San Francisco and Sayulita that knocked me off? I am careful not to feel too self-righteous because despite the apparent poverty of the people, perhaps they are happier than those of us in richer cities. Or not.

I am keenly sensitive to the energies of physical locations, I remember having no such uncomfortable feelings being in Thailand, but I also remember feeling this strange discomfort in Ho Chi Minh.

I actually feel bad for remotely enjoying myself as a tourist. An extremely privileged one, despite whatever I truly think of my situation. At times like these I feel bad for pursuing self-fulfillment, when people are struggling just to feed themselves.

But I keep on having to remind myself, that only when one truly acquires self-empowerment can one barely try to empower other people, or help others with their own self-empowerment journey. My instinct tells me to give up all my first world comforts and live as a nomad, because it seems like that is the only way I can feel somewhat equal to less privileged people. Yet I ask myself, what real impact would it make?

Despite my hippie roots I am strangely ambitious, only because on an intellectual level, this ridiculous ambition seems to be the most efficient manner of creating the impact I want. When I look myself in the mirror I see a still extremely vulnerable soul struggling with self-confidence issues, and I feel the disconnect between my ambition and my self. I almost mock myself for being so ridiculously ambitious, but in my soul I understand that I must have my guiding north-star, no matter how distant it is right now.

If I were to even try, why aim for less?

It is hard. Plenty of times I crave for a simple existence. A little place to call home, surrounded by the people I love, with grateful contentment. The irony is that no matter how I feel and think, this seemingly simple existence feels almost selfish. Everyday I feel the call of my purpose, imagined or not. It is extremely painful for me to give up my emotional attachment to my desire for a simple life, but even more painful when I do not answer that call.

Right from the very start, I am aware of the trade offs I have to make. Everyday it is a conscious choice to make these trade offs. Do I want a simple, fuss-free, existence for myself? Yes. Do I want to leave the people who love me? No. But can I ignore my calling?

To give a brutally honest answer? I have tried to ignore it, but failed. I tried to ignore it because it seemed easier that way. Only to hear my soul drowning a little bit each day.

What is the probability of me attaining my ambition? Very low. What are the chances I’ll stumble, fall and have to live with my heart broken in a thousand pieces? Really high.

But I must at least try. If I can’t ignore the call of my purpose, I must at least try to answer it, the very best way I can figure out how to, or perhaps live through a series of pathetic attempts, but still an attempt nonetheless.

I look at the massive ocean at Sayulita. I feel a timeless connection to the waters. It gives me a surreal reminder why I am here. I let out a huge sigh, understanding and accepting the way things are even though I sense plenty of pain for myself ahead. This is what I’ve signed up for, out of my own free will. I know myself. I would still rather die trying with a broken heart and a fatigued soul, than to have it another way.

There is just no way, in absolute terms, I can ignore the painfully beautiful connection and empathy I feel to this world.

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