journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

The door that opened a year ago

Around this time last year I was standing at the American Embassy in Singapore stunned, not knowing how to react to the officer in front of me. Just a split second ago she had approved my work visa, the final piece of paperwork I had been waiting a year for.

For a lot of people moving to San Francisco is simply moving to a new city or a new job, for me it was moving to an entirely new life. A life I had loved, a life I had fallen in love with, at first sight in July 2011.

It was here where I had found my self, a theme I would consistently bring up in my conversations and my writing. I don’t think people really understand me when I tell them I had only begun to find myself two years ago. I don’t think they comprehend the magnitude of what it means to me.

I do have the blessing of people who had known the previous me, so they can lay testament to the transformation they had witnessed in me – my face looks a ton brighter, even my own father would tell me later. Innate joy is so invisibly visible. I was actually afraid that my transformation would be so complete that I would forget my old self and in turn, my innermost gratitude for what I have received in order to make this possible.

In many ways on a superficial level I am still very much the same person to the untrained eye, still as self-deprecating as ever, still tentative in a lot of things I do, still secretly ridiculously idealistic about what the world should be.

The key difference is, to people who had known me enough before, is that now I carry a sense of peace and joy with me, driven by love; whereas previously I was carrying a sense of chaos and fatigue, driven by fear and radiating a sense of pain.

But don’t get me wrong, it is not as if I am all zen and ready to achieve enlightenment, I was just telling one of my dear friends the other day, it is really difficult to understand the meaning of self-directed power, when my whole entire previous existence was so disempowered. I have to struggle really hard to recondition my mind for all my old disempowering beliefs; it is one thing to understand intellectually what is possible and another thing to apply it on a day-to-day basis.

I very much want to honor this day on the calendar, possibly for the rest of my life, because it is the day the door really opened for me. I remember just weeks before my visa approval I was standing in the rain of one of the streets in Singapore, looking upwards at the skies, demanding to the heavens that everything would go smoothly for me so that I could actually be free to carry out my new-found purpose.

Life is really not that simple, I am afraid to say. It doesn’t mean that a door had finally opened, that it must be leading to a smooth, silky road. Even if the path was truly made to be as rich as possible, you have no idea how one self can be the true obstacle. I am no longer naive enough to believe that the road ahead would be easier, it is only going to get harder as I hopefully grow from strength to strength. Harder, because I am now willing to carry a lot more weight, because I do want to carry a lot more weight, on behalf of those who can’t.

I go into periods when I get too caught up in the daily complexities of life, forgetting the story of my origins. We either hold on to the past too much and thus unable to move forward, or we forget about it too quickly, without understanding that it is truly the past that has made the present possible. I want to keep my story with me, because it allows me to remember why I even wanted to be here.

And when I remember why I am here, I also remember how I got here. I didn’t get here by being scared and afraid to lose my sense of security. I got here because I took many leaps of faith and waited for the net to appear. Precisely because I am leading a life too good to be true, sometimes it makes me want to hold on to it using all means possible, forgetting that trying to preserve the status quo is not in alignment with my actual goals.

I didn’t come here to melt into San Francisco. I came here because I truly believed I could bring a bit of what I have received so graciously from the city and her people, to the rest of the world. Love, experience, knowledge, values, hope, faith and more. How can I pay it forward as effectively as possible, is a question I have on my mind every day. I still have not found the answer.

But this I know. That in order to be strong enough to carry the weight I so desperately want to carry, to be resilient enough so I can pursue the discomfort that is necessary, I need to work really hard on myself first. Will is a muscle to be exercised and I cannot keep on making unhealthy decisions for myself.

That door that first opened a year ago, I had mistakenly thought the hardest part was over. I was wrong. The hardest part is not to let myself be an obstacle to my own dreams.

I don’t know how am I going to prove myself worthy of walking through that open door a year ago. I only know if I keep on desiring to question myself, perhaps one day I might find the answer.

Giving thanks

My recent life has unfolded in such a way that there is never a day that goes by without feeling an incredible sense of wonderment and gratitude. In the spirit of the American Thanksgiving, I will take this opportunity to give thanks.

First of all, I could argue that gratitude begets more events that inspire gratitude. This may sound slightly perverse, but I am most grateful that I had a difficult time while growing up, because all that sadness I experienced before has only served to make me learn to look at things from different perspectives and to appreciate the simple things in life.

Through that sadness I had developed an empathy, an aversion to hurting people because I had been so hurt – with a resolution that I will try my best never to consciously make someone else feel the way I had been made to feel.

This grounding principle is the basis of everything I do today.

Similarly, it is also because I grew up in a society where empathy is scarce, it made me appreciate anybody who would show me a little grace, a little understanding, a little appreciation. Some of these people were my beloved clients when I was an independent designer from 2007 – 2011, without them I would never had made it this far.

When I first started freelancing I needed a lot of external encouragement from my clients and peers, because I was conditioned in my youth to undervalue myself. Choosing design as a career in those days was frowned upon, choosing to freelance was considered as career suicide. I felt like I was swimming against the tide all the time, yet I had the privilege to serve some of the best people I have ever known. People who somehow saw something in me despite my constant attempt to undermine myself.

I had this special client from the US who would consistently cajole me to raise my rates despite my own disbelief that I was worth getting paid more. Can you imagine that? What he was doing for me was the opposite of everything I was taught to believe.

I had a stream of such people coming into my life as my own attitude towards the world evolved. It was as though serendipity took pity on me and decided she would bring in some people to teach me hope, faith and the meaning of life.

I had another client who decided on his own that he would start paying me a ridiculous rate, and he was also the one who told me that my true strength was in interaction design, not visual design. I didn’t really believe him (sensing a theme here?) but later on I would discover on my own that he was right.

One of the biggest turning points in the last 3 decades of my life was to meet my ex-bosses whom I worked with at simplehoney. There were many reasons why I am so terribly grateful for them, but if not for them I wouldn’t even be here living in the city I love. They have waited an entire year while I was in my visa limbo, and it is something that I will never take for granted.

Throughout these years of ups and downs, I have had the blessing to have the most amazing friends who were there not only in support, but also to understand my dreams. They have made me understand the true meaning of strength in numbers.

And of course, I wouldn’t forget to be grateful for my co-workers at Medium. It would be almost boring to repeat that I am consistently having my mouth open in amazement at the things that they do on a daily basis, but even that is secondary to the fact that they are all amazing, mindful and generous people.

I thank my family for their understanding – that there are things I want and need to do, even if it is really hard for them that I am at such a distance away.

Now that I am done with my thank-you speech for people, this is where I get emotional with intangible things. I am most grateful for my new-found ability to sleep. This has such an exponential effect on everything else that writing 10,000 words will not do it justice. I am also thankful for the opportunity to live in the city I love so very much and how her people has taught me what it means to be alive. Ultimately, I am grateful for the awareness that all of me and my life would not be possible for all the dots which are intricately connected. Some of these dots are obscure and hidden from a conventional view, but I know that they exist.

The joyous moments are easy to be thankful for, the upsetting ones, however, will always have a special place in my heart. I know with absolute certainty, that those are the ones which contribute the most to my sense of gratitude today.

If we always had everything, how would we know what is it like to receive something we never had?

Privilege, a reflection from my trip

I landed in SFO yesterday noon with a uncontainable smile on my face, despite the 17-hour flight. In all honesty, with all the logical reasons I can name for my love for SF, I don’t actually understand why this place makes me smile so much. If we have past lives, I must have had one in SF.

SF feels like home. It feels like where I belong. And it isn’t really so much because I am a designer and this is the mecca of tech, there is just this inexplicable sense of desire here. The desire to truly live. This sense of being alive stems from the ordinary folks I observe, from the tram operators to servers to the Mexican grocery store owner who smiles at me every morning when I walk by. The people who live here are mostly self-selecting, and that explains a lot.

I used to carry a sense of sadness when I think about my love for this place, knowing that it will come a day when I will probably have to leave and it wouldn’t be out of my own choice. Or perhaps it will be, because never say never. I had never felt a sense of belonging to anything and it feels tragic to think that one day I will lose the only place in the world capable of making me feel this way.

But I have learned that love transcends everything else. Instead of moping around, I will learn to carry this love everywhere I go, infusing it in everything I will do.

The key word is, “learn”. I am not able to do so yet, the trip back home to Singapore exacerbated my sense of having two split personalities. Singapore and San Francisco felt like two different dimensions to me. One represents weight and scars; the other, only light and love. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of being back in Singapore, it seemed like an automatic psychosomatic response – that feeling of drowning each time you step into the water if you had a drowning incident before.

There is a deep rooted undeniable resentment, which in my ideal world I don’t wish for it to exist, but I am only human and I am hoping that being honest about it is better than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. I feel like I will never truly be liberated as long as I carry that resentment. That same resentment was the same driver of everything else I did for her.

But this time back, I no longer wish for myself to be driven by that resentment. Through my meetings with my amazing friends, I now wish for myself to be driven by an idealistic hope that things will be better. If I couldn’t have the same opportunities for myself, if I couldn’t prevent myself from having these scars I would have to bear for the rest of my life, then perhaps I will be able to at least be part of something that will allow the future generations to have experiences I never had.

In life there is a concept of happiness, that we humans live so we can strive to be happy. In my own life, meaning triumphs over happiness. If I have to make a choice one day, I will consciously choose meaning. I could only pursue happiness for so much and so long, before obligation and debt to the world takes over. I very much understand that my life now is only made possible by people who pursued meaning and not happiness, and I don’t think I will be able to deny that sense of obligation to do the same for the ones after me.

It is not something out of pure choice, in case if I had given that misrepresentation. I wish I could say I consciously choose it to be this way, but there is something that intrinsically bugs the hell out of me if I remain oblivious to the rest of the world. It is not as if I don’t want to live purely for myself, I just can’t. In a perverse way, I have tried living only for myself and all I have gotten back in return is an inexplicable sense of depression.

I am now giving myself time to build up that strength and love for what I want to do, from my privileged stay in San Francisco. The privilege I feel here doesn’t necessary come from the ability to be part of the tech industry, I mean I will be a hypocrite if I say it doesn’t play a part. It certainly does, it enables me to have that mind space to think – thinking is a luxury, by the way – but the actual privilege I keenly feel comes from the spirit I feel from the people living here (which may or may not be part of tech). Being surrounded by people who knows what it means to be alive is one of the best gifts I had ever had. The people here understands (and I am generalizing based on my inevitable bias stemming from my own experiences) what it means to be part of a community, what it means to understand your role in that community. That very clear understanding that we can only flourish if others are given the space to, as well.

To me, SF is a prototype of my version of my ideal world, if there is one. It is not perfect, it is very broken, but the key difference is that, people here are trying to make it better all the time, even if those ways are arguably suspect sometimes. But there is a sense that if you are an individual and you have an idea of making things better, you could have a possibility of trying, even if that sounds like the dumbest idea on earth.

That sense of empowerment is not felt by everyone, but it is definitely here. My sense of privilege comes from the understanding that this sense of empowerment is not entitled to a lot of people, if not most people for their entire lives.

I feel incredibly grateful that I am at a stage of my life to understand and feel this, that I don’t take my stay here for granted, that what I had been through prior has only served to set me up for this opportunity to comprehend this privilege. It is a privilege in itself to understand this privilege.

I can only hope that I have it in me to not self-sabotage this gift, to fully receive so I can give, one day in the future.

Reconciling paradoxes

I could get used to this. Sitting at some remote location (alright, Phuket is not that remote) typing some words, having woken up at the break of dawn.

This was the life I used to envision. Perpetually in motion, armed with just a backpack and my laptop, creating on the go.

But yesterday while looking at the beautiful empty horizon of Naiyang beach, I had an epiphany. I was never meant to have one distinct persona, one single vision of a life.

I was meant to alternate in cycles. Some people could work on one single thing as their entire focus of their lives, Jiro the sushi master comes to my mind. I need to leave in order to stay, to be rooted in order to travel, to be alone in order to participate, to work in order to play, to be selfish in order to be generous, to give in order to take, to self-destroy in order to come alive.

My source of troubles comes from having the wrong expectation of thinking I will find that one thing, the one person, the one place, that one way of living. I mistook comfort for happiness, prestige for validation, dissatisfaction with myself for misery. I sought to define myself a certain way, not understanding that I am not one distinct persona but a multitude of them. My personas evolve, yet my mind doesn’t catch up, constantly feeling the disconnect as I assumed I was a certain type of person, only to realize I have grown out of my own assumptions a long time ago.

I have let go of things subconsciously, without realizing as my conscious self tried to hang on to them. My priorities had been reordered internally, yet my external self was still executing them in the wrong order. I wanted to do so many seemingly important things, only to understand that if they were truly important I would have done them already. My subconscious has a way of making snap decisions, waiting for my conscious self to catch up. And I am left feeling confused all the time.

This is when I need all that quiet in the world to sync up with myself. I write, in order to wait for these epiphanies to magically appear, as though I knew of them before making the decision to write. In truth, they appear on the screen and in my consciousness as I type , through some magical osmosis as though my thoughts are really consciously constructed.

I stared at the quiet of Naiyang beach yesterday with the knowing that I would not have truly appreciated this sight had I not arrived from a place of chaos and disorder. Yet I understand too, with a tinge of possible regret, that every image of peace will eventually mutate. This is the natural order of life, every bit of life has to go through decay in order to be part of the next phase of life.

I am hoping for myself that I will learn to appreciate decay when it is taking place, not as an afterthought. I find it very difficult to recondition myself into disassociating pain with loss, or even pain with sadness, or even pain as bad per se.

If I could learn to appreciate decay in its full splendor, I could perhaps truly live in the beauty of the now – that even as I go through the massively uncomfortable decay of my old self, I will be able to lie in anticipation of the new that will inevitably arrive.

Time. Such a paradox. Some things require its own patient timing yet we need some form of urgency to make the most out of our lives. Yet when we try too much and too hard, we cease to let nature flow.

I think I may understand what it means to be truly alive, when I am capable of being in tune with the obvious paradoxes of life, that perhaps two opposing views are not mutually exclusive, but very much integral in sustaining the innate existence of the other.

Sometimes I can’t help but question (yes, I question myself a lot, so much that my mind goes in circles all the time, it is pretty much a miracle I remain relatively sane) my own motives for publishing a public journal. If I truly write for myself, then it wouldn’t make a difference if it is private, isn’t it? What do I seek to achieve by publishing these repetitive seemingly inane thoughts? Am I secretly egoistic (alright, not so secret) by wishing that people can relate to my words?

Today while eating breakfast and checking my twitter timeline, I had another epiphany (yup, full of those lately, this is why we cannot be workaholics, we need to be lazy in order to be effective at work). I was smiling genuinely from my heart when I read about other people’s public sharing of their journeys. It was then I realized, I am still writing for myself, because when I share what I write, I am lighting the way for other people to be themselves – when they share what they write, they light up the way for me to have the courage to be myself.

When more of us have the courage to be ourselves, to forge our own paths, perhaps we could collectively light up this world.

Still selfish, yet still intricately connected to the collective consciousness, still not mutually exclusive.

Distance and darkness

It has been almost a year since I was last back in Singapore, or any part of Asia. If left to my own devices, I might have never consciously chosen to leave San Francisco. As much as I love San Francisco, I have to honestly admit, any type of comfort is poisonous.

The more we love something, the tighter we hold on to it, the easier it becomes to lose it. Ironically, being in love with San Francisco has made me gradually lose touch with the adventurous risk-taker spirit which has brought me there in the first place.

How do I learn to love something only in the now, understanding in order for love to truly flourish I will need to love it as an independent entity myself, that if I start to lose myself in anything, I will lose my capacity to love? The best love I can give to any place or anyone, is to love fully as my true self, that I will seek to add to it rather than to merge into it.

They say a whole is greater than a sum of its parts, I am slowly learning to see this statement holds true when the parts are unique pieces with their own strengths and weaknesses, not when they are all made to be the same. When we never leave places or people we lose the ability to look in from the outside. To gain other perspectives from another viewpoint, another vantage.

Being away from things that I love allows me to understand the true quality of my love for these things. Do I love something out of habit, out of some subconscious need, or out of some psychological blackhole? Do I want to be part of something because I need to feel a sense of belonging, or do I believe I have something to contribute?

Am I your friend because I am lonely and need company, or because I truly value our connection for the combined dynamic it brings to both of us?

The world is full of blurred lines and it is exceedingly easy to live in auto-pilot mode, never to question our own true motives or agenda for pursuing certain things. I find myself in a true state of joy when I deeply understand why I do what I do, why I love what I love, and why I am who I am.

These moments are rare. Most of the time I get confused with the person I think people expect me to be and the person I really want to be. Then it gets more confusing when I really want to be my own person and yet be malleable enough to evolve.

These are times when I need to remember to quieten down, tap into my inner-reserves and ask myself, is whatever I am doing, in line with my inner purpose and values?

Being back brings out a shadow side of me that makes me extremely uncomfortable. For too much of a long while I had been used to living in a space only full of unbridled positivity and light. Over here, it is difficult for me to retain such a state of mind when I can’t be blinded to what I observe and feel.

The natural instinct is to disown that shadow side, to be in denial of everything that represents the dark, to be overwhelmingly positive despite my true feelings. I have grown to a point where I find it extremely hypocritical to display a positive attitude when I simply do not feel that way. As I age I am slowly understanding that there has to be a natural balance between the yin and the yang, the dark and the light.

This trip home has given me the time and space to reflect. To truly miss what I have had, to understand what is important to me, to have an even higher sense of urgency than before. Yet I do not wish to mistake urgency with relentless, mindless acts of doing, that sometimes there needs to be nothing in order to have something, that we forget our minds need time to do background processing.

I am slowly learning, I take one step forward and three steps backwards, but I hope what will make a difference is my willingness to introspect and to be painfully aware of my own mortality, that true beauty exists in the transience of everything.

Trying to prolong a moment that only wants to pass, trying to outlive an expiry date, not embracing the natural evolution of life, will only bring unneccessary pain and disappointment; but if we can embrace the transient quality of life, perhaps one day we can finally experience the pure, undiluted joy of what it means to be alive.

The courage to let go of something precious, to truly live

I have a one post per weekend writing habit going on, and for the past 3 weeks I’ve written on Medium. For a long while I thought I was never going to be back here writing again, till I somewhat realized that there is just some attraction to writing in an environment where I really do not have to care how I write, if I had anything specific to say, if anybody cared to read. This space still acts like a public journal and it should always be, a place where I can simply write organically about my thoughts without stopping for form and structure.

It seems pretty evident to me that I wrote on Medium basically still unfiltered and mostly unedited, but I usually had something really specific I wanted to write about. A topic that had probably brewed long enough in my head for it to be more or less a semi-permanent (semi, because I will always want my thoughts to evolve) thought, whereas over here, I seem to be documenting transient, ephemeral thoughts and memories.

There is something comforting about chronology that I love, from time to time I visit my old blogs and rediscover my journey all over again, truly reliving how much I have grown, how far I have travelled.

On the other hand, there is also tremendous value in recording ideas which have no obvious time-stamp attached to it – I think they should both co-exist and they are not mutually exclusive. There is some long-form writing that I write on Medium which I know will never get mass-appreciation, those are mostly stories, not ideas, and I really like them having a place to live.

Essays, stories, ideas on Medium; journal-like time-specific entries over here.

The main purpose of writing here is to capture a slice of my psyche in time, I suppose.

I am learning to question my own assumptions about myself a lot. Or some pre-conceived notions based on my old self which are no longer serving me, but I forget to let go of them. I have begun to question my own perception of something which I have perceived to be “the best”. I am slowly learning that there is no such thing as “the best”, only perhaps “the best in any given time perceived by the observer”. I question if I am too attached to certain parts of my own identity, potentially neglecting the possibilities I may grow into someone else. Or it could be having a old dream realized, only to discover I may not want that dream anymore.

When we have come so far to attain something we think we have always wanted, there is this danger of holding on too much to it, over-protecting it, putting it on a undeserved pedestal. Sometimes that particular thing, idea or situation may no longer serve us, but because it was so hard to get there, it seems absurd to contemplate letting go.

I have found myself in these situations a few times in the past, because I am truly sentimental and I form attachments to things which I worked really hard for. To be fair, that’s a normal human behavior. The issue here is, I am not afraid of change at all, in fact, I really like change. Each time there is a drastic change in my life, I have only grown from strength to strength. If I could persuade or even remind myself to review my own life situation once in a while, I would probably be a lot more inclined to shake things up a lot more.

I do have a side of me that really likes comfort. I am really wary of this side of me. I try to be aware of it as much as I can, but comfort is well….comfortable and addicting. When we get used to something, we seem to lose our capacity to stretch ourselves. Have you seen shoes that doesn’t get worn anymore? They self disintegrate.

Sometimes there is a disconnect between my lizard-brain and my aspirational self. I feel upset when I feel uncomfortable, because there is a primal desire to be in comfort. But do not mistake being primal for being natural. I would say (for now) that it is a primal state to seek survival, but it is human nature to reach for potential. Some say because of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, we need to survive before we can reach our potential. I am not entirely sure of that, even though I have been through times when I have been so caught up with trying to survive, that I have absolutely no energy to think about aspirations.

But does that mean it is true? I will question it, because I do think there are some extraordinary human beings who can put aside their primal desires to survive and instead focus on their aspirations no matter how dire their circumstances are. I truly believe some of us skip the entire Maslow hierarchy and go straight to the top of self-actualization.

I try to ask myself on a consistent basis if where I am, who I am, what I do, whom I am with, is in line with my purpose. If it no longer the case, then I need to find the courage to let go. If I am still in a scenario whereby I think I am still in line with my purpose, am I maximizing it?

Sometimes I hold on too much to something precious to me, forgetting that it is like trying to grab hold of sand. I need to learn to enjoy the ebb and flow of the natural order of things, and remember that if I artificially try to constrain a space and time, I am not truly living the experience.

I have done so much to be here in San Francisco, and I am loving it so much, that the mere thought of returning to Singapore for 2 weeks is scaring me. Thinking of losing that 2 weeks when I am on a 3-year time limit doesn’t seem very appealing to me. I love this city so much that each time I think of traveling to other parts of the US, I really hesitate. I have never felt like this before, that I actually feel reluctant to travel.

I used to love traveling so much, that the above paragraph sounds entirely ridiculous.

This morning, for some unknown reason (which happens all the time), I was inspired to fill up my sayhi moments. Going through my iPhoto library was a nostalgic trip back in time. I slowly started to remember my thoughts and feelings during those moments, how much I’ve seen, how much I’ve experienced, which is reminding me of how much I have not seen, how much I have not experienced.

I had this idea that I could do all my traveling after my love affair with San Francisco.

But what if there is no “after”? Or what if, one day it is no longer in line with my purpose to be in San Francisco? Will I have the courage to leave her?

 

The power of 8 minutes

I have begun to instill a new habit for myself – which is to bring my kindle on my very short commute to work everyday. The BART ride is 8 minutes and initially I thought that is too short to get any proper reading done.

I proved myself wrong.

I wanted to make myself read even more, keeping in mind Warren Buffett’s statement that reading is like compound interest for knowledge, in addition to the strict daily 30m of reading I do before I go to bed. I was trying to think of ways to make reading more an actual sustainable habit that would automatically be part of my routine, so reading during my commute made a lot of sense, at least in theory.

Anyway, my newish mantra is that, there is no harm in trying, so I started to see how it feels like to read for 8m every single morning.

I was pleasantly surprised by the results, mostly the way I felt. First of all, I speed read, so within 8m I could read an average of 10 pages. Which could be an entire chapter for a lot of books.

Secondly, which is the more significant for me, choosing to read a book helps to block out all the distractions I could potentially have on the BART. I tend to either have very scattered, noisy thoughts or check my phone a lot. The implicit effect is, I tend to become immersed in what I was reading, even if it is just for a short 8m, my mind goes into a state very similar to what people experience in meditation.

The choice of book is really important. It ensures that the contemplation which will result for that 8m of reading is conducive for the rest of my day. I am put in this state almost the first thing in the morning, and it sets the tone for the rest of my day.

For example, this past week I have been reading a memoir of Iris Chang – yesterday I came across this quote in the book:

PLEASE believe in THE POWER OF ONE. One person can make an enormous difference in the world. One person—actually, one IDEA—can start a war, or end one, or subvert an entire power structure. One discovery can cure a disease or spawn new technology to benefit or annihilate the human race. You are ONE individual and can change millions of lives. Think big. Do not limit your vision and do not EVER compromise your dreams or ideals.

If you have read my writing on Medium, this is exactly what I have been passionate about advocating. Choosing to read on the BART first thing in the morning, being selective about the book I am reading, empowers me to use my mind to think deeply about the issues I care about, instead of thinking aimlessly about some random thought or some random tweet. The choice of thought is very specific and very conscious.

So when I came across that quote on my 8m commute yesterday, I felt a tingle down my spine and I am being reminded by the books I read, how much there is still to do in this world, how much has already been accomplished by some very determined individuals, how little time I have to waste, how much time I can actually maximize.

I still love checking twitter and watching tv of course, but that very deliberate 8m of choosing to frame my day in a certain way feels very empowering to me.

It is incredible to me how the way I choose to spend my 8 minutes of commute can alter my consciousness and the rest of the choices I make throughout the rest of the day, if not week.

I implore you to try doing the same, perhaps it may not even be reading, but it could be something you care about.

Focus and starting my own snowball

I finished reading Snowball a few days ago, one of the quotes that struck me was,

“What factor did people feel was the most important in getting to where they’d gotten in life? And I said, ‘Focus,’ And Bill said the same thing.”

I thought to myself, if I am to narrow my focus in pursuing my goals, what defines the focus? What are the boundaries for that focus? I have an interest and curiousity in a wide variety of areas, but if I have to pick my battles, what would be the battles I want to pick?

I give myself a rough timeline of twenty years to try accomplish what I want. Between now and two decades later, I could get a whole lot done, or nothing much, if I were to be too careful or not careful enough. I don’t believe in making grand plans because in life nothing works out according to plan, at least for mine. I want to have some sort of an outline, a grounding basis, a mission or an objective, then live life organically according to that.

But this I know for sure, if I try to take on everything I care about, it will be goal suicide, because there is really a whole lot of issues I care about. Plenty of people take on one single cause for their entire lives to achieve very little visible progress (because a lot of invisible work needs to be done before visible progress can be made), much less multiple causes.

I don’t have an answer for myself yet, but at the very least I have started to think about it. Snowball tries to convey Buffett’s the concept of compounding interest, not really for money, but for whatever we choose to take on in life. We have to start rolling a small little ball right now, and hope that in years to come it will gather enough momentum.

What is my little snowball like?

Well, I could share my list here for a start, and see where I stand after some time. This list has not changed over the past few years actually:

One

I want people to understand more the co-relation between mental illnesses and creativity. I started to look at my mind very differently especially since I have read Lincoln’s  Melancholy. Exploring the idea that having a melancholic mind may actually be a powerful driver for achieving our goals in life was key to my own transformation. I wonder if there could be an effective way of bringing this exploration to people who suffer from chronic mood disorders.

How do I make more people see and understand that everything is a double-edged sword. Once we understand this basic concept, it is tremendously self-empowering to come to a realization that it is our very own choice on how we choose to weld that sword.

Two

Closely related to the above, I really want to do everything I can to make education more progressive. I am not sure how exactly I am going to go about doing it, but I know for sure that the education systems right now are considerably broken. I know of countless people whose natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning as a child was gradually smothered as they went through school (at least in Asia), especially if you learn differently from other people. I have also known people who have had the blessing to go through either home-schooling or amazing progressive schools, and it was very much reflected in their personalities, confidence and polymathic knowledge.

I often wonder how different would I have been, if I have been encouraged to learn what I am truly interested in. Instead of spending years of my life going through the pain of feeling less because I have issues with memory retention. I do not learn by trying to memorize facts, instead I learn by either doing through trial and error, or simply organically sponging information I am curious about.

Also on my mind is providing access to quality education and giving everybody in this world a right to educate themselves. Yes, there are people in this world who are not allowed to educate themselves.

Three

I would like for more weird people to embrace their weirdness. I have seen so many talented people drown their own gifts in sorrow and substances, because they have been made to feel less because they are just not like anyone else, which is the irony. If you are not like anyone else, it is a strength, not a weakness. Why do we marginalize people who stick out, perhaps like a sore thumb, but with careful nurturing, who knows who they could become?

I believe people who are not comfortable with their own individuality develop chronic illnesses, if not chronic mental illnesses, because it is just so self-destructive to not love yourself. So it self-perpetuates issue number 1 above. It could be triggered or exacerbated by issue number 2.

Looking at my little snowball

Now that I have tried to explicit write about it, it becomes clear to me that what I thought were disparate issues are basically one vicious cycle I am trying to break. I care about a lot more, like animal welfare, minority discrimination, equal rights for all, stopping war, which you could argue would benefit from the ripple effects of the above. If we bring more young ones up to critically think, understand their place and privilege in this world, accept and love themselves for who they are, wouldn’t we develop a more compassionate and empathetic humanity?

Starting small

I have this untested thought that it is the most effective and efficient to effect change from where we are. I am writing and curating a collection on Medium titled, “Change the world with lines of code”. I haven’t fully thought about how to narrow my focus down to the root issues I care about, but right now I am relentless about nudging people, especially those of us who work in tech, that we have incredible power to make a difference:

“It used to be that in order to reach more people than you could talk to in a day, you had to be rich and famous and powerful, be a celebrity, a politician, a CEO, but that’s not true today. Now ordinary people have voice, not just those of us lucky to go to HBS, but anyone with access to Facebook, Twitter, a mobile phone. This is disrupting traditional power structures and leveling traditional hierarchy. Voice and power are shifting from institutions to individuals, from the historically powerful to the historically powerless, and all of this is happening so much faster than I could have imagined when I was sitting where you are today and Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old.” – Sheryl Sandberg, HBS

Eventually I hope to distill these ideas into some comprehensible deck and speak about it. I think when we belong to the tech community, we already have more privilege and gifts than a lot of people in this world. Most of us have already won the Ovarian Lottery.

Could we do more to elevate the less privileged? Could we at least try to consider that the only selfish way to make a livable, sustainable world to live in, is to make everyone’s lives better?

I want more people to understand their individual power to be the change they want to see. Be it writing, engineering or design.

There is no time for me to be less than serious

Being serious can be a lonely experience. I will not lie, at times I wish I could be less serious in order to feel less alone.

But there is no time for me to be less serious.

When we realize there is so much that we can do and should do in this world, coupled with the fragility of life itself, the understanding that 50 years of human life is not short and not yet that long, there is really no time to be less serious.

I have no idea when my mental faculties or physical abilities will be taken away from me. I live with a conscious awareness that they can be taken away from me anytime. I have been there before. Not too long ago, I lost the ability to function, to think, to appreciate beauty.

I was given a gift, a gift of life, made possible by the gift of an artificial death.

Death itself does not scare me. It is the idea of being physically alive but feeling no sense of life in any cell of my body, that scares me. I am serious about my sleeping patterns, because I was not able to sleep for a long, long time before. I am serious about what I eat, because messing up my diet could mean unwanted implications on my physical energy. I am serious about what I think, because I understand that mental energy is finite, so why waste it on meaningless thoughts? I am serious about protecting my alone time, because I have experienced what happens when I am over-exposed to people.

So to many people, I may seem like a kill-joy, awkwardly excusing myself out of parties and social gatherings. I need to be home before 9pm because I need to sleep at 10pm. There’s no room for negotiation because you have no idea how terrifying can insomnia be to someone who has coped with it for all her life.

I am scared and I have anxiety like anyone else. The curse that comes with being serious with relentless idealism, is the feeling of being misunderstood all the time. I am serious, but I am not cynical. I am brimming with an incurable passion for how humanity can be. I cannot be cynical, because it was the love given to me by humanity which lifted me out of my artificial death. I am only alive because I am convinced that we can be better. I understand one simple thing:

How the world functions is very disconnected from what the world truly wants. 

I don’t buy into cynicism. I believe we can continue to make history and not repeat it. I believe in order to solve the world’s problems we need to have faith in the basic premise of humanity. It is not that the problems are difficult to solve, it is that we are just too jaded to believe human beings are capable of living up to their promise.

I feel out of place, because I believe in the promise of humanity. Isn’t that ridiculous? Because I am not as jaded, cynical, negative, numb? Because I believe that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good, that I have strong opinions towards time-wasters like social gaming, that I believe in the idea of a good government to forward human progress, that I truly believe that all of us think we want mass approval but what we truly need are authentic connections?

I keep telling people morbid stories like the one about the two AI pioneers who killed themselves because they believe nobody would ever understand their ideas enough in their lifetimes in order for them to work on them. What good is a life when you are unable to work on the ideas you believe in?

In order to keep working on ideas I believe in so that I can keep myself alive, I have to find the strength within myself to be able to be truly authentic. I have to stand fearlessly with both my feet planted on the ground even if the world thinks I am naive. If being naive means having the courage and faith to believe in the promise of humanity, so be it.

There needs to be a discernment between being swayed because someone is making a convincing argument and being swayed because we don’t want to upset the status quo.

I check and re-check my personal motivations when I act on something. Am I doing it because I really believe in it, or because I am doing it for the fear of losing status quo?

Will I have the strength to push something forward knowing it is the right thing to do, even if it means I may risk losing everything that is important to me?

For having that strength is the difference between the person I am now, and the person I want to become.

I have no time to be less serious, because I am doing a disservice to the gift of life if I take it less seriously.

Why I wrote “The power of your writing” & other afterthoughts

Writing is my first love. But that was not the reason why I wrote “The power of your writing”. I wrote that post because throughout my life I have been significantly touched by people’s stories, I have witnessed how other people’s lives are impacted by stories, I have felt and touched the power of words. More significantly, I have experienced the power of my own writing through all those times I channeled my pain, joy, healing, anger into these words and saw how they in turn, transformed me.

I live, because I wrote.

I feel a lot more comfortable writing my fragmented thoughts and jumbled emotions in this personal journal, fully vulnerable and unedited, than to write a post that I so very much want to craft for more people, simply because to me it was one of the most important messages I ever had to carry. You could choose to identify with my writing here or not, it is very personal and I understand it is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I truly believed in the power of your writing – it is really important to me that I was writing something that would be able to equal my belief in you. I needed to write something that spoke to you, that would make some of you bring up a writing screen, empowered by nobody but yourself.

It was such a difficult post to write, because of the weight I pinned on it myself. The idea to write that post didn’t come to me recently, it was something that has been sitting at the back of my mind for years. I never had the courage nor the platform to write it.

Certain things have to be set in place before there is a tipping point for any decision. I fell in love with Medium (yes this was before I even saw the possibility of working there) and at the same time, there was a small but growing community at helpmewrite. I signed up for helpmewrite only recently, because I was too, guilty of the idea that I write mostly because my words have to come spontaneously to me, I was not sure if being compelled to write by people voting on ideas was even my thing.

Truth be told, it is still not my thing. I still choose to write because I need to, that most of the time I have a subject matter so important to me that I will start disintegrating if I didn’t write it. I still do not care whether people think it is worth publishing or not. The fact that I care about something myself is enough for me to write.

However, because people were voting on the idea, I received notifications through my email that people wanted to read “The power of writing”. It was not the number of notifications I received per se, it was that these dripping notifications served as a persistent reminder that I should give life to this post.

So one Sunday morning, I sat down to write “The power of writing”, though I altered the title to, “The power of your writing”. One additional word, such an incredible difference to me. I do not want to end up writing a post that speaks about the benefits of writing, everyone knows writing is a good thing to do. But not enough people know that writing is an amazing thing to do, for yourself.

I didn’t have an outline, I would be honest. I had no idea what I was going to write except that I very much believed in what I was going to write with every single bit of my heart. I closed my eyes, told myself I would trust the process, that all that really mattered was that I wrote with nothing but my heart.

I came up with the main body of the post in that same afternoon, feeling really uncertain whether something I wrote in one sitting without much edits (I typically write and publish everything in one sitting) would be accessible enough. I sent the unfinished post to two people I felt would understand why it meant so much to me. The post came back with some suggested edits and that I should publish it.

I sent it to the “supporters” at helpmewrite, some of them left me wonderful notes on my Medium draft post, which helped tip me further. I let the post sit in my drafts for another full week, before I sat down on another Sunday afternoon to give it an once-over edit.

It was the second Sunday afternoon that truly birthed the post. The first Sunday I wrote the essence of it with what came to me, the second Sunday I slowly gave it life by touching every single word I wrote with my heart. The final draft that went out really wasn’t much different from the first, but it was that I re-read and re-wrote certain parts of it with such intent and love – when I finally hit publish, it was not a post I was uncertain of, it was a post I knew I wrote with all of me.

At that point, it didn’t matter anymore if anyone would read it or resonate with it. I gave it all of me that I could possibly summon and that was the best I could do for something I loved so much. I gave it my all, if that wasn’t enough, it was enough for me to answer to myself that I did everything I could.

So I don’t have Google Analytics or anything else on this site. I have a very serendipitous attitude towards my writing. If people would read what I write, that would be nice. If they don’t, well, I can’t force a connection that was not meant to happen.

But “The power of your writing” was different for me. It was not so much the validation to my writing that I was seeking, but the validation to my belief in the idea that I was seeking. I believe that everyone has something to write, wants to write, and will feel the power of their own writing if they would even start. That if everyone share what they wrote, the world would be a much better place, for we will get to know each other as human beings with stories to tell, with all that makes us worthy of being human.

We are human not because we’re the most intelligent species, we are human because we are capable of writing our own stories, in every manner of what this means.

The post did really well statistics wise, way beyond my wildest expectations, but it was not the numbers that gave me so much heart in what I do.

It was reactions like these:

I told myself that if the post could encourage just 5 people to start writing – the keyword is “start”, I would gladly die in the next second as a very happy soul. If you would read the notes people left on the post & the tweets in reaction to it, perhaps you may get an inkling why this means so much to me.

I write to live, I live to write; I write because I love the highest ideal of what humanity can be.

p.s. yes, over here you get the unedited emo me writing about myself, over at Medium you get the edited version of me who writes primarily about you.