on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

what I’m truly passionate about

Over the past week, there was a series of random events which reminded me over and over again, what I am truly passionate about.

I started the week with attending Ignite Strata 2013, only because my boss Joyce was speaking. Being in a car from the city all the way to Santa Clara isn’t my idea of how I want to spend a weekday evening, but I kept telling myself to have an open mind. My natural tendency after a long day of work is to go straight home and recover and after a long week of work the same tendency occurs during the weekends and I prefer to stay at home, again.

I observed my own behavior pattern and I realised that if I left it up to my own natural tendencies, all I’ll do over here is to work and be home. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, but what used to excite me about being in San Francisco was the potential of the community I could meet. I wanted to meet more like-minded people, find out what they’re doing, tell them what I want to do, have osmoses of ideas, refine my own ideas, provide feedback to other people’s ideas. That was in my ideal, imagined world. I wanted to meet with people not only from the tech industry, but from the vibrant mis-mash of niche communities here. Craft, food, alternative healing, unicorns, writers, whatever.

But all I felt like doing apart from work was going home.

I actually staged a mental intervention for myself. I had to negotiate and patiently explain to myself that, if all I do is to move between work and home, I really would never meet anybody I want to meet. It is not rocket science to figure that out, but people really have no idea how deceptive our own minds can be.

I decided the only way to change that pattern is to pre-commit myself to events, whether I ‘felt like it’ or not. I am convinced that if I only did things whenever I ‘felt like it’, I would never amount to anything. This is a constant theme throughout interviews with accomplished people, especially authors. If they wrote only when they felt like it, they would never end up completing their books. It takes a tremendous amount of disciple and sheer focus to do something.

I am a great believer of random creativity and chaos, but we forget our lizard brains try to convince us to remain in our comfort zones. At least my brain does. I need outside stimulus to inspire internal creativity, but being an introvert I tread on the thin line of being over-stimulated and burning out. It is a fine balance I have to maintain and I don’t deny that many times I am simply afraid being overwhelmed all over again, so I developed the tendency of avoiding such situations.

There are always tradeoffs to be made, what is the point of keeping myself in pristine condition when I exist almost in a vacuum? In order to see the world I have to accept that plenty of times I will fall into some pit holes and I have to be okay with that. In order to meet new people I have to accept that I will have to put up with that feeling of being drained, as much as I really dislike it. You can’t find diamonds without mining through the earth.

So I decided to take that long drive to Santa Clara with my boss, well at least I didn’t have to drive. The string of talks were fascinating in their own ways, seeing how different people used various sets of data to their own scenarios, but it was one talk towards the end which gave me that feeling. That feeling I feel when I know that I was somehow meant to attend this event after all, even though I literally had to drag myself to it.

It was a talk by a Palantir engineer – he started by asking how many of us in the audience used our tech skills in philanthropy work? Now, if you knew me a little bit more, you would know I am writing a series of posts on Medium on how to change the world with lines of code. I have previously written on the same topic before on my old posterous blog, it is a topic that I am constantly revisiting over and over again. My angle may change, the context may change, but it has always been the same for me – I strongly believe that software can have a tremendous positive impact on the world.

When I heard the question, my ears perked up, I sat straight up, my eyes almost doubled in size while waiting in anticipation. My mind was blown away when that engineer, with an official title as the “Philanthropy Lead”, showed us demos of how Palantir’s software was used to analyze big data in order to deliver humanitarian aid for disasters. To see this being demonstrated on that scale on something I fervently believed in was incredibly moving on a personal level for me.

I attended “Shut up and write!” in the Mission on Wednesday, a meetup I deliberately registered for, though I knew I still wouldn’t feel like going to after a long day of work, but I trusted myself to make it because I registered for it. I wrote my third post in the Medium series in that hour where everybody simply shut up and wrote. lol. They were mostly people writing their novels, I felt funny being almost the only person there writing a blog post, but what mattered was that silent sense of community. The subject is very close to my heart and I was very much afraid that I wouldn’t be able to convey my emotions, ideas and thoughts fully in that one hour effort. I published it anyway without spending too much time editing it, I simply had to believe in the iterative nature of ideas. At the very least I am putting something raw out to the world and hopefully feedback would return in some form, so that I can improve on it.

Simply being there at that meetup in a roomful of writers for only an hour was very reinvigorating for me.

Finally, on thursday, I saw a write up on the TED 2013 winner. He decided to put computers at rural Indian villages and found out that kids taught themselves complex concepts like DNA replication with no supervision or guidance. Again, I subconsciously sat up straight to read whatever I could find on him. I felt my pulse quicken, my cells come alive.

Time and time again, I just knew. These are the moments when I knew where my passion lies because I simply felt it in its truest form. That form it takes, it makes me feel my entire being is lighted up with fire.

These posts I write, they don’t receive much readership. To be extremely honest, most of the time I feel like I am writing to a vacuum and it does affect me. But I catch myself at these times and I gently remind myself over and over again, I am not writing for mass readership or spikes in numbers. I am writing in hope to connect to those who are on similar tangents. They are far and few in between, but again, it is a tradeoff I have to be willing to make.

Once in a very long while, I receive some feedback like this, and that alone makes everything worthwhile.

There are plenty of things in this world that we just have to trudge and carry on, no matter how seemingly remote is the possibility. Like how Ang Lee languished in years of obscurity before finally being recognised for his work.  I don’t seek recognition explicitly, though I admit sometimes I still have an ego like any human, but if I could somehow persuade more people to believe in their own inner potential to impact this world positively, I would really die a very happy person.

Creating sustainable change for myself

Being an introvert my natural tendency is to stay at home as much as I can. It is at odds with my curious personality, because ironically I thrive on having new experiences. It is difficult after a week of work, all I want to do is to recover at home, but I forget I am at my most inspired self when I acquire new experiences.

I drove over to Berkeley for the first time today. It was a day of firsts for me, first time driving over the bay bridge, first time visiting Berkeley. I was very intrigued by the vibe at Berkeley and I made myself a promise that I will be back to explore it further. Driving back to the bay bridge, I was awed by the sight of the bay while cruising along the highway. The bay area is truly very beautiful and I wonder how much beauty is there for me to see within the rest of California.

And I only drove over because there is some zipcar credit leftover for this month and I didn’t know what to do with it. I almost cancelled it last minute, because it is that time of the month and all I want to do is to lie on the bed and not move.

I was very glad that I made myself go out anyway because I caught myself smiling a lot while being out exploring today. It just reminded me that sometimes I just have to trick myself into doing things I think I don’t want to do. The battle between the inspired self and the lizard brain.

My new thing these days is to constantly learn how to set myself up for optimization. I don’t want to waste my time any further, so I want to know how I can maximize my time and my body. I take one step forward and two step backwards, and I can only tell myself that I have to keep the kaizen spirit alive. I have to be careful of trying to implement change into my life, because I tend to go towards the extreme and it ends up backfiring.

I wanted to lose some weight I gained over the festive season, so I made myself very conscious over what I ate. Which is fine, except in the end I felt so deprived and stressed out over thinking my food choices all the time, that I ended up pig-feasting for a week. It is not only the weight I am concerned about, I just wanted my body to be nourished and not stressed out with all that process food. But I ended up stressing my mind instead of my body because I kept stressing over what to eat.

It is hard to create sustainable change when I go from one extreme end to the other. I have to treat myself like a lean startup. Continuously experimenting what can be sustainable and what is only for the short term. I used to hate raw vegetables and I am not kidding when I say ‘hate’. It used to make me nauseous. But one day I ended up craving it. Instead of forcing myself to eat something I don’t like eating because it is nutritious, somehow a switch flipped in me and I ended up enjoying it.

The trick question is, how do I accumulate enough cue, response and reward such that I automatically crave good food or exercise without making myself feel like I am forcing myself to do it?

A few years ago when I first came into contact with a green smoothie, I would feel nauseous simply by looking at the greenish color of the smoothie. Despite friends telling me it is actually quite delicious, I didn’t want to touch it, much less drink an entire glass of it. I started making myself a green smoothie everyday a couple of weeks ago because I decided since I can’t make myself stop eating unhealthy food entirely, I’ll pile on the nutrition instead. It started of as something I chose to do because I thought I had to do it, but now I actually desire to have it every single day.

That is sustainable change for me. By not forcing it out of sheer brute will.

Plenty of times it happened almost like magic. I have no idea when along the way my mind starts associating pleasure with something I used to dislike. All I know is, I need to start tricking myself into starting it first and have very low expectations from it. I have to find some middle ground and start from there. For my green smoothies, I started with tons of sweet fruit just to offset the taste of greens, but I increasingly find myself liking the taste of raw greens more now, without the aid of too much sweet fruit.

For the other things I want to do, that’s how I need to approach it I guess. With a curious, experimental approach rather than being my own worst critic. What I’ve learned is that everyone is different with how triggers and responses work. Something that worked for a friend doesn’t mean it would work for me. We all have to find our own sweet spot.

There are tons of new things I would like to try out. I would like to create my own opportunities to meet more people, have more new experiences, learn new things. Spend a little more time on my side projects, learn new code frameworks, experiment a lot more with my work.

So much to do, so little time. Even so, I am continuously learning how to incorporate these into my life without overwhelming myself so much that I turn out so drained that I end up wanting to do nothing.

My new favorite word, sustainability.

San Francisco, two months on

I am not sure whether writing monthly anniversary posts on moving to a new city is typical. I think this is a way to remind myself never ever to take my time here for granted. Time flies by so quickly, two months may seem really short for most people but for me, it means that’s already two months out of the 2yrs+ my paperwork is good for. That’s almost like 10% of the time I can hypothetically be here has passed me by.

In some ways I appreciate myself for being so mindful of the time that is passing by, because every single day I wake up in this city is precious. My boss asked me whether San Francisco has met my expectations since I am no longer just a tourist or a passerby and I tell her it has exceeded mine.

I don’t really expect people to understand my bond to this city, the depth of my feelings for it cannot be adequately described in words. People may misunderstand I am hyping this place way more than it should be, but I love this city precisely because I know it is imperfect and yet still beautiful, to me.

To people this may be the tech mecca, gay heaven or hippie land, but for me it is where I have found life and found myself. I don’t know how to accurately describe how it feels like to feel dead for three decades of your life and then be given the gift of what it truly means to be alive.

I have never forgotten how I felt when I first took the BART out of SFO in July 2011 and saw the vast blue skies of San Francisco. It is here where I realised the immense potential of humanity and within, the human in me.

It has been two months since I’ve moved, and till today I still wake up and wonder to myself in amazement, “Am I really here?” It still seems so surreal.

It is a lifetime’s blessing to be able to live in a city you love beyond words. I pass by the same Victorian buildings on my commute between home and the office twice a day, each time I still feel a sense of awe and immense appreciation for the preserved architecture. I still grin widely when I am on any public transport with a enthusiastic, friendly driver. I still feel grateful when cars stop patiently and drivers smile for me to cross the roads, even when it is not in my favour.

I love being here and I am extremely grateful to be here. Come what may, I will still choose to live in every precious moment which can be gifted to me. I’ll never want to feel a sense of entitlement and I will constantly remind myself that it is a privilege to be here. That is why it is so important to me that not a day goes by like a blink, every day is a conscious, concerted effort of living and being alive, for me.

San Francisco, I knew I would always love you the moment I set my eyes on you.

being grateful

Over in my home country today, there will family and friends celebrating the Lunar New Year. I never really particularly enjoyed it because I found the yearly regime of visits painful, but living in a foreign country made me appreciate what it means for the Chinese. It is almost like Thanksgiving or Christmas, a deliberate opportunity for people to get together. I used to feel that I was being forced to participate in house-visiting, but I can see how it can actually be a good thing. When everyone grows up and live their lives in separate directions, perhaps getting together, no matter due to tradition or enforcement, reminds you of your connections and roots, I suppose.

I am still not very much into the tradition, I personally believe that reunion dinners or get-togethers should come spontaneously and be very much desired. We should not wait for a holiday to get together. If someone is important to you, then take the time to see this person, it is as simple as that. I also don’t think it is a good idea to wait for New Years to have a fresh start. Every day should be a fresh start. But I’ll stop being such a wet-blanket for now.

Since I don’t intend to participate in any celebratory activities even if I am given an opportunity to, I would take this time to write about gratitude instead.

I have never lived better in my entire life since I arrived in SF mid December last year. It has only been around two months and the cynic in me tells me it is still too early to tell, but one of the most transformative mindsets one can have is to celebrate small wins, and to live in the present. I can be that person who is expecting misery to find me even though I am perfectly happy right now, or I can be that person who is just indulging in every happy moment that passes me by.

The only thing that somehow affects me now and then is how my loved ones have to endure me being away. But I really believe love shouldn’t be limited by physical distance. Love is love, and to love someone is to be happy for the person even though she cannot be physically present because she’s off pursuing the dreams of her life. I can only hope my loved ones will find it in their hearts to understand. And it goes the other way round, by reciprocating the love showered on me, do I take the time to physically spend quality time with the people who love me, or do I make the best effort to live the best way I can?

I am confronted with this difficult question very often in my head, and it is tough for me to choose. But I still choose to try to make the best of my life. I still think that if I had been at home, I would be like a knife that doesn’t have an edge. And then, what is the point of my existence?

I am eating a lot better and I am very grateful that living in SF makes that a hell lot easier. Buying sustainable produce is within walking distance. Finding a restaurant that serves healthy fare is at the tip of my fingers. It is very easy to take this sort of convenience for granted once people live a long while here, but I don’t want to stop having that childlike sense of wonder when I walk through a farmer’s market. It is a lot easier for me to not take this for granted, because I only need to be mindful how difficult it is to eat local produce in Singapore. Or anything that has the label ‘organic’, much less from a real farm.

I have been running a mile twice a week, it is really nothing compared to friends who are running marathons every other day, but for someone like me who had hardly lifted my own butt off my chair in front of the computer, it is like a mini-miracle for me. I have also come to the conclusion that is not how fast or how far I run, but that I am consistently making the choice to run, even though all I want to do is not move.

Work has never been better. I say this in all seriousness, even though the bar has been set pretty low with what I had to endure while being an employee in Singapore. There are days when I leave my office building with a profound sense of gratitude and a spring in my step as I walk home (yes I get to walk home!). There is a certain sense of fulfillment and despite the crazy ups and downs we go through as a startup, I truly love my team. I love them as team mates and I love them even more as friends. Again, having had not-so-nice employers before has made me appreciate my current employers even more. I also had to spend a year apart from my team mates because of my paperwork limbo and thus having the opportunity to be in the same office with them every day now simply feels special, every single day.

Although I am glad I am over the paperwork limbo now, I have to say, it has been the best thing that ever happened to me. That one year had been so challenging for me that it is hard for me to take what I have now for granted. Everything I am experiencing now is extremely precious to me because I know fully well how close I came to missing out on all of it.

Sleep, oh wow, sleep. I was a chronic insomniac since I was a toddler. I proudly proclaimed myself to be severely nocturnal, if there is such a thing. I hated waking up in the mornings and thrived being awake at 3am in the morning. These days, I fall into deep sleep by midnight and I wake up at 8 without an alarm. I am convinced that being able to sleep is the one single thing I am most grateful for. Just being able to acquire deep rest is instrumental in improving other areas of my life, especially my moods. I am hardly ever in a bad mood now.

Being surrounded by lots of happy people is also something I am very grateful for. There are a lot of happy people here. Also, simply by not being moody all the time has lifted an invisible veil of my eyes. Since I am so sensitive to little moments of happiness now, just having the awareness to observe these moments has contributed to my level of happiness too.

I will always be grateful for the people who were there with me at key moments in my life. There are friends who had experienced the massively-bitter me and is still around to be with the happy me now. They will be people I will always keep in my heart because it is already rare enough for people to stick around for a lengthy time, much less stick around when I was such a pain in the ass. Being away has also made me very appreciative of people from my home community, tech or not. There seems to be a common thread of understanding between us – we are all fighting the same battles. It is very intriguing for me to feel a certain sense of connection to people that I didn’t have that many shared experiences with, but I feel connected to anyway because we were from the same country.

There is one special group of people I am exceptionally grateful for. People who are driven by the same values and motivation as me. They remind me constantly why I continue to believe and they keep me grounded. It is not easy to want to make a difference to this world. People go insane, fall into deep depression, lose their acquired assets or kill themselves trying to do so. It is hard to pursue meaning especially when one is being surrounded by people perfectly contented to remain in the status quo. I have it slightly easier here because there are arguably more people in the valley trying to make a difference, but I am also keenly aware that there are many here who is pursuing a difference with dissimilar values. I still feel insane for even having the ambition and dreams to contemplate that I can have a measurable impact on this world. If there is something I would want to seek self-improvement on, it would be my own comfort levels with my own insanity.

I will like to be more comfortable with having a distinct voice and to be less afraid to be proven wrong. That I would require less validation and approval to pave my own unique pathway. That I will dare to love in my own crazy way, even if most people would not understand. I am grateful to be able to feel this desire to be myself. That my days of conformity seem to be finally over.

All in, I am grateful that I am still intrinsically motivated to write a thousand word essay here, even though I am aware that there will be hardly anyone who reads these chunks of words, the ones that do will matter the most. And most of all, I really just want to write because I honor myself.

Thank you whoever you are, for being part of my journey.

p.s. I am ultimately grateful for not having it easy till recent years in my life because it has made me appreciate what I have now. So if any of you is having a tough time, keep faith that one day you may look back and appreciate having it tough because it will make you stronger and happier. There cannot be light without darkness, and one will not know what it means to be alive without coming close to death.

if I dare to be me

Being myself is a constant work in progress. My family would attest to the fact that I was born a feisty kid – even when my mom was pregnant with me I wouldn’t give her peace. I had to be induced because I was causing her so much discomfort. Sorry mom.

It was clear in my childhood I had a mind of my own and a curiousity that wouldn’t stop. In primary school (junior school for my american readers) I would be that kid pesky who would constantly raise my hand up and ask questions. I was loud and I had a voice. I always had stage fright though. I wasn’t afraid to form friendships with teachers by engaging them in conversations outside of classroom work.

Somewhen in secondary school (high school), things drastically changed. I retreated into myself because I was increasingly aware that sometimes having a loud voice can hurt. My grades slipped too as I grew disenchanted with ‘education’ and that undermined my self-worth so I felt like I was no longer worthy of a voice.

Then there were the difficult teenage years followed by the perceived misery of adulthood. If school was bad for me, working in mainstream society was worse. The older I got, the more empathetic I became – which is kind of weird since most people go inverse instead – and that made me even more reluctant to have a voice for myself, because I was severely uncomfortable making other people feel uncomfortable. What a paradox. It is hard to believe, but I would rather be at a disadvantage rather than to make someone feel discomfort.

I became that introvert who doesn’t go out. For going out makes me feel very uncomfortable. I look at the sadness in people’s eyes and I cringe. When people try to talk to me I wince. I would rather be surrounded by four walls than to go out and be exposed to people’s discomfort.

I think people who have known me all their lives, my parents and those who have known me as a kid, must be wondering what happened to me. The boisterous, over-confident kid that turned into this painful, introverted adult.

I am wondering the same myself.

I guess the more I experienced the power struggle between human beings, the more I refuse to engage in that game. And in return I lose my personal power. Additionally I had my own emotional issues to deal with, so having a low sense of self-worth didn’t help either.

It took me half a decade to recondition myself into believing I could start having a voice again. Till today, I still struggle with it a lot.

I still hate making people feel uncomfortable.

And people get really uncomfortable when I try to be honest.

I am comforted that there is a growing group of people who are on a similar tangent and wavelength on being authentic. To me being authentic is like what they say about willpower. It is a muscle that has to be practiced. The more you wear these pair of shoes, the more you grow into it, the more the shoes will organically fit your feet.

And learning is not really like a progress meter that only goes forward. Many times we go a little forward only to stumble 3 steps backwards. The crux lies within how we are actually patient with ourselves enough to be at peace and persist, even when we stumble.

These days there is a growing number of people writing to me for my “advice”, I tell them that I am not in a position to dish out advice, but I can be honest about how I feel about their questions. I am extremely passionate when it comes to the values and ideas I believe in, once in a while someone totally unexpected comes up to me and tells me they have made a change in their lives because of something I’ve told them a long while ago.

Moments like these, it makes me feel like even though I feel like all these words I say and write are echoes of silence towards nowhere, somehow they do take a life of their own and bounce back at the most unexpected time from the most unexpected sources.

I am much happier today because I strive to be as authentic as possible. I try to embrace my weirdness even though I am still conscious of how people may take my insanity. I have a thousand moments of doubt everyday but I exercise my ‘authentic muscle’. It is a constant stream of choices. Do I want to be myself or do I want to please people and end up losing a part of me?

Each time I make a choice to be who I am not in order to make life a little easier for myself, because it is really so much easier blend into surroundings instead of making a huge splash that may end up with people getting very upset with their wet faces – a little part of me dies inside and I find it doubly hard to revive it again.

I silently and secretly, well, not so secret anymore, believe that I am at my best if I dare to be me. The world doesn’t need another person who does the same thing everyone else is doing. I would like to remember the child I was, the one who was not afraid of her opinion, but I would like to grow into a person who is not afraid to defend her ideas, but is equally open to conceding if I am proven to be less right. “Less right” because I don’t believe in an absolute right or wrong anymore.

I hope I can find a balance between having excess empathy for the people around me, but somehow channel that empathy into framing my delivery right in order to have a voice that can very well disagree, but not inflict pain on others in that process.

Further reading – Havard Business Review: Never Lie About Who You Really Are

Being alive and human

I think one of the greatest gifts of having awoken from what feels like a long slumber is how I appreciate all the small little joys in life now. I smile when I look out of the window every morning when I see blue skies, because though blue skies are relatively common in the Mission, they are still not a given. I appreciate the gray, rainy days in between because they make me value the days with sun rays and blue skies even more.

I seem to be operating on a different conscious level and I am not sure if I can accurately describe it in words. I am more conscious about every little detail, I have started to care a lot more about things I never used to care about. I never really cared about living in chaos, now I prefer to have my living environment clean and organized. I used to eat anything I wanted, now it makes a difference whether my food comes from a sustainable source or not. Now, it has come to a point whereby I feel guilty for throwing a banana peel in the garbage as opposed to the compost bin.

Having lived so much of my life in Singapore, it never used to mean much when we waste food or throw rubbish in chutes. The scariest part of living in a comfortable modern society is how much we take resources for granted. I still maintain one of my most treasured experiences in my life was to spend a few days in a true eco resort at Palawan, Philippines. Till today, three years later, I still don’t waste toilet paper because I have lived a few days without it. In fact, I have become so much more conscious of how much water I use after living in that resort as well, because over there, there is no such thing as piped water. Everything comes from a natural source and everything is precious.

I still feel incredulously lucky to be in SF. I get the best of both worlds. Cutting-edge technology and hippie-back-to-the-basics-and-nature lifestyle. I just need to walk a few blocks away before I get to buy food from sustainable sources. Every Thursday evening in the Mission, I get to walk through a farmer’s market where I can buy oranges straight from a real farm. Not organically “labelled” or “certified”. A real farm. From a real farmer.

Right now I am typing this entry eating organic walnuts, unsalted and unseasoned. They taste like the best thing in the world. I am actually contemplating the unthinkable of being a vegetarian. Having loved bloody steaks all my life, if I ever take this step it would be huge.

The real reason though, is not really because I am in SF. I am just so preoccupied with being alive now so much that I don’t want to waste any moment. I want to maximize every breath I take. I want my cells to be efficient so that I can maximize the output of my energy. Which means I should stop making them work so hard to get rid of waste by eating less toxins to begin with. It has become very apparent to me now because my senses are heightened now that I am out of my slumber. Partially it is because I am sleeping really well now, so that gives me a lot more clarity than I have had my entire life. So each time I ingest a typical meal, it has become painfully obvious how hard my body is working to digest the food. When I simply eat less or better, my body feels light and free.

I have never noticed this pattern so much, I guess it is hard to notice intricate body patterns like this when I was always preoccupied with not having enough sleep and just coping with survival.

Having observed this subtle but profound change in myself, it makes me wonder about things on a macro perspective. If we all care a little bit more about each other, ourselves and our finite resources, if we remove a little bit of stress from our everyday lives, if we started to be concerned about things that truly matter, if we stopped being so obsessed about trying to prove ourselves to the world but instead, start to work on the things we love.

Maybe, just maybe, we would be a little more aware of how precious it is to be alive and how much it is a gift to be part of the human race. To really love life and not be afraid of death, to be really alive and not just avoiding death.

I never, ever, expected myself to think that it is a gift to be human. I have always had a disdain for the human race, if I may be honest. I was not proud to be human. But these recent years have allowed me to experience how incredible the human race can be, if only we focus on the things that truly matter.

I think real change starts within. It is always easy to point fingers at what is wrong with systems but are we even willing to take that step to change ourselves? If we don’t even want to try a little harder to be kinder, eat better, live healthier, have more compassion for the less fortunate, then what right do we have to point fingers up above?

I would like to believe that now, when people come into my path, they may feel a little different, because I think they would see the light I have perpetually shining in my eyes. How happy I am just to be.

You know people used to ask me, “how are you”, and I wouldn’t know how to reply without being impolite. These days, people ask me “how are you”, and I reply back with “great” – and I mean it every single time.

For the first time in my life, I will admit, I am grateful to be human. And I am very grateful to be in the company of the exceptional human beings I come across.

I used to be one of those pointing fingers at broken systems without caring how broken I was myself. I blamed the system for breaking me, which to a certain extent may be true. But it is not efficient nor productive to keep on pointing fingers at broken systems. What is it I can do? That is a better question instead. They say, be the change you want and I used to roll my eyes a little when I hear that, because I would be thinking, there’s no point trying to change myself when the entire system is broken.

I was wrong. History has always been made because there were simply crazy people who believed things can change. If you start believing, even if you were delusional, one day you may just be right. If you never believed in anything, then nothing exceptional would ever happen.

They say a leopard doesn’t change its spots. My family and friends who have known me for more than three years, can attest to it that I am one of those leopards who not only changed its spots, but probably grew a technicolor coat.

I believe in miracles, because I am one.


For no one, someone & everyone in particular:

You. Our eyes first met in a vortex where the past, present and future intersect. You. Made me remember my past, inspire my future and embrace the present. You. For me the stars, the moon, songs, doors, windows, tiles, pizzas will never be the same again. You. Whom I want to share my moments of joy, discovery and vulnerability with. You. I imagine your shadow with me as I walk down the streets taking in all the sights I imagine would delight. You. I never really knew and will never know but somehow stubbornly stayed on as part of my psyche.

But you. Can only stay on as part of me and not with me. Because you. As you I loved and I would preserve, but as Us it wouldn’t be you nor would I be. Me. Briefly touching purity and not bearing the thought of tainting.

You. Could exist in a world where it is simple. With just me and you. Where there is no carrying of weight and the taunting of destiny.

But I. Can only strive to be the person you may love and be proud of. And that I. Cannot be that person that belongs to an Us. For I. Only know love in its all-consuming form. That I. The person who would do anything for love, would become a person ironically less deserving of your pride.

For you. I would stay a thousand miles away. Figuratively and physically. Because for you. The best way to love you, is to fulfill my own destiny. Even if that means.

We will never be. Us. There can never be.

Sidenote: I debated with myself whether I should publish writing like this piece here. I concluded that it is my journal (albeit a public one) with my writing and so here it is. Writing is my first love before I discovered anything else and writing these pieces put me in touch with my roots again. I was conscious people judging my writing but again, I would rather publish bad writing and try to be as authentic as possible than to be paralysed and not put a single word out.

This post is partially inspired by Hello, Stranger, Goodbye. & obviously real-life influences.

being conscious: self-quantifying & positive reinforcement

When I made the decision to walk to the public pool swim 10 laps on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong a few months ago, I knew there was this tiny switch that flipped inside me. It wasn’t a sudden flip of course, it was being nudged bit by bit accumulatively for the past year or so but when it finally flipped it felt like a quantum leap, at least for me.

I have lived a life giving in to my own whims and fancies which translates to – I never ever exercised out of my own free will because I never felt like it. I never found a reason to want to live better, so it really didn’t make a difference whether my health meter was 20% or 80%.

I was fascinated with Facebook Timeline when it first released. I scrolled back all the way, looking at snapshots of my life and there it came that realisation – I had led a much more fulfilling life than I thought and believed. Those pictures, statuses, epiphanies, tiny split-moments that I thought didn’t matter, all added up to tell a story. My story.

There and then, I had a tinge of regret. I regretted not checking in more, not taking more pictures, not posting random statuses more. Basically, I regretted not saving enough data of my own life. My own live journal.

From that moment onwards, I tried to check-in to every place I have been to, take every snapshot of anything that caught my eye, took pictures of all my food. I was partaking in this movement called “Self-Quantifying” without knowing it. For a tough period in Vancouver, I gave points to my sleep quality, my sleeping hours, my moods, how many tasks I’ve accomplished, everything.

I used to have a lot of what we call “getting up at the wrong side of the bed” whereby the entire day will just be a bad day because I could not shake off a negative mood. I never really bothered to find out why,  I just thought it was me. Part of my temperament.

Till I started journalling a lot, noted down details of each day, I found a strong co-relation between what I ate, how little I sleep, to the quality of my next day.

Science can tell you a lot but for a lot of us I guess it doesn’t really impact until you stare at your own data in its face.

I am stubborn, but insanely curious. I used to have a very strong resistance to changing myself, because I thought that was betraying who I am. But because of my curiousity, I was driven to experiment with little quantifiable changes in my life – if I ate a little less sugar or slept earlier, would it make a difference to my next day?

It did.

So did having an archive of moments of what I’ve done and seen, looking back at all my foursquare checkins and instagram pictures only makes me want to have more of those. I want my life to have many tiny dots of quantifiable moments, not one long blip that I myself cannot remember.

Each time I feel lazy to do something, to go out and enjoy the sun or explore a new place, I negotiate with myself. Do I want this day to exist as a forgettable blip or do I want this day to be remembered by actual data?

I came across stories of how chronically diabetic people defied all medical odds and regulated their blood sugar naturally simply by gaming themselves. There are quite a few success stories with the Nike Fuelband (google for more). I am now a proud owner of a Nike Fuelband myself thanks to my adorable bosses and does it make me want to be more active?

Yes it does.

I am a huge believer of technology, when applied to the right problems, can truly change the world. The best way to start changing the world is to change ourselves first. I can’t ask for a better world to live in when I don’t even want to produce effort to take care of my health. I cannot get past that logic within my own head so I am guilt-tripping myself into making more conscious choices. Yes, I am calling myself a hypocrite these days.

That is just one part, fortunately. Unlike most people I know, I do not desire to have a long life in terms of linear years. I accept that I cannot control the timing of my own death but I can maximize the moments I am alive. I want to make them count. It is hard to feel alive when I was constantly fatigued, moody or sick. I have come to a point in my life where I consciously know that nothing is more important than my own health. We are obsessed with feeling productive with working long hours – blindly. We burn ourselves out and use it as a badge of honor when we work 20 hour days for a 30 day streak.

And when our health fails, sometimes permanently, we realize belatedly that some things are just not worth trading for. We look back at those 20 hour days and wonder what did we get in return for those?

I visit a farmer’s market, buy a gluten-free piece of cake, watch a band singing on the streets, that makes me feel alive. Looking at kickstarter projects like The Diabetic Journal, that makes me feel alive. There are a million things we can do to bring joy into this world, be it baking something or singing on the streets. People who work in technology have access to a lot of power. Unfortunately we don’t seem to realise it.

I self-quantify, because I want to be more conscious about what I do and the decisions I make. I want to reduce the number of times my lizard brain takes control and induces me to do nothing because “I don’t feel like it”.

I get better at understanding my brain and how to game myself. I am constantly learning of ways to make myself do things I do not feel like doing even though mentally I know it is good for me. What are the right words to say and the right triggers to make, without being like a tiger mom to myself.

Today, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I went out for a run, tracked by the Nike+ running app. This is the same person who thought of running the mandatory 2.4km back in school days was hell. I didn’t run a lot, just under 2km, but the point is to make that conscious decision to get out there and run.

one month in SF – on maximizing privilege & paying it forward

One month ago I arrived at SFO in jeans folded up to the knee and in my flip flops. I was asked if I was cold and I smugly said that this weather is nothing compared to what I experienced in Vancouver.

I take those words back.

These days I wear some heattech long sleeve tee from Uniqlo and a thick hoodie even in my own apartment. I sleep with three layers of bedding. And I still wake up cold.

Honestly, it still has not hit me yet I am in the place I most want to be. I am still waiting for my own reaction and I wonder if my reaction is this non-reaction. I am very privileged to be here and I feel like thinking of what to do what all that privilege scares me. I tell myself since I have done so much and waited so long to be here, I should simply enjoy the experience for now without thinking too deeply about it.

But at the back of my mind I never really stop thinking about it. This is my favourite quote these days and if you are one of those lucky (or unlucky, depending how you see it) ones whom I’ve emailed, it is attached to my latest email signature:

“When you know you’ve been blessed and know you have a set of gifts, how do you maximize those gifts so you’re impacting the greatest number of people?” – Michelle Obama

I think this is a question that everyone of us should think about everyday. If not, if I am one of those who actually care about the answer to this question, then I feel even more responsible for seriously contemplating it.

My time here is a gift, this one month feels like I am cheating – like I am on a diet and I am cheating by eating indulgent desserts (actually quite literally too). Time flies by so quickly and we’re almost one month down in 2013, I know if I am not conscious about it, time may just spin past me and before I know it, my time is up here without me even trying to accomplish what I’ve set out to do.

I haven’t had many regrets in my life but this will be one huge regret if I allow myself to be caught up in the illusion of busy-ness without purposefully contemplating how I want to carry out my existence here.

It is really hard to find a balance between wanting to be productive on everything I care about and knowing when to simply take a break and just breathe. How would I discern when I am truly letting myself breathe and when I am really wasting time?

It is a continuous journey to learn I guess.

I have also been learning how to eat better. Instead of going to one extreme and only eating only healthy food, I am trying to be conscious of my choices for every single meal. Since I am a huge believer of kaizen, so I should be grateful I am at least no longer drinking coke three times a day. I’ll celebrate the small wins, definitely.

I wish to note this down in this entry for the future me to remember – the significance of Aaron Swartz’s passing to me. Each of these impacts me differently. Like Aaron I was obsessed with David Foster Wallace, because he had managed to put into words so beautifully how dark the struggles of depression can be. My heart still breaks a little each time I  think about DFW or whenever he’s mentioned, not really because he’s gone, but because I understood why he’s gone. I still remember Ilya Zhitomirskiy. I don’t forget these.

Unlike most people I know, I don’t really “move on” from my past struggles. I remember all of them. Every single shard of pain, I remember. I do not hold on to them, but they are like little pieces of jigsaw which I honor in the entire fabric of my soul. Because I do not forget, they become a source of energy and motivation. They remind me why I am doing this.

We can mourn, point fingers, mope and criticize all day long, but what are we doing about it?

What am I doing about it?

I am trying to be the change that I want.

The world used to depress me. A lot. Looking at it from a macro perspective, society can be so screwed up that I have often wondered why I even bother to carry on living as part of it. One fine day, I do not know what really happened – was it an accumulation of unexpected positive experiences, or was it because I was consistently shown unconditional love by different people – but a switch flipped.

Instead of seeing a world that was grossly unfair, I saw a world with people who are trying all they can to change things. These people are a minority but they exist. Now, do I want to continue lamenting about a world that was grossly unfair and continue to be miserable, or do I at least attempt to be one of those people who are trying to change things?

I don’t know if I can. Sometimes I don’t even know whether I trust myself enough. However I am contemplating hard on it and being kaizen, I think that’s a good start.

Being surrounded by people who want to change things helps my thought and process. It is not the entrepreneurs here in SF whom really move me (sorry!) but most of the time it is the common folk. The Caltrain drivers who drive down the same boring route but still make an effort to make quirky announcements, the counter staff that gives a big smile to everyone and treats everyone the same, even that old lady who paid her in coins, ordinary people who make a huge effort to be kind despite of and in spite of.

I see compassion being played out here in SF over and over again, at a level of intensity I have never experienced before. It was the same in July 2011 and it is still the same upon my return this time. One month on in SF, every day I experience generosity be it directly towards me or through my own observation.

Along with it comes other issues in the city, but this is a tradeoff I’ll make in order to experience the diversity I see.

I am very lucky to be here, hopefully some time in the future, I’ll have a better answer to how I want to maximize this privilege in order to pay it forward in the most effective way possible.

keeping a rhythm

I have been writing a post a week and somehow I would like to upkeep the rhythm. And for me, that’s another secret of life. Establishing and maintaining different rhythms and momentums in your daily life.

I used to write whenever I felt compelled to but as a creative professional that is the eternal struggle. When inspiration hits it is like magic. But what about the rest of the time? There is a reason why so many writers and artists ended up insane or suicidal. It is truly depressing to encounter a block. You start to entertain thoughts like, what if it never hits again?

A lot of us tend to find it a lot easier to go into creative sprints when we were young. As we age, these moments tend to be few and far in between. I personally don’t think it is a matter of linear or physical age. As we grow older, we just become a lot more cynical, we don’t allow ourselves to have a childlike mind anymore. We pack our minds up too much. We don’t have space anymore.

One truly life changing habit for me is – drum roll – learning how to make my bed and doing it consistently every morning. That seems so trivial right? Well, I lived 30 years of my life without caring where I slept, much less how my bed looked like. I never thought or believed it mattered.

It all changed when I rented an apartment for a couple of months while I was in Vancouver, the landlord handed over an immaculate apartment to me. I remember feeling like I was stepping into wonderland, especially so because I just moved over from a shared apartment that wasn’t comfortable. So, it was the first time I was truly living by myself and in a really beautiful apartment. I wanted to keep that feeling, that feeling of, “wow”, when I step into the apartment each time I returned to it.

And so I did. The next morning I woke up, the sheets were in a huge mess, it was cold in Vancouver so there were at least four layers of bedding. It was tempting to leave it in a ball, my old theory was, I’m going to sleep in a ball anyway, what’s the difference? But a switch flipped in me that day – I remembered that I wanted to keep that “wow” feeling. Therefore I spent the next thirty minutes making my bed.

Surprisingly, I felt really, really good after that battle with bedsheets.

I felt even better returning to that apartment after a long, tiring day out, seeing a well-made bed. When it was time to sleep, each time getting into that bed never felt less comforting.

That triggered a whole series of new habits/rules/momentum for me. I never leave dishes in the sink for more than a day anymore, I make sure everything in my living environment is organized to a certain extent. Each time I return home, I have a huge smile.

I still have that big smile on my face, everyday now, when I return to my apartment in SF and see a well-made bed.

Why do I call it life changing?

We are so caught up in the busyness of life that we start to be trapped into thinking that there’s no time for anything. Making the bed? Too trivial compared to my world-changing work. I should save that five minutes (yes I’ve gotten better at it) and go straight to work.

What we don’t realize is, when we pack our brains and day up with all that busy-ness, there is no space for us to breathe. Or to remember what is truly important. Making my bed for me is a ritual that reminds me that I should honor my own time, well-being and inner peace no matter how busy or chaotic my life gets.

I kid you not, honoring oneself is hard. I don’t know what’s with us these days, we like beating ourselves up so much. Achieving that inner-equilibrium is a challenge. We numb ourselves with more work. I can have the best ideas in the world but what I’ve discovered is – that inner equilibrium translates into the quality of my thoughts, ideas and work.

And how do I maintain that equilibrium? Apart from little rituals to honor myself, I keep a rhythm in my life. Some people call them habits.

Like I’ve mentioned earlier, I used to wait till I am inspired to write. Now, I’ll try to write a post a week and see what unfolds as I start. And it seems like a story gradually unfolds anyway.

I used to be so afraid that bad writing/work will come out of my own hands so much that I would just end up in self-induced paralysis. But the reality is, apart from rare moments of brilliance maybe some of us are lucky to have a few times in our lifetimes, most quality work is iterative. That’s another life-changing concept I had to learn. Yes, it could start off as crap but give it some time to flourish. Ideas have a life on their own, if only you have the courage to get them out of your hands in the first place.

The other part of the equation is learning to trust myself. That instead of worrying that crappy work would start flowing out of my hands, I’ll just start something and trust that it will turn out well enough, eventually.

So why am I being so public about learning how to make my bed only at age 30? I guess I just wanted to share that, it is really never too late to start learning something new. If you ever start to think that oh well, since I’ve already at X number of years so it is too late by now. Says who? Are you going to waste more years or are you going to make this one count?

They say a leopard never changes its spots – I have found out it does, only with the right intrinsic motivation.

And I want to write a post a week no matter how crappy I think my writing is, because I think it is far more important for the old me to look back and know that each week is lived more purposefully and meaningfully than I have thought. I am writing my own story, week by week.

I actually want to know myself as a human being – how I have lived, 50 years from now. What sort of person was I in the year 2013? What went through my thoughts? Did 5 decades just blink past? Writing something each week automatically gives each week a story, no matter how boring it was. By the time I am 80, if I have lived till that age, I would have accumulate a ton worth of stories. Crappy or not, they are mine to tell.