I had always considered myself fragile, because being emotional seemed to be perceived as weak. Everything I observe impacts me in some way – I cry at the drop of a hat and my moods used to swing according to the color of my observations.
When I was younger, I took everything exceptionally hard. A word from a teacher or an off-handed comment from a friend would send me into a rabbit hole of ruminating for days, if not years. I thought it was normal for everybody to feel this way, only to discover I was a lot more emotionally sensitive than the typical person through many conversations later on.
I couldn’t help feeling so much. That was the mantra I would chant to people and to myself. They told me it was a weakness, I saw it as a weakness.
It is only in recent years that I started to see my emotional sensitivity as a type of strength. If I could choose between blissful ignorance and painful awareness, I would take painful awareness – I would make the same choice again and again.
The difference is, now I am slowly learning to discern between reacting instinctively because of all those years of mental conditioning, and taking the time to develop a reaction by understanding what truly exists in a situation. This is where meditation is helpful, because it helps me to develop an awareness of where my reactions come from. Truth be told, I don’t even have a regular meditation practice where I sit for a given time everyday. I partake in a couple of sessions at the office every week, yet it has given me the foundation to apply what I term awkwardly as ‘passive meditation’.
Passive meditation may be an oxymoron, but instead of actively meditating, it takes place in the background of my head all the time as I make my observations on my internal and external surroundings. I don’t want to lose my innate empathy, but misdirected empathy is like a leaky pipe. The pump is trying to pump water with all its might, only to lose so much along the way that the destination does not get as much as it should.
With excessive empathy it is always easy to feel a persistent sense of suffering when we are surrounded by painful sights everyday. The world is bleeding and we try to cover her wounds up by wrapping bandages, but you know in medical dramas the medical team is always trying to find the actual source of the bleeding. Covering the wounds will always be temporary until we can heal the source.
I used to be constantly overwhelmed by a persistent sadness, a sense of hopelessness as I make these observations, believing that there is nothing I can do, nor is there much that anything can be done. But over the years I have seen enough transformation, not to actually believe that something can be done, but to actually have the slightest hope that perhaps it might be worth trying.
With this tiny bit of hope I am driven to build up my well of strength. The first step is to understand what it would take to change myself before I can even try to understand what it would take to change a group or the greater whole.
I am sleeping, moving and eating better, because I am only starting to experience a fragment of what it means for change to compound.
I am having the best energy levels of my entire life, and I would have been left disappointed and frustrated if I had expected to feel this way after making drastic changes to my life in the short-term. The trick is to make tiny, realistic adjustments with very little or no expectations with the belief that one day the difference will become obvious.
When it becomes obvious, it will seem like a quantum leap, like a dam breaking all of a sudden, but in reality, the wave after little wave the water has been going at it for what it seems like eternity.
Knowing the why is the most important, and this is how I build and maintain my little habits. Each time I am tempted to break one, I just need to gently remind myself of that little hope I choose to carry, that I should be better, so perhaps on day my existence would make the greater whole better.
I have an obsession with food. I didn’t know how much mental energy I spend thinking about food, until I attempted to go on a juice diet.
Twice, in two weeks.
I want to have a body that feels completely alive. There is so much I want to do and I acknowledge there will always be external challenges and obstacles, but at the very least I should remove internal obstacles. I want my energy levels to be able to match the level of desire I have in the things I want to accomplish. I can aspire and ideate all day long but unless I have the energy reserve to carry them through during tough times, they are all cheap.
I know how transient life can be, and all I want to do is to maximize every single waking moment, that every second can compound to a butterfly effect. That is difficult to do on a consistent basis if I spend precious energy of my body trying to overcome a sugar crash because I did not have the mental discipline to avoid eating that amazing buttered rice or that Specialty’s cookie.
Experimenting with a liquid diet
I have tried to be on various different diets before but they all required a precious resource — the mental energy required to make a decision whether a type of food belongs in or out. In addition to that, once I start masticating food, my mind starts craving for the food I cannot have.
Being on a liquid diet may be extreme, but simple enough to follow. No solid food, no thinking about what to eat or not, just drink your chosen liquid for x number of days. I wanted to know how dependent I was on solid food to feel nourished.
Liquids can pack an equivalent amount of calories compared to solid food, so I can remove all excuses of being malnourished on a diet.
Using food as a crutch
I was also hoping that if my body can adjust to having liquid as food, and my mind can rewire itself to believe that digesting liquids can be fulfilling, perhaps I would stop using solid food as a crutch.
I use food as a crutch for a lot of things. I eat when I am bored, stressed, happy, unhappy. I think that is okay if I am able to choose what type of food to eat when I am experiencing that multitude of emotions. My mind wants to believe that I need a giant cheesecake when I have done a hard day’s of work. It gets difficult when stressful periods are precisely the times when I need to be properly nourished — sugar crashes perpetuates more sugar crashes. The last thing you want while embarking on challenging work is to experience energy fluctuations. It is so mind-boggling simple to understand, yet so difficult to implement.
The power of my will
Apart from health and energy reasons, perhaps the most important reason is that I wanted to engage in a battle with my own will.
I have had friends who went on similar diets before, and previously I would always tell them there was no way I could do the same. I loved eating too much and I depended on eating as a stress-equalizer.
I really wanted to learn about myself. How far can I go in the pursuit of my own ideals? Could I really walk the talk? Could I truly be the change that I want?
Eliminating inconveniences is key
I decided to purchase a three-day juice cleanse online, because it would be unrealistic to expect myself to buy the right groceries and make my own juices while trying to mentally will myself to stop craving for solid food.
I went on Yelp, did a bunch of research, and I ended up with Project Juice. At this point I cannot help but put on my designer’s hat — having a good user experience is imperative to purchasing decisions. Project Juice made it easy for me to order what I wanted and deliver when and where I wanted. They also had delivery times which were considerate of a work day, so my juices were delivered on a Friday morning at 7.30am.
Food takes up time and space
I know that I think about food a lot, but I didn’t know how much I actually thought about it until my attempt to stop eating. I spend so much energy thinking about what to eat, anticipating what I was going to eat, and all of that became painfully obvious when I no longer had opportunities to eat. I could no longer have that rush of excitement I have when I browse online menus or that giddy anticipation when I prepare to eat.
I suppose people don’t notice this much, but when you stop eating, you magically have all that extra hours in your day. That amount of time we take to cook, to dress, to decide, to eat, to digest, to travel — all for food.
And there was failure
I managed to last twenty-four hours without solid food. I was setting myself up for failure, actually. I had rented a car for two weeks at the same time I was trying to do a juice diet, because I wanted to explore more of San Francisco. I was researching on great outdoor spots to explore on Foursquare when all these delicious-looking food spots popped up. It was impossible for me to reconcile mentally to explore while on a liquid diet and giving up opportunities to explore restaurants I never had the chance to go to, without a car.
The point when I gave up and had Soondobu for lunch, it wasn’t because I was desperately hungry, it was because I was mentally greedy for new food experiences.
When failure became motivation for a new attempt
I could have simply given up. Yet somehow the experience of failing the first time gave me confidence to attempt this for the second time. I understood how and why I failed, and I re-evaluated my motivation for doing this experiment.
I knew that failing the first time was not because I was hungry. It was because I was greedy. The two emotions can be mistaken as the same thing, but it makes a world of difference while trying to parse them.
Honestly, I could not take it lying down that I had failed. It was necessary for me to believe that I could succeed. If I could not even stop eating solid food for three days, what are the chances I could go on exponentially more difficult challenges later in life?
And there was success
The second time around, I synthesized all the factors which were contributing to my failure and tried to eliminate them. I was done with exploring, so I can no longer use exploration as an excuse.
For the first attempt there were difficult juices to ingest, I had a particular aversion for beets and ginger, so this time around I designed my own menu of liquids, with more servings of almond milk than juices. I reminded myself it wasn’t so much of the cleanse I wanted to do, but rather the elimination of the dependency on solid food as well as the test of my will.
On my first day of the second attempt, I went on a long walk with a friend at Crissy Fields, followed by a two-hour hike with friends. In total I walked about ten miles without the sustenance of solid food. It was difficult, but more manageable than I thought it would be.
I was slightly worried when the friend I was with wanted to get dinner take-out, but he chose this healthy wrap place where I found the menu very much unappealing, that made it much easier for me to stick to my juices.
I learned something important on that first day:
I spend a lot more energy thinking about food if I am alone. Walking with my friends was a great distraction.
It is a fallacy that the lack of solid food would make me feel weak during physical activity.
It is important to pre-empt the people I was with, that I was on a liquid diet. I was very lucky because they were mindful of my diet and it made it much easier. It would be extremely challenging if the people I was out with ate dimsum in front of me, for example. Or thought of it as their personal challenge to get me to give up mine.
The success of day one was crucial for me to finish day two and three. I kept reminding myself that I walked ten miles on my first day and it would be silly of me to break the experiment due to a moment of weakness since I had a great start.
The day after completing the experiment
The amount of elation and pride I had felt was incredible. Previously I could not even convince myself to stay off carbohydrates for one day, much less not eat at all for three. I was also proud of myself that I was willing to try again even though I had failed my first attempt.
It felt to me like, if I could will myself not to eat for three days, I could will myself to do anything. I had learned how important it was for me to set myself up with the right conditions and the right mindset. The second attempt succeeded because I knew what to expect and how to react.
This was originally an experiment to rethink the way I thought about food, but it ended up being a lesson in how I can impose my will. Instead of re-establishing the relationship with my food, it re-established the relationship with my mind.
I didn’t feel hungry the day I was finally allowed to eat again. I probably could have continued being on liquids if I truly wanted to. But I started eating because I could.
One week later
I am back to eating normally again. It took me about two days to get back into the swing of digesting food. I am cautious of going too extreme and impacting my body’s ability to digest food negatively.
Did it reset my relationship with food? Not really, there is no fairytale ending to this story and to me, I think this is the most important part of it all. There is no short-term fixes if we want sustainable change. Tricking my mind into making certain choices out of will and making choices because I desire to make them, are two very different things.
Just a couple of years ago, I was that person who ordered my cappuccinos with extra vanilla syrup. Today I no longer have sweeteners in my coffee. It is not because I am restricting myself, it is because I had actually developed an aversion to it. That is another story to tell, but I have had enough change in my taste palette to know that it is possible to make long-lasting changes in my diet out of desire, not out of restriction.
Would I do this again? I would. It wouldn’t be as an attempt as a diet fix, but for me it had a lot more value as a type of meditation or a mental exercise. It had made me learn a lot about myself.
Having written about 2013 yesterday, for the first day of 2014 I would like to spend a bit of time to write about what I would like to focus on in the oncoming year, if not years.
As I wrote yesterday I never really had the space to seriously think about how I want to develop as a person. It is like being the product manager of yourself, there are a thousand things we can attempt to do, but what are the priorities and how do we execute?
One of the biggest lessons I have learned for the past couple of years is the power of consistency. When an action becomes consistent, it no longer requires friction and the benefits start to compound. I have much better energy levels than I have had my entire life, and I am pretty certain that is the result of being very mindful of my energy cycles. I am not only referring to physical energy here, what mental, physical and emotional energy combines to, is the energy to create.
This energy to create, will be paramount to my work, my life and my aspirations. I am influenced by Warren Buffett’s Snowball and I want to have my very own snowball. Momentum and consistency is key. So how can I get better at pursuing momentum and maintaining consistency?
Things I do and want to do more of
I want to be writing and reading even more than I did in 2013. People tend to attribute productivity with time, i.e. the more you work, the more you produce. I wouldn’t speak for everybody, but personally I have found reading and writing exercises my brain. The impact is not obvious but accumulative. I have no doubt that they influence the quality of my thought and work on a daily basis.
Things I sort of do and need more consistency
More mindful eating, exercise and meditation. I have started to do these somewhat regularly in the past year, but I have found myself “taking breaks” in between. I make the tradeoff of wanting to experience faster gratification in return for less energy. It was difficult for me initially to keep off carbs at first, being brought up in an Asian culture meant I grew up eating white rice everyday.
However, recently I have found myself to think that I crave for carbs, only to not enjoy the actual eating experience anymore. I still love pastries though. But the key is not to be extreme and just put in a little more thought in my food choices. I think of the mental fog I experience each time I eat these carbs and it puts me off a little more.
It used to be hard for me to even think of exercising, until it became obvious that it is difficult to feel energetic when cells in my body are not having any movement. The body lives and breathes with oxygen coursing through and it is difficult to have fresh oxygen when we hardly move in rooms full of people.
Someone at Medium told us, if athletes exercise to keep their body fit, then we as thinkers should meditate to keep our minds fit.
Things I hardly do and should start doing
Keep on learning something new on a regular basis. A new programming language, or even hand lettering or learning to draw better. I would like to cook more too, forgetting that cooking is a way of expending creative energy.
After being on my first roadtrip and also some local SF exploring, I belatedly remembered how much I enjoy being out in nature. I hope to do more of these, to fill my mind with new experiences and sights.
I would like to spend a little more time on my social hacking projects too, a baby step forward is better than none, I would like to remind myself.
Things I am afraid of and will attempt to do
There’s only one thing on my list here and I will be a very happy person in 2015 if I have made some progress on this, if any. I would like to be better at speaking in front of people, even if it is a small group. I just don’t enjoy having very little space to think before communicating. I think the problem there is a somewhat huge disconnect with the speed of my thought and my verbal articulation skills. Some people thrive on attention, I start to disintegrate.
This is my way of putting myself out there.
Consistency is key
I would like to make these built-in into my life, as part of my regular routine. It is more lasting to spread out an effort in small chunks than to have one intense effort and finding it difficult to return to that intensity again.
Keeping my energy consistent and optimal will provide the foundation for the work I want to accomplish.
For the past five years I have been writing looking back in year posts, one of those things which I decided to do and I don’t realize the actual value until much later.
People don’t like to admit this, but we are forgetful. We tend to remember things in extremes, either the painful moments or the joyous ones, forgetting that it is the mundane that fills up most of our lives.
Reading last year’s post which spanned two years, it made me smile to recall that 2011 was the year when I started to be more conscious about my diet and learned to make my bed, while 2012 was the year when I learned to smile at strangers.
The small, daily behavioral changes have the biggest impact on my life, I would say. With grand moments come euphoria, but having daily moments of joy builds up an inner, flowing well of strength and centeredness.
Finding an anchor
2011 and 2012 were tremendously life-changing years for me, filled with rollercoaster moments of joy and heartbreak, but I was going through so much that I hardly have the space to be conscious about what I want to do and where I want to be. I had to go along wherever that rollercoaster wanted to take me and adjust my sails according to the winds that are blowing. I lived in limbo and out of a suitcase. I didn’t even know where was that suitcase going to end up eventually.
My suitcase finally had a chance to be kept in a real wardrobe this year, as I finally moved to SF the end of last year. For the first time in the past couple of years, I had somewhere to return to.
Having a wardrobe is a luxury. I loved being able to purchase bedspreads and kitchenware after a year when I couldn’t have anything at all because that would mean a heavier suitcase. I am relatively minimalist when it comes to having material possessions, but I do like having a great pillow to sleep on which I can call my own.
The beginning of an end
After all that uncertainty I was ready to fall into a steady routine – I was working remotely for a year and I couldn’t wait to be in the same location as my team at simplehoney. I would devote the next few years to nothing else but building this startup.
Or so I thought.
It would be just a few months before simplehoney got acquired. I learned that making a product people love is not enough. For the first time I had something I worked on featured on the appstore, and I experienced what it felt like to receive users’ feedback declaring their love.
I was extremely grateful for that experience, it changed the way I thought about how I design and how I want design to be. Being the sole designer of an early stage startup was an incredible learning experience. It was a heavy weight to bear, but a weight worth bearing with the right product and team.
A door opens
One door closes and another door opens. Somehow the door to working at Medium started to open and I ran through that door as though my life depended on it. I had thought I lost that opportunity for good two years ago, but someone told me that life is long.
It was the first time I had to work with a much bigger team I have been used to my entire career. I spent a significant number of years working independently remotely, followed by working with a small team at an early stage startup, so learning to communicate cohesively with 40+ people was a huge learning curve for me. Previously, all I had to do was to explain myself to one or a couple more people, or being a visual designer much earlier in my career I could simply let the work do the talking. It was particularly challenging, especially because I was so introverted and I barely dug myself out of my own shell just a few years ago.
But I took it on anyway, not without fear. I hope if I let my love for the product take priority over everything else, including my fears, things will fall naturally into place.
Working at Medium for me is not just any other job. To work on a product which serves to bring the energy of words to people is an once in a lifetime privilege. I thought so six months ago when I first joined Medium, and six months later today I still feel as strongly about it, if not more.
I constantly think about how I can maximize my privilege. It is already a privilege to win the ovarian lottery. I think about people being born places where liberty of any form is not a given, so despite my persistent grumblings about being born in Singapore I am still grateful to be born in a place where I can still lead a self-determined life, to an extent.
So when I am given the privilege to live in one of the world’s best cities and work with one of the best teams on a product I deeply believe in, it becomes an obligation to me to start thinking seriously about how I can be at my best.
No amount of will can sustain a body’s capacity to be at optimal levels. The body doesn’t naturally stay at its best, we have to work hard at it. 2013 became the year when I started to be a lot more conscious about the things I choose to do.
I established a strict sleeping pattern, I do not go to bed later than 11pm and I wake up without an alarm around 7am. I try to restrict my carb intake and allow myself only one coffee in the morning. I swim 20 laps twice a week, which is no big deal for people who run everyday but I’ve resisted the idea of exercise all my life so to have a consistent exercise pattern is a mini-miracle. I read for at least 30 minutes everyday, remembering that reading is like compounding interest for knowledge, according to Warren Buffett. I have reached my goal of reading 50 books the past year. I have gone through years when I barely managed 10 despite my love for reading, last year I managed 37 so 50 seems like a good number.
This year I have made a conscious decision to write even more than I used to, or at least establish a regular writing pattern. One morning per weekend, I sit in front of a screen, mostly not knowing that I am going to write, except that I would write whatever that comes to my heart and mind. I have written on Medium a lot more since I started not to pay so much attention to the stats. That is to ensure I remain authentic to my own writing, and plenty of times being authentic doesn’t equate to resonance. I still maintain that I would rather a small group of people finding real value in my writing – I write to find deeper connections across screens, not to make everybody understand me.
On a deeper level
I have also learned to mediate for the first time, thanks to a Medium retreat. For the longest time I believed I will not be able to meditate because my mind wouldn’t shut up, until I learned that meditation is simply a time and space to be aware of what I think. I have had a ton of insights (mostly about my own behavior) since I have started meditating.
It is also this year when I evolved my own view of romantic relationships. It is very empowering to understand that I don’t need to have someone sharing my life. The key word is, “need”. Needing a relationship was somewhat egoistical for me. I was emotionally insecure and wanted to feel needed as if to prove my existence was worthwhile. I wanted to have someone understand me, connect with me, only to learn that I cannot even fully connect with myself, much less someone else.
I finally understood what it means to truly appreciate my own existence. It is still an on-going process somewhat, to not only be comfortable in my own shoes but to love wearing them. More importantly, I do not wish for anybody to buy me those shoes. I was only daring to wear shoes people thought I could wear, forgetting that I can make them myself. In fact, I discovered that I could own multiple pairs of shoes and determine when I want to wear them.
Through my own personal evolution I am also starting to grapple with thoughts on creating sustainable change. This year I cannot help but keep on thinking that indignation and outrage on social issues can only go so far, whereas true sustainable change needs to occur at a much slower rate, grounded by empathy and an understanding of tradeoffs. How we frame problems can create a whole world of difference. I am still trying to distill my thoughts on this, but to give an analogy at a much smaller scale – wanting to work out because of an unhealthy body image versus because it gives you better energy; in one scenario we are almost fighting with ourselves, in the other scenario we are trying to better ourselves.
The year that gave me rain
Life will always have its challenges but what truly matters is the intrinsic motivation for living. I cannot control my external circumstances but I can have power over my own will to give my all.
Power over my own will, that is the theme for 2013 for me and will be continuing into 2014. With every conscious decision to live better and learn more, I learn to exercise my willpower muscle. Having will is not given, as many bestselling books can tell you. Through making conscious decisions I have been trying to build resilience, or what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Anti-fragility. With physical strength comes mental strength, with mental strength comes inner strength. With inner strength comes the will to endure challenges and energy to maximize opportunities. The world can give us rain, but we still have to do the hard work of planting the seeds and growing the harvest.
2013 was the year the world gave me rain and I tried to plant some seeds, 2014 will be the year I will hope to plant more seeds and try growing what I have planted. In a year’s time here, I hope to be sharing with you, how it all went.
I used to love traveling because I didn’t like where I was. Traveling was a form of escape, and I wanted to escape all the time.
This year, I travelled to Sayulita, Los Angeles and various parts of Southeast Asia, only to find myself desperately missing San Francisco. I have never known how it felt like when people tell me that they missed being home. After three decades of life, I have finally found a place my heart calls home. I feel irrefutably part of San Francisco, just as she filled the void in my soul when she became a part of me.
I have thought seriously about it, that I want to deliberately pursue meaning and not happiness, that may mean that one day I will have to make that heartbreaking choice to leave a place which makes me endlessly happy in order to be somewhere else that may need me more. I may not have the legal privilege to stay here for the rest of my life anyway, but instead of living in fear that one day this may be taken away from me, I want to choose to embrace this unexpected gift instead, even for a little while.
I have never been an unhappy traveller for my entire life, but this year was the year when I felt very disconnected while doing so. Yet I knew I needed to leave the place I love in order to love her wholeheartedly. Each time I return to her I experience the place with new eyes and a whole new layer of joy. The more I experience the world out there, the more I understand how special is my connection to San Francisco.
How can I love a place with so much of me?
But love is not counted in seconds. I have learned that love and life is symbiotic, one cannot survive without the other. To live is to experience, and to experience is to love. By default my lazy comfortable self would really be contented holing myself up for the entire holiday season, accompanied by books and films. Yet sometimes the unwillingness to take oneself out of a comfort zone can be disguised as contentment.
I know I have to start having new experiences, because if I stop desiring to experience, I would gradually go down the slippery slope of stagnating my capacity to live and love. It creeps up slowly on you, stagnation.
I tell people I have never driven for more than an hour in my entire life and they look at me in disbelief. Well, it helps when I am from a country where you can get to anywhere within 30 minutes, assuming there is smooth traffic. So I thought it would be a good experience for me to go on a roadtrip, even if the journey takes me two hours. Incremental changes, two hours is still an improvement over one.
The funny thing is, before I make my mind up completely, I always imagine the worst scenarios. In this case I tried to give myself a thousand reasons not to embark on my roadtrip, including cost, imaginary breakdowns, claustrophobia of being on an endless highway, getting lost in the dark, etc.
Like a metaphor for life, fear is irrational before the actual act. Not that I am a rational person at all, but while driving on the Pacific Coast it occurred to me that most things I do in life are not scary at all once I actually do it. Plenty of experiences become not that much of a big deal once we get past them. It is always the mind which magnifies the actual impact on our psyche, isn’t it?
I used to do things on a whim when I was much younger. I learned the hard way that doing things on a whim can be reckless and cause unintended hurt. But somehow along the way I went to the other extreme and started to over-think my actions in an attempt to be more considerate and mindful. I would like to grow a new adventurous spirit, with new-found inner peace and awareness.
There is a difference between being adventurous in order to escape and being adventurous for learning and experience. I am typing this entry at Monterey now – at this very moment I am thinking, experiencing travel while feeling grounded and aware of the person I am and who I want to become – I feel like I am commencing on a different chapter of my life, wearing a different set of lenses.
I no longer feel the same desperation to stay in San Francisco because I was afraid to lose that sense of belonging. Well, to be fair, for someone who has never felt like she belonged anywhere, this is a precious feeling which is somewhat justifiable to feel defensive over.
Being on this roadtrip emphasized and renewed my love for being a simple observer of life. This is why I travel, to remember and experience this world for being so vast, rich, beautiful and alive. There is so much heritage, so much evolution to be appreciated.
In the isolated corners of the highway I see life in the loud crashing sounds of the ocean, in those parts filled with both visitors and locals I see life in the interactions of people.
I await for the next moment to indulge me in an unique expression of life, while learning to immerse myself fully in the current one.
Today is December 14. One year ago today, I took a much-anticipated 20hr flight across oceans and crossed SFO’s immigration as an alien legally permitted to work in the US.
I am obsessive about anniversaries. They are my way of being grateful and honoring turning points in my life. I honor the day I first stepped into San Francisco, the day I have gotten my visa approved, the day I first worked at Medium, etc. We can go over entire weeks, months, years and not remembering the work our former selves have done to get us here so far. It is not about being prideful about achievements, it is reminding myself that things I have now did not come easy and I should never take them for granted.
It is extremely easy to get used to precious things and forget what made them precious in the first place, to stop wanting to savor these moments. I could walk up and down the streets of the Mission blindly, going from point A to point B, without observing the tremendous life that once captured my heart so deeply. It is so much part of my daily routine to walk through the doors of the Medium office everyday that it could very simply become another generic door, but there are still plenty of moments when I walk through those doors and sigh deeply.
Each sigh represents a rapid virtual zipline of the dots in my life which have to be connected in order for me to walk through those doors. The people I had to meet, the favors I had to beg for, the grace of people I had to depend on, the serendipity that had to take place, the blind faith I needed to have, the reconditioning my mind had to undergo, the hearts I had to break.
There were so many factors that had to take place at the right time, right location, right sequence, in order for me to have my seemingly mundane routine today.
But the reason I keep wanting to honor and remember these events is not to repeatedly relive my best moments, it is to keenly remind myself that I have to pay it forward because I am carrying the debt of all those people who had it in their grace to make this possible for me, and also to be a living example – life can go on extremely unexpected trajectories.
If one attends to the problems of humanity and commits oneself to solving them, the universe will care for that person the same way it cares for a flower or a bird.
It doesn’t matter if you call me a hippie or whatsoever, this is a deep-rooted belief I have been carrying around for a good number of years. There was a certain point in my mid-twenties when I became so frustrated that I decided to consciously stop trying to do what society expects me to. I stopped consciously trying to pursue material security, I stopped trying to do things for recognition. I use the word, ‘try’ because I have been through periods where I swing back into survival mode and forget the essence of how I really want to live. But the key is, I swing out of it and try really hard again.
I decided that I wanted to be the change I want and if I committed myself to doing so, things would take care of itself, that events would unfold the way it should in order to enable me to do my work.
And what is my work? To me, my work is essentially not just design and I have no interest to be a better designer per se. To me, design is a means to the end. The end for me is a sustainable livable world. The means for me is not only design, but it encompasses storytelling, authentic connections, sharing, exchanging ideas, writing, broadcasting, being the best I can be and want to be, not only professionally, but simply as a human being.
This is what I have to say after living more than half a decade of this experiment – I am grateful to my former self for taking this leap of faith. This is the single best long-term investment I have ever made, not by worrying about my retirement, not by taking strategic career moves, not by trying to meet expectations of people who love me – but by being the most authentic, empathetic self I can be, with the single-minded intention to do whatever I can in my capacity to make this a more livable world.
This has made me learn that the best investments made in my life is the ones I take a long-term view of, I am not afraid to end up at the wrong destination because if I consistently do everything I can in my journey to do the work I aspire to, does the destination even matter? I have long reconciled within myself, even if one day I end up hungry, cold and penniless, but throughout my life I have been doing my best to contribute to a better world, I would gladly be hungry, cold and penniless.
Where I am today did not come by because I planned. To a large extent I am where I am because I put my belief that this world can be better, and that my contribution will matter, above everything else. The best choices I have made was made with my gut and love, not with my brain and logic.
I take one step forward and two steps backwards. Rinse and repeat. Something happens and I seem to make a quantum leap. But in the core of my heart I know, these quantum leaps are a consequence of the small baby steps I take, sometimes forward, plenty of times backwards, but what truly matters is – I try to take these steps regardless.
I can say I have had the best year of my life since December 14 2012 – I reunited with my team at simplehoney after one year of being apart, I came back to the city I loved after not being able to return in that same year, I had my tiny heart broken when simplehoney had to end, had the same tiny heart carefully mended when I started work at Medium, and I am now doing the most fulfilling work of my life so far because now I can help make people tell their incredible stories, I am having the most consistent sleep and energy levels of my entire life, I have made and fostered amazing connections with people, I have learned and grown so much both personally and professional, I am surrounded by brilliance everyday at work.
These days I can have a terrible day by typical standards, someone will come by and ask me, “how’s it going?” I answer, “great!” – not because I am a hypocrite, but because having had the life I have had in the past year, there is honestly nothing more I can ask for.
That being said, I know this is the tip of the iceberg, not because I think I am capable of so much more, but because I desire to experience and contribute to this world, so much more.
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.
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?
I want to be honest. I had never really cared about being a human being or loving my fellow human beings much. I wasn’t always into “advocating change through empathy, authenticity and technology” as my twitter bio says. I didn’t care whether we metaphorically cannibalize ourselves by fighting senseless wars or do our utmost best to accelerate global warming. To me it was the same difference, we were moving towards the end anyway, it was just a matter of time.
These days as I tell my story, that my love affair with humanity began in 2011 when I stepped into San Francisco for the first time, because this city allowed me to experience what it means to be surrounded by people who have the audacity to dream and the empathy to love.
But if I were to connect the dots backwards, the idea that humanity could have tremendous potential, was seeded in me way back when I was 15, when I discovered the internet. Unlike many of you right now, I didn’t grow up surrounded by the internet, so I have the gift of remembering the dark analog ages where I am forced to speak to people to express myself.
No, this is not a satire. Not everybody enjoys the physical interaction or a verbal conversation with another human being. Today I seem to function normally in social settings, but it doesn’t mean I am okay with it most of the time. This is why discovering the internet was so important for people like me. There are tons of us out there, who actually prefer to be behind a screen, because it allows us to express a part ourselves that would probably never had been seen in social settings. It doesn’t make us less of a human because we are different.
I remember browsing Yahoo! for the first time in 1996, amazed with the amount of information out there, how you could easily jump from page to page, site to site. I remember learning photoshop from a site where one guy painstakingly taught virtual strangers how to create drop shadows and bevels (there were no layer styles back in those days, kids), all for free. I struggled to understand the concept of sharing for free, because where I was from, money was the center of everything. I remember sending my first email as though it was a piece of magic (still amazes me today) and chatting with a stranger for the first time through IRC.
I was no longer defined by my immediate environment.
My breadth of knowledge was no longer limited by the books I could reasonably obtain or the teachers I have had. I had a tiny window to reach out to people who had the same interests, or more importantly, the same weirdness.
That tiny window, probably sustained my life.
Now in 2013, I coerced some of my friends belonging to the same age group to install Snapchat with me. Being a product designer, I wanted to understand it before instinctively rolling my eyes at it (just being honest). After a few days of a friend sending me pictures of her strolling with her baby — pictures of the moment — I began to understand why. It made me feel connected to her life.
Reading stories on Medium, browsing pictures through photo-sharing apps, scrolling through status updates — makes me feel connected to you which would be hard to imagine without the internet.
But feeling connected is just scraping the surface.
Because of the internet, I get to see some of you doing amazing things, working on ambitious projects, organizing monumental initiatives, exploring vast new ground — things which would be inaccessible to me if I simply lived in my own constrained environment, or if I didn’t have the privileged opportunity to travel.
I am able to see in real-time, that there are actually people out there who care about the world beyond themselves (you have no idea what I was conditioned to believe in), that some of you have the courage to throw aside the pursuit of comfort and security to take the risks on behalf of all of us.
I have witnessed the incredible growth of the open-source community, and how the web has evolved from a bunch of html tables to being able to make you dizzy with all that parallax scrolling — which you really shouldn’t take for granted how difficult it is to achieve some form of web standards without a group of committed individuals.
The internet as it stands today, as you take for granted the gifts of instantaneous publishing, facetiming your grandmother or watching SFBatKid rescue the city, would not be possible without harnessing the combined strength, determination and imagination of humanity.
How will it ever be possible for me to take all of this for granted, to fall out of love with something which not only made me love you, but to make me try to love myself?
That I could actually have an expression of myself that existed beyond my inability to speak coherently of the abstract ideas that swim around my head all day. That you would have a chance to know me through an interface, not through my clumsy human body.
The internet, makes me understand what it means to feel connected to you, that through these connections we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and within it holds the promise of what we can all aspire to be.
This is part of my “write on Medium like I tweet” series, mostly unedited and written in the spur of the moment.
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 everythingelse 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.