Book Notes: The ones who walked away from Omelas

– A short story about a utopian city whose happiness depends on the suffering of a single child locked in a closet alone
– Author wrote to deliberately reflect reality
– We are all playing the game of life, living by the rules of a capitalist society
– Can you accept the happiness of your life if you knew that your ‘happiness’ came at the expense of those who suffer?
– The young ones often are enraged and disgusted, but they learn to accept and even rationalise the suffering of that one child for the happiness of their own
– At times some of these children do not weep or go home in rage, but simply leave Omelas.
– To where? Perhaps that place they are are walking to does not exist, but they seem to know where they are going
– Or are we all the ones locked in the closet, too stupid to know what life could be like outside of these walls?

– Her closing words are sad, yet truthful: “Omelas already exists: no need to build it or choose it. We already live here – in the narrow, foul, dark prison we let our ignorance, fear, and hatred build for us and keep us in, here in the splendid, beautiful city of life. . . .”

Themes: self-awareness, definition of happiness, suffering, social equality

Wherein I turned 30

I was 18 when I first watched the episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, “The One Where They All Turn 30”. I couldn’t relate. It seemed distant and I thought, “why are they all so upset, 30 is still young!”

Fast forward to 2017, turns out it really is pretty scary when you’re born in a first world country. Suddenly your peers seem more successful in their careers, may own a fancier apartment with swimming pools,  may have even started having good looking babies. It makes you stop to think, “What have I done with my life?”

I was depressed in July (birthday month), having never truly taken a break from work, without a plan or a freelance gig in the books. I’d started working on my current business with an ex-boss, but in the developmental stage, it was hard to tell if it would be worth the effort or time. (Now I know different, but at that point it did feel uncertain!)

I spoke to a few friends and realised that I wasn’t the only one. I’m thankful for the support I’ve gotten from the people I confided in. I even wrote down my “accomplishments” on my Notes app so that I could remind myself that I’m not a complete loser.

Perhaps the best and worst thing about turning 30 is that you have a somewhat better idea and awareness of your identity. It makes you more sure of your capabilities and perhaps, even harder to learn is to admit your limitations, the things that you cannot do and accept it for what it is (i.e., I probably will never be able to become a K-POP star if I wanted to). When you are young, you feel like you have so much time ahead of you, that anything is possible. But turning 30 is almost like a wake-up call. You’ve lived long enough to know that time is shorter than you thought it would be. To accept it and get the rest of your act together and do the things you want to do.

Except that the things you want to do may not exactly be what your parents, friends or partner might have imagined. I guess that’s why everyone is in a rush to do everything so quickly. Buy a condo, a car, have kids. I have to constantly remind myself to measure myself by my own yardstick of success, at my own pace, without pressure to conform.

I thought it’d be good to end it this post with my favourite excerpts from a column that my friend Larissa recommended. The chapter is “The Future Has An Ancient Heart” from Tiny, Beautiful, Things by Cheryl Strayed.

“I’m here to tell you it’s okay to travel by foot. In fact, I recommend it. There is so much ahead that’s worth seeing; so much behind you can’t identify at top speed.”

 

“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.

But that’s all.”

“The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.”

Why we desperately need to change the way we travel

My worst travel nightmare is to get on a plane, travel 35000km across the world and find the exact same streets, malls and restaurants. As global brands like GAP, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Uniqlo start popping up at every corner of Singapore’s malls, it’s not hard to believe that this will eventually be what happens if we don’t question what we want in the world. Even more worrisome is the fact that local cuisine is slowly dying out, recipes lost, as we indulge more in avocado toast and flat whites in the brand new cafes of gentrified neighbourhoods.

What would be the point of travelling then if we all crave and have the same experiences? Surely it must be more than just to upload an Instagram story and accumulate likes?

Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten a crucial aspect of travel – rehabilitation. If we were to look inward before we embark on any trip and ask ourselves, “Why are we visiting this country?” I think we would have less crowded Eiffel Towers, less souvenirs targeted at tourists selling the same keychain or I heart T-shirts. It’s become a bucket list, a hope for a new life even though you haven’t done anything different and nothing’s really changed.

Why do we visit museums that we don’t enjoy (there are those we do end up enjoying, but was it the biggest motivating factor for you to visit)? Visit cafes that look exactly like the ones at home? Or go up another Sky Tower to get a 360 view of the city? Speaking from personal experience, we do it because it’s recommended to do so, it’s the easy thing to do – have a list and start ticking off it.

There are definitely places where we should be awed by. Mountains so high and majestic, where the moon and stars shine so bright you can’t help but recognise that you are inconsequential in the scheme of things, museums that have educated and inspired me of humanity’s incredible innovation and cruelty. Yet, we can go beyond superficial experiences.

My most precious memories from my travels are of the people I’ve met. My host parents in Germany who cooked me meatballs and secretly stuffed 100 euros in my Pringles in case I would be hungry as I embarked on my backpacking across Europe. The family from Inner Mongolia who told me of their worries of losing their culture and language as we sat and talked perched next to a warm campfire. A hot chocolate cafe owner in Cusco from France who was previously an architect but decided to stay in Peru because she liked it so much. The talks I attended in the startup co-working spaces while I was in Argentina and Hungary.

These memories have impacted my own world view so more than any sculpture, mountain or museum ever could. They have warmed my heart and broken it and reminded me of creativity at every corner of our little blue planet. I don’t know how significant they will be in my work, but I will definitely be more deliberate in seeking out these tribes of people and deeper experiences in the future.

Highly recommend for anyone “brain travelling” today, Alain de Botton’s Art of Travel.

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Rating: 10 / 10  – the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a while.

I started this book last evening and it left me in tears. Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi writes about coming to terms with death and being diagnosed with lung cancer. His journey swings to and from extreme ends of a pendulum – from doctor to patient, from English major to neurosurgeon, from living a life so full of promise and potential to never knowing how much more time you have left to finish the work you were supposed to do or how many more nights you have to cuddle with your wife and newborn daughter.

As a neurosurgeon, he knows better than to question, “Why me?”. In the 0.0012% chance of it happening to someone in their 30s and a non-smoker, he knew he was still part of the group of “Why not me?”. He faced death straight on, making plans for his wife and daughter’s future, trying to go back to surgery and helping as many patients as he could, writing this book as his final call out to mother earth, as if to shout back into this painful existence as if to say, use whatever you have left of me to make life a little more bearable for everyone else.

What makes life worth living? Happiness or suffering?

Paul Kalanithi was a deep thinker who questioned the meaning of life and morality rigorously.

He demonstrates the high stakes of being a neurosurgeon, where millimetres of error could mean life or death, or forever change in a young boy’s personality from angel to monster. Is it better to live through a defibrillator, never being able to think or communicate the same way as your previous self, or to have nature take it’s course and letting your loved ones find closure? Should we feel anger at those who neglect those who become incognisant of the past and their loved ones? Would we do the same if we were in the same situation? He comes to his own conclusions over the course of the book, sometimes different from what they were in the beginning, and while reading you can empathise why.

Perhaps the part of the book where the most tears rolled down my cheeks was reading about his courage in not avoiding suffering. When he and Lucy (his wife) were deciding whether to have a child or not, something they had planned to do but was increasingly precarious to do given the consequences of his cancer.

Lucy asks, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” To which he replies, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

He accurately describes the suffering that comes with great joy. When you experience love for someone so much that it makes it that much harder to say goodbye. Lucy and Paul didn’t avoid the suffering that comes with love and happiness  – and such is our struggle with life in general. What is the point of existence if it is all meaningless? Why try to put yourself out there when you will probably be forgotten in a thousand years? Why try to save ourselves when death comes to all of us? The answer is that you don’t avoid it, you come to terms with it, you cry, you hug your family, you pray, hope the best for it and count yourself lucky that you could even feel such joy. Such is the complexity and range of human experience.

Thank you for inspiring so many of us, Paul.

Book Notes: Switch, the best book on change I’ve read so far

I’ve been feeling like i’m stuck in a rut and decided to read this book “Switch”. I like how it makes Daniel Kahneman’s analogies of Systems 1 & 2 more relatable and specific to the topic of Change. Highly recommended!

 

There are so many great chapters that I found myself screen-shooting so many pages of the book so I can keep a copy with me even when it’s overdue. The Heath brothers describe the necessary conditions for successful change to happen.

Book Notes:

  • There are basically 3 basic factors at play for change to happen successfully. A clear-headed Rider (your brain), a willing Elephant (your emotions) and a well-laid Path (your situation.)

 

RIDER

  • The Rider is basically your brain. While it’s very useful for analyzing multiple options and situations, having too many options usually results leaving your brain in analysis paralysis.
  • In situations where change is needed, too much analysis will doom the effect. Your Rider tends to focus on problems instead of solutions and will spin its wheels until you are given clear direction.
  • That’s why to make progress on a change, you will need to direct the Rider. Show him how to act, what destination to pursue.
  • Look for bright spots – when you feel overwhelmed by the current situation, take a step back and look for bright spots. These are the instances where change happened successfully despite of multitude of factors that contributed to the problem.
  • Example: Jerry Sternin was tasked to solve Vietnam malnutrition issue and was given 6 months. He looked for mothers that had healthy kids even though they faced of all the problems all the other mothers do (e.g, poor sanitation, poverty, etc). In the end, he discovered it was because of certain local foods that these healthy kid mothers were adding to the porridge (i.e, small crabs that provided protein) and feeding habits (feed kids four times a day instead of twice so their bodies can absorb more nutrients).
  • Jerry then created change based on the 3 factors, he drafted the necessary actions for mothers to change their feeding habits (RIDER), created social pressure and hope for the mothers to encourage them to change their feeding habits (ELEPHANT) and started communal cooking classes that were easy to sign up for (PATH)
  • Important that he did not try to import a situation from another country, but looked towards the community for solutions so the locals would support and not look for excuses.
  • Status quo feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice has been squeezed out. You have routines and your way of doing things, the Rider is on autopilot.
  • Ambiguity is exhausting to the Rider, because the Rider is tugging on the reins of the Elephant, trying to direct the Elephant down a new path which is uncertain. Elephant will insist on taking the default path because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious.
  • Compelling vision is critical, but the paralyzing part for change is in the details.
  • Scripting critical moves helps to translate aspirations to actions.
  • You have to think of the specific behavior that you want to see in a tough moment and follow through. E.g. (Change from high to low fat diet by getting people to just buy 1% skim milk, use invasive options in surgery as resort.)
  • Describe a compelling destination for Riders to correct the Rider’s greatest weakness of getting lost in analysis.
  • Riders love the analyzing phase more than the doing phase and that’s dangerous if you are trying to change.
  • If you worry about inaction, create B&W goals – marry your long term goal with short term critical moves. For example, rather than “eat less” (ambiguous), it’s more helpful to a B&W goal of “no more food after 8pm”.
  • Rider has many strengths, such as sacrificing short term gratification for long term goals and is a clever tactician, but you have to give him a map so he can follow it perfectly. His flaws such as limited reserves of strength, his analysis paralysis can be mitigated by following bright spots and giving clear directions.

ELEPHANT

  • When change works, it’s because leaders are speaking to the Elephant as well as the Rider.
  • People think change happens in the ANALYSE – THINK – CHANGE order, but rather it is SEE – FEEL – CHANGE
  • In most change situations, the parameters are not well understood and future is fuzzy
  • You are not going to convince an unsure bride to by talking up tax advantages and rent savings
  • You have to present a picture or evidence that makes you FEEL something. It might be a disturbing look at the problem, or a hopeful glimpse of the solution – something that hits you at the emotional level.
  • Example: Target design executive Robyn Waters brought in trendy iMacs and M&Ms to let people ooh and ahh over them to show them how color could affect purchasing decisions. She wanted them to feel energized, hopeful, creative and competitive – they took the bait.
  • We tend to take the rosiest interpretations of the facts for ourselves, which can be an enormous problem with regard to change.
  • Before we can move in a new direction, we need to get a clear picture of where we are and how we’re doing.
  • People tend to change only when a crisis compels them to , which implies we need to create a sense of fear or anxiety or doom. However, this only works in certain cases.
  • Burning platform: fear can be a powerful motivator, especially if you need quick and specific action.
  • However, most change is not a “stone-in-my-shoe” situation, but rather requires creativity, flexibility and ingenuity (e.g. how to improve a marriage)
  • Positive emotions have their uses too: Joy leads us to play, which allows us to broaden the kind of things we are doing, like building resources and skills. Interest lends us to get involved and to tackle new experiences. Pride experienced when reaching personal goals broadens the kind of tasks we contemplate for the future and encourage us to pursue even bigger goals.
  • Make people feel like they are closer to the finish line than they thought. People find it more motivating be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the start of a shorter one.
  • Shrink the change to make the Elephant feel like there is immediate payoff.
  • 5 minute room rescue technique: instead of thinking of cleaning your whole house, get a kitchen timer and set it for 5 mins. In that time, start clearing a path and you can stop without a guilty conscience. Chances are you won’t stop after.
  • Starting an unpleasant task is always worse than continuing it, so shrink the change and just do it.
  • Useful tips when shrinking change: limit the investment (just 5 minutes) and think of small wins (milestones that are within reach).
  • Engineer small wins at the beginning to engineer hope! Hope is precious in a change effort, it is Elephant fuel.
  • Once people are on the path and making progress, its important to make their advances visible. Solutions focused therapists ask the “Miracle question” – e.g, imagine all your troubles were resolved, what would your morning look like? How would you know?
  • You can create a miracle scale – “wow you’re already 20% of your miracle there!” Focus attention on small milestones that are attainable and visible rather than on the eventual destination which may seem remote.
  • Change is more often than not, 1 small step forward, 1.3 steps back and 2.7 steps forward.. etc.
  • No one can guarantee a win but the goal is to be wise about the things that are within our control (e.g, how we DEFINE the ultimate victory and the small milestones that lead up to it)
  • Small wins should be 1) meaningful 2) within immediate reach.
  • When a task feels too big, the Elephant will resist. Big changes come from a succession of small changes.
  • The challenge is to get the important part of your self image and triggers the kind of decision making.
  • Identities are central to decision making, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed for failure.
  • People adopt identities all the time, “e.g, mother, priest, scientist”. You can cultivate identities in people.
  • For identity model of decision making, we tend to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” “What kind of situation is this?” “What would someone like me do in this situation?”. What’s missing is the calculation of cost and benefits.
  • Failure is part of creating change. You need to create the expectation of failure en route, but not the mission itself. Have a growth mindset that reframes failure as a natural part of the change process.
  • Our brains and abilities are like muscles that can be strengthened with practice. We are not born skateboarders or nurses.

 

PATH

Perhaps the most compelling factor for change to happen is for there to be a conducive environment to make the journey for both the Rider and Elephant easier. Create a steep downhill slope and give them a push. Remove some friction from the trail. Scatter a lot of signs to tell them they’re getting close. Shape the path for them.

  • Self manipulation works. People eat less when you use smaller plates
  • Haddon Matrix: Pre-event, event and post event to prepare for social and environmental factors
  • People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and culture – the norms and expectations of communities that we live in.
  • To change people and yourself, you have to change your habits, that’s why people usually change their environments (e.g, smokers find it easier to quit when they are on vacation.
  • In cases where you can’t change the environment, you can use action triggers by preloading decisions to pass control of your behavior to the environment. E.g, I will call my mom after I drink my coffee in the morning.
  • Action triggers have a profound power to motivate people to do the things they know they need to do. Action triggers triple the rate of success for hard goals. E.g, write down where to exercise and which days
  • Habits are behavourial autopilots, to work, they need to to 1) advance the mission, 2) be relatively easy to embrace
  • Use checklists to help yourself eliminate blindspots in a complex environement.
  • As you try to make a switch, the hardest struggle will be to maintain your motivation, to keep your Elephant on the road. This puts a huge burden on your Rider to rein in your Elephant. It’s much easier if the Path is in your favour.
  • Herd mentality: It’s much easier to persevere on a long journey when you’re travelling with a herd.
  • In ambiguous situations, we all look to others for cues to tell us how to behave.
  • Behavior is contagious, when someone becomes obese, the odds of the person’s close mutual friends becoming obese tripled!
  • How to keep small steps to becoming consistent steps? First thing is to recognize and celebrate that first step.
  • Animal trainers use approximations to set a behavioural destination to reinforce positive behaviours
  • We need to be looking for bright spots and start rewarding them! If you want your boss or teammate to change, you have to be less stingy with the mango (rewards)
  • Big changes start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball. When change works, it follows a pattern.
  • People who change have clear direction, ample motivation and a supportive environment. 

 

For Singaporeans, this is a SUPER resource for you to read for free and it’s such a waste that not so many people know about it! I downloaded and read the book for free from Overdrive with my National Library Board (NLB) account. 🙂

How To: Borrow NLB eBooks using OverDrive App

https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/Main/Help/Overdrive

 

 

Marriage and honeymoon!

We’re married!

Credits: @vampireval

It’s been almost 2 months since we tied the knot. To be honest, nothing much has really “changed” physically or financially. There is however, a sense of “shit, we’re in this together for real now forever, cause we said our vows in front of all our friends and family” and surprisingly, a closeness and affinity that I feel with Reuben now that he’s my official emergency contact / family.

I know how incredibly lucky I am to have found somebody I can share my dreams and life with for the rest of my life. It won’t be roses forever, but I’m cherishing every moment of our honeymoon period together.

In meantime, here’s a photo from our honeymoon in Croatia!

Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park

Finally posting all my travel pics! Grand Canyon was a long and tiring 4 hour drive from Vegas, with strong winds and ice-y rains. But I’m glad I went and got to see the magnificent Canyon. Just a peek into the views of Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire 🙂

That’s it! Not a bad way to start 2017, eh?

Hello, CES!

It’s 2017!

January’s over but here’s a little look into the crazy ride that was CES. Was interesting to have breakfast in front of the Bellagio, check out the crazy booths from tech companies around the world and experience Vegas for the first time.

What you should know about travel

In a world that increasingly preaches for you to travel, to spend on experiences, quit your job, leave your 9-5 hell, I thought I could share a little perspective on what the actual experience is like.

Travelling does not make your problems go away

The perks of travelling, feeling awed by mother nature.

The perks of travelling, feeling awed by mother nature.

There are two ideas that can make you want to leave to travel for long term.
The first idea is that travelling makes everything better, simpler, by taking off to another country. You might imagine that you’d “find yourself”, but in reality you are escaping your life at home. The thought of going home scares you, when you can’t see a long term solution to a major life problem because of the “the pressures of conforming to society” and having to go back to your old ways.

These problems continue to haunt you and stick to the back of your mind like an annoying splinter. And you can’t help but feel anxious even when presented with the most beautiful views the world has to offer. I’m sorry to tell you this, but what you will find If you were unhappy with your life before you left is that you will continue to be unhappy if you don’t change your habits or start making things while you travel or after you’re home.  Do what you need to before you leave so you can enjoy the journey.

The second idea is that you travel for the sake of travel, for the love of the adventure, experience, the rehabilitation of the mind and soul, regardless of the good and bad of it all (because there will be bad days). You find ways and means to sustain your lifestyle because your love exploring and do whatever it takes by starting businesses, teaching others how you can do it and sharing whatever you have learnt on-the-road with the community. You travel to create yourself, not to find yourself. You seek out like-minded individuals and tribes, so that you can connect to a wider network, pick on other people’s brains and build interesting projects wherever you go. Travel becomes more fulfilling this way because you are working on something bigger than yourself and focusing on your own needs.

I think most of us swing between the first and second idea, but it’s important to keep in mind that travel doesn’t make you problems go away.


The world is a beautiful, indifferent place
When we went star-gazing in Chile and saw the milky way with our bare-naked eyes, I realised something. Our planet is amazing, and if we taught ourselves to give more time to admire the stars at night, I think we could really start to appreciate how minute we are in the scheme of things. In everyday life we try to make ourselves seem important, wanted, needed, busy individuals, but really – the world gets on perfectly well without us. Everyone is dispensable, and that is both a good and bad thing.
Indifferent, because I also saw how poverty could rob people of their chances. So many times on my trip I kept thinking to myself, “I’m so fucking lucky to be able to do this.” There are no excuses to not pursue your dreams if you live in that percentage of the world who can afford to travel.

You don’t own anything. Nature owns everything. 
We hoard things for status, for security, but in truth, mother nature owns everything. Nothing really belongs to us. In fact we belong her. In Bolivia, there is a respect for nature, and the indigenous Quechua people call her Pacha Mama . We stamp a flag on it and claim it for ours, when it’s never for us to keep. Everything is transient and we are at her mercy. The perks of travelling is that it will teach you this. That you don’t need much to survive on. That it’s important to connect with immaterial things.

 

There is a time for everything and each experience is different.
Travelling is like reading a book. At different stages of your life you experience it differently. At different times you seek for different outlets. For pleasure, for solace, for creativity. But I think what most people want is to feel connected with something. In our 9-5 life, we act like robots, drones, that follow the beck and call of the rat race. So disconnected. That urge to connect as a human being, be it to strangers or nature, makes us feel alive again. The best part is that a place changes according to your needs. There are different ways to experience it even if you are at the same place.

If you can’t travel, read. 
Strangely, with the newfound time I seemed to have and not having to check emails 24/7, I started reading more books than I had any other year before. Fiction, Non-fiction, Non-fiction books about writing fiction books. Everything. It was beautiful and it gave me a rush that I experience whenever I saw a new sight or had a new realization while travelling. So if you can’t afford to travel. Reading does it too.
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Why people hate February

Most people like February. It’s a short month and in Singapore, it’s Chinese New Year. But in particular, I think it serves as a sad reminder that January has come and gone. And the realisation that the resolutions that you made might not come to pass.

I’ve started working on my 5000 word fiction story. It’s based on a story I heard today from an old secondary school friend. It’s inspired by a true crime based in Singapore. I want to share it with you soon.

In meantime, here’s the crazy thing I did in January. Riding G-Max with my dear friend, Valerie.