books life

Book Notes: The Gifts of Imperfection

After much prodding by my friend Val to read this book, I finally got down to it. She recommended it so much that she almost shoved it into my bag until I promised that I would head to the nearest Kinokuniya to get a copy for myself and text her when I did.

Brene Brown is also known for her TED talk on vulnerability.

And I did.

It’s not a difficult read, the language is simple and peppered with lots of personal stories, but it was still hard because at so many points I put it down and went, “Oh shit, that’s me.”

She titled her book as “The Gifts of Imperfection – A Guide To a Wholehearted Life” and how to “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are”. I was skeptical.

I can’t tell you how hard that is to do, particularly in a collective Asian society. Sometimes the expectations of family, friends, teachers and coworkers drown out your own voice. So much so that we turn to addiction, be it gambling, alcoholism, more bags, bigger houses, a better paying job, just to tell ourselves that we’re ok, we’re on the “right track” that whoever set us on. We numb ourselves by telling ourselves all we need to do is to do more yoga, or lose a little more weight, watch more netflix or seek comfort in mala steamboat (that’s me) or Arnold’s fried chicken (so good).

All because it’s too painful to be left alone with your own thoughts telling you to do one thing and having to compromise and do another.

I’m grateful for her book for showing me that it’s ok to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to allow creativity to flourish, to be ok to say that the first version of whatever I create is going to suck real bad, but that’s ok too. To be able to connect with people I care about and who really care about me. To know that I should trust myself and that little voice inside my head and heart.

So yes, get the book. And in meantime, here are my favourite excerpts from it.

We invite compassion into our lives when we act compassionate toward ourselves and others, and we feel connected in our lives when we reach out and connect.

I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line.

One of the greatest (and least discussed) barriers to compassion practise is the fear of setting boundaries.

The better we are at accepting ourselves, and others, the more compassionate we become. It’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us and taking advantage of us and walking all over us. Research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or choice.

Connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and perceive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

Technology has become a kind of imposter for connection, making us believe that we’re connected when we’re really not – at least not in the ways we need to be. Just because we’re plugged in, doesn’t mean we feel seen and heard.

We need to let go of the myth of self sufficiency. One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance of “going it alone”. Somehow we’ve equate success with not needing anyone.

Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgement to receiving help, we knowingly attach judgement to giving help.

Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate toward ourselves.

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect kindness and affection.

True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.

Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate toward ourselves.

Love and accepting ourselves are the ultimate acts of courage. In a society that says, “Put yourself last,” self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.

If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear, and vulnerability.

When we struggle to believe in our worthiness, we hustle for it. The hustle for worthiness has its own soundtrack. It’s the cacophony of shame tapes and gremlins – those messages that fuel “never good enough.”

Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough. If we want to develop shame resilience – the ability to recognize shame and move through it while maintaining our worthiness and authenticity – then we have to talk about why shame happens.

Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable – its the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy. It is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Shame resilience is the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience.

When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. Full of shame or fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours and to attack or shame others. Shame is also related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying.

Strategies like moving away, silencing ourselves, or move against by trying to gain power over others, move us away from our story. Shame is about fear, blame, and disconnection. Story is about worthiness, and embracing the imperfections that bring us courage, compassion and connection. If we want to live fully, without the constant fear of not being enough, we have to own our story.

Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky

We don’t need love and belonging and story-catching from everyone in our lives, but we need it from at least one person.

Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want.

Margaret young

Courage is telling our story, not being immune to criticism. Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.

There’s risk involved in putting your true self out in the world. There’s even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think just isn’t worth it.

Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.

Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.

Life paralysis refers to all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.

A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.

Christopher K. GerMer

We develop a hopeful mind-set when we understand that some worthy endeavours will be difficult and time consuming and not enjoyable at all. Hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast and easy doesn’t mean that it has less value than a difficult goal.

Tolerance for disappointment, determination and a belief in self are the heart of hope.

Powerlessness is dangerous. For most of us, the inability to effect change is a desperate feeling. We need resilience and hope and a spirit that can carry us through the doubt and fear.

Most of us engage in behaviours (consciously or not) that help us to numb and take the edge off vulnerability, pain and discomfort. For many of us, our first response to vulnerability is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away.When we numb the dark, we numb the light.

Unused creativity doesn’t just disappear. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death or suffocated by resentment and fear.

If we want to make meaning we need to make art.

If creativity is seen as a luxury or something we do when we have spare time, it will never be cultivated. When I make creating a priority, everything in my life works better.

I think it’s so important to find and be part of a community of like-spirited people who share your beliefs about creativity.

The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression. Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work. It can bring back excitement and newness to our job. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. True play that comes from our inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play.

When we compared our dream list to our “joy and meaning” list, we realised that by merely letting go of the list of things we want to accomplish and acquire, we would be actually living our dream – not striving to make it happen in the future, but living it right now.

Do you want to inflect more people with anxiety, or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm?

If we choose to heal with calm, we have to commit to practicing calm. Small things matter. Before we respond we can count to ten or give ourselves permission to say, “I’m not sure. I need to think about this some more.

Stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up and emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question.

Using our gifts and talents to create meaningful work takes a tremendous amount of commitment, because in many cases the meaningful work is not what pays the bills.

Self doubt undermines the process of finding our gifts and sharing them with the world. To overcome self doubt and “supposed-to,” we have to start owning the messages. What makes us afraid? What’s on our “supposed to” list? Write them down and own the gremlins’ messages messages to give yourself the opportunity to say, ” I get it. I see that I’m afraid of this, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Overcoming self -doubt is all about believing we are good enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves.

Meaningful change is a process. It can be uncomfortable and is often risky, especially when we’re talking about embracing our imperfections. But what’s the greater risk? Letting go of what people think or letting go of how I feel, what I believe, and who I am?

home life

Little Forest Movie Review

On the flight back from Japan I scrolled past the usual blockbusters and settled upon the this Korean film. “Little Forest” is adapted from a Japanese slice of life manga series written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi.

The story follows Hye-won, a recent graduate who fails her final teaching examinations in Seoul and returns to her childhood home, in a traditional Korean village.

Hye-won finds solace in the “Little Forest” or the loving home created by her single mother, who is no longer there but has given her a happy childhood. Through the seasons she reflects upon her experiences in big city life that drove her home and navigates through her journey of self-discovery with the help of her childhood friends.

The theme for this movie is nourishment. With her roots in the country, Hye-won is hungry for nature, home-cooked meals, genuine human connection and a slower pace of life. The movie is filled with gorgeous cinematography of country life and delicious Korean dishes from each season, reminding us of life’s simple joys.

There are many contemplative moments about the impact of a hectic life on our psyche. Particularly in cities where we work long hours indoors, eat instant meals and are addicted to our smartphones. I couldn’t help but recognise elements of my own life in it and emphatize.

Without looking through the lens of rose-tinted glasses of what country living could be, we also get scenes of the backbreaking work of a typical farmer and the judgement that comes with being a ‘country bumpkin’. But overall, the director’s message of what we typically view as “an inferior life”, may not actually be so bad after all.

This film is a therapy for the mind and questions what we need in life to be happy. The satisfaction that comes from a home-cooked meal, a walk through nature, a good drinking session with friends, cannot be undervalued.

books home life

Book Notes: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying

Marie Kondo is a polarizing figure. Like many, I binge-watched her series on Netflix and soon found myself folding shirts so that they could stand by themselves and wondered if the ripped pair of shorts I couldn’t bear to throw were still ‘sparking joy’ by collecting dust in my wardrobe. (Later on, I realised the real reason. I was hoping I would one day fit into them again).

Her sweet Japanese demeanour, unusual way of ‘greeting houses’ by kneeling down to show gratitude and ‘waking up books’ by knocking them gently has left some skeptical about her ‘KonMarie’ method. It’s quite funny to see her American clients flash quizzical looks when she first asks them to thank their houses before they start tidying. My husband rolled his eyes a little too.

I skipped some of these ‘unnecessary’ steps. But after watching her interview with Stephen Colbert, her response to why people love her philosophy convinced me to read her book!

Stephen: “Why do Americans love your philosophy and your cleaning up so much?”

Marie: “Of course we all have problems tidying up our homes, but it’s not just that. We all have clutter in our hearts and that’s what needs tidying.”

Stephen: “Oh (realising what she means).. that got me right here (points to his heart).

The show gleans over her philosophy, but her book really goes in depth to talk about how our environment affects us internally. And it’s no wonder when you look into her background.

Before writing her bestseller, Marie Kondo worked in a Shinto shrine as a Miko (priestess or maiden) for 5 years. Her tidying philosophy integrates some Shinto practices, such as kami (believing that there is scared essence is every object),  treating your home like a sacred space that should be respected, and treating the act of tidying as mental cultivation and spiritual training.”

My favourite quotes from her book:

Aim for perfection once.
"You will never get your house in order if you only clean up half-heartedly. If, like me, you are not diligent, persevering type, then I recommend aiming for perfection just once."
On why people have the urge to tidy before an exam.
Their brain is actually clamouring to study, but when it notices the cluttered space, the focus switches to 'I need to clean my room'. Why? The problem faced, 'the need to study' has been been 'tidied away'.
Tidying your room won’t calm your troubled mind, but it will help you be aware of it.
While you may feel refreshed temporarily, the relief won't last because you haven't addressed the true cause of your anxiety. If you let the temporary relief achieved by tidying up your physical space deceive you, you will never recognise the need to clean up your physiological space.
A messy room equals a messy mind.
When a room because cluttered, the cause is more than just physical. Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder. The act of cluttering is really an instinctive reflex that draws our attention away from the heart of an issue.
Confronting anxiety.
If you can't feel relaxed in a clean and tidy room, try confronting your feeling of anxiety. It may shed light on what is really bothering you. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see any issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.
Special tidying only needs to happen once.
Once you have put your house in order, tidying will be reduced to the very simple task of putting things back where they belong. Unbelievable as it may sound, you have to experience a state of perfect order once to be able to maintain it.
Countering our negative perceptions of ourselves.
"I was born untidy...", this is swept away the instant they experience their own perfectly clean space. This drastic change in self-perception, the belief that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, transform behaviour and life-styles.
Why it’s important to set a change in quickly instead of gradually.
When you tidy your space completely, you transform teh scenery around you. The change is so profound that you will feel as if you are living in a totally different world. This deeply affects your mind and inspires a strong aversion to returning to your previously cluttered state. The key is to make the change so sudden that you experience a complete change of heart. The same impact can never be achieved if the process is gradual.
Visualize your destination before you start and ask yourself why
What do you hope to gain through tidying? Visualize the ideal lifestyle you dream of. Think in concrete terms so you can vividly picture what it would be like to live in a clutter-free space. Your next step is to identify why you want to live like that.  Why do you want to do aromatherapy before bed? Why do you want to listen to classical music while doing yoga? Ask yourself "Why" again, for each answer. Repeat this process three to five times for every item. The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy. When you find the answer, you are ready to move on.
Choose what sparks joy
The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one's hand and ask: Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, throw it away. This is not only the simplest but the most accurate yardstick by which to judge. Keep only things that speak to your heart.
Start with easy decisions
The process of deciding what to keep and what to discard will go on more smoothly if you begin with items that are easier to make decisions about. (Somehow I think this applies to your career as well). As you gradually work towards the harder categories, you will be honing your decision-making skills.
The role of objects that don’t spark joy
Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or a lover. Some you might even find hard to get along with or impossible to like. But these people too, teach you the precious lesson of who you do like, so that you will appreciate those special people even more.
What to do if you find it hard to let go
Think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You'll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end all that will remain are the things you really treasure.
To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need its neither wasteful nor shameful. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them. Help them leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them. Let them go, with gratitude. Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying.
On why you should fold your clothes
The Japanese word for 'healing' is 'te-ate', which literally means to 'apply hands'. Before modern medicine, people believed placing one's hand on an injury promoted healing. Gentle physical contact from a parent, such as holding hands, patting a child on the head, and hugging, has a calming effect on children. The same has a positive effect on our clothes. Folding makes the clothes taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant.
The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle. Therefore, when we fold, we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies.
On how to deal with discarding gifts
The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not 'things' but a means for conveying someone's feelings. When viewed from this perspective, you don't need to feel guilty for throwing a gift away. Just thank it for the joy it gave you when you first received it.
Less is more
By paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings. Just because you throw something away, does not mean you give up past experiences or your identity. By selecting only those things that inspire joy you can identify precisely what you love and what you need.
When we honestly confront the things we own, they evoke many emotions within us. Those feelings are real. It is these emotions that give us the energy for living. Believe what your heart tells you when you ask, 'Does this spark joy?'
If you act on that intuition, you will be amazed at how things will begin to connect in your life and at the dramatic changes that follow. It is as if your life has been touched by magic.
Don’t underestimate the ‘noise’ of visual information
Tear printed film off packages that you don't want to see. By eliminating excess visual information that doesn't inspire joy, you can make your space more peaceful and comfortable.
Understand your ownership pattern
Your ownership pattern is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life. Attachment to the past and fears concerning the future govern not only the way you select the things you own but represent the criterial by which you make choices in every aspect of your life, including your relationships with people and your job.
Face your possessions and problems
The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful. It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we made in the past. Face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The choice is ours.
If we acknowledge our attachment to the past, and our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions, we will be able to see what is really important to us.
On leading a minimalistic life
Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking sometime. Selecting and discarding ones' possessions is a continuous process of making decisions based on one's own values. It hones one's decision-making skills.
We amass material things for the same reason that we eat - to satisfy a craving. Buying on impulse and eating and drinking to excess are attempts to alleviate stress.
Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time. Pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life. I am convinced that putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart.

How Slow Motion Multi-tasking Can Be Good For Us

I have a serious problem with multi-tasking.

But maybe its not so bad.

I came across a talk today and this economist, Tim Harford,  talks about the benefits of “Slow Motion Multi-tasking”. He argues that working on multiple projects at once, can do more good for our creativity than we realise.

I’m constantly working on multiple projects and then feeling overwhelmed, gave up and felt too guilty to get back into it because “What is the point?”.

Yes, throughout my life, I’ve started and stopped learning multiple things. It started with the guitar when I was 12, then different types of sports (netball, basketball, handball, running and yoga), picking up different languages with varying levels of proficiency since university (German – semi fluent, Spanish – can order in a restaurant, Korean – can read hangeul and Japanese – N5 or the most basic level). Oh did I mention, baking, drawing and ukelele classes too?

Clearly I have a lot of interests and I love all of them. But I hate the way I feel when I feel stuck and want to give up and can’t seem to get back into it immediately.

Tim Hartford says that it’s ok. One of the reasons, he says, that we can’t seem to make multi-tasking work is because we lapse into it only when we are in a rush.

If we were to slow down, list down our projects and put them into boxes so that we don’t forget our ideas and work we’ve done on it, we’ll be able to come back to it when we change contexts and feel “unstuck” again. Creativity happens when we take an idea in it’s original context and put it in another one.

The key is doing it slowly. He gives examples of the most successful scientists and creatives who manage to multi-task successfully. One of the biggest fears of the creative person is losing an idea, but if you have a box, you will never lose it.

The idea of multi-tasking shouldn’t be because you are in a hurry, but because you are in no hurry at all.

I can live with that.


Being Vulnerable Is Hard

Happy new year. It’s 2019.

Every year I make an attempt to reflect upon the previous. Writing about it is therapeutic. And I miss writing.

2018 was the year of baby steps on the path of self discovery. It’s also been one of the most difficult years.

I typed 3 versions of this post and deleted it each time. I wanted to write about 2018, but it ended up being a struggle because being honest about vulnerability is hard. I guess that’s why poets, painters, dancers and musicians prefer to express their pain through their work.

Part of it is because of fear of judgement. The other is because you come face to face with your suffering. Not numbing yourself to the pain with your smartphone, or a new drama series on Netflix.

I used to journal daily when I was much younger. I also had a blog where I would share photos of my daily life, random life events and be open about my emotions. Now that seems so difficult to do. When you become an adult, society teaches to hide your vulnerabilities, what to say, what to post, how to show the world you’re the having the time of your life even though you might be in a lot of pain.

Attending the School of Life conference in San Francisco was the most liberating experience. Seeing other strangers sharing about their sufferings, I felt human again.

I’m not perfect. And it’s ok. I’m suffering. It’s ok too.

Maybe I’ll tell you about it next time.

Baby steps.

books life

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.”

life travel

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.

books life

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.)



  • 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.


  • 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.



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