Note: this piece was originally started in December when I was in the US. I got lazy, forgot about it, and now it’s just in time for the Lunar New Year – all the rave here in Singapore – to be revived and published!
Every New Year’s, I feel obliged to brainstorm a list of self-improvements and try hard to remember what list I had made the previous year. Year after year, it’s some more detailed offshoot of:
- Care less/be less stressed so I can take on more activities
- Get faster
- Write more (for personal projects, not work)
- Do nice things for the people around me
- Learn more skills
In order to pursue fulfillment that looked something linear like this:
This year, I gave up and made 0 resolutions. For me, resolutions put book ends on a year and ties it up neatly for shelving into memory. In the past, I’d walk through the year and list out my favorite and least favorite moments, perform some subjective, mental arithmetic to figure out whether the good outweighed the bad, and then label the year with: great, okay, disappointing. By these standards, 2016 was okay, 2017 was disappointing, and 2018 was great++. 2018 was possibly the best year of my life. This is interesting because 2016 had some of my favorite life moments (like getting married and publishing my novel). Yet it was also filled with challenges. 2017 was all heads down and trying to stay afloat, though in hindsight I learned the most in that year. Then in 2018, it felt like I effectively sat on all the hard work or misfortunes of the past few years, drinking from a bottle of champagne on a beach in Malaga, Spain.
For the majority of 2018, I felt pretty confident about where life was headed and proud of the decisions I made. So putting bookends from Jan 1 to Dec 31, 2018 for a year in review really doesn’t tell the whole story of my year; I’d need to put book ends on the last 3 years to do that.
When I realized this coming into 2019, I started reviewing past years to try and sift out nuggets of self-introspection and see if I could find any other patterns of personal development. There was one other major, life transition period in adulthood (after college) with this telescoping effect where year-by-year felt like a slog until a sudden breakthrough year validated all the rather challenging, previous ones. This happened in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Similar to the past 3 years, 2010 was okay, 2011 was disappointing and 2012 was great++.
In 2012, after years of pretending I wanted to be an academic, I moved to California and began a new career in the tech industry. It was a far better fit. From that deeply difficult year in 2011, I emerged more self-aware, confident and happy. I listened to my instinct instead of fighting it, chose the adventure instead of what I thought I needed to feel successful (sunk cost fallacy for goal oriented people is one nasty vice to shake off), and focused on giving to others. Because of that, really cool things started to happen naturally. These were things I had always missed before because I was so focused – obsessively goal oriented – in some other direction that didn’t suit me. In 2012, confident in my intuition, I met a wonderful partner who would later become my life partner; I was in the best athletic form of my life; I loved my work; and I finished my novel after sitting on it for years.
None of those things in 2012 happened in the isolation of one year, marked by some list of resolutions that I started implementing Jan 1. I never woke up one day and suddenly had my act together. It actually felt like month after month was just as equally uncertain as the previous one, some months feeling like I was completely lost, that I knew all the things that made me unhappy but none of the things that made me truly fulfilled. Except one day, things started to look up. In hindsight, it was the culmination of years of work. Instead of a linear graph of self improvement, marked by each year’s resolution building on top of the previous one, my trajectory looked more like this:
I’m sure many of you reading this are laughing at my obsessive naivety: of course a single year can’t be measured without its holistic context. But for naturally data seeking people like me who want things to wrap up neatly – to be able to package up 12 months, analyze it, draw up my pros and cons, type out a thesis or conclusion, and then shelve it into my library of “My Life So Far” – was a form of closure even if untrue.
Everything I Learned in Crammed into a Few Paragraphs
So then, what did I learn over the last 3 years? Over the last 8 since the fateful year of 2011? How have these learnings culminated into my best year so far? If I could distill everything into a few, perhaps cliched sentences, it would be this:
If life presents you with two paths, and you’re lucky enough to have one be an adventure, take the adventure. Sometime in March, 2018 I had a few solid options in front of me. In one bucket, I could continue my career in tech the old fashioned way. While it was going to be hard, it would be a predictable hard. Down this path, I could trace out what life would be like in the next 5 years. The other, unexpected option that opened was to travel for 1 year with my husband given a special opportunity he had through his job. As someone who had always driven my own career direction, this decision was painfully hard. But I recognized that I was stupidly lucky to even have the choice. So I decided to choose the path that I couldn’t predict, riding on the blind faith that you should never take the opportunity for adventure for granted.
In the end, all of those fears I had while I was too nearsighted and focused on my current path – stalling my career, losing contact with my colleagues and friends, feeling removed and isolated – proved to be untrue. In fact, the opposite happened. I broadened my friendships, continued on with my work which I loved, and had a chance to connect with friends and family from all walks of life on the road.
It’s harder to see the bigger picture when you’re standing with your nose to the painting. An entire lifetime of trying to excel in school, raised by a mother who made getting a phD in physics/chemistry as an immigrant seem like a piece of cake, and being told by various mentors throughout my academic life that I should be an academic, convinced me that I should…be an academic. Except, once I stepped back from it, I realized it was solidly not for me. I had just been far too close my entire life to see it.
The same happened prior to our Around-the-World-Trip. 1 year before my trip, I felt like the entire tech world revolved around Silicon Valley, and I could not imagine a possible career outside of the West Coast. Now, 10 countries later, I feel like I’m just beginning to explore the many exciting possibilities beyond California and perhaps even beyond the US.
You know you’re doing something right when the same thing that causes sleep loss in the past doesn’t even register today. Early in my cycling days, I had once lamented to a friend about how hard a 1-2 minute hill was. My friend had turned to me and said, “Wait until one day, you won’t even notice this is a hill.” Those words repeated themselves for me throughout my career the last 6 years, through relationship challenges, and even through life growing pains. It’s hard to measure progress when it feels like it’s happening so slowly, inch-by-inch, and day-by-day that it takes understanding how much bigger the mountain you’re standing on today versus the hills of yesterday to really capture your own strength.
Understanding fulfillment found in the smallest details can tell you what you actually care about. Knowing this will give you a sense of peace and control. For example, nothing makes me happier than waking up, riding my bike really hard for 4 hours, coming home and relaxing for the rest of the day. Or, working on a really challenging project at work with good people, and feeling the sense of accomplishment when it’s completed. These details show me that my type of fulfillment will always involve some level of Type 2 fun, and that’s okay. The definition of Type 2 fun is an experience that feels challenging and perhaps borderline miserable during the activity, but once you emerge from it, you realize it was really worthwhile to do.
For a long time, I didn’t truly understand this about myself, and I would go through this feedback loop of stress->relief->stress->relief all the while wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Today, after years of reminders, I’ve come to accept that while trying to achieve a goal may seem unpleasant, I really wouldn’t want it any other way. This acceptance has brought me a sense of self-direction and freedom in moments when I feel like nothing is going according to plans. It’s like feeling nervous about a hard training session because you know it’ll be painful, but you do it to win a race or for the endorphins after. Reminding yourself that, “I actually enjoy this process; I chose to do it; and this horrible interval session is part of that enjoyment”, is empowering.
When it gets really bad, stand tall, grind your teeth and force a smile. I used to hate it when people told me that any problem could be solved with a positive attitude until I realized these last few years that it works. Being optimistic rests on the premise that the problem has a solution. Instead of ruminating about how horrible things are, it can give you a sliver of control over an otherwise intractable situation. I’ve found that this subtle mindset change makes a huge difference in changing the emotional landscape from looking at what I don’t have to looking at what I do have. In other words, positivity has taught me to be constantly grateful, and that gives me a position of strength to start from.
To use another simple example: For years, I ran varsity cross-country, indoor and outdoor track in high school. I was always a mediocre runner, solidly middle to back of the pack when it came to the bigger races. I felt like in every race, I was just hanging on. Today, I’m a far better runner in my 30s than I ever was in my teens with a fraction of the training, zero base miles, and a lot more junk food and adult beverages. It makes no physiological sense because it’s all psychological. It took years of competitive racing throughout my 20s (in a different sport, cycling) to learn how to be positive when unexpected things happens during a race (which it did a lot in cycling). In my teens, if I didn’t hit a split I wanted during a race, I would subconsciously give up before the race was over. Today, I think, “Wow, I must be well rested, so I can go faster.” Using this attitude in Seoul, I won my first running race, and it felt so much easier than any running race I had completed before.
Conclusions and Parting Words
Stepping into 2019, I don’t know if what worked for me will still work in 5 years or if it’ll work for you exactly as described. I think part of the challenge is that the story looks a little different each year, the challenge a little harder than the previous ones (hey, that’s what improvement is!), and in each of these instances, I’ll be forced to do something unknown and scary. I have become poetic in ruminating about being the author of my own life. I can’t help but reference Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces”, where the heroine must accept a challenge that seems supernatural or terrifying, face demons – internal, external, or both – ultimately wins or reaches some catharsis, and then returns to save or share the learnings to others. So I hope that you embark – in this new year of 2019, the year of the pig – into the next stage of your own epic journey. Slay dragons, find your holy grail whatever that may be, and give to others. I’ll be searching for clues of what stage my journey is in. Something tells me it’s a transition year and that I’ll be standing on the precipice of the first step, deciding whether to cross the threshold and take on the new challenges, invisible perhaps now but stepping stones to the greater conclusion, the next, larger stage of this very exciting life.