field notes, personal history

Why I left the Real World, and how I’m doing 6 months later

Nearly eight months ago, I left my job in tech, and the world of 9-5 work as a whole (or 10-6 as was more often the case in tech!), to become a wandering writer (producer-of-things, bringer-of-delight, etc etc). On several occasions I have promised to explain the reasoning behind my decision to make that leap. As the 6-month mark passed, it also occurred to me that I should do a 6-month retrospective of what I’ve been up to, plus a snapshot of where I am now. Now I’m late so it’ll have to be a 7.5-month check-in, but I thought I’d include both the backstory and the current story in this here post.

I. ENTER THE REAL WORLD

But to properly tell the story of why I left the Real World, I need to tell the story of why I joined the Real World. Why did I become a software engineer in the first place?

Before I ever had anything to do with the tech world, I was in my mid-twenties, I was a part-time tutor helping kids of all ages with standardized tests, school homework, college admissions, and so on. I had time to write on the side. But I was living at my parents’ house, and couldn’t have afforded SF Bay Area rent.

In The downside of staying put, I explained some of the parameters of my decision to become a software engineer, on the more micro level. On the more macro level, which I don’t really go into in that post, some of the assumptions and steps in my thinking were as follows:

What I wanted:

  • Enough money to live on my own. So I could have a cat. (And because living with my parents could be kind of suffocating in some ways.) But I wanted to have a comfortable cushion rather than barely scrape by; I didn’t want to always be worrying about money, because that would make it hard to focus on creative work, too. Oh, and I didn’t want any roommates. No more roommates!

  • Enter the Real World. By and large, the tutors in my company stuck around for a few years, often while in school or some other transitional phase, and then left to join the Real World. Not only for the money, but because there was nowhere to “go” as a tutor, no advancement or growth. You pretty much did the same thing week after week, year after year. And I just had this feeling that the Real World was Out There, this whole other universe, and that was the stuff that the grownups were talking about all the time (“career track,” “thought leadership,” “ROI,” etc), and I wanted to dive in and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

  • Challenge/learning. I’m an ambitious person, and there was only so long that I could keep teaching teenagers the same stuff over and over. I wanted to go into an environment where I would be learning more than I taught, and where I’d be challenged every day.

What I assumed:

  • I should continue to live in the SF Bay Area. There was nowhere in particular that I wanted to live, and I’m from the Bay Area, so it was familiar and felt like home. Plus, I’d had zero luck getting the exact same type of tutoring job in two other major US cities (or any job at all), and in the Bay Area I walked in and got the job. So in my mind, that was the one place where people would give me a chance. And at that point in my life, I had no qualifications in anything; all I wanted/needed in any realm was for somebody to give me a chance. So I just figured I’d live in the Bay forever.

  • I would be able to write and do creative work on the side, alongside a full-time job. It wasn’t a hard and fast assumption, more like I was hopeful, which I had reason to be, as I’d seen other people do it, like my dad, and I’d read about it in books. I knew that creative work was important to me, and if I wouldn’t get to do any at all, then having a “career” in the Real World was probably not going to work out, but the only way to find out was to try it.

Major factor to consider:

  • I had some ability in programming. At this point I was an extremely novice-level self-taught amateur. Like I’d done one of those online courses that has millions of students, and I got through it. I could make things that were useful, even if it took 10x as long as it should have, and even if my code was garbage. But I felt like if somebody would give me a chance to really learn it, I could probably do it for a living. I had no idea what programmers actually did, but I was pretty sure I could do it.

Programming was fun, it was challenging, it was in high demand and short supply and thus lucrative, it was a Real World career, it was one of the easiest fields to break into without a formal background in the field, and it tends to have some of the most reasonable workloads and hours of all the high-paying professions. To live on my own in the Bay Area and not worry about money even at entry level, I pretty much had to work in tech, anyway. I decided to go all in on making it as a software engineer. I didn’t have any plan further out than that, but I’d just see if I could break in, and figure it out from there.

The rest of the decisions in that particular story (as well as the story behind several more decisions I made during my engineering career) are chronicled in The downside of staying put.

II. THE PLAN

Fast-forward 3 years. Suffice it to say, I did make it as an engineer, and more. (Sometimes people ask me if it was as easy as I make it sound. No. No it was not. During those 3 years, I hustled harder than I’ve ever hustled in my life.)

But, I’d learned at least one new thing with implications for my life strategy: I definitely didn’t want to work full-time in tech until conventional retirement age, in my 60s. Working in tech was fun, it was a great way to pay the bills, but it wasn’t fulfilling me enough to be the main thing to spend the prime decades of my life on. I didn’t know what my purpose in life was. But it wasn’t this.

What’s more, my assumption/hope that I would be able to do creative work on the side turned out to be wrong. Some people can do it. I don’t think I’m one of them. I explain why in my other post I’m not slow, I’m recharging: the EMP energy pattern. TL;DR, the amount of time I need for recovery and rest from work in order to stay sane is very high, and leaves almost no hours for creative thinking. When I tried to do more creative stuff and less recovery, my mental health suffered.

As I also explain in that post, if I’ve decided to do something, I’m ALL in. I can sometimes switch from one kind of thinking to another on a separate day, but I can’t really switch partway through the day. I can’t get home from work and switch to going all in on something else, nor can I do something else in the morning, and then be present at (or on time for) work. If you have my attention, then you have it for a solid 10-12 hours.

All other previous assumptions remained more or less the same. So around 2016 I made a plan: I would put in another 10-15 years full-time in the same line of work, and by the age of 40-45 I would “retire” from full-time work, and from tech, and not need to do stuff for the money ever again. As in, I might or might not work for money, but I wouldn’t need it, so I wouldn’t need to make decisions where money was a major factor. At the rate that I was earning, spending, and saving, the plan was feasible. I decided to run with it until further notice.

III. THE COUNT-UP — THE ASYMMETRIC BET

Fast-forward another 3 years. By 2019 I was an experienced manager of engineers. This is a very sought-after and even more highly paying position. Unfortunately, for an extremely introverted person such as myself, it also has an even higher energy cost than being an engineer. Plus, deferring deep creative work for years running was taking a heavy toll on me.

Even as THE PLAN was financially more feasible, it became psychologically and emotionally less feasible. I wasn’t sure I could make it another 10 years anymore. Not without becoming a negative person. And I didn’t want to be that person who’s in a job they clearly don’t want to be in, just counting down the years until they can get out. I’m not going to be that person. I won’t do it to myself, and I won’t do it to the people who work with me. Everybody deserves to work with people who want to be there.

The more time passed, the more I thought about shortening the timeline. Could I make something happen in 5 years? What about 3? I actually started a count-up of days in my daily planner. I would just keep counting each day that went by, and as an absolute upper limit, if I hit 3 years (1,096 days) and hadn’t made any plans or changes, I would have to quit my job on the spot and figure it out. I made that pact with myself. But really I was hoping I would figure it out within a year and a half, or 2 years. I set the hard deadline at 3 years to have some breathing room. (Software development trick: just take your best estimate for how long it will take to build something, and double it. It’s always been eerily accurate for me and my teams.)

The count went up for a few months as I continued to not do anything. Then multiple things happened. Friends of mine brought the fire and told me to quit wasting my abilities and get my shit together. (You know who you are. Thank you.) And I read, in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, this question inspired by Peter Thiel:

So if you’re planning to do something with your life, if you have a 10-year-plan of how to get there, you should ask: Why can’t you do this in 6 months?

Well, good question. Its purpose is to question how long a thing really takes if you’re not bullshitting yourself. And for the first time, I thought: “Could I make a big change this year? How soon could I be doing what I want to be doing, if I started planning this out today?”

So I sat down and revisited all my previous assumptions. And realized that the other major assumption I’d started with was also now defunct: the assumption that I needed to live in the SF Bay Area (or other major city in the US), and thus had to earn enough to live comfortably there. I had already been living abroad, in the Netherlands, for nearly a year (again, see The downside of staying put for more on that decision), and much preferred it to the US. Why live in the US at all?

If I didn’t live in the US, then I could live on much less money. But if I didn’t work full-time in another country, I wouldn’t have residency in another country, and would have to keep moving around every few months according to visa restrictions. Immediately I knew that I was fine with this idea, more than fine.

By SF standards, the savings I had would not get me very far. But as a nomad, even in developed countries which is where I mostly want to be, I could last well over a year on my savings, maybe even two years. That’s a lot of time to figure out what’s next. And nothing beats the clarity of being able to go all in on this question, without worrying about going to work the next day. Every time I had 2 or 3 weeks off from work, I’d turned it into a personal retreat of sorts, and I could see the discrete leaps in clarity that happened with every one of those. What kind of clarity could I reach with a year-long retreat? What would I produce creatively?

That was the last piece I needed: the financial and logistical assurance that if I made a big change sooner rather than later, I’d have enough runway to get massive value out of it, to get something out of it that I wouldn’t otherwise see for at least 10 years–or maybe would never see, as I wouldn’t think the same thoughts or create the same stuff at 40 as I would at 30. What I didn’t want was to quit my job, worry about money the whole time, and then just come back a couple of months later without having learned anything I couldn’t have learned by staying.

The assurance of giving myself one year without worrying about money was this: No matter what happens, I’ll be a completely different person by the end of that year. And then it was a no-brainer. Give up one year’s salary, and–best case–possibly transform into a new person, understand what to do next, and thus save myself the next 10 years? And worst case, have 1 year off and just come back to tech, fully rested? Yes. Done and done. This is what’s known in investing as an asymmetric bet, heavily in my favor: it’s almost all upside, with very little risk. I’d take that deal every time.

There is nothing more important in life than living it. There’s nothing more worth your time. It sounds like kind of a pointless thing to say. But it’s a sign of our strange, upside-down society, that that statement has any meaning at all, that it also sounds like a kind of stake in the ground.

IV. REQUEST FOR COMMENTS

All of the above thoughts had been developing during a 2-week vacation. On my last full day before I returned home, I wrote out an RFC (Request for Comments) of my life strategy, a document that outlined all the points I’ve mentioned here: my previous assumptions and why my thinking had changed; my previous plan and why it wasn’t working; my new assumptions; my new plan; but also, what a successful change would look like, and what an unsuccessful change would look like (in other words, a change that would be basically no change, or which would leave me worse off than I was before).

The point of writing all this out was first of all to make all of it clear to myself, to my current self as well as my future self who might be at risk of forgetting my priorities or the purpose of what I was doing; and secondly so that I could share it with a few friends, and get some feedback.

If I take a look back at the list of things I wanted when I set out to become an engineer, almost none of them still held true:

  • Enough money to live on my own. This one still holds, but in a somewhat adjusted way. I still want to be able to live alone for the majority of the year, but I don’t mind spending parts of the year with my parents, because our dynamic has evolved over time, and because it’s different when it’s not the only option I have. The other change is that my conception of what it means to “live” has changed completely. It no longer automatically means holding a lease on an apartment, owning furniture and household things, or any of those markers of being a grownup. That’s not to say I’ll never return to those things. But for the foreseeable future I’m content to be a drifter, without a permanent residence, without my own household, and without Stuff.

  • Enter the Real World. Well, I finally got to spend time in the Real World. (“Real” loosely meaning “corporate,” by my definition. The world of legitimacy, which usually means money or at least prestige.) Not only did I learn about “career tracks,” “thought leadership,” “ROI,” and so much more, I ended up in positions where I influenced such things and taught other people about them. I made it to a level where I could see how it all worked, from the entry level to the executives. And once you see how it works, it’s always only going to be more of the same. Unless you can change it. But if you’re convinced you can’t change it (so I told myself), or that changing it isn’t what you want to do with your life, then it’s time to go. There’s nothing more for you to learn, and there’s nothing more for you to give.

  • Challenge/learning. See the point above. I didn’t see any further learning or challenge of the kind that I was interested in, in the world of tech. In any game, the first thing is you learn how to play the game, so that people will let you join them and play alongside them. Later, you learn the game as a construct: how the rules got to be what they are, how you might change them, change the game itself. And with that understanding, you can use it as an advantage to win at the game; or you can decide, this isn’t the game you want to play at all. For me, it was the latter.

The new plan was simple: leave my job within 4-6 months; leave the Netherlands 3 months after that and become nomadic; go at least 6-12 months without working for pay; after that, pick up paying work as needed (in compliance with the strategy doc, in which I specified which kinds of work I would and would not be willing to take, and how much I would take). Continue indefinitely. Live simply. Survive.

I sent the doc to a 3-4 friends, who challenged some of the statements, asked for clarification, suggested ideas they’d seen other people do before, and who were all supportive and agreed that the plan was feasible. With my new strategy set, I was ready to make it happen.

V. EXIT THE REAL WORLD

I’d written the plan in late spring of 2019, and I left my job within 4 months of that. (By the way, according to my count-up, my last day was on Day 255.)

My first order of business was just to complete the transition. There was a lot of stuff that had been accumulating in my mind for years that I needed to address, and a lot of stuff I needed to do to physically move out of the country and become a nomad. Basically the one-time things that needed to get done to let go of my previous life and my previous way of being.

Of course, right after I left my job, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I was just tired. I slept 10 or 11 hours a day for at least a month or two–sleeping off years of accumulated exhaustion. (I normally need 8-9 hours a day. That’s my average now.)

Recovery involved not only sleeping, but also doing all the relaxing things I’d never had time to do while working. Spend a whole day reading; a whole day watching TV; a whole day writing for this blog; a whole day taking a train to another city and walking around. A month went by before I even started to feel rested. I hadn’t realized how burnt out I was.

While my body and part of my mind had been accumulating exhaustion, another part of my mind had been underutilized, accumulating ideas and the hunger to do something with them. I started to wake up that part of my mind again, and clear it out, by writing out everything I’d been meaning to write about for the past few years, until I ran out of stuff in the attic, so to speak. This took a couple of months.

In the meantime, I took on the large project of preparing to move. I gave away everything I owned, saw my friends as much as I could before I moved, and was out of the country by Christmas–tired all over again, but happy.

VI. A NEW SELF

Completing that transition took up probably the first 3-4 months of my time as a free person. After that, COVID-19 became increasingly a thing. It drastically changed my travel plans for the year, but for the better, really. Instead of wandering around on adventures, most of this current phase of 3-4+ months has been spent hunkered down in a small studio apartment in Istanbul, Turkey, doing some deep thinking and introspecting, getting inspired again, and laying the foundation of a new self: work I might’ve otherwise put off until much later.

The elements of this new self include:

  • Routine. After I left my job, I started out without a routine, just sleeping and generally being a full-time couch potato, and gradually adding structure from there. Now I’m using this quarantine time as a controlled lab for developing a structure for my days that’s going to keep me active and growing, in the absence of any employer or boss.

  • Rewriting the narrative. Gradually pinpointing beliefs and narratives that have affected my decisions in the past and disempowered or restricted me, and replacing them with ones that are empowering. I mostly do this through the morning pages (google it). One great and hugely consequential example of this is detailed in I’m not slow, I’m recharging. If writing out my creative ideas was like cleaning out the attic, this work is more like cleaning out the basement. It’s dark, it’s not pretty, and there’s some scary stuff in there that’s been there for who knows how long. But there are also some amazing discoveries to be had, of things I had all along but had forgotten about. In this sense, the rewritten narrative isn’t even “new.” It’s more like re-integrating my self with the person I was as a kid–the most important person to re-integrate with, because that’s the last time I was being truly honest.

  • Purpose. If I don’t have a job title, if I don’t have a career track, then who am I, exactly? What do I “do” (as the Americans say)? What have I been put on this earth to work on? How do I prioritize my work accordingly? With my mind starting to get clear (including the attic and the basement!), I have the first inklings of a working understanding of purpose.

  • Community. That’s you! It’s my subscribers, readers, friends, people I text/email and interact with on social media, people I catch up with on Zoom. It’s developing practices around who to keep in touch with, how to keep in touch, what’s important to communicate, and how to keep making new friends and growing my community. The newsletter is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. It gives me a built-in way to fold new friends into my community so that I don’t quickly lose touch with them, as well as a way to regularly remember that people care about me, and to regularly remind people that I care about them.

When I was contemplating the possibility of all this for the first time almost exactly one year ago, I told myself that within a year of getting started, I’d be a completely different person, unrecognizable to myself. And indeed I am already a different person.

Thanks to all of these elements of a new self taking root and beginning to grow, I feel more at peace than I’ve felt since I was a very small child, since I was basically pre-conscious. I know that plenty of people who know me have always thought of me as the calm one, which isn’t untrue, but all my life I’ve also been carrying around some form of depression, anger, frustration, impatience, self-loathing, and shame. Only realizing now that all along, it was just a heavy suit I was trying to walk around in; it wasn’t me. I can unzip it, step out of the suit, and leave it behind.

So that’s the snapshot of where I find myself, just over half a year post-exit from the so-called Real World: well-rested; undergoing a transformation; shedding layers of an earlier self to bring back an even earlier self; feeling lighter than ever before, and full of possibility. As for what I’m doing now and in the near future, perhaps the best way I can describe it is “being full-time curious.” The best job I’ve had so far.

Standard
field notes, personal history

I’m not slow, I’m recharging: the EMP energy pattern

I always thought I had a handicap, until I realized it was a superpower.

I. ONE-FOURTH OF A LIFE

At some point in my life I started to realize that I experience time differently than most people–and not in a way that I liked. It’s as if I have half the number of waking hours, and as if during those hours, I have half the energy that everybody else has. It’s not even about productivity or the effective use of that time, but literally how much of it is available to begin with, to waste or to put to good use.

If I leave the house for at least a couple of hours, for just about any reason–getting groceries, going to a cafe, seeing a friend, going to work–that’s about all I can do in the whole day. Sometimes I even need a nap afterwards. Everyone else seems to be able to get out and do more things than I can, spend more time with friends than I can, and even watch more TV, read more books, go through more social media, and do more chores than I can. All at the same time. All while working as much as I do and sleeping as much as I do. Some of them while also raising kids, which I don’t have.

It’s not that I feel competitive about it, it’s just frustrating feeling like I am only able to experience about 1/4 as much life as everybody else can. And wondering if I’m the only person who goes through life this way. All my life, I wanted to be normal.

My interest in planning out my days and tracking where my time goes probably grew out of a desire to try to figure out what the hell was going on with me and where the large disparity comes from, as well as to try not to waste the pathetic amounts of time it feels like I have. It’s perhaps a way to compensate, except that earlier on, I didn’t think of it as compensating; I assumed that everyone else was just way better at time management than I was, and so I’d better try to catch up. After several years of observing my own patterns, I’ve started to have some idea of where all my time is going.

II. TIME WARPS — DAYDREAMING — POST-INTERACTION PROCESSING

First: I just do everything really slowly. I can just observe myself and someone else in the same room doing the same task, and see how much longer it takes. I walk slowly, I eat slowly, I brush my teeth slowly. Friends have commented that it’s like I move in slow motion. Of course, to me it feels like I’m normal, and everyone else has access to some sort of time warp where they can just skip ahead at certain moments. I’m at a restaurant with friends, they bring everyone’s food at the same time, I take a bite or two–and then I see that everyone else’s plate is empty. When it’s time to go, we all stand up from the table at about the same time, and then everyone else already has their coats and scarves and backpacks on, ready to walk out the door, and I still have to do all of that. I still don’t understand how it happens. I have tried moving faster, but I gave up pursuing that as soon as I started. It stresses me out to try to move faster than my natural pace, and I suspect wouldn’t actually make that much of a difference, as I don’t think it accounts for a large proportion of the disparity.

Second–but this may be directly related to the first–I daydream a lot. After I wake up, it usually takes me 30-60 minutes to get out of bed, because I’m in that dreamy half-awake state. But then I might more or less stay in that state for several hours, until something forces me out of it. Often I’d stay in it while getting ready and having coffee, while taking a shower, and through my whole commute, and then snap out of it upon getting to work. But I may return to that state at various points throughout the day, sometimes just for a minute or two, sometimes for hours.

When I daydream, it’s almost as random as night-dreaming. It could involve memories, imagined interactions, imagined conversations, thinking through my reaction e.g. to something at work, or to a book or movie–or even composing blog posts, like this one, which was conceived of and partially composed while daydreaming. This definitely causes me to move more slowly at whatever I’m doing; it also causes those blips in time where minutes or hours seem to drop out of consciousness, and the clock seems to have just instantaneously advanced to a later point, as I’ve been lost in thought. Repeated throughout the day, these add up to a noticeable “loss” in the time available to do more tangible things.

Finally: I have to spend time decompressing or “processing” after interactions. If I do anything social or talk to anyone (which could be in person, video chat, or over the phone, or sometimes even chatting via text / instant message), I have to “process” it immediately afterwards. That’s the name I made up for it. This means either pacing around the house (especially if I’ve just gotten home), or sitting motionless in the exact same position I was sitting while talking (because it doesn’t even occur to me to get up until I’m done processing). It usually involves mentally replaying parts of what was said, in an uneven distribution: some parts of the conversation are already forgotten, while others I replay ten or twenty times. It doesn’t matter whether the conversation had anything emotional or significant, or if it was just a fun, light catch-up with a friend.

Right after the interaction, it feels like everything is too scattered for me to be able to do anything else. Imagine if every time you got home after having left the house, every single piece of furniture and possession in the house was in the wrong place, with some stuff floating in the air, etc–but you knew that if you paced around for a while replaying the conversations you just had, eventually everything in the house would be pretty much as you left it, and then you could go on with whatever you wanted to do. That’s like my brain after I talk to someone. And I process until it feels settled again.

If I interact for an hour, I have to process for about half an hour. Interact for two hours–process for one hour. The curve drops off after that: if I interact for like 10 hours straight, then I would probably process for a couple hours, fall asleep, and try to take it easy the next day. If I was “on” more than usual during the interaction, for example if I spoke in front of a group at any point, then it might take even longer. Sometimes I have to run on a deficit for a while, because I don’t have time to process everything as much as I want to for several days or more. And that seems to work the same way as running on a sleep deficit for days, weeks, or longer: at some point it’s not possible to make up all the hours; you just take a hit in overall health. While I had a full-time job, I was always running on a deficit of processing time. Always. This is why I don’t think I can sustainably do a traditional workweek, if it involves regular meetings. There aren’t enough hours in the week; I spent almost all my free time processing, and it still wasn’t enough.

While processing, I can’t really do anything else. The most that I can do is maybe google stuff that we talked about, reply to text messages, or like, if I was in the middle of some mindless computer task before the interaction, such as tagging blog posts or other forms of organizing, sometimes I can go back to that right after the interaction, and it actually helps me decompress. But I really don’t have a lot of brain space. If I had a tea or some food next to me, I usually forget to even eat or drink it.

While I’m processing, it’s like a flow state, where I lose track of time. It’s as if I was talking to you in a video chat, and we both said goodbye and signed off at the same time, but it actually took me a full hour to sign off. We say goodbye at 5pm, I laugh to myself about something you said, then I look at the clock and it’s 6pm, and I go, “Oh, it’s late, and I have to pee.”

As you can imagine, this is a massive time sink, with no actual advantages, as far as I can tell. I don’t know that I remember conversations particularly well, for having replayed them. I just came to think of it as a handicap that I would just have to live with and work around. You know, there are probably adults who need to sleep like 13 hours a day, and they might not get anything out of it. It’s like that. You just live with it. But it feels like only being able to live half of every day, because the other half is spent processing the half that was lived. It’s annoying.

(By the way, perhaps you’re wondering about the implications for being in a relationship? This is something I haven’t managed to get a good read on so far. Maybe the best I can say is that interacting with a partner doesn’t count the same way as interacting with other people–the “curve” is different–but it’s not zero, it’s at least slightly draining compared to being alone. Certainly being with an extrovert was a struggle for me in the past.)

(I wondered whether this might be some form of OCD. There is a form of OCD that involves replaying conversations. But it doesn’t seem to match my experience, as my processing is not an emotional or distressing experience for me, and it doesn’t have to do with fear, or regret. It’s a relaxing way of decompressing and settling back into myself, maybe similar to someone who feels the need to run or work out after a workday. Time-consuming, but not necessarily bad.)

I have never in my life heard of anybody else doing the same. But it does seem like something that might be more common in introverts than extroverts. But then again, I’ve never really mentioned it to other people, either. Maybe a lot of us do this, and we all think we’re the only ones.

The only thing I have heard of that comes close at all is that Sarah Manguso writes in her book Ongoingness about how she used to feel the need to record as much of life as possible in her diary. Though her reasons were different than mine–a way to make life’s happenings real, make them live on by preventing them from being forgotten, and not just a way to decompress–the feeling of always running on a deficit is much the same: “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.”

Actually, I used to journal every day for very similar reasons. (I’ve recently returned to journaling every day, but without feeling the same anxious need to get everything down, that used to drive me.) So, I guess that explains what happened to my early twenties. Between journaling, processing, and sleeping, it’s a wonder I managed to do anything else at all.

As for my experience of my own energy cycles, they are heavily affected by the post-interaction processing. Processing recenters me, but doesn’t give me my energy back. On the contrary, it’s tiring in itself, as if I did the social thing twice in a row. But aside from that, it’s hard to overstate how easily overstimulated I am by external stimuli. If I take public transit and walk around in a crowded city for a couple of hours, without talking to anyone, I still get drained after not too long and have to sit alone in a room for a while, preferably with the lights relatively dim. As I mentioned above, sometimes after a grocery run, I have to take a nap. Under the right conditions, like quiet and darkness, I have normal energy or better; if not for that, I’d wonder if I had an actual illness like anemia or something. As a somewhat ambitious person, it’s demoralizing to be constantly running out of energy after doing so little.

III. PSIONIC POWERS

More recently, I’ve begun to question whether it’s really true that I’m able to do a quarter of the stuff that anybody else is able to do, even though that’s exactly what it feels like on almost any given day. Is that always what it feels like? Or are there times when I feel like I can do equally as much as others can do, if not more?

Actually, there are occasions when I feel the exact opposite of what I’m used to: that I have much more energy than most other people, and that I have more time available to me. It’s whenever there’s something that requires a high degree of mental focus or attention, particularly if it’s constrainted to a relatively limited amount of time, though the time limit could be on different scales: it could be a few minutes, an hour or two, a week, three months–as long as the time allotted is a little bit constrained relative to the scope of the task. The task could be to take a test, write something, give a speech, build an app/website, find a better way to do something, or learn my way around any system, whether that’s a language or an economy or a process for doing something or the layout of a building or an academic policy. Or even just to listen to a friend talk, and to be fully present with them.

On such occasions, while I’m doing the task, it often feels like I literally have more cylinders available to me than are available to most other people I observe around me. Like I can visualize all the components of the problem or topic, hold them all in my head at the same time, rotate them, analyze them, put them back together, and then articulate what went through my head, in the form of words or math or code or a drawing. And then the time warp is in the reverse of what I’m used to, as I’ll realize that others working on the same thing haven’t even started yet.

It’s been this way since I was a child. I’ve always avoided talking about it, because there’s this intense stigma around saying that something was easy for you, like as if you’re bragging. But it’s a silly prejudice that has probably led to untold loneliness and suffering in the world, of people who experience this and have no way to share the experience with others. It may have also caused such topics to not be studied enough, though studying them could yield benefits for everyone. And: this is my blog so I get to talk about it.

This disparity is easiest to see clearly in timed test situations, but of course it’s not limited to those. If I think about it, in general, on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 meaning the highest engagement and energy usage, I’m usually either running at 1, or I’m running at 11–meaning, more engaged in the thing than almost anyone I’ve ever seen. Friends who receive emails from me either get a 1-line email, or an email that is 1000 or 2000+ words. If I’m in, then I’m all in. But it’s not an even distribution of time. It’s something like 5-10% of the time at 11, and all the rest of the time at 1. Also, it’s not like the results I see from working at level 11 are comparable to the results from working at 5.5 for twice the amount of time. Every level of engagement gives me access to certain ways of thinking which, when I’m at the lower levels, is simply not possible.

I also experience this “level 11 burst” not only cognitively or in problem-solving situations, but in social situations. Which explains my tendency to on occasion be the most social person at a large gathering–trying to talk to every single person I don’t know, learning everyone’s name, starting the dance circle, etc–after which I might not feel like leaving the house for a solid week. When I’m not feeling it, I can also be the biggest wallflower at a gathering. But if I show up at a gathering and decide, “I’m going to talk to every person here before I leave,” then I just do it. And I’ve never before had any explanation for the surge of social energy I get in those situations.

I have typically done well in jobs that allow for this kind of energy pattern. When I worked as a software engineer, for much of the day you’d see me going out for coffee, messing around on Slack, unable to concentrate on any one thing even when I tried. Then at some point in the afternoon I’d put my headphones on, switch on my brain, and I’d finish the entire day’s work in the last couple of hours. Whereas jobs that require a steady drip of half-attention all day are hell for me. My blogging days follow the same pattern. For most of the day I putter around, eat, drink tea, take walks, sit on the couch, process interactions, watch TV, all kinds of highly passive things. Then after dinner I’ll sit down and write a 3000-word post like this one.

It makes me think of the girl in Stranger Things (whose name is actually Eleven, but no pun was intended!). She is able to wield incredible psychokinetic power, but in short bursts–after which she faints and/or is super weak and has to gradually recover before being able to do it again.

In the world of StarCraft, a real-time strategy game series from the 1990s that is still played competitively today, there’s a type of unit called a Ghost–essentially a human that specializes in stealth, and has abilities that cost some of their energy to use. Such abilities include being cloaked, which makes them invisible to most other units, and EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which can remove energy from other units, like shields, and sometimes disable them. (According to Wikipedia, “The popular media often depict EMP effects incorrectly, causing misunderstandings among the public and even professionals. Official efforts have been made in the U.S. to disprove these misconceptions.” So I’ll reiterate that this version of EMP is fictional. Okay?)

The Ghost just slowly recharges energy over time, so if it’s out of energy, you just have to wait until it has enough before you can do another EMP round or call down a nuke. (Presumably we are talking about the energy of the suit that they wear, and not their actual personal energy, although Ghosts do have psionic powers, as that is how they qualify to go into Ghost training to begin with, so it could be both.) There are many types of units that use energy like this, but the Ghost is, in my opinion, the coolest one. (Another cool one is the Medic, which uses energy to heal other units.) This concept is very present everywhere in StarCraft, the concept of entities being able to wield a large amount of power in a single burst, and then having to slowly recharge before being able to do it again.

Thinking of it this way completely changes my narrative around my own abilities and disabilities, and how I fit into the world. What if the sluggishness and low energy I feel most of the time is inextricably tied to the short bursts, those EMP pulses, of mental power? What if I can’t have one without the other? By that model, I’m not slow, passive, weak, or inefficient–I’m recharging. I’m saving up energy for the next round. It’s not an overall energy deficit, but a different distribution of energy over time. And given the choice between this or the steady drip all day at a medium level of engagement, I’d choose the EMP pattern every time. The times when I’m at 11 are the times I feel most alive; and the recovery after an awesome burst of work is downright satisfying. When I change the story I’m telling myself, what I’ve always thought of as an inadequacy becomes a superpower.

IV. CODA

I haven’t seen any literature (scientific or otherwise) about this kind of energy pattern; I haven’t seen it explicitly associated with introverts, creative people, or any other group. I don’t know if it’s correlated with any group or not. The closest thing I’ve seen is artists occasionally saying that the majority of their time is spent doing nothing, or doing passive things. I feel like all self-help, productivity, time management (or “energy management” or “attention management” as they’re calling it nowadays), and other such “how-to” literature, including in the creative sector, falls within the paradigm of consistency, of mostly pushing yourself steadily throughout the day and year, though with breaks to recover. But this recovery time is sort of assumed to be the minority of the time (“quick walks”, “power naps”, etc). No more than a couple hours (or even mere minutes!) a day, a few days of the week, a few weeks out of the year.

Nowhere have I seen somebody say that it’s okay, maybe even totally normal, to flip the balance around entirely, and expend all your energy in a short burst, then take the rest of the day to recover. And to work like this every single day. Ironically, it’s the established default pattern for expending physical energy. But to think of it as the pattern for mental or social energy seems radical. I think it’s an oversight that impoverishes the conversation around energy management–one that StarCraft has nevertheless had a handle on for over twenty years–and I think it could be better for people of all energy-pattern types if we talked about it, studied it, put a language around it, and used that to support and encourage each other. People like me exist. There should be room for this.

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field notes, personal history

Surprise bread, or, how to accept a gift

Last Sunday in the early evening, I was hanging out at home in my apartment in Istanbul, as one does during the weekend lockdowns that have been in effect here in Turkey, when I heard my host call my name through the door. He said, “Do you want me to buy you some special Ramadan bread?” I said, “Yes! That would be amazing.” This is Ramazan pide, a kind of flatbread (I learned later) that people eat during Ramadan when they break their fast at dusk. (People who aren’t fasting can just eat it anytime.) A mobile bread seller must have arrived on our street, though I hadn’t noticed them calling as I usually do, so my host went downstairs to buy from them, and was thoughtful enough to get some for me. “This is the only Muslim thing that I do,” he joked.

Reader, no lie, it was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted: fluffy, gluteny, and just the teeny-tiniest bit sweet, just enough that I could keep eating it all day without putting anything on it. I wished I were hungrier at that moment, because it was still warm and fresh from the oven, and would never again be as good as it was right then.

That little surprise made my day, but it was significant for another reason. On my preceding grocery run to prepare for the lockdown, the store was out of the kind of bread I wanted, so instead of getting a different kind of bread, I got a little loaf cake and ate that for a few days. I had just eaten my last slice of that cake Sunday afternoon, and it was just two hours after that that the surprise bread showed up to hold me over until my next grocery run. My host couldn’t have known, but the timing of his gift was such as to make me believe, just for a little while, that whenever I am lacking, enough will be given to me. And not just “enough,” but really more and better than I would even know to ask for. For if I’d had the chance that day, I would’ve just wished for more cake, or the kind of bread I already knew. Instead, I got something totally new to me that was even better.

Events in life have a way of rhyming with each other, and as I was eating more of my pide the next morning, I remembered that one year before, almost to the exact day, I was walking out of a cafe in Ghent, Belgium, that was closing for the day, when one of the baristas said something to me. “Sorry, what was that?” She said, “Do you want this loaf of bread? If you don’t take it, we have to throw it out.” “Sure!” I said, and they were happy I took it off their hands. There again, I went home pleased about the little gifts that come when you’re open to them but not expecting them.

Long ago, I don’t remember when or on what occasion, I had made the resolution that anytime anybody was genuinely offering me a gift or favor that would be helpful, if it cost me little to nothing to accept it, then I would always accept. Because the potential benefit could be a new experience, a momentary human connection, or just making someone else’s day because people tend to be happy when they have a chance to do something for someone else.

It’s worth noting that I calculate “cost” in my own particular way. I almost never accept pieces of paper from strangers–advertising is not a gift. I also don’t accept branded swag, for the same reason. I prefer not to receive non-perishable gifts from friends (if they give me a choice) because of the cost (both personal and environmental) of having more possessions to keep around. If a gift involves me consuming food or drink, there might be a cost there that causes me to decline. Finally, I value my time highly and take that into account whenever accepting something that commits me to some sort of time expenditure or social engagement.

Things I do easily accept based on my policy: bread, from trusted sources. If I like someone’s company, and they offer to e.g. walk farther out of their way to accompany me. Introductions to people I should meet. Offers to let me borrow things I need to use, or to come over and help with something I can’t do by myself. Offers to have me over for a meal or put me up for the night–again, I never accept these out of obligation, but if I like spending time with someone, then I let them provide for me without the fear that I’m imposing on them, which used to get in the way. Neighborly things, mostly.

It really can be hard, as it was for my past self, to say yes to an offer of any kind, even for something you already know you need, and even when someone point-blank asks if they can give it to you. For me, I think it was less about admitting weakness and it wasn’t about feeling undeserving, but it was more about being afraid to admit a desire for something I didn’t already have: “Oh, no, I don’t want something, why do you think I would want something, do I look like I would want something? What a silly thought.” Seemingly from childhood I’ve had this belief, deep deep down: that to want is embarassing. Simple as that.

Accepting a point-blank offer is one thing, and then there is the “soft offer,” often in a form like, “I can do X for you sometime, just let me know,” which requires that you ask for the thing if and when you want it to happen. “I can introduce you to someone.” “I can send your work over to so-and-so.” “I can give you a tour of the space.” “I can accompany you when you go to do X.”

Accepting such an offer is a level up in difficulty from accepting a point-blank offer, and I have only been able to do it without cringing in shame ever since I got used to using a standard “script” of sorts to accept: “Yes, that would be great / awesome / super helpful. Please introduce me.” Or, “I would love a tour. When would be a good time for you?” Always with lots and lots of thank-yous. For responding to an offer to do something later, in the moment I respond, “I might take you up on that,” and when the time comes I would say, “Could you still do X for me?” with a little bit about why I’m asking now.

(Regarding “I might take you up on that,” I should mention that it’s not a recommended response if you’re being asked out on a date, unless you know what you’re doing. Saying no is hard too, but be a decent human being and don’t string them along.)

As you level up, there are more advanced kinds of saying yes, like the change-your-mind offer (when you say “No, thanks,” and they say, “Are you sure?” with some new information that changes your mind, and you say, “Okay, then yes”; or when some time passes and you change your mind for any reason and then you have to go back and say that you do want that thing after all), or the second-degree offer (“So-and-so said you could help me with X?”). Of course, at the top of the ladder, there’s asking for something that hasn’t been offered, which is a whole ‘nother beast of its own that we won’t get to here.

The more often I accept gifts, the easier it gets, and the more often they appear. Nothing mystical about it: it’s a matter of where you direct your attention. What I refer to as “the universe” is just the 99.999% of the world that we’re NOT paying attention to. You see what you learn to see. And whether or not it’s sentient, functionally when it comes to gifts, the universe works like any friend: if you decline its gifts every time, eventually you won’t be getting a whole lot of them. While you’re busy feeling sorry for yourself, people are bending over backwards to give you bread, keep you company, introduce you to like-minded people, read your work, cook for you, give you a place to stay, take you on adventures, and show you something new. Open your eyes and say yes.

EPILOGUE

As I was writing this post, the universe gave me two more gifts. One is the word pronoia, which refers to the feeling that the universe is conspiring to do you good (opposite of paranoia), thanks to Kevin Kelly. The other is these lines from the poem Everything is Waiting for You by David Whyte (via On Being):

…The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

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field notes, personal history

8 best things I discovered in 2019

Happy 2020, everyone! Okay, I would have liked to have gotten this post out before 2019 ended, but that’s just how my year went: I didn’t necessarily get everything done exactly as planned, and it wasn’t always pretty, but I got everything done one way or another.

Lots of stuff happened this year that I could recap, but in deciding what kind of end-of-year post to write, it came down to this: I always want to be discovering new things. No year should go by that I don’t have something to include here. Even if I don’t “accomplish” anything during the year. Moreover, I don’t know that summarizing my accomplishments or life changes is valuable to anyone at all, including myself, so instead, I’ve collected things that you can immediately check out for yourself.

Here are a few things that really made my year, that I’d like to share with you. If any of these speak to you or if you get into any of them because of this post, let me know!

Here’s a quick overview, with links to each section:


Practice/tool I adopted: Post-it notes & Sharpies

When I talk of writing “notes” in this context, I almost exclusively mean “lists of things I want to keep track of,” and I’ll give you some examples in a minute. I used to write such notes either in a mini notebook (which 95% of the time I was too lazy to go hunt down), or in my phone’s Notes app, or not at all. In other words there was no system. This year I also migrated from the Notes app to Evernote, but it’s telling that the thing that wins this category isn’t digital, but good ol’ paper & pen.

I think I first got the idea from reading Make Time (which deserves an honorable mention as best productivity / self-help book I read this year), and which you can already see from the cover has a sort of Sharpie-inspired vibe, though I don’t remember if making handwritten lists is explicitly mentioned in the book. As soon as I started making some lists on Post-it notes, I got hooked, and started to realize there were more and more lists I’d been almost unconsciously storing in my head, that it felt better to write out. This had actually already happened once when I started using Evernote for the first time, but there is a way in which standing right in front of a blank pad of Post-its draws out even more lists that I might have thought too fleeting to be worth opening up Evernote for.

At first I was sticking them to the wall of my kitchen, which I faced when making coffee, planning my day, eating, etc. The blank pad and Sharpie were also right there on the counter, encouraging more list-making whenever I was waiting for my coffee/tea or otherwise standing in that spot spacing out, which I did a lot. Then I bought some new Post-its that were not sticky enough to stay on the wall (not actually Post-it brand, of course, that’s why they were subpar), so I just let them all lie flat on the counter, where they started accumulating. I wish I could show you a picture, but the lists are private, plus I’d look like a crazy person. Once there got to be around 20 notes and they started cutting into my food prep space, I started transferring some to Evernote and throwing the paper notes away. But Post-it + Sharpie is still the best way for notes to originate–and both elements are important. Here’s why:

There can only be one note on the top of the pad. Peeled-off notes are ephemeral. Post-its aren’t really optimized for you to use all pages equally well, like a notebook. They’re optimized for writing on the top note and then peeling it off. This means I can only really have one list or note active at a time. Sometimes I have peeled-off ones sitting around that I’m still adding to, but they are considered ephemeral because they get lost or damaged easily, so they only hang around for a few weeks at most, until I transfer them to Evernote and/or throw them away.

The benefit is that it encourages me to stay in the moment. What notes did I write last week? Who cares? If it was important, then I’ve put it into a different flow in my system where I can find it. If not important, it’s gone, I won’t see it again.

The other benefit is that this encourages me to make lists even if it’s just going to help me in the next 30 minutes (e.g. what I need to do before I leave the house, e.g. what I’m going to put in my stew), which I normally wouldn’t bother putting in a notebook or in digital notes. There are lots of times when this helps me de-stress in the moment because I have 7 little things I need to take care of now, plus I get the satisfaction of checking/crossing items off as I finish them–and throwing the whole note away, when I’m done!

No distraction from other apps while trying to take a note. 100% of the time I go to my phone/computer to write something in Evernote (“quick before I forget!”), I end up in some other app first, and forget what the note was, or even why I opened my phone. Even if I manage to not forget, the world of my phone/computer takes me out of whatever space my mind was in, which can be devastating if I was deep in thought on something I was writing or reading.

With a Sharpie, you can only fit a tiny amount of text on a Post-it. This is very important. On a standard square Post-it, using a Sharpie, I can only fit 8-10 lines of 2-4 words each. It forces me to distill every list down to what’s essential. No whole thoughts, only triggers. No digressions. And that makes for clearer, more structured thinking. Certainly I love to be long-winded and digress e.g. here on my blog, but a post like this one originated from, and can be summarized back to, 8 items on a Post-it note. Of course, any marker of the same thickness works, but I like Sharpies because they’re exactly the same anywhere you go.

Examples of what I use Post-it notes & Sharpies for:

  • Blog post ideas: This whole post was one item called “best of 2019,” in a running list of post ideas.
  • Blog post bullet points: The 8 items in this post were also listed in their own note. So it served as the outline of a single blog post.
  • Subpoints of bullet points: This list of examples was also its own note! It’s Post-its all the way down.
  • Punchlist: Quick ephemeral to-do list, meant to be used in the moment and thrown away: things to do before a friend comes over; packing list for a day trip; etc.
  • Misc ideas/thoughts: Topics to write about or research, distilled to 3-6 words each.
  • Things to remember tomorrow: To be written if I’m anxious before going to bed. I love this use case.
  • Highlight of the day: This is from the book Make Time. I write the ONE thing I need to get done today, leave it sitting out all day, and change it out every morning.
  • Quote to remember: Similar to “highlight of the day,” I write one thing and leave it sitting out.
  • Things from the outside world: I’m experimenting with carrying a pad and Sharpie in my pocket, so that when I hear about something while I’m out somewhere, I can write it down instead of automatically going to my phone.

Podcast I got into: The Tim Ferriss Show

I used to dislike Tim Ferriss. I knew of him from around 10 years ago, around the time his first book The 4-Hour Workweek came out–indeed, if you go read some reviews of it, plenty of the top reviews are some variation of “Tim Ferriss is a douche,” so I wasn’t the only one. I hadn’t read that book until just recently, but I read his blog for a while. Back then, my concern was that he was purely out to take shortcuts, blow through everything in the fastest way possible, and rack up accomplishments just so he could crow about being a master at this and that. It’s true that a lot of things in life aren’t as complicated or hard as we assume them to be, but for myself I didn’t want to risk crossing that border from constructive irreverence into arrogance.

This past year, on a whim I gave Tim Ferriss another chance, and I’m very glad I did. Either I was wrong about him, or he mellowed out over time, or I mellowed out over time, or all of the above. My way in was flipping through Tools of Titans at a bookstore in Bratislava (the former deserves an honorable mention, the latter is actually on this list, farther down), which proved to be immensely valuable to me throughout the rest of my year. Tools of Titans is basically a collection of excerpts from the podcast, so I went to the source and listened to the podcast itself.

Lest you think it’s only of interest for young white tech dudes trying to get buff, check out the episode where he nerds out with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings about their respective systems for taking notes in books, or the one where designer Debbie Millman walks you through an exercise in visualizing what you want your life to look like, or the one with Neil Gaiman which just warmed my heart.

The reason I’m sticking with Tim Ferriss now is that he’s the only author/personality/etc obsessive enough about doing things well, for me to relate to. I actually have a hard time finding anyone else who is willing to go into enough detail for my taste. He is also by far the best podcast interviewer out of anyone I’ve heard (which is only maybe 5-6 others, but still). No one else comes close. He doesn’t go into an interview like, the guest is just here to push their new book/venture so let’s just summarize that over and over and be done with it. He goes into it looking to wander into a conversation the guest hasn’t had before even if they’ve gone on a hundred other podcasts–maybe going into their childhood, the darkest moments they’ve ever had, or their exact morning routine, or other life stories they haven’t told anyone else about.

He doesn’t let the guest dodge the question by being vague: “Haha. No, but seriously. What’s one thing you do every morning? Maybe you can tell me one specific thing?” He asks the followup questions that are begged: almost every time I think to myself, “Oh, now you have to ask him X,” the next thing he says is, “Okay, since you said that, my listeners are definitely going to want to know X, can you elaborate on that?” He makes it applicable to his listenership: “Let’s say someone has been wanting to get started [making electronic music / experimenting with ice baths / earning money from photography / whatever the guest does]. What’s the first thing they should do? How does it work?”

Thanks to all those little things and more, it almost always turns out to be a really engaging, detailed conversation and not a bullshit interview just to claim you had so-and-so on your show, like so many podcasts. Even if you don’t care about the content, it can teach you how to talk to anyone, which is to say how to be curious about anyone.

If you want to check it out, all 3 of the episodes I mentioned above are representative of what I describe, especially because the guests really go with the flow of what he’s trying to do. If you are a young white tech dude trying to get buff, there’s plenty for you there too! Just browse the episode list and you will see all the big names.


New sport I tried: Bouldering

“What made you decide to try bouldering?” my instructor asked me.

“I watched Free Solo too many times.”

This is true, but it’s only part of the reason. I watched Free Solo first, in late 2018, but my first climbing experience was actually ice climbing, in January 2019. While in Norway, two tiny Finnish ladies taught me how to top-rope up a frozen waterfall using ice axes and crampons. Hanging out alone at least five stories up a wall of ice, the people I came with reduced to tiny pinpoints way down below: that was the seed of the addiction. After that, I was ready to try indoor climbing.

In the town where I lived, I could choose between bouldering and rope climbing; there was one gym for each. Bouldering involves climbing short heights without a rope. It’s a bit simpler because you don’t need any gear at all, you don’t need a partner, and you don’t need any training (though obviously it’s nice to have a little bit). You can walk in, change your shoes like with bowling, and with some gyms (this was true of the one I went to), you can already do one or two of the easiest routes, which might require no more skill than climbing a ladder. Just like with bowling, you can pick up some tips from friends along the way. I liked the simplicity, but what clinched it was that the bouldering gym was closer to the office and to my house, and was slightly cheaper. There you go.

Once I was up on the wall, I discovered another reason I was drawn to bouldering: without any rope or equipment, your mind is left with a real, primal fear, even when the fall would be relatively tiny and harmless. Self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment is a whole ‘nother thing that’s real (if you don’t fall on your ass in front of strangers and friends, often, you’re probably not doing it right), but I’m talking about a deeper, non-social feeling, the vertigo from looking straight down the wall, the animal nervousness that if I slip, I might literally die. And I don’t even have a particular fear of heights.

But what I discovered that was much more unexpected was the countering belief: the sense of the state and position of my own body and how it’s currently balanced, that allows me to know: “Yeah–but I won’t fall. Not from this position.” And that conflict between primal panic and informed calm is an allegory for all sorts of things in life (see my previous post The downside of staying put, for one). Not only that, there’s the self-preservation that kicks in: “Falling is not an option. I can’t fall.” Which functions like a +20-50% strength powerup on some hard/scary moves that I wouldn’t have thought I was strong enough to make, because my body has kicked into survival mode. Just for the experience of one or both of these feelings, I think it’s worth trying out.

Speaking of strength, I am an exceedingly petite and physically not-strong person, but it turns out it doesn’t matter too much for climbing. Not having a lot of muscle just forces you into good technique, which will pay off in more advanced routes where dudes who have been muscling their way up will falter. See Ashima Shiraishi, petite Japanese-American girl who became a world-class climber around the age of 13.

I’m still very much a beginner and I don’t climb much these days; it’s just kind of time-expensive and sometimes money-expensive, and not a priority for me at the moment. But I still have my own chalk bag, which means I’m legit. And if you invite me, I will probably go.


Film director I got into: Jia Zhangke

Ahh. I discovered Jia Zhangke in the most unlikely of places: sitting at a cafe in the Netherlands, idly picking up a film festival brochure on the table and flipping through it. It was an international film festival which happened to be in town that week. (This happened more than once while I lived in NL. Are the Dutch just good at leaving timely film festival brochures in cafes, or do we also do this in the US and I never noticed?) So I looked for movies subtitled in English and not Dutch, so I could watch them, and the one that caught my eye was Ash Is Purest White, so I went to the movie.

What the work meant to me is easier to convey if I tell you that in my family, as in many Chinese families, there is no concept of an inner life or an emotional life. None. Just last year I told my parents that I found out the father of a friend of mine had committed suicide. Their response was, “But how could that be? He had plenty of money to support himself through retirement.” Reader, THIS WAS MY CHILDHOOD. Think I ever tell my parents, or anyone in my family, when I’m feeling sad about something? I don’t, and most of my other Chinese friends don’t either.

Chinese movies and stories historically have had plenty of emotion, but it’s mostly kind of hackneyed and over the top; if you were to actually act like any of the characters in such stories, your family would talk shit about you behind your back forever, until you die. Not an exaggeration.

In Jia Zhangke’s films (I’ve watched just a couple now and I plan to watch more), there is China, today, with all the transformation that is actually happening, and with the distinct sense of place and class and being from a specific region (like you can be Chinese and in an unfamiliar part of China you can still feel like an alien from another planet… kind of like in the US), and there’s a deep undercurrent of anguish and emotion, which is both real and expressed realistically, which is to say, pretty much not at all, but you can feel it. That’s the real shit. All the reasons in the world to feel loss and suffering, and no language to say it in.

In short, Chinese film in general is becoming a real, nuanced thing and not just the cheesy soap operas and martial arts movies I grew up with, and Jia Zhangke is a major influence. For a more general overview, I especially liked the documentary Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang.


Best book I read: Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante

As I wrote on Goodreads: “The best company the lonely soul of a writer could ask for.” (But if you haven’t read anything by Ferrante yet, I wouldn’t start with this one, I’d start with My Brilliant Friend, which I force on any and all friends who will accept a book from me. Amazon says I’ve ordered it 4 times; I know I’ve bought it in a store more than once; and I recently gave away my own copy so I don’t even have one anymore. My only copy is in Italian.)

But back to Frantumaglia. Why write? What makes it worth it? How do you know whether you have to or should? How do you know when it’s good enough, what does that feel like? Why publish, and what makes that worth it? Why not publish? What does it mean to publish? What’s the cost?

Who is the author? Does it matter? What does your childhood give you, or the place you come from, and how can you use that? What do life experiences give us, what does cruelty and suffering give us, what do our mothers give us?

What can writing do that film can’t? What does it mean to read a book? What happens when you read someone else’s book? When someone else reads your book? How do you let go of what you’ve written?

Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m really a writer. When I read My Brilliant Friend, I don’t feel like I’m a writer, I feel like that’s a writer. But reading Frantumaglia, I felt like a real writer. Like I’m part of a secret sisterhood of people who care about the same things and wonder about the same questions and quietly, wherever we are in the world, find a little corner and do our work.


Other best book I read: Adults in the Room, by Yanis Varoufakis

A memoir by the former finance minister of Greece, who in 2015 found himself with an impossible hand dealt to his country by the EU, tried to fight back, and details in the book exactly why and how it didn’t work.

When I was approaching my 20th birthday, I emailed my dad to ask whether he had any opinions on the following fields I was interested in going into in order to make the world a better place: international peace & security, economic development, or the environment and climate change. He suggested that I avoid the first two, because if I got deep enough into either one, I would run into corruption and other nastiness and would wind up unhappy.

The more I learn about the world, the more I get what he was saying. Adults in the Room really hammered it home. But the way I see it now, it’s more nuanced than what he made it sound like or the way I saw the world at 20: by and large, people aren’t evil, people are self-interested. The system isn’t evil, the system is impersonal. It’s too impersonal to keep itself from causing large-scale suffering, and it’s too complex for any one person or group to keep it from causing large-scale suffering. Varoufakis makes it clear from the first chapters that he sees things in much the same way.

Now I’ll quote from my own Goodreads review:

The past five days of reading this book, I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put the book down, when out with friends I was mildly impatient to get back to the story, and I learned more than I ever thought I would about the issues facing Europe.

I walked into the book as an ignorant American where the full extent of my knowledge of the EU was “it means I don’t have to change currency all the time when I travel through Europe” (seriously) (even though I have lived in Europe for over a year), and I now feel like I would be prepared to summarize, point by point, every economic proposal and negotiating strategy that was considered by Varoufakis & co.–which suggests a feat of teaching and of clear explanation that’s impressive on its own–but also, that I could summarize [the author’s understanding of] all the political considerations on the part of each player. Varoufakis is able to clearly and empathetically explain every one of his opponents’ positions, even the allies who backstabbed him, and what each has to gain or lose from a certain decision.

What transpires in the story is completely horrifying. But Varoufakis is the kind of writer (, person, economist, politician) who understands that economic policy can shatter people, and economic policy can also make people feel like life is worth living again. In a time when it’s so easy/justified to be a cynic, that kind of understanding can make you feel a little something in your shriveled little heart (speaking for myself, of course).


City I visited: Bratislava, Slovakia

This was a true discovery, as I’d never heard of Bratislava, and only went there to attend a polyglot conference that was happening there. The conference was just okay, but the city was a gem. Small, cheap, English-friendly, warm (as in charming, though the weather was nice when I went in spring/summer), walkable, bussable, with a surprising density of lovely food, comfy cafes (Turkish coffee and the selfie-ccino, where you can drink latte foam in the shape of your face or your dog’s face), the occasional terrifyingly stark Communist architecture / interior design, which you may or may not find funny (terrifying when you’re inside it, maybe funny later)… and, maybe most surprisingly, the best collection of bookstores with English books that I’ve found anywhere in Europe that I’ve been. Yes, perhaps better than Amsterdam. And that’s a major factor for me.

I felt it on the rainy day I spent bookstore-hopping and visited pretty much every one with English books in the city. In the morning I was in a tiny cafe-bookstore with about five tables, and bookshelves along the walls–at one point, just two of us in there, the barista-owner lady sitting behind the counter, and me at a table, each of us reading our own book, both listening to the perfect rainy-day-indie playlist over the speakers. (From which I discovered a couple of bands that I continued listening to for the rest of the year.) The afternoon I spent at a huge bookstore with an equally huge cafe (actually, two stories of cafe) where you can read the books without buying them, and I think you either press a button to order or they have servers walking around and you can wave them over. All I remember is I camped in a big comfy armchair with a pile of books for about three hours while servers came by dropping off multiple rounds of pie and tea. It could be worse.

Visiting cities for the first time, I often feel like a tourist, which means either shunned, or treated with fake niceness and servility that I can’t break past, or taken advantage of, or any combination of those. In Bratislava, I felt like a guest. Not fawned over, not judged or even really noticed, but welcomed with a run-of-the-mill, almost boring kindness, like a regular person. That’s the best way I can think of to describe it.


Best purchase under $100: a glass tea pot

(My glass tea pot was way less than $100, but I got this category/question from none other than Tim Ferriss, mentioned above.)

I’m all about small, inexpensive ways to make yourself feel rich and pampered. Want to know my #1 tip for this? Garnish your own food and drink. Fresh herbs on your food, a sprig of mint or a lemon slice in your drink, a piece of chocolate or a little cookie with your coffee/tea. If you’ve been my guest before, then you know. This is really important because if you get used to it, you’ll start to feel slightly disappointed when you go out to a restaurant or cafe and they don’t bother to do this. Which teaches you that no one else can give you the kind of attention and care that you can give yourself… which is one of the most important things there is to learn, really.

Anyway, for me, a glass tea pot falls into the same category. If you don’t drink tea, just think of it as a way to prepare and/or serve your beverage of choice (or even a food) that’s just slightly nicer and more restaurant-like or cafe-like than is strictly necessary. I don’t think I ever owned a tea pot previously, I just had tea bags to make individual cups, or at best, paper sleeves for loose leaf, still for individual cups.

With a tea pot, I could brew a pot and share it with a guest–there’s no better way to make someone feel comfy in your home. Plus, it’s pretty, and makes having tea feel like a real event. But I also sometimes used it for myself, even when just a mug and an individual tea filter would suffice. Because it’s fancy. On days like those, sitting down at my own table was like sitting down to work in the best cafe in the world.

Happily, I gave my glass tea pot to a friend when I was moving out, I don’t have it anymore. And I won’t own another while I’m nomadic, but the concept still applies. And it takes on a different twist when you’re not buying things for your own home, but working with what’s there in the place where you are staying.

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field notes, personal history

The downside of staying put

Deconstructing the risk in my previous life decisions. How I view risk and opportunity cost differently than many people.

Ever since I started telling people I was going to quit my job to write full-time for a while, there’s been one response I’ve gotten far, far more often than any other: “You’re so brave.

At which point I ask, “Why?”
“Well… because you might fail.”
“But what’s wrong with that?” I ask. “If I failed, I could just come back to tech, and it would be the same as what I’m doing now.”
“I don’t know.”

And that line of conversation pretty much ends there because I’m not sure how to respond. I’ve stopped asking “why?” when people say that, because it’s never really gone anywhere. But I’m still genuinely curious about why that’s such a common reaction for people to have. To think of such a move as brave. Especially because, when I think about it, it’s also been by far the most common reaction to all the major life decisions I’ve told people about in the past 6 years.

The truth is, when it comes to risk, I’m one of the most conservative people I know. I only decide to make a change when I see that there is virtually no downside. But as soon as I do see a very favorable opportunity–a decent possibility of large upside, with very little downside even in the worst case–I’m ready to make the change immediately. This is what’s known (in investing, and other fields) as an _asymmetric bet_, or _asymmetric risk/reward_. Maybe that tendency to go for such opportunities appears particularly decisive, fearless, or brave only because it’s relatively rare; people in similar situations, with similar opportunities, often seem to hesitate for a long time, or to never make the change.

I don’t gamble with my life. I count the cards. –Sekou Andrews

I would argue that there are situations, very common situations we all face at many points in our lives, in which it would be much more risky to stay put, to hesitate too long, keep doing what you’re doing, maintain the status quo. Cases where not making a change means losing out on a potentially life-changing opportunity, means ignoring doors open to you now that won’t be open again later, as well as leaving yourself exposed to hidden risks.

We always think of this false dichotomy where living true to yourself automatically means taking on more risk than not. I’m saying that in many cases, living true to yourself means taking on less risk than not. These are the easy ones and we should all be taking full advantage of these cases when they come along. They’re win-win, all upside, and they should be no-brainers. But it’s so common to assume that major changes or unconventional changes always mean more risk, without actually doing the analysis.

When we feel like the world is a dangerous place, then it seems like nothing could be safer than staying put. But for myself and many of my readers, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Diversifying your skill set and network (which means learning new things and working with new people) makes you antifragile (that is, able to adapt to and benefit from random events); failing to diversify leaves you in a very fragile position, exposed to any random event–anything from your company shutting down or you being laid off, to your home country becoming unstable. In the same vein, large companies that are slow to react to changes in an industry appear safe, but are also fragile.

As an exercise, I thought I’d go through my major life decisions of the past few years, the ones people most frequently labelled as “brave,” and deconstruct how I evaluated the risk of each one, and the potential upsides and downsides.


  1. Becoming a software engineer

The first of these decisions happened in a time when I was living at my parents’ house, tutoring SAT part-time. I really wanted to get a job that would allow me to move out of my parents’ house, so I decided to try to attend a web development bootcamp, as I had no programming experience, and to become a software engineer.

Let’s talk about the downside first.

A good question to always ask: if it doesn’t work out, can I come back to the current situation? In this case the answer was a resounding yes. Alas, SAT tutoring will always exist, and my parents are very hospitable people and enjoy having me around.

Another downside was time. Though with a bootcamp, it’s as short of a time investment as you can get: 3-6 months to get trained from scratch for a whole new career. Assuming I graduated, got a job as an engineer, and after a year or so decided I didn’t like it at all–that would still give me a lot of information and experience in a short amount of time. Plus, I didn’t have any other ideas.

Another downside was money. For a lot of bootcamps, just the tuition is a big risk (dropping $12-18k up front, at the time; something like $15-30k now, egad!). However, I was fortunate to find out about App Academy, which at the time only had a deferred-tuition model, where (other than a small deposit just to save your spot, which would be returned to you) you didn’t pay a cent until/unless you got a job as an engineer afterwards, and then you’d pay a percentage of your first year’s salary. Of course, I assumed I would never get accepted to App Academy, but as there was also basically no downside to applying, I applied, and to my shock and wonder, I got in!

So, there was almost no downside in terms of money. I say “almost” because there was some other money I would need to plan on losing: 3-6 months without my tutoring salary. As I made very little to begin with, I was fine with this. Another potential cost would be paying rent to live in SF during the bootcamp: but actually, I didn’t. At the time, App Academy let students crash on the floor of the office for free (not anymore, sorry!). Between that and the generosity of some friends who let me housesit when they went out of town, I didn’t have to pay rent during those months. So in that sense I de-risked the cost by sleeping on the linoleum floor of a giant office space for weeks at a time along with 20-30 dudes.

So, downsides were I’d have to give up a small amount of time, and a small amount of money, but I could definitely reverse the change and come back to the current situation. Now, the potential upside. It was all upside. I could get my first full-time job, doing something I knew I enjoyed and was good at, in a market where my skills would be in extremely high demand for a long time to come. I could go from making $20-25k a year (my best year tutoring), to over $100k (entry-level market rates in SF in 2013-2014). In less than one year. It was a no-brainer. I went for it, actually did collect all of that upside, and never looked back.

In retrospect, I lucked out: my timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was the best time possible to go through a bootcamp and enter the job market. In 2013, developer bootcamps had been around for maybe a year or two. So I wasn’t so early that bootcamps didn’t exist, or so early that I was in the initial, most experimental cohorts; but I wasn’t so late that the bootcamp world became saturated as it is now, which means higher tuition, government regulation (no more crashing at the office), and the job market also being saturated with candidates fresh out of bootcamp, which makes it harder to stand out. I wasn’t aware of any of that at the time. A combination of luck, and the fact that I made a decision and acted without delay, got me to where I am now.

Let’s look at the next big decision.


  1. Quitting without another job lined up

When I was at my second job as an engineer, everything was chugging along as usual, and then one day everything changed without warning: we were told the company was going to be acquired, by a major corporation, at the end of the month. We’d each be given our offer to join the corporation, and we had one week to decide what to do. If you declined, then you’d simply be out of a job at the end of the month, with very little severance pay.

My offer included a small raise, as well as a massive retention bonus if I were to stay a full 2 years. The monetary benefits (401k/pension, health insurance, etc) would also be more generous in every way. It was like money on money.

I had a few options:

Accept and stay 2 years for the bonus. I wasn’t at all interested in working for the corporation. But that 2-year bonus was more money than I’d ever pictured getting as a lump sum. That gave me pause. It would be really agonizing to turn that down. But it might be at least as agonizing to stay for 2 years, when I was already getting all kinds of signals that I wouldn’t enjoy it and that I wouldn’t learn as much.

Accept, but start looking for a new job, and then quit after finding one. The company explicitly said that it would be ok if we wanted to do this. Rationally speaking, this is probably what I would recommend to someone else. It would mean turning down the big retention bonus, but it wouldn’t result in a break in income, and I could take as much time as needed to find a job I liked better, AND I would be able to actually experience working for the corporation and decide what I did or didn’t like about it, rather than relying on hypotheticals. This is what a bunch of my colleagues did.

Unfortunately, I’m not so rational. I was mad about how the whole thing came about, and I felt like my arm was being twisted into accepting, and I hate that feeling. I knew that if I got into a situation where I resented going to work every day, then it was going to mentally poison me a little more every single day and start turning me into a negative person. And messing up my mental well-being wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.

Plus, if I stayed, then there was also the risk that it might be easy and comfy, and I might stay longer than I meant to, and lose that urgency to find a new job. So I started to consider a third option:

Decline the offer and leave at the end of the month. This would mean losing my income suddenly, without knowing when I would have a new job. But there were some benefits: being able to interview full-time was a big one. And the lack of income giving me a sense of urgency and focus.

Oh, and if leaving didn’t work out, could I come back? Technically yes, I think the corporation would have been glad to have me back, and I don’t believe in burning bridges; though for reasons of simple pride, as well as the aforementioned mental well-being, I thought it best to consider it a closed door. 😄

In the end, I decided on the third option, to decline the offer and lose my job. These were the factors that influenced my decision:

  • At that stage, just over a year into my engineering career, growth and learning were by far the most important factor for me. Any growth I experienced now would be a huge multiplier in the opportunities I would get later on, including opportunities to make more money. Putting that growth at risk at a crucial time, for 2 years, for a known sum of money, would be short-sighted: the money wasn’t going to compound at anywhere near the same rate as my value as an engineer.
  • I had enough savings to go maybe 3-4 months without a job. Given the job market at the time, and my background, I felt reasonably confident that I could get a better job within that time.
  • Rather than try to interview while also starting at what was basically a new company, on new projects, and still stewing in my emotions around the acquisiton, I could get a clean break and focus on what to do next.
  • Finally, I had this thought: The true meaning of “rich” is being able to walk away from the money. And knowing that I could earn it all back in a better way. Being trapped for the money is a position of fear, and I didn’t want to be the kind of person who is controlled by fear. And that’s what ultimately decided it.

On the whole, I felt that the downside of staying put was much worse than the downside of moving on. I walked away, I got a new job within about 2 months, I even got contract work during that time so that I actually had no break in income, and after 2 years, I didn’t regret not getting that bonus.

That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. All else being equal, the knowledge that, when it came down to it, I walked away from the money because I valued something else more highly, and I could do it again–that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Not everyone gets the opportunity to know that about themselves.


3. Moving to Europe

In 2018, I came to the Netherlands for the first time on a work trip, just to visit the other office of my company and get to know the people there.

Within days, I knew I liked everyday life here better than back in the SF Bay Area, in every possible way. The city (a small city in the north) is gorgeous; you pretty much can’t go anywhere without encountering canals, cathedrals, brick houses hundreds of years old, and lots and lots of green. The city is made for walking and biking. Commutes are mindblowingly short compared to any major city in the US: the vast majority of my colleagues walked or biked to work, and the absolute longest commute was probably around 20-30 minutes each way. Plus, I’ve just always felt at home in Europe.

All of these things contributed to an intense calm that came over me as soon as I arrived, which I had never felt before anywhere in the US, and which stayed with me for my whole visit. More than anything, it was that feeling that did it for me: I thought that if I could be somewhere where I had that feeling all the time, it would slowly turn me into the person I actually wanted to be. And that new person would be able to see new possibilities that I was completely blind to now.

It was remarkable that the idea to move here even occurred to me at all, as I had never lived abroad before or even considered living abroad, and in fact I hadn’t been planning to move out of the Bay Area… ever. I was born there, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life there, my parents live there, and I figured I’d just live there until I died. I guess I just needed the right thing to click, and then all my perceived walls around my old life fell away. I have some of my friends to thank for planting seeds in my mind that led to that click happening at just the right moment.

I floated to my employer the idea of me moving here. They actually had a greater need for my role in the Netherlands office than in SF, so it would be win-win, but the decision was totally up to me.

In retrospect, I think I’d already made up my mind within that first week, but I took another couple of weeks to try to come up with any objections.

Here were some of the thoughts going through my mind:

If things didn’t work out, could I come back to my current situation? Yep. I could move back, get my old job back, everything other than my exact apartment, basically, but it was okay, I’d already stayed there longer than I’d wanted to.

Almost every variable was known already. That’s what made it a lot less scary or risky than just deciding to move abroad without knowing what I would do. I’d stay with the same company, in the exact same role, I knew how it would go financially, I’d already met the whole team I would be working with, and they were used to helping expats move there, and the team would be my community. There weren’t any big unknowns.

I realized there was nothing more I could learn by spending more time thinking about it or doing research. Whatever remained that I didn’t know, I could only find out by packing up and going. So I went to my employer and said, “Let’s do it.”

Again, people said I was brave. Again, I didn’t understand why, because there was absolutely zero risk. And all the upside I mentioned above, including getting to live in Europe, a place Americans fantasize about getting to visit for two weeks every summer; and including literally becoming a different person. It was another no-brainer: I had run into the most amazing luck and all I had to do was say yes. Three months later, I was here.

Now I’ve lived in the Netherlands for just over a year (and loved every day of it) and I’m getting ready to leave again for my next adventure. But that first move paved the way for what I’m doing now, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated before I made that decision, except that I sort of did, when I had the vague feeling that making a change would open up more possibilities than staying put.

Looking back, the amount of joy I would have missed out on in this one year alone, had I decided to stay put, is staggering. And it kills me to think that so many other people have a thing like that–maybe it’s moving, maybe something totally different–but something amazing that they miss out on because of never actually evaluating the risk of making a change, and comparing that with the downside of staying put.


By the way, I really have to give a shoutout to my parents, for the way they reacted to each of these decisions, especially as I tend to decide without mentioning anything to them until after the fact.

When I came to them and said, “I want to do this program and become a software engineer in 3 months,” they were like, “Sounds like a good idea,” (which by the way was the first time I remember them ever saying that about any suggestion from me). And I was like, “Huh?? You’re not going to lecture me about it being obviously a scam?” But for some reason, they didn’t.

When I said, “My company got acquired and I didn’t want to go, so I went ahead and quit, and I’ll figure it out from here,” my dad said, “Oh… that’s not what I would have done, but OK. Good luck.”

When I said, “I liked it in the Netherlands so I’m going to move there, I don’t know for how long,” they said, “Good! You’re young, you should go out and experience more of the world.”

When I said, “I’m quitting my job and I’m going to take at least a year off, maybe more, and just roam around aimlessly,” they said, “Okay, do you need to ship some of your stuff back to our house?”

I’m really fortunate to have parents who would never in a million years try to talk me out of something because of their own desires or fears. And, it’s funny–neither would they ever say, “You’re so brave!” Rather, their stance is always, “By default I assume you’re making a reasonable decision based on what you know. Good luck!” If they don’t understand it then they ask questions. They treat even my more drastic decisions as perfectly normal and unremarkable, which now that I think about it, is the best reaction I could ask for.


I won’t go into detail about that latest decision here–leaving my job to travel and write–because it’s what I’m doing now, so you’ll hear a lot more about it in later posts. But a beloved mentor of mine had a similar reaction to my parents, upon hearing the news: “Oh, that’s wonderful. It makes perfect sense for you.” No comments on bravery, no questions that start with, “But aren’t you worried about…?”

And that’s exactly how it should be: in a perfect world, it would be not at all out of the ordinary for anyone to identify a new path in their lives that’s all upside and no downside, and when that opportunity comes along, to take that new path and never look back.

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field notes, languages, personal history

中文: the first 1000 characters

Rediscovering the forgotten advantage of rote memorization.

I recently reached the 1000th character in my deck of Chinese characters on Anki, my flashcard app. It seemed like a good occasion for a blog post celebrating the fact that memorization still works. By the end of this post, this pie chart should make sense to you:


i.

A couple of months ago I wrote a book review that’s now sort of “trending” on Goodreads–I happened to review the book the week it came out, and must have been one of the first. My review is currently tied for the most-liked review of that book. The book is Ultralearning by Scott Young, I gave it 2/5, and my review reads, in its entirety: “Just maybe 10x longer than it needed to be.” 😂

Still, it may be worth the money just to skim through Ultralearning and pick out what’s new to you. For me, it was worthwhile to be reminded of a few of the big components of learning. One is ensuring that you understand the big picture of what you’re trying to learn: the whys, causes and effects, overarching narratives, recurring themes, etc, without getting bogged down in details. There are lots of good tactics on how to do this.

But another big component is, at first glance, just the opposite: rote memorization. Drills. The weakness of my schooling, growing up, was that it focused on memorizing trivial things without any of that big picture context or critical thinking. No wonder we grow disillusioned as adults and ditch that whole system.

But more recently, I’ve hit a stage in my language learning project where rote memorization is really my biggest blocker. See, I’m currently working on Mandarin and Cantonese. But having grown up in a Cantonese-speaking household, and often hearing Mandarin spoken on TV (or sung in my Walkman CD player!), I’m in an interesting position as a language learner. I’m already comfortable with the grammar and pronunciation of both dialects/languages. I have everything you need… except for words. I just have a really small vocabulary, and need to learn lots and lots and lots of words.

I also never quite learned to read Chinese–which, to an even greater degree than learning meanings of words (which can be learned in context, like by watching more TV), is a matter of pure rote memorization. I need to learn a character, and know its corresponding sound(s!), including the correct tone(s!), and know its meaning(s!) and what words it’s found in. And just repeat that thousands and thousands more times. Yes, there are some patterns, so it does get progressively easier to learn new ones, but the patterns not very systematic. There’s no real shortcut. There’s also no real excuse for me not to do it, as it’s basically the only thing keeping me from being fluent.

(Digression: Okay, but who came up with this writing system, anyway?! Especially gems like these: 千 干 于 (qiān, gàn, yú, respectively), or these: 未 朱 失 (wèi, zhū, shī) which are the bane of my existence. Yes, Chinese characters hold layers of meaning and history. But the cost of that romanticness is that it’s also taxing as hell to memorize them and tell them apart. They are gorgeous. Gorgeous and annoying.)

Facing the imminent reality of thousands of characters to memorize, I thought back to earlier times when I’d relied on rote memorization and it had served me well. Before college, before high school, before all the failed learning strategies taught in school.. there was 6-year-old rory, trying to memorize the times table. 6 x 8 is 48, 6 x 9 is 54..


ii.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell has this theory about why Chinese kids end up better at math. (Caveat, I read this book like 10 years ago, so I may not have it exactly as he wrote it, but this idea stood out to me so much that I still remember it now.) Part of it is that Chinese numbers take slightly less time to say (already a questionable statement), and since the window of short-term memory is just a few seconds long, Chinese kids can fit more numbers into their memory, a slight advantage which compounds over time.

Lol. I suppose it could be a factor, but why do I think that I personally ended up better at math than the next kid? Because when the next kid was trying to learn the multiplication table, they invariably tried once, got maybe halfway, and then left to go play soccer or whatever. I practiced math, completing assignments from my dad, for hours, every day, including all summer. In the period of time when I was learning the multiplication table, I practiced it in both English and Cantonese, repeatedly writing out each row, then reciting the row out loud. Only when I had the 6’s row perfect was I allowed to move on to 7’s.

In case you’re wondering if this was a tiger mom / tiger dad type thing: nah, let’s be real. I had my bad days when I resented the whole thing, but overall, I loved it, even then. No form of learning in life since has been as satisfying as the education my dad gave me in those days. Because beyond multiplication, exponents, and algebra, my dad imparted to me a general principle for me to carry through my life: that the ability to use your own mind, to endlessly expand what’s in it and then call upon it when needed, that ability matters. And the next kid’s parents imparted to them the principle that it’s not really going to matter, because in the real grownup world we’ll all use calculators anyway.

The absolute best days at school were whenever we had a timed test for math. I’m not kidding. 3 minutes to complete 100 problems (where each problem was like “7 x 3”)… it was the performance of what you’d practiced, pure and simple, no bullshitting through it. You don’t get anything for finishing first–just glory. But I always aimed to finish first with 100/100. And I often did, except the year that I was in the same class as the new kid, Tyler, where we’d kind of alternate being first. No one else came close. Naturally I was deeply in love with him.

(A note of interest: it was common for tests to go up to 10×10, but I deliberately chose to memorize up to 12×12, because I was that kid–and I actually feel that being able to multiply 12’s is one of those little things that has paid off disproportionately well throughout my life, compared to the investment up front. So if you have kids or something, maybe have them go up to 12.)

So anyway, I’m disappointed that the same Malcolm Gladwell who also popularized the 10,000 hours idea (work > talent) would neglect a far more likely explanation for high performance–that kids who put in the work, and kids who believe that it matters, perform better–in favor of some fancy cognitive-linguistic storytelling. I feel like people who endlessly pontificate on the whole question of Asian kids and math are often turning a blind eye to the raw number of hours of focused work involved. In fact, once you get into the habit of seeing, in these discussions, the subtext of white Americans finding creative ways to rationalize away the idea of another ethnicity performing categorically better than them at something–rather than maybe trying to learn from it–you can’t unsee it. “It’s just ’cause X makes it way easier for them”; “but at least they’re not as good as us at Y”; etc. Reader, don’t be that person.

The point of this brief visit back to the 90s: Lots of things in life are less work than they seem. But some things are exactly as much work as they seem. Believe in your brain, believe you can put a lot of new stuff into it if you put in the work, believe that it matters, believe you can retain and recall all of it, more than you ever thought possible. If fewer and fewer people these days believe in memorization (as seems to be the case), that just means that whoever is using it will have that much more of an advantage. You’ll have your answer instantaneously, and it will be correct, while the next person is still reaching for their phone to open Google Translate or the calculator app, because they’ve allowed their beautiful mind to wither away.


iii.

That said, even rote memorization can be done far, far more efficiently than people have conventionally done it. That’s where spaced repetition systems (SRS) and Anki come in. I won’t go into detail about how SRS works, as there are tons of great explanations on the internet, including this one in the intro to the Anki docs. Basically, it’s a way of timing your flashcard reviews so as to maximize retention.

Anki is the SRS-based flashcard app that I use. Currently I’m using it just to memorize Chinese characters. I imported a deck of the 3000 most frequent Chinese characters and have been working my way through it for the past couple of months.

A really nice thing about learning Chinese is the existence of HSK, a widely used proficiency test that effectively standardizes the proficiency levels, along with the vocabulary you need to know at each level. Thousands of Chinese characters have an HSK rank (1 being the most basic/frequent, up to like 5000 or something). My flashcards include the HSK rank of each character, so I know approximately how advanced it is.

I want to point out that I’m not recommending this as the best way for anyone else to learn Chinese. Heck, it’s not even the best way for ME to learn Chinese. Most units of meaning in Chinese (beyond the basic stuff) occur in groups of 2 or more characters (let’s call them “words”). For example, 电脑, computer, which is a pair of characters: literally “electric brain.” I think it would be way more effective if I used a method that included words, and not only individual characters. But I’m lazy–too lazy to look for another deck–and stubborn, and I already have this deck, so I’m going to brute-force my way through it.

Now we can actually revisit the pie chart and what it means.

It’s a chart of where I’m at with all 3000 cards in the deck. “Unseen: 2000” means I’ve seen the other 1000 of the cards at least once. It doesn’t mean that I know all 1000 of those; I’m not yet able to consistently recognize all the cards that I’ve seen. “Young+Learn” are cards that I’m not yet doing consistently well with. “Mature” are cards I’ve been doing consistently well with for some period of time. “Buried+Suspended” is some obscure Anki stuff I won’t go into here.

I have it set so that each day, I get 20 new cards, and a bunch more old cards are up for review, up to a max of 200. It takes about 20 minutes a day total. The more recently I learned a card, the more likely I am to get it wrong in review, but the more likely it is to come up for review. Which means I get things wrong quite a lot, and some days (a lot of days) I start to feel really dumb.

BUT! I also already have 388 “Mature” cards. Meaning, I’ve already more or less memorized 388 characters of Chinese! It sounds like a lot, when you put it that way. It’s really comforting and also mindblowing to know that over time, if I just keep doing my 20 minutes of reviews each day, that “Mature” section of the pie chart will grow and grow, until it reaches 100%. And then I really will have to find another deck–or just switch to another way of learning new characters and words.

The little I’ve learned so far has allowed me to start texting my parents and friends/family in Chinese, which is one of those things I’d never thought would really happen in this lifetime.

So: Believe in your brain. And a little algorithm that helps your brain do its best work.


Further reading:

The book I was talking about, Ultralearning, also has a lot of good tactics for memorization. The entire chapter on retrieval is really important, especially because it’s really counter to how everyone (at least in America) thinks about effective studying. It’s just funny to me that our standards for how to learn have fallen so low that a book about basic, fairly uncontroversial learning practices gets titled “Ultralearning” and gets all this marketing hype around it. Like, the book should be called just “Learning.” 😂

Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm — nice lengthy backstory on how SRS was invented.

You Don’t Have A Foreign Language Problem, You Have An Adult Literacy Problem — a rant about how the Western world developed the mindset that Chinese/Japanese writing systems are hard, and how one might go about reversing that mindset.

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personal history

The 2019 Women’s World Cup and my identity as an American

Watching the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals (USA vs. Netherlands), as an American living in the Netherlands, who doesn’t really watch football.

Note: in keeping with global convention, in this piece I refer to the sport as “football,” as distinct from the sport known as “American football.” Except when I’m referring to distinctly American institutions.


Last weekend, USA defeated the Netherlands in the final match of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, their first time winning a World Cup final on European soil. As an American living in the Netherlands, this meant that the country I was born in won against the country where I currently live.

I hadn’t been watching or following the tournament, and in fact I’d forgotten all about the ability of something like football to connect humans of all stripes, until I ran into Oliver, one of the cleaners at the office where I work, as he was coming out of a conference room the other day.

“Oh hey, congratulations,” he said to me.
“Hm?”
“US women won the World Cup!”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Thank you.” I was aware that that had happened last weekend, but only in an abstract sense, having little to do with me.
“How do you feel about it? Being here in the Netherlands?” Oliver is from Mexico.
“How do I feel?”

I drew a blank. Not only had it not occurred to me that someone might congratulate me personally on my country’s victory in a sport I don’t follow, it had never occurred to me that that person might follow up with this question. And yet I did feel something.

“Are you proud?” he suggested.
“Yeah,” I said, surprising myself. “I am.”

What I actually felt, on top of unexpected gratitude at the goodwill of someone from a different country, was the surprise of memories bubbling up from long ago–altogether more than I could figure out how to express in that moment.

I guess this essay is the rest of my answer to Oliver’s question.


California, USA, 1999

If I didn’t know how to watch football before 1999, I probably learned how for the occasion of the Women’s World Cup of that year, which my parents started following on TV because China was doing well.

It was summer vacation, I didn’t have school. We’d just moved to a new house on the other side of town. I spent those days as I did every day of every summer: at home, by myself. Once I got hooked on the World Cup too, I had time to catch every match on TV, including the ones my parents couldn’t catch because they were at work.

The final was going to be USA vs. China, which would be a rematch of the finals in the 1996 Olympics, the last time the two teams had met on my family’s TV. That matchup was a sort of culture-refracting window through which even 11-year-old me could see the subtle differences between my loyalties and those of my parents.

Of course, I was American born and raised, and would root for America. But the Chinese team was the one full of people who looked like me, who looked how I would look when I grew up. Which said to me: Athletes can look like us, too. Not only like the bigger, taller white girls with ponytails. Growing up in the US, I’d already latched onto things that I felt differentiated myself from other kids–as a kid learns to do sometimes to not feel overwhelmed by the dominant way of being. The way I saw it, white kids could be loud, strong, dominant. But an Asian kid could be precise.

As for my parents, China was their country of origin, but the US was the country they had chosen for keeps. It was a complex question for them, too. If I had to try to sum up their stance, I’d say that they wanted the better team to win, and the losing team to have nothing to be ashamed of. In other words: Play your best, and don’t make any stupid mistakes.

On Saturday, July 10, 1999, the Women’s World Cup Final match featuring USA vs. China played out on the TV in our living room. My dad and I watched, absorbed, while my mom mostly did her usual chores and checked in every now and then. The agonizing scoreless match culminated in a penalty shootout that came down to the very last of the five rounds: Brandi Chastain of the US, who fired the ball past China’s Gao Hong and into the goal, winning the World Cup for the US women.

Of course I remember the now-iconic moment when her teammates sprinted down the field to swarm Chastain, who had torn her jersey off in triumph. Of course, it didn’t strike me as weird at all that she would do that. Who can know what it feels like to have just made that shot? What comes over you in a moment like that?


Only many years later did I hear of that moment again, that apparently it had stirred some controversy at the time, around the appropriateness of a woman removing a piece of her clothing in celebration. Sadly, by that point it came as no surprise to me that an expression of the purest joy of accomplishment, coming from a woman, would be met with tsk-tsking at some irrelevant aspect–the absurdity of that aspect being correlated with the magnitude of the accomplishment.

All these memories came floating right back to the surface, without words to encircle them after they’d lain dormant and wordless for twenty years, when Oliver asked me how I felt. I missed my chance to explain to him (and anyway it would’ve taken the rest of his shift for me to explain), but something about that exchange stuck with me. Over the weekend, I decided to watch a replay of the match he was referring to, the final match between USA and the Netherlands, even though it was a week after the fact and I already knew the outcome. I suspected that, just as it had when I was 11, the match would clarify for me my own feelings toward my country of birth and toward the country I now live in.

For one, I’d been surprised that I felt proud to hear that the US women had won. I only moved to the Netherlands less than a year ago–my first time living abroad–and I don’t intend to stay forever, and haven’t made a wholehearted attempt to integrate myself into Dutch culture. But, ever since moving to Europe, neither do I tend to express pride in being American. I’ve been very open about feeling troubled for America, for its viability as a livable country, for anyone.

On Saturday, I put the match on at home. As the players from both teams streamed onto the field, my feelings started to crystallize. Living in the Netherlands means that the Dutch aren’t some alien beings with weird names; they’re my neighbors, and some are my friends. I feel neighborly toward them, I wanted them to play their best, but I didn’t want them to win. The trophy, I wanted to be reserved for the US team, in no small part because of Brandi Chastain, I realized: because of a memory of triumph and joy lodged somewhere in my childhood. The fact that those 1999 finals became a part of me, grew up with me, and moved to Europe with me, is what makes the US women’s team my team, and not just the team from the same country that I’m from. Even if, of course, the team today contains none of the players who were on that field twenty years ago.

And, something else: in the time that I wasn’t paying attention to the sport, Megan Rapinoe, an openly gay woman, had risen to become co-captain of the US women’s team. When, two hours later, the US won the match (an excellent match, by the way, as far as I can tell), and Rapinoe held up the trophy in triumph as the face of the team, it occurred to me that this would probably make her the most famous women’s football player in the world right now. Though I’d never heard of Rapinoe before Saturday, that fact made me unspeakably happy.

My first crush on a girl ever in my life was for a girl at my middle school who was on the soccer team, who lived and breathed soccer. Of course she too had grown up with Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, all the (by that point) household names. This was two years after the 1999 Women’s World Cup. And she believed in me like no one else did then–as a friend, of course! My great, searing love went unrequited; I didn’t even recognize it as such. Having never seen any examples of women in love with women, I didn’t know any name for the thing that I felt. It would be years before her crossing into my life would be elevated from a source of shame to a thing of beauty, a thing to hold onto dearly and proudly for life.

So, that’s why it matters. The sport, this tournament, my watching it on a Saturday in July in the 21st century.

It means a person who is far away from his home country, as I am from mine, treated me with grace, even though people from my country inflict daily cruelties on people from his country.

It means an 11-year-old girl born to immigrant parents instantly grasps her own orientation toward the country she was born in, and her parents’ orientation toward the country they have chosen to adopt. It means that same girl, two decades later, can now grasp her orientation toward the country she decided to leave.

It means we’ve seen what it looks like for a woman to express the purest joy of accomplishment.

It means a teenaged girl has a name for the great, searing, mysterious love she feels for another girl.

It means, in these ambivalent times for my country, hope. Hope that we’ll don our jerseys, play on the field that the rest of the world is playing on, and shake hands with our opponents at the end of the day, no matter the outcome.

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personal history

(Re)learning to read in the 21st century

Learning how to read, forgetting how to read, and eventually learning how to read again, in an age where technology is systematically destroying our ability to focus.


1988 – 2000: Learning

I don’t remember too much about how I learned to read for the first time, but I remember a little.

I guess it’s a unique experience growing up as a native English speaker, learning to read from parents who are not native English speakers. My parents are from China; Cantonese is my other native language. (I can’t read Chinese. Yet.)

I remember struggling with the same quirks of English spelling that everyone encounters: sounding out mountain like “moun-tane” with the long a, then being annoyed to find out that it’s pronounced “moun-tin.” (Try this one: coxswain. Ridiculous!)

Not hearing English spoken at home, I had this persistent issue of not knowing which syllable should be stressed, an effect of my written vocabulary far outrunning the spoken: in kindergarten, reading the cover sheet on my homework packet which was meant for the parents: this week, we’re working on how to re-cog-nize shapes and patterns. That’s how it sounded in my head.

If you look closely, you can see that my kindergartener self was using a valid stress pattern found in other instances where re- means “to do something again”: re-fu-el, re-cov-er, re-learn. Re-cognize. But what does it mean to cognize?

Much later, the funny way I broke down words helped me understand them more deeply: when I learned the word cognition, the other piece of the puzzle clicked into place.

Once I got rolling, past picture books (Frog and Toad, Amelia Bedelia) and chapter books (Roald Dahl), my dad started assigning me one classic novel after another, from the Sherlock Holmes books to The Count of Monte Cristo. I welcomed these assignments (especially any that were seconded by Wishbone which I watched religiously), as they came from a place of genuine interest; my dad wouldn’t assign me any book that he wouldn’t read for fun himself, and he would never force me to read something, only recommend. I suspect he was grooming me to be ready for what I later found out was his favorite book of all time, Les Mis. (Still haven’t read it. It’s on my shelf.)

Most evenings, I had dinner with my parents at home. But every Friday night, my dad and I would go to McDonald’s, without my mom. We’d grab a booth, and I would pull out my book and he’d pull out his Chinese newspaper (Sing Tao, anyone?), and we’d just read for at least an hour over dinner. That was our quality time: reading together and not needing to talk. Like my dad, I preferred French novels to British ones, and didn’t read American novels at all. These books saw me through third and fourth grade.

By fifth grade, I was into sci-fi: Ender’s Game, the Animorphs. In sixth grade, something interesting happened. We moved to a different part of town, so I started sixth grade at a new school. I fell under the spell of a new friend, Nora, and for the next two years, I just read whatever she read. Thus she brought me into the realm of fantasy fiction written for adults: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, for one. Which at the time was 8 books long, each book a 600-to-800-page brick of paper. All year, we’d carry around these massive tomes at school (I loved the hardcover versions I got from the library; each was about the size of my torso at the time), and snootily read them during class, obviously too cool to participate in whatever the rest of the class was working on.

We ate, slept, and breathed the Wheel of Time world. That world was superimposed on the real world, more real than real life. I remember, one of those books towards the middle of the series, I read the entire thing in about a day and a half, and that day, I read for ten or twelve hours straight, barely looking away to eat or move from the chair to the couch and back. That intensity of focus was always typical for me when reading a book; that day marked the peak of my ability to sustain it. And there was nothing else I’d rather have been doing.

I was twelve. After that came the precipitous decline.


2000 – 2018: Forgetting

The year 2000 ushered in a new century, a new millennium–and of most pressing concern for me: middle school.

Middle school was very, very different. It quickly became apparent that one major difference was that attending middle school was going to seriously hamper my reading life.

For one, you no longer had the same teacher for every subject, all day long, for the whole year. You had 6 different teachers, and you might have 6 different ones the next semester. Instead of having just 30 students, each teacher had up to 150 or so, and they were no longer ready to make an exception for just one of those kids who preferred to read their own book rather than do the classwork.

In addition, the classwork, and especially the homework, though not much more difficult than that of elementary school, was a lot more time-consuming. I found I could no longer breeze through it, even if I already knew the topic. There was a lot of mindlessly copying out long texts, rewriting the whole question, and a lot of questions per assignment. That was the first time I recall thinking of homework as being a grind.

Finally, the way they taught you to read books in English class was the polar opposite of my natural reading style: you were supposed to read maybe 10-20 pages each day, and stop to answer a bunch of questions about the chapter and maybe take a quiz. Every day there was a mandatory reading period, where everyone in the school, in every classroom, would stop and read for 30 minutes. Reading was an incremental activity: a little bit each day would somehow turn you into an educated, well-rounded person. Like medicine.

It’s only looking back, nearly twenty years later, that I can see that, perhaps more than anything, it was that mindset that began to slowly dismantle my ability to read. Taking something I could happily do for twelve hours straight, and cutting it off at 30 minutes sharp. It was the beginning of interruption. Up until then, I read knowing I’d be transported: a few minutes to get into the zone, then–by the time I re-emerged, a few hours or half a day later, I might have experienced months or years in the story’s world. Now a novel became a collection of separate little pieces, to slog through over a month or more. And not something the teacher wanted you to experience, for love; but something to be shoved down your throat, for your own good. You performed best if you paid attention to the things the teacher wanted you to pay attention to.

I see parallels between this very structured, heavily mediated approach to reading, and modernity itself. Or industrialized society. You read in moderation, a consistent amount each day. Not too little, not too much. Imbalance would be bad. A book split up into 15 parts, assembly-line style, and read one part per day is assumed to yield the same value as the book read as one whole. Note the words yield and value: it’s not the experience of reading that matters, but what you can extract from it. And in terms of what you can extract from it, there’s no space for flighty things like emotion; you read purely for the almighty Theme. (Cheat sheet: for any given work, if the Theme isn’t “hubris,” it’s “the human condition.”) In this worldview, a novel is no more than a fancy vehicle for an intellectual idea.

I kept reading books outside of school for maybe about a year, then eventually slowed to a complete stop. I only read books for English class. If I tried to read anything else, I found I couldn’t get through it.

All of the above continued into high school. Actually, my grades in English class got worse every year. Don’t get me wrong, I made forays back to reading: closer to the middle and end of high school, I could be found at Barnes & Noble or Borders (RIP) every day after school, until dinner. I read a lot more than your average high school student. But I still read incrementally and distractedly, rarely able to really get into a book and finish it, the way I could as a kid.

One big influence at the time was Gilmore Girls, which I was introduced to when I was 17. Though it’s too bad Jess was never able to manage even the most meager of boyfriend skills, I maintain that Rory and Jess belonged together at least in soul, because Jess was the only one of her boyfriends who could read. Jess made reading cool again. He always had a book either in his hand or in his back pocket. And Jess didn’t read in 10-page or 30-minute increments. He read all day, as though real life were the interruption and he was impatient to get back to the life inside his book.

Jess even communicated through books. His first real interaction with Rory is when he steals her copy of Howl to write notes in the margins for her. Swoon! (Note: if you know me in person, don’t actually do this to my books, unless your notes are brilliant and the same edition is still in print (in case they aren’t brilliant).)

I read everything Jess read in the show. That’s how I got into the Beats: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs (somehow managing to skip Bukowski). The heroes of the other movies I watched obsessively–Pride and Prejudice, Good Will Hunting–also read all the time. Though I’d mostly lost my own ability to read–I read those Beat authors very, very slowly over many months–I too liked to carry a book around with me all day, hoping that if I played the part, I could get the feeling back.

I went to college. From the age of 10 or so, I had longed to go to college, and I assumed college would fix everything. But in fact, it got better in some ways and worse in others. We were asked to read whole books in a matter of days, by ourselves, without breaking them up, the way I used to do. By then that had become a pretty tall order for me, but I tried my best. There were highlights. Kierkegaard. Brian Greene. Authors who are incredibly rewarding once you get yourself all the way into their universe.

But at the same time, in some courses we were asked to read long academic papers every day. Or long books that were much less rewarding. All told, a quantity of reading that, in retrospect, was physically impossible to get through, at least with the kind of attention I applied to everything I read. Teachers would assign a dense 40-page paper to be read today, when it turned out they just wanted you to get the main idea of it. For some reason I failed to get it into my head that that was all I had to do. I wish someone had said to me: “and by read I mean skim,” and then taught me how to skim.

These assignments demanded different mechanics of reading than those in middle and high school–no longer “read a little bit each day for a lot of days,” more like “get the main ideas of this book/paper today”–but it was still about trying to extract the maximum value out of the text, for the minimum amount of effort invested. With the college approach, it’s optimal if you stay disengaged; no time to waste on following the author’s flow of language.

This way of reading was also completely alien to me. But instead of realizing it as such, I decided I was dumb and incapable of self-discipline: I just can’t read, like everybody else can. I’m not cut out for this. I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. But I muddled my way through, thanks to my writing ability, and did well in college.

That was around the time the iPhone first came out.

A decade went by. In adult life, with a full-time job, it turned out to be even harder to make time to read. When I did, it was almost always in the “medicine” way: trying to get myself to read a few pages each day, but unable to focus even then. And, on top of that, being unable to stick with the same book beyond the introduction or first chapter, before I got bored and wanted to start a new one.

In the meantime, our collective attention spans withered away to something like the attention spans of mice (or so I picture it). We became twitchy. I got my first smartphone and checked it 60 times a day. Communications became segmented into 140-character increments–either that or the size of a comfortably-proportioned text bubble in a messaging app. I’ve noticed a proliferation of contemporary books that read like one blog post, stretched out to fill 200 pages. Maybe because publishing cycles are shorter; maybe because very sparse, repetitive books are easier on the attention span.

My one saving grace was the New Yorker, which I’ve been a subscriber to since I was 21, and have read for a couple hours almost every week since then. It’s not the same as reading a book, but the articles are long, and they haven’t watered them down over time. I credit it with keeping my brain alive until now.

They say you really shouldn’t waste your life finishing books you don’t even like that much, because there are more good books than you can ever read in your short lifetime. And I totally agree with that. But I tried to finish each book I started anyway (and I still do today)–because I wanted to remember what it felt like to finish a book.

So rare now was that feeling of being transported that had been so commonplace for me when I was a kid. I only experienced it a handful of times in the intervening years; maybe just once or twice a year. What’s worse, I was pretty sure that the lack of those experiences was making me stupid, and had been for nearly two decades. Starting around 2016, my favorite way to spend a long weekend was to take the extra day, and try to finish a whole book in that day. The day I read The Argonauts in one sitting (in bed) was the best day of that whole year.


2019 – Present day: Learning again

My best guess as to what saved me is that those book-in-one-sitting days are self-perpetuating: after the first one, I wanted to do it again. And for longer. The more I carved out whole days to read, the more I started to remember: this is what reading feels like. This is how I used to read, this is why I used to read.

Carving out the odd vacation day, turned into carving out most of each weekend, is now turning into carving out a fair chunk of every day.

And it has to be a chunk of several hours. The incremental approach doesn’t work for me, because for me, reading is essentially a romantic endeavor, it’s all or nothing. And it’s nonlinear: reading for 4 hours isn’t 8 times as hard as reading for a half hour; it’s actually easier. Because reading for just a half hour a day means almost 100% of all my reading time is the crappy distracted part where I have yet to settle in, and that makes it hard to look forward to the next time. But reading for 4 hours is less than 20% the distracted part, and over 80% the fun part. And that’s the difference between having to read and getting to read.

If I want to fall in love with reading again, I’ll have to learn how to go about it the way I used to when I was last in love with it: make it a part of life, not something to sneak into the margins of life. My books are what send me off in the morning and what I come home to at night.

What I do these days: during the workweek, I don’t worry too much about it. If I can’t focus then I can’t focus. But weekends, as far as possible, I make no other plans, batch everything I need to do and get it out of the way, and then sit down with my cats and just read, planning to stay there for 1 to 8 hours. Almost always a print book. If it’s nice out, I’ll take a chair outside and read in my garden.

I usually have my phone with me. I don’t let it buzz anymore for anything other than a phone call. I let it light up with a notification pretty much only if a friend is texting me directly, not for emails, not for Slack.

I still get a little thrill when I hit page 100 of a book, because I know that if I’ve gotten that far, I can finish it if I want to. And page 100 only really takes about 3 uninterrupted hours, even at my relatively slow pace. In this way, I’ve managed to finish a book in a weekend, for a few weekends running now. Which is more than I could say for the past 18 years.

“You inquire my Books.” Mostly I just follow my curiosity, which can branch out in a hundred different directions. When I was trying to stumble my way back to reading last year, I read a lot of the fluffy self-help stuff, as it was the only type of book I could reliably finish. Accordingly my curiosity felt stunted. Now I’m starting to work my way back to stuff that’s more substantial, slower-paced, often older. I find pacing isn’t so important unless I’m in it to extract information, or unless I have attention problems. Slow is good, because it’s about the company.

Giving it the kind of attention that befits a passion, I can finally hope to return to the kinds of books I knew how to read as a kid, that I considered out of my reach until now: Proust. The Russians. And, one day: George Eliot, Robert Caro. Les Mis. Not that everything has to be long. But that long doesn’t have to be impossible.

Usually people talk about learning how to read all over again like after a stroke or some sort of brain trauma. Of course, I’m not talking about the same thing. But no joke: it’s worth considering what kind of damage has been done to our brains by the way we live now. What abilities we’ve lost, or, for some people, what abilities we’ve never gotten to experience at all.

When I settle in to read now, it’s like getting on an airplane. Take-off takes some time, it can be bumpy, sometimes it’s delayed for an hour on the runway because you’re puttering around distracted by this and that.

But, eventually, when I stick with it and settle in: flight.

Exactly as I remember it.

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personal history

Postcards from Italy

Why name my blog after the Italian postal service?


As some of my friends know–those who have either received a postcard from me, from Italy, or those who failed to receive one that I tried to send–I have a nuanced relationship with the Italian postal service, known as Poste Italiane.

This is what happened. When I was in Rome last year, I wrote some postcards to friends. I wanted to mail them. So I went to the post office in Rome. I took a number and waited around. When it was my turn, I asked if I could buy stamps, and the guy was like, “Oh, we don’t sell those here.”

Huh? Apparently in Italy the post office is for paying bills and stuff… not so much for, you know, postal services. The guy directed me to the tabacchi, or tobacco shop (actually like a convenience store), next door.

I went to the tabacchi and asked for stamps for the US. The guy sold me some stamps. They looked oddly slick and commercial, not like any country’s postage stamps that I was used to seeing, and they had the name “GPS” on them, but I shrugged it off (stamps are stamps, non?), put them on the postcards, and dropped them in the nearest Poste mailbox.

In Florence, I went to a different tabacchi and bought a few more stamps. These also looked oddly slick, and said “FriendPost” on them, and the guy said explicitly to only drop them in the yellow FriendPost box outside the door of his store.

At this point I got suspicious and started googling GPS and FriendPost. Apparently there exist private postal services in Italy, postal services that are not the official national one, Poste Italiane. To use them, first of all you have to put your mail in the right box to even have a chance (so my GPS-stamped postcards in the Poste Italiane box were DOA). But even then, according to the internet there seems to be a pretty low chance that your mail will make it to its destination.

Okay, so forget FriendPost. I just wanted to use the same stamps that people who live in Italy actually use. (Is that so much to ask??) I googled how to do this, as well.

First, I figured I’d have to ditch the tabacchis in the touristy areas and just try the one in the neighborhood where I was staying. Where it was likely they’d speak only Italian, and I, being uncharacteristically ill-prepared, hadn’t learned a word of Italian before I landed in Italy.

The next day I mustered up my courage and went down to the tabacchi across the street. Behind the counter and a veritable wall of newspapers and magazines was a kindly-looking elderly lady with long gray hair.

“Buongiorno,” I said.
“Buongiorno.”
“Do you have stamps for Poste Italiane?”
“Non capisco.” I don’t understand.
Hmm. “Eh… Francobollo?” Stamp?
“Sì.”
“Poste Italiane?”
“Sì.” She asked something else, which I didn’t understand. But then she made a flying gesture, with her hands as wings travelling across space, and I got it: where are they going? Dove?
“Ah! USA.”
“Sì.” She walked over to a shelf, pulled out a thick binder, flipped through it, and produced, to my great relief, much more official-looking stamps.

I marvelled at that brief moment of understanding, and the work it took to get there: how far you can get with making do, with the give-and-take of two people actively trying to understand each other, even without a common language. How much more we could relate if only we tried as hard when speaking the same language. I kept the stamps safe until I mailed every postcard, including those rewritten from memory to recreate the ones I lost in Rome.

For some time I wondered if the extreme non-user-friendliness of basic functions like mailing a postcard, or taking the bus (compared to the equivalent in e.g. the Netherlands), might actually be a form of subtle resistance to tourists and other outsiders. If you’re a local, everything seems obvious; otherwise, everything seems unnecessarily difficult. If it was true, I thought, I had to admire it.

“Nope,” said an Italian woman I met much later when I shared my hypothesis with her. “No, it’s really just that disorganized. For native Italians too.” So much for that.

Even after properly mailing the postcards, we weren’t in the clear: the Italian postal service is famously slow and unreliable. In the end, I think about half of the postcards made it to their destination. I only sent a handful. (As a friend of mine went to Italy with me a few weeks ago and sent a bunch more postcards, I’m looking forward to the additional data.) I was sad about the lost postcards, as I’m sad to lose anything I put together by hand, but as I fell deeply in love with Italy on the same trip, I resolved to love it, in spite of its flaws–or maybe even because of them.

Accepting the uncertainty of the Poste Italiane, and sending my postcards anyway: that’s the essential spirit of this blog. For most of my life, I have been hesitant to publish anything, try to communicate anything, that I wasn’t sure would connect. Now I know: you can never be sure. You just can’t know. And what is meaningless to some people resonates perfectly with others. So send it all, and see where it lands.

There’s going to be a lot of communiqués flying around on this blog, about everything I’m interested in, which is a lot of things. Not everything I write will mean something to everyone. But if something I write means something to someone, then it’s worth it.

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