Yesterday (or rather, two days ago) was the saddest Fourth of July ever—and probably the only reason I found the time and energy to begin this post.
When you spend entire days working by yourself, you start to realize that even as an introvert, you need to have some amount of social activity. I typically enjoy time with friends over meals, movies, or movement (i.e., sports). But strangely, all my usual friends were gone yesterday—one was in Mexico, quite a few were in Hawaii for a wedding, another on the East Coast, one in L.A.—and Facebook was unusually quiet. Having completed milestones on a couple of projects a few days ago and finally having had the chance to put in some solid hours on my business product, I had done as much work as I could handle for the time being, and by dinner-time, I had essentially run out of things to do. That just does not happen. I wanted to watch fireworks in the evening, but had nobody to go with. So I ate all by my lonesome, and resolved at that moment I would have a relaxing night by myself, pop in a movie, and then perhaps do some writing. Which is why you are now reading this.
If you haven’t figured it out yet by my Acknowledgments, I uploaded my thesis on Friday, August 30, 2013. The days following its submission was rather anti-climactic. I had expected to feel exhilaration, a surge of energy, an explosive elation at the shattering of the bonds of doctoral obligation, a fantastic flight of the spirit freed from the confinement of lab. I had also expected my accumulated sleep debt to be called in all at once, and be knocked out for a number of days. Neither happened.
There was no thrill; there was no collapse. Life just went on. I didn’t do anything crazy—binging on movies for a week, or hiking all the trails in the Peninsula, or stuffing my face in uninterrupted feasting—in short, indulging in pleasure à la Qoholet—I didn’t do any of that.
Instead, since I had piled all of my boxes into my friend’s apartment two weeks prior due to the poor timing of the termination of my university housing contract, I now needed to transport them up to my new room in a house up in San Mateo, where the neighborhood was quiet, the rent was cheap, and the housemate was Roy, a friend of mine from my old church in Daly City, which I finally left. Ironically, I was much closer to Daly City living in San Mateo than when I was at Stanford, but I really enjoy the depth of preaching, the rich and edifying music, liturgy—oh and unbeatable weather—at Grace Pres. There’s just not a lot of [single] Asians.
While living in San Mateo, I commuted to Stanford nearly every day. I mean, San Mateo was all right. The rent was cheap, and I liked that. But I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s life, so I ate out most of the time. Don’t get me wrong—the family I lived with was generous and friendly—a nice Chinese couple whose children have moved out—but the place never felt like home. I had not enough space to work or to sprawl out my belongings. My room hardly saw any sunlight and the house did not retain heat very well. And I hardly saw Roy. So I stayed in San Mateo for the six months required by the lease, and moved southward.
I visited home about three times in those six months, each time staying for at least a couple of weeks. I hadn’t been able to spend that much time with my parents since the early years of college. Plus, I missed my mom’s cooking. I tried working on my business, but I had trouble concentrating, and spent a lot of time just hanging around the house, distracted. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I spent my time doing. Was I still recovering from the mental strain of Ph.D.? Even so, I kept extending my stay despite my unproductivity, since I had no real obligations but to myself. Eventually, I felt I was wasting too much time, and felt compelled to come back to the Bay Area to regain focus and spend uninterrupted time on my business.
In March, I moved to Mountain View with my college friend James, who came back to the Bay Area from New York to be with his fiancée. We found a pretty nice place within walking distance to the San Antonio Shopping Center, and we’re virtually on the same street as our friend. Our landlord, who was easy to get along with, renovated the place before we moved in, so we essentially got a new bathroom, newly-painted walls, new carpets, and new double-pane windows. They face south, so we get a lot of light and warmth during the daytime. The neighbors are friendly. The sun is shining, and all’s well with the world…
For once, I felt settled.
I have not written anything substantial lately because of—you guessed it—work. Earlier this year, my business was slow and I was still struggling to regain my focus, so when other part-time opportunities cropped up, I eagerly accepted them. I generally have a hard time saying no, and watching my savings slowly trickle out was a little bit unnerving, despite planning for it and knowing that I can live off of it for a few years. I also wanted to diversify my portfolio.
In fact, I’ve had this new idea about startups for a while: what if people got together and agreed to work part-time on something? Then each person can be the co-founder of multiple start-ups. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, that one has to invest one’s life into a startup. Frankly, I am skeptical of conventional wisdom.
The way I view it is like this: timing and execution are the two main ingredients of success. The former is not something one can easily control (might as well just call it “luck”). As for the latter, unlike investing capital, the return on time is highly unlikely to be linear. In a startup, if you put in 20% of the time, you could conceivably achieve 80% of the results. If indeed the Pareto principle holds true, you can multiply your ROI a few times. At the very least, you can choose the more promising part-time start-up, and make it your full-time thing. I’ve probably oversimplified it, but it’s definitely an idea worth exploring.
Anyway, I’m currently working on my mentoring business (main project), another part-time startup, some customization work for a client, a part-time project at Stanford, and some contract work making fire evacuation maps, all the while also trying to keep a foot in academia by co-authoring a book chapter and trying to publish a second paper. I would love to be faculty one day, but I would also love to be Bill Gates.
At first, all of this was manageable. Unfortunately, with the approach of their more-urgent deadlines, the side projects started taking up much more time, at the expense of my business. I may have traded long-term gains for short-term profit, but from another point of view, the side projects count as fundraising and skill development (three of the four side projects involve web programming).
Amidst all of this busy technical work, I realized how much I missed drawing and reading and playing music. It’s interesting that after spending so much of my life pursuing engineering, I think at heart I’m still an artist. Not that I am great at any of the pursuits I mentioned, but I enjoy creating things and trying to make them beautiful. At least, that’s how I define Art—the crafting of something intended to be beautiful. Otherwise, it would just be a Statement, although, there is no reason Art cannot make a Statement or that a Statement cannot be beautiful. Semantics aside, I do enjoy drawing, building, and yes, even writing.
Part of this realization comes from persistent exposure to the teachings of a number of pastors I highly respect—Tim Keller, David Jones, and especially Britton Wood at RUF at Stanford—concerning the nature and purpose of work, which have 1) given me peace about how crafting things is indeed glorifying to God, and 2) elevated the status of arts in my mind; we commonly hear the humanities disparaged among technologists because engineering is more “practical” and “useful” and higher-paying, but it says something about the stability and flourishing of a culture and a society when people can afford to produce art and ponder deep questions at length. Although there certainly is some overlap between engineering and art when it comes to design, the humanities encompasses those metaphysical questions that engineering wasn’t designed to solve and the scientific method wasn’t designed to satisfy, of life and meaning and purpose and ethics.
I am reminded of a particular quote that I think is apropos to my situation. In a letter to Abigail Adams, John Adams writes, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” He continues, “Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” In his view, diplomacy and science are the means by which a society becomes free to produce cultural products. The epitome of civilization then is reaching that ideal of a reigning peace, in which beauty can be fully explored and safely expressed.
In the same way, I feel like I am doing contract work so that I can run my business in peace, and I am doing business so that one day I will not only have the means to pursue scientific discovery and artistic creation without worrying about my creature comforts, but that I will have the means to help shape a world that paints and writes and composes music unencumbered by the shackles of poverty and oppression. Maybe that’s too lofty of an ambition, too presumptuous of a dream…
The other major reason I have not posted much of substance lately has to do with learning wisdom. I have had several articles in the pipeline for more than a year now, a few of which have been near completion for some time. But a certain doubt has held me back from publishing them. I have been waiting for something to click, something to fall into place—perhaps a unifying insight, or a greater conviction that what I was writing was right. And while waiting, I have become more aware of how much I still don’t know.
But I can feel that I’m learning, refining the mental model I have of the world, the nuances of multifaceted issues. I’m learning to be more forgiving, to be more empathetic. I hope that this will be reflected in my forthcoming pieces.
I’ve also been reading more lately, particularly in the genre of business and self-help books, such as from Carnegie, Blanchard, or Scott Adams. In a CEO training class, I’ve heard that learning by experience is not fast enough in the context of becoming a top CEO—the trick is to actually read books. In an age where many people discount books in favor of experience (as if “book learning” is relegated to the abstract and academic), it is refreshing to know that my contrarian views find support among the top leaders. After all, what are books but collections of experience and distilled wisdom? (Well, the good ones anyway. I only read the good ones.)
One particular insight I’ve come across that stuck with me was expounded by Scott Adams in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Here, he touts the advantage of following systems over pursuing goals. In his words,
To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goals-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you.
If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and renter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure. (Chaper 6)1
According to Adams, when one is pursuing a goal, s/he is by definition failing until that goal is attained. It also means that if one doesn’t attain one’s goal, it becomes permanent failure. But if we create effective systems (such as, “eating right” instead of “losing 10 pounds”), then when we eat right, we are by definition succeeding, regardless of how many pounds we’ve lost, encouraging us to continue on that path. One is an objective; the other is a regular practice, and if our systems are good, then they will eventually lead us to a satisfying result (hence the title of his book, presumably).
In terms of my own life, I’ve been trying to exercise weekly, and to put in solid hours of work almost every day. It doesn’t matter what features I complete, or what projects I work on (within the constraints of the deadlines set by my clients, of course). I know my work time is productive, so I know that if I put in a solid number of hours, it will eventually pay off. Other systems in my life include attending social events when I can, and looking for opportunities to practice conversing with strangers.
All-in-all, life has been in upswing for the past few months. I’ve been getting plugged into Grace, soaking up the teaching and spending time with my community group in fellowship. I’ve started exercising more regularly, meeting new people, working on my social skills, and developing a rhythm in my work life. For sure, there have been moments of dejection and failure and regret, but I’m starting to take the long view and learning to trust in the character of the One who upholds me.
1 I have the Kindle version, so I cannot cite the page number.