An Eraser and a Broom

Summer 2015

One of the unexpected benefit of writing these essays is that every year I get to relive the emotions from the past year. In fact, I’d already forgotten it was a pretty rough year. I was having a pretty tough time dealing with the robotic work life. Although my circumstances haven’t changed much, I slowly realized that I was indeed mired in a messy web of negative attitudes and high expectations that constantly weighed me down. Slowly, I learned to let go. So I picked up two things that I knew I had: an eraser and a broom. I’ve been using the eraser to unlearn the things I wish society hasn’t taught me. As for the broom, I use it to fly.

I still remember a Huffington Post column from 2013 with illustration highlighting why Gen Ys are so unhappy. The creator of this piece speculated that because Gen Ys are raised to believe that they’re more special than all other Gen Ys, we often feel inadequate if we don’t stand out in a crowd full of our peers. With most Gen Ys feeling this way, the author correctly noted that Gen Ys are delusional and their expectations defy the meaning of ‘special.’ Fast forward to 2015. David Brooks wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled “The Small, Happy Life.” There’s a line that struck a chord so deep within my heart,

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ [emphasis mine] This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Every time I reread this phrase, the sound of it still sends waves through my brain like someone hitting a small bell inside my head.

We do not all have to shine.

While I still haven’t fully convinced myself of this yet, the phrase has helped me to let go of my rigid definition of impact and find a new angle to approach my life’s work. It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that I probably wouldn’t be happy unless I’ve changed the world somehow. That’s a tough ask. So redefining impact became something I knew I have to do. Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of connections for a while; I just never put it on paper—a virtual one in this case. The idea is that in our seemingly random world, there is an extreme complexity and interconnectedness to all things that take place. You, as but one in billions of nodes that interconnect, are influenced by a multitude of people, circumstances, events, and perhaps destiny. Your identity today is a consequence of the fateful convergence of these potpourri of agents that happen to find a way to you in this vast universe. Maybe it’s just me, but it cannot all be random. Think about a mentor you have. (Yeah yeah, I have so many mentors blah blah blah. Pick one.) Think of how you were connected to him/her. Think of how you were connected to that connection. Then think again about how you were linked to the connection of the connection. Keep repeating this exercise a few more times. What dawned upon me after I did this exercise was that maybe at 5 or 6 degrees of separation out, there was a seemingly simple or unimportant incident that really was an integral part of the interconnectedness that led me to the discovery of my mentor. So in retrospect, many things were a lot more impactful than I thought they were at the time. In other words, to have an impact, perhaps it is more than enough to just be one’s best self all the time and keep helping others, be it through introducing new connections or sticking with them through desperate times.

Step by step, I’m erasing my need for validation. I’m erasing my need to always be doing something productive. I’m erasing my desire to be known. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not easy. This cleaning process will likely take multiple erasers over multiple years, but I’m glad I took the first step. For now, I’m allowing myself to play games and watch television without feeling too guilty. (It’s still really hard.) Perhaps I’m not meant to change the world. Perhaps I am. But maybe it doesn’t matter. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, as long as you continue to follow your bliss, the universe will open doors where there were only walls. I used to focus on that one door that I believed embody greatness, but the right door for me may lie elsewhere. I’m going to continue searching—one step at a time.

What’s been troubling is that sometimes I can get overboard with the eraser and remove some of the habits I value. Right now, I feel myself drifting away from the many elements of spirituality that I believe in. I haven’t been engaged in any mindfulness practices in a very long time, and I’ve noticed my impatience, restlessness and irritability take seed inside me. Although I’ve known this for a long time, I haven’t yet found the strength to recommit to the practice, and there’s absolutely no excuse. Here’s hoping there’s a change coming up ahead.

Now, what about the broom?

There’s so much of the world to see. Travel makes me feel grounded. Every time I travel, I feel small. The more I travel, the more I realize how small we are, and how many of us are here. The diversity of our planet is immense and awe-inspiring. I’ve learned so much both about myself and the world through interactions with others, both personal and through observation. There is so much to gain from traveling, and it was a no-brainer to just let myself fly—literally and metaphorically.

This year, my wanderlust has taken me to many corners of the globe. From the glaciers of New Zealand to the aurora borealis in Iceland to the scuba diving paradise of Sipadan to the beautiful ancient city of Bagan in neighboring Myanmar, the world never ceases to amaze. I’ve seen and heard countless examples of people working too hard when they’re young and missing the prime opportunity to see the world. This is something I work hard to avoid. Now, free from any large family or work commitments, I have to let myself fly. Next stop is Antarctica early next year. Let me know if you want to join J

While I must acknowledge that I’m tremendously privileged to have the financial means to do so, it also comes with hard work. Travel doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think, especially if you spend time to “travel hack.” Since junior year, I’ve travel hacked my ways to multiple free flights and hotels, stretching my means to the maximum usage. Travel hacking was easy to do in the United States, albeit with discipline and patience. So I guess I was blessed to be resourceful enough to travel hack, and lucky enough to be in the right place to do it. Perhaps this applies to many things in life too; to accomplish a task often requires careful manipulation of the resources you’re given, and learning to be creative in the management of the cards you’re dealt with can pay huge dividends. Now, there are times where the cards you are dealt with are just so godawful that you just have no play at all. That’s what’s happening to many people in our society today—a topic for another time.

‘Flights’ are not limited to physical destinations; flights of the imagination are fair game for me this year too. I’ve allowed myself to entertain the possibilities. What would it be—a renowned professor who inspires multiple generations of students, an activist fighting for equality, or a travel blogger perhaps? A man can dream. These dreams are like food for the soul, but on the other hand—spoken plainly and truthfully like an INFJ can—they are dreams. Taking flight to these destinations can be wonderful, but as mentioned earlier, I have to be careful not to lose sight of the fact that the flight itself—not just the destination—can make life fulfilling too.

So much has already happened in less than a quarter of a century. I’m curious how my story will end. I have this gut feeling that I won’t be living very long. This is not meant to be a morbid statement; there is simply no way to tell when death is coming, and also no way to avoid it.  Long or short, I think it would be cool to write a memoir! I’ve toyed with this idea for quite some time, because I’ve really found joy in being able to compose these yearly/biyearly updates. Yet, to be quite frank, while the storyteller in me just wants to write a memoir because human stories are so fascinating and deserve to be shared, I know that the ego in me just wants the validation from a memoir that reads well. The latter is not a good reason to write a memoir, and I hope that voice will subside with more practice in mindfulness and gratitude.

As you can see, there’s still quite a bit for me to work on. I think I speak for everyone that the ideal ‘me’ is forever a work in progress, which makes it all the more important to marvel at the growth you’ve experienced as well as the quirks and flaws that define humanity. While I’m not satisfied with who I am today, I’m learning a lot and I’m equipped with the capacity to change. So it’s onwards and upwards from here.

This year was a year for the eraser and the broom. Perhaps I can pick up a pen soon.

And oh – I hope you do the same.

P.S. Let me know how you’re doing!

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