Frumpy frog in water

frog.jpeg(I wish I could write about world events, or history, or science…but recently all I can muster is more angsty musing on myself. You’ve been warned.)

Before I moved to London, I read Marie Kondo’s book on organisation and minimalism, and I’m ashamed to say…I used her powers for evil. Instead of curating a small universe of carefully selected and cared-for items, I curated a collection of lovely things…and then never replaced anything as they inevitably wore out. There are lots of excuses for this: stress, loneliness, hatred of shopping in London, the financially-devastating-but-ultimately-life-making decision to take a gruelling, low-paying academic job to be closer to my person, etc.

Over time, everything got duller, thinner, more worn down…and I carried on. Three of your 10 shirts became too dilapidated to wear in public? No problem! You have seven shirts left: one for each day of the week! Ran out of make-up? No problem, just wear less and stop looking in mirrors. No hair dryer? Just used your partner’s 10-year old mini travel hairdryer. Don’t like your hair? Just throw it in a bun always and pretend its not happening.

In parallel to this, I started travelling frequently (the kind where you only ever have time to remove clothes from the suitcase, clean them, put them back, and go). Full days on airplanes, exercise foresaken, love of making veggie-ful dinners after work stamped down….

For a while all of this is fine. Until one day, 18 months after I’d Marie Kondo’d the shit out of my life, I realised that I hate the way I look and feel. It may sound ridiculous, but I owe all of my thanks for snapping me out of this slump to Queer Eye.

What I thought would be a fun show about makeovers was actually about personal transformation, and about the connection between physical self-care to mental self-care. Now, I no doubt am touched with depression…can’t manage to follow through on most things, good feelings are muted and bad feelings are on full-volume, and my motivation to take care of my body/appearance is pretty much gone. I can’t deal with all of this at once, but what I can do is take physical self-care seriously as an intermediate step.

I’ve started exercising. I’ve started eating a healthy breakfast, and making smaller and veggie-ful dinners. (I’ve lost 6 pounds in a few weeks without too much work, and my pants fit again…) I’m forcing myself to buy one item of clothing every other week (socks and underwear don’t count). So far, I’ve purchased two shirts (albiet the same shirt in two colors…) I am taking care of my skin with a proper cleansing and moisturising routine. I just bought make up.

I am taking baby steps out of the near-boiling pot of water, and probably unsurprisingly, each day I am feeling a bit more positive.

 

Professional Pride

Happy Nowruz! March 20th marked the beginning of Spring and rang in the Persian new year. During Nowruz, family and friends gather around a spread laid out with 7 items that start with the letter “seen” (س) and represent things like life, vitality, reflection, health, abundance and so on.

I did it wrong. No family. No spread.

Instead my brain was cycling through its usual panic about what consistently feels like the wrong career track – and the sacrifices made to be on that “wrong” career track (see above – no family, no spread). I’m honestly not sure any other career track would’ve made a difference in my revulsion towards my professional identity. I feel that I would’ve found some way to be a contrarian regardless. Still, when my brain is doing this marathon, I can’t help but wonder,
“what if?”

What if I had become an engineer or a doctor. You know, a real profession. One that is easily recognizable as being important and contributing to society. One that has a sense of community and belonging associated to it. (I know, I know. It’s not that black and white. But I barely control this thought process once it gets going).

My favorite human was recently inducted into a real profession. My little sister is all grown up and calling herself an engineer – iron ring and all. Canadian-trained engineers all get presented with an iron ring in “The Ritual of Calling of an Engineer.” The ring is small, rough-edged and worn on the pinky of the dominant hand to symbolize “the pride which engineers have in their profession, while simultaneously reminding them of their humility.” Wikipedia has more on this. The ring ceremony involves an existing engineer presenting the ring to a newly-minted one. My sister’s ceremony was on Sunday. She’d been excited about it for months and I wanted to know how the ceremony had helped set her up for transitioning from “student” to a member of a professional body. The following exchange ensued:

Me: Do you think the ceremony makes a difference in how engineers see their careers? do you think that it makes you feel more a part of a profession, more supported, part of a community? Did it trigger pride?

Sis: Yes to the community, cause the whole purpose of the ceremony is to “unite” the engineers and promise to contribute to society while supporting each other (literally by all holding a connected chain and taking an oath)
I wouldn’t say the ceremony necessarily triggered pride cause it’s so old and hasn’t been changed that things are very “christian male oriented”
but the ring itself yes, cause obviously it’s recognized by society as a symbol of hard work?

Me: What elements are “christian male oriented”?

Sis: umm they read a couple poems that are supposed to be the basis of what an engineer is but there’s a ton of christian references (that I wouldn’t be able to tell you cause I was tuning in and out for exactly that reason cause it was of no interest to me) and one of the main poems they kept referring to is called “sons of Martha” and they kept saying an engineer is a son of Martha

Me: hahah Who’s Martha… I’m getting Atwood flashbacks.

Sis: before one of the poems though the master of ceremonies literally apologized that it was about to become very christian. That was amusing.

Me: Do you feel like there’s space to change that?

Sis: umm not sure about changing it, cause it’s something that’s been around for like 100 years

Me: Do you think the ceremony is a good thing to have overall? vs not having it?

Sis: yea I think so because the main part of the ceremony is the actual giving of the ring by an engineer that has promised to support you and like, introduce you to the “values” of being an engineer
does that make sense?
like it’s better than just picking up an iron ring

Me: the sense of continuity within the field?

Sis: Yea

Me: So, are you proud of yourself? (I’ve been showing your iron ring photos to anyone with eyes so … we know where I stand)

Sis: =D =D =D of course! And something else I’m proud of – they said the ring is rough around the edges to represent how an engineer is rough around the edges/intricacies of their brain and society appreciates/needs that.

Me: Hey, I’ve been calling you rough around the edges for yeeears! ❤

My ulterior motive with this exchange was to have written proof to come back to later should she tumbles down the same career malcontent rabbit hole I seem to love so much. A receipt to show her that she started out her career with pride and a sense of professional integrity. And there will always be a way to tap back into that. In her case, she just has to glance down at her right pinky.

Cross-posted from femails.org

Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”

THAT COUNTS.

And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.

Learning to Learn

And with that, another year is over. Yes, I know it’s only the beginning of June. And I realize that this is month 6 of 12. But I’m talking about a year in which I’ve created my little academic bubble and languished in it. In the last mile, in those final weeks, walking out of exam after exam, fending off sleep to make word counts, holding off crippling anxiety as THE exam approached, all culminating to walking on that plane and leaving it behind. At least for three months. Three glorious months. I make it seem like an ordeal. Perhaps I need to rein it in a bit, but maybe, I’m not that far off.

One year, completely gone. And what have I contributed to the world? Hard to say. In this respect, learning seems extremely selfish. Will we students really pay it forward? Who knows. If I’m not, what has been in it for me, really? I’ve had small moments of reflection along the way, but have only now allowed myself the time to put it down in words. If I’ve spent all of this time learning, what has been the biggest lesson? On the whole, I’d venture to say that it was learning to learn. Before this year, I’d never explicitly acknowledged the challenges I have with this undertaking in a way that is productive.

Let me say now that I do not intend to discuss learning how to learn with this post. That has been done a number of times already (Coursera, TEDx, HBR, Learn.Love.Code.), and by those who make a career of studying it. I’m only hoping to relate my experience of simply getting into a mindset supportive for learning based on existing (self-imposed) barriers. This means recognizing the challenges in the first place, their foundations, and working to overcome them, a process which, I’ll posit, is one in which I need constant reminders.

I could attribute it to the nature of doctoral studies – that, in the pursuit of new knowledge, we acquiesce that we don’t know or understand everything. But I have to acknowledge that it’s my institution too. [Let it be known that I’ll give credit where credit is due, despite my reflexive scruples about the complex that comes with the ivory tower.] Learning alongside people who you respect and find amazingly capable, and finding that they’re asking similar questions, it’s encouraging. But there are times when you feel inadequate too – the dreaded, but famed “imposter syndrome”. It’s real, and it comes in waves. You periodically convince yourself that a wrong decision was made somewhere. Countless times, I’ve rationalized, “Too bad, I’m here now. If a wrong decision was made, they’ll have to deal with it. I’ll simply wait until they drive me out.” This is decidedly an unhealthy way to go about it. Luckily, the sheer number of things to do often crowds out these thoughts.

This year, remembering three key things has been important to me. And these ideas have formed the basis of my experience in learning to learn. They’re simple. Perhaps that’s why they’ve helped.

  1. The Decision, with a capital D

Mais à elle seule elle est plus importante que vous toutes, puisque c’est elle que j’ai arrosée.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This one was an accident. I simply wanted a Le Petit Prince daily planner because it’s cute. How was I to know that it would become an integral piece of my experience. Looking at it every day, I eventually took it to heart. To do what I want, I needed to make it a real, tangible, reachable goal. I came to graduate school. I came to learn such and such. With this explicit decision, I’ve invested time and money and have made inevitable tradeoffs. This is what I’ve decided to spend my time doing. Did I really want it? Well, then. I need to water it.

This seems very simple. But I hadn’t forced myself to pin it all down before. Forever the jack of all trades, master of none. The decision is key. I came back to school to learn. I didn’t come because it’s expected. I didn’t come to please someone else. I didn’t come because I was bored, or because I didn’t know the next step. I wanted to know more. Or at least have the tools to find out.

There are endless distractions. Part of coming back to school is the network. You want to meet great people, build lifelong friendships and colleagues. You want to discover all you can about the opportunities in this field and what you can contribute to it. You want to explore the city and all it has to offer. You want to move ahead, be involved, have an impact on your immediate world. And you can do these things, but not at the expense of your learning. With so many distractions and obligations pulling every which way, the dangers of graduate school can be many. It’s not merely an expected rite of passage as going to college has become for much of the middle class. The sirens of graduate school, though momentarily intriguing, can throw you off course. You’ll forget what you came here for and may find at the end of it that you’d never really decided what you wanted at all.

Deciding to learn means making an explicit decision to focus on learning at this point in time. Particularly in doctoral studies, it means realizing that your time as a student, inclusive of academic obligations and freedoms, is short. At some point, you must prioritize a topic over others, regardless of how interesting they may seem. The daily reminder of my decision and that only I can take the time to cultivate my learning kept my focus when I found my resolve wandering.

  1. Learning requires humility

She’ll probably never know how much this affected me. In the first few weeks of school, a girl in front of me in class had taped to her laptop: Learning requires humility. It was impossible to miss. And to follow it up, in jelly letters on her planner: I am wrong often. I studied this with fascination each day. She has the self-awareness to admit her pride as a significant barrier to her learning. And the commitment to remind herself to confront it each day. Directly ahead in my line of vision, I too became committed to the reminder each day. A reminder that I before didn’t know I’d needed. But I did.

Learning requires humility. I took this one to heart too. It’s no secret that I struggle with a sometimes overwhelming sense of pride. But I need to often ask myself, for what? Often, it’s become only a hindrance and not helpful in any way other than to feed my own discomfort. I made a decision to learn, and that’s what I intend to do in spite of debilitating pride and inevitable embarrassment. I will admit that I do not know. I will take advantage of my professors and peers, extracting all information and understanding. It’s part of my commitment. It’s part of the commitment that you must make to learning. Some people make it naturally. Some do not allow their pride to veil ignorance. But I find such cases to be uncommon.

  1. Grades don’t matter

Really, they don’t. Perhaps this one is relevant only to the perfectionists among us. Perhaps I can only say this as a doctoral student. It’s the very last degree. There is no more school to do, in theory. But the argument holds when it comes to learning. And it’s important. In a number of classes, my letter grade fails to convey how much I actually learned in the course. In fact, my highest grade often means that it required the least learning. (Of course, this is not always the case.) In some cases, I found that I only truly understood the material a little later than hoped – after the exam. I would venture to say that this can often be so. But learning is happening nonetheless.

The system has ingrained in us the importance of grades. You are ranked based on how well you perform according to arbitrary standards, or simply the knowledge or opinions of an individual. This seems somewhat flawed. In some respects, it can be more of an evaluation of psychological or political prowess, e.g. What does this professor want from me? Still, one doesn’t realize how deeply we adhere to the system until one make the effort to change mindset. This reminder is urgent, insistent. It must be to elude the ever-near spiral of self-doubt and self-loathing. And overcoming the threat of the spiral is so important to achieving more and discovering more. Even so, it’s a hard one to internalize, and as a result, requires constant recognition.

These have been my thoughts over the past several weeks, as I was forced to contend with inevitable questions: am I really doing what I wanted / want? Is this the life that I’ve chosen? For what? At least I can say that I’ve grown in some ways. I’ve realized some things. And what has changed the most is a newfound capacity to learn, despite challenges and despite ego. To what end is to be determined. With that, I begin summer. A glorious summer. But I will take these with me. Perhaps the formulations of my commitments will change in time. For now, I’m content with this list. That they comprise the most significant of my realizations and only a year of personal growth. Finally, it seems, in my twenty-some years, I’ve started the real journey of learning with openness and humility. I hope to make it a lifelong venture.

Success: A good memory is unpardonable (Pt 3)

The point of my mountain getaway was to figure out some next steps. The thing about next steps is that they often lead to a backward glance. The thing about a backward glance… it’s not very reliable. But it can be constructive, regardless of accuracy.

We know that memory is unreliable and malleable. We also know that it plays a large role in building self-identity. So it stands to reason that we could theoretically shape our selves into what we wish for the future, by slightly mis-shaping the past. This could go horribly wrong. Or it could embody the very core of “fake it till you make it.”

But wouldn’t your personality eventually take over? Aren’t there traits that will always dominate and veer you back to the original, supposedly “less desired” path? You will always be too shy to speak up during that meeting, leaving you overshadowed. Or you will always be too friendly to be taken seriously.

Some psychologists disagree. They assert that it’s not so much the consistency in personality that predicts behaviour, rather the “power of the situation:” the roles we’re put in and the nature of the relationships in which we engage.

The glance over my shoulder this weekend was an exercise in both memory shaping and re-situation.

This week marks one year since I moved. One year of being generally frustrated with most aspects of my environment and personality.

At least, that’s what I thought.

At some point I had painted a narrative that my reality was not meeting expectations and so I had “failed” at being “happy.” After that framing, everything conveniently fit the narrative. I continued to collect supporting evidence for my “everything sucks and no one understands” soliloquy.

And then it happened.

Somewhere in between all the fun I was accidentally having, the love I was inadvertently feeling, and the learning I was happening into – somewhere in there, my sob story fell apart. So much so that as I sat watching the sun rise over the range of tectonic accidents, I couldn’t even remember why I had spent the better part of the year so upset. My re-telling of the story was much more made-for-TV-holiday-special, much less Kafka. I had essentially placed an Instagram filter on my memory and hashtagged it #iwokeuplikethis.

And you know what? It worked. By tweaking the brightness settings of my memory, I also changed the position from which new memories are being formed. It’s as if by cleaning up the pieces that were bothering me, I learned how to leverage them to inform a better, calmer, more thankful version of myself.

It may have be an uphill battle for most of the year, but looking back, most of what I see, is simply remarkable. I’d call that a Success.

 

Writer’s note: Thanks for joining me on my little 3 part introspective journey into the world of “Success.” I hope it was at least mildly entertaining. Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Success: Creativity & Empathy (PT 2)

I find walking downhill a frustrating exercise. I don’t sweat. My toes get squished up against my boots. My left knee grumbles at me. And my footing is only half-intentional, mostly I’m simply avoiding a fall rather than actually walking.

Climbing up, however, well this is among my favourite activities. My entire body feels engaged. Sweat drenches my clothes and curls my hair, letting me know how hard everything is working to get me to where I’m going. I’m sure footed, choosing every rock as if it was put there exactly for me. When I reach the top, the view, the breeze, the first gulp of water- all of these are well-earned.

This is not a “what goes up, must come down” metaphor. It’s just fact. Hiking, is about the climb, the up. The downhill is a side-effect.

But it did get me thinking. Is success similar? Is it also about the up? Are we supposed to be moving toward something in a subjectively upward manner to be considered “successful”? Is this where the anxiety of stagnation comes from? If I’m not gaining “more” of something – degrees, publications, impact factors, LinkedIn followers – am I unintentionally scrambling downhill on the success spectrum?

To touch on these questions, I want to go back to the question posed to my remarkable friend from part one of this post.

What part of you do you want to share most? The most widely that is.

Her answer was simply complicated:

Creativity and empathy. You?

Her creativity and empathy are aspects of her personhood that she’s deemed significant enough to share with the world, leaving behind something of note.

Throughout the rest of our conversation, I realized that any combination of ways I tried to answer the same question still resulted in the same two words: creativity and empathy.

In some ways, isn’t that the essence of being human? Creativity in the form of art, invention, problem solving. Empathy in the form of understanding different perspectives, offering support, guiding each other through difficulties and celebrating each other through triumphs?

We all have our different versions of creativity, and it’s often what we yearn to share most in our thirst for “Success.” The musician goes to school, makes the right connections, practices for hours to be able to share their creativity on a stage of significance. The researcher subscribes to a brandname institution, seeks funds, obsesses over H- indices to share their creativity in a journal of significance. And so on.

Imagine how successful the world would be if we all had the privilege to tap into that inherent creativity to do good. If it wasn’t some race to have your creativity overshadow someone else’s, but rather to complement. Imagine if our social networks were actually about connecting with one another and practicing empathy rather than self-promotion. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

If we shift the focus away from how can I be successful to how can I be part of a success-filled world, wouldn’t “Success” be defined as contributing to an environment that enables all of us to have the capacity to exercise our creativity, and the tools to flex our empathetic muscles in support of such creative pursuits.

Sure, some of this is naive, but even more naive is the attribution of success at the individual level. We don’t exist in vacuums. Yet.

Writer’s note: Part 3 of grappling with “Success” while scaling up (and unfortunately down) mountains, coming soon. 

 

The Simple Ones.

“Why do we die?”

It’s the second week of school. It’s the first couple of weeks where you get all the orientations, all the introductions, and all the premonitions of future stress. [Yes, I can already see it coming. At least we can say that we were warned.]

In these first weeks, we get the “simple” questions.

“Why do diseases kill humans?”

Simple in construction, but perhaps not so simple in their answers.

I was struck, on the one hand, that this is what academia allows you to do – allows you to simply ask these questions, and take the time and resources to search for and understand the answers. Which is amazing. We aren’t pressed for time, worried about the next deliverable. Or rather, this is on our way to that next deliverable, even if we don’t know what that is yet. Academia allows you to ponder the world and its constructions and its tragedies and its physical wonders. It gives you the mind space.

And then on the other hand, me: THIS IS WHAT ACADEMIA ALLOWS YOU TO DO, in the alarmed, incredulous sense. Directly, there is no rationale for practicality. None. This is solely for my benefit, my luxury of thought. It’s a thought exercise. While many in the world can hardly make eight hours of sleep, while many are just trying to keep it together, while most just ain’t got time for that. We’re here asking each other,

“Why do we die?”