2016, 2017, balance, determination, injury, new year, optimism, pain

Why We Should Embrace The “Worsts” of 2016

“Worsts” Help Us Find Our “Bests”

Like many of you, today I am pausing to reflect on the year behind me and the year ahead. Swirling in my head are moments from the last twelve months, some of which are so beautiful I can’t believe they happened, and others of which are so ugly I won’t allow myself to dwell too long. Some are unique to me, and some are those that we shared as a society, as a generation, and as humans.

I faced profound personal challenges in 2016. After injuring my knee in May, only receiving the correct diagnosis in July, and undergoing surgery in August, I have spent the last seven months rebuilding my strength. Beyond the physical pain of incisions in my bones, beyond the focused persistence required to regain muscles and movement, the most difficult part was finding emotional wherewithal  to embrace the challenge and remain optimistic.

I know I wasn’t alone. 

Our world, like me, is currently hobbling around with one weak leg. Things feel topsy-turvy, or to use Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, things feel surreal. 

But maybe unlike many of you, and definitely unlike The Internet, I am not “so over” 2016. While it certainly has its shortcomings, I don’t know that it was the “worst year ever.” It certainly wasn’t my worst.

I experienced my share of challenges in the years leading up to this one—being mugged in 2013, my dog’s death in 2014, and family struggles in 2015 to name a few. While each felt like rock bottom at the time, I always managed to find a way to climb back up (even if it sometimes meant falling again, and harder). However, now with perspective, none feels any less or more challenging than any other. 

The only difference between prior years and this one is that I am looking back differently. The patterns show me that there are going to be highs and lows in every year. The lows don’t necessarily mark a bad year, but only the continual ebb and flow of life.  The absence of this pulse, rather than being a good sign, may instead be a sign that I am not living. It is with this recognition that I’m entering 2017. 

If I search for them, there are streams of light in each of those significantly challenging years—publishing a book in 2013, adventures with a best friend in 2014, and getting a long-desired job offer in 2015— that are just as momentous as the dark patches.

This year’s challenge is as dark as it was light. Injury was good for me. It taught me how to listen to my body, how to reject routine in a healthy fashion, and how to manage my stress in new ways. It reminded me of the strong support I have in my family and friends. It pushed me to go deeper with my writing and to explore new activities.

Essentially, it taught me to accept the unexpected and embrace the act of regaining balance. 

Whether we are responding to acts of terror, democratic outcomes, personal health issues, or one of life’s many other obstacles, we always have two choices: to rebuild weak muscles or to commiserate over inevitable atrophy. This year, I felt first-hand the benefits of the former. The latter leaves us to fester in unproductive masses of incredulity and hyperbole.

Join me. Let’s go forward by accepting that highs don’t exist without lows, and to achieve balance amidst it all.

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2016, accomplishments, basketball, determination, illusions, math, optimism, psychology, shooting, Warriors

Why You Should Believe In Yourself Against All Odds

Two Fridays ago, I watched the Warriors get destroyed by the Lakers. The score wasn’t completely devastating, but points don’t tell the whole story. The Lakers’ young talent played a phenomenal game, and the Warriors were unable to catch up, let alone surpass, the Lakers in the second half.

The game resulted in many surprising numbers (strength wasn’t one of them), including a season-low for the Warriors with a 15-point first quarter. It was downhill from there. Still more notable, was that Steph Curry, known for his ability to knock in three-pointers, didn’t make a single one of his 10 attempts. This was the first of 157 games in which he didn’t make at least one three-point shot. He held records for three-point streaks on the road and in postseason.

Sports statistics don’t predict future outcomes; they may posthumously explain the outcome. But as the game clock ticked on, I, along with the commentators, sat on the edge of my seat expecting Steph to make each new three-point attempt. Given his past performance, we believed that he would, and should, have made one.

When Curry went to the bench before the end of the game, I was perplexed, “How is it possible that he didn’t make a single one?” And later, I couldn’t help but wonder what it all meant going forward—if anything.

But there was another factor affecting the pure statistical probability: psychology. We as fans were thinking it, Steph’s face said it, and he actually said it after the game: “Kind of weird not to make one.” With each attempt, Steph’s chances of making a shot were plagued by what we can surmise was building pressure, confusion, nerves, and frustration.

Two days later, Steph Curry broke the NBA record for most threes in a game, making an impressive 13 of 17 attempts. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said he had the hot hand. In psychology, the hot-hand fallacy describes an arguably unfounded belief that our chance of success at some random event increases with each success. For most of the past, statisticians have denied the existence of a hot hand despite the fact that basketball players may insist that they feel it.

Regardless of this opposite—albeit more expected—outcome, I again, couldn’t believe it. What were the odds of this performance following that against the Lakers?

After the game, I spent some time researching the hot hand fallacy, only to learn that new research has, for the first time, called the fallacy into question. In the study, the researchers went back to basics, looking at the chances of coin flips. Toss a coin four times, and record the percentage of heads coming specifically after heads. Repeated a million times, the average is 40%, not 50% as we might expect.

The same data, read a completely new way, sets a new expectation.

And this new lens holds true for basketball players as well. Applied to the original study, 19 out of 25 of basketball players demonstrated the hot hand effect when shooting from a location where they have a 50% chance of making the shot.

Data is often a helpful predictor of outcomes. But it can also make us myopic as we find ways to support the data at hand. The results of this new study (and of Curry’s record-making game) inspire me. I am able to believe that in this world of smart numbers, we humans still call the shots. It’s up to us to figure out what we make of the numbers—and if we want to make anything of them at all.

When interviewed after his record-making game, Curry explained, “I was hard on myself in practice the last two days. I had pretty good sessions. I don’t overreact to games like that whether I got 0 for 10 or 2 for 12 or whatever it is. My process is the same, but I had another level of focus the last two days trying to get my rhythm back and see the ball go in.”

Perhaps it is our mindset and our belief that we can succeed, regardless of statistical plausibility, that drive our success. Our chances of success or failure shouldn’t prescribe our confidence. We should instead choose our paths deliberately, then create the conditions that enable us to reach our destination.

Yes, we can believe in data, but let’s believe in ourselves—and others—first.

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2016, acceptance, expectations, foodie, happiness, letting go, seasons

What This Year’s Fig Season Taught Me About Letting Go

What California doesn’t have in seasons, it makes up for in seasonal produce. For as long as I can remember, my seasons have been defined by the fruits or vegetables available to us at the time. Summer was for strawberries and Autumn was for apples. Now, living in San Francisco and buying my produce mostly from local markets, I am exposed to a broader variety of produce, and much more aware of seasonal availability. From springtime apricots to wintertime persimmons, I know what to expect when. By the middle of each season, its respective produce has made itself abundantly present in my diet—a staple. It is a beautiful thing, eating seasonally, enjoying the richest of colors and purest of tastes.

The problem, however, is that seasons don’t last forever.A loving figure

This year’s was a particularly delicious fig season. One weekend in mid-September, I went to my usual market to stock up on my week’s worth of figs (and other produce). “This is it,” the owner told me as he rang up my items. “What do you mean?” I asked, hoping that he didn’t mean what I thought he meant. “The fig season. I think this is the last shipment I’ll get.” “Really?” I asked with slight disbelief. It had flown by so quickly. “Should I get another basket?” He didn’t say no, and so I did.

For the next week, I made the most of my figs — roasted with cauliflower, spread on toast, cut up in yogurt, and just on their own. Savoring every bite of every fig, I tried to memorize their taste and how I felt eating them. “This is it,” I told myself, “Not again for another year.” And so when I was down to my last sole fig, I was ready to say goodbye. I knew the moment had come.

A few weeks passed, and I began to let other produce into my life, like butternut squash, pomegranate, and sweet potatoes.

Then, one Sunday, I went to a co-op with a friend on our walk home from a coffee shop. As she picked up her produce for the week, I mulled around eyeing the greens and nuts in front of me when someone bumped into me from behind. I turned, and there I was, face to face with heaps and piles of figs. Black Mission, Sierra, and Brown Turkey. I gasped as if I had seen a ghost (the ghost of fig season’s past). Now, it was my turn to accidentally bump someone as I excitedly grabbed a bag and filled it with figs. Like an addict, I had no restraint.

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My friend and I parted ways and I walked as quickly as I could back to my apartment, the entire time salivating at the thought of these plump, juicy fruits touching my taste buds. Once in the kitchen, I ceremoniously opened my bag and selected a fig. I pinched it for luck and took a generous bite.

I chewed once and stopped.

It was dry. And straw-like. Sweetness was foreign. I spat it out and stared at my full bag. I tested two more straw-like figs before disposing of the entire bag. Call it ambition, greed, or plain foolishness, I had pushed my luck.

Clouding my memory of the dynamic season is its flat finish.

While we’ve all experienced the woes of “too much of a good thing,” and been advised to “stop while you’re ahead,” the concept, in reality, is rather difficult to master. It requires a jedi-like discipline to stop at the height of it all. A pathetic sadism to deny oneself continued happiness. Without context, it is self-destruction at its best.

The thing about life is that our comfort is set by just a hint of repetition. Be it for something as simple as produce or something as  profound as a career or relationship. We build routines around these comforts and we expect them to remain forever fruitful. And whether we recognize them or not, we ignore all indications of natural endings because these comforts make us happy. Or well, they made us happy, once. We pinch and we squeeze for every last bit of what they have to offer until one fine day we realize that they not only don’t make us happy, but they actually make us unhappy. This, in fact, is self-destructive. That which could have ended amicably before instead rots and crumbles helplessly.

Impossible as it may seem, there’s something to be said for taking certain aspects of our lives in seasons. While, like Seattle rains or London fog, some parts are meant to be forever, we should allow that which must end to end. Done in the right way, these endings will be bittersweet, and they will be preferable to those which are only bitter. And know that when you summon the courage to do so, a new season awaits you, with all the ripe sweetness you deserve.

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2016, community, humanity, pain, public transportation, San Francisco, soccer, sports injury

It’s Hard Out There With A Limp

Whether we can see it or not, everyone has pain.

Commuting in a city like San Francisco is not easy. Either you’re late or the bus is, or both. On the bus, you’re packed like a sardine next to someone whose music you can hear through their headphones through your headphones.

After a recent knee surgery, I dreaded the idea of commuting. Sporting a full-leg brace, I was barely able to move. How would I get a person’s attention to ask for a seat? How would I navigate through the masses? How would I stand up and exit before the doors close?

When I finally tried it, I was surprised to find that people pull out all the stops — at all the stops — when they see someone in need. They go out of their way to lend a hand, ear, or shoulder. My visible pain was met with sympathetic glances and in many cases, real conversation. Therapy, almost.

People asked me what happened, how I was coping, and how I was recovering. And then they shared. They shared their own personal stories of pain, coping, and recovery.

Pain, whether physical or emotional, unites us all.

 

Middle-Aged Woman, Nourish Cafe, Sept 2, 2016

Middle-Aged Woman, Nourish Cafe, Sept 2, 2016

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Safeway Employee, Market Street, Sept 6, 2016

Safeway Employee, Market Street, Sept 6, 2016

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Backpacker, Duboce Triangle, Sept 11, 2016

Backpacker, Duboce Triangle, Sept 11, 2016

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Lady with a short bob, Metro MUNI, Sept 14, 2016

Lady with a short bob, Metro MUNI, Sept 14, 2016

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War Veteran, Metro MUNI, September 15, 2016

War Veteran, Metro MUNI, September 15, 2016

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Young lady rushing down Metro steps, Montgomery Station, Sept 15, 2016

Young lady rushing down Metro steps, Montgomery Station, Sept 15, 2016

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Schoolboy with mom, Mission, Sept 20, 2016

Schoolboy with mom, Mission, Sept 20, 2016

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STEM-Happy Man, Metro MUNI, Sept 21, 2016

STEM-Happy Man, Metro MUNI, Sept 21, 2016

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UPS Delivery Man, My doorstep, Sept 22, 2016

UPS Delivery Man, My doorstep, Sept 22, 2016

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Woman with beanie, Metro MUNI, Sept 23, 2016

Woman with beanie, Metro MUNI, Sept 23, 2016

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Man who needs ‘ANY HELP,’ Montgomery BART, Sept 26, 2016

Man who needs ‘ANY HELP,’ Montgomery BART, Sept 26, 2016

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The next time you go outside, know that no matter what’s going on in your heart, mind, or body, you are not alone. If you see someone in need, challenge yourself to connect with her. You may be surprised at what you receive in return. We might call them strangers, but they aren’t that strange at all. We are all in fact, one and the same.

 

 

Originally published on Medium.

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2016, experiencing, healing, productivity, purpose, rest, routine, slowing down, small things

How I Learned To Be Productive While Doing Nothing At All

“And one more thing: Don’t expect to do anything in the first few weeks after surgery.”

“Okay.”

It was a Friday morning in late July, and I was staring at a monochromatic image on a computer screen. An orthopedic surgeon was sitting next to me explaining the image. My heart was racing; my mind was numb.

That morning, I had woken up at 5, done some exercises to strengthen my injured leg, gone for a swim, made coffee and breakfast, and edited the final draft of an article. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but it suddenly felt like the day had closed in on me.

“What do you think?”

“Oh. Um.” The surgeon had finished explaining. He was looking expectantly at me. I hadn’t heard his question. Whatever it was, his could wait. “What are some possible dates for surgery?”

My daily happiness is characterized by a feeling of productivity—the knowledge that I’ve used my brain in healthy and meaningful ways. Until this point, I’ve observed my most productive days are the ones that I have planned with intention. And for me, productivity manifests itself in various ways including cooking a new dish, challenging my athletic ability, writing a new piece, having a good conversation, reading a thought-provoking excerpt, discovering a tangible or abstract novelty, spending quality time with a friend, or making progress with my teammates at work. Whatever it is, I have always believed that I am the master of my productivity. My decisions get me where I want to go each day.

It was unsurprising that in this moment of shock, my brain could only think about how it would achieve this daily sense of productivity.

We set a surgery date a few weeks out, and from that moment forward, I started to think about how I would be strategically productive during those few weeks of “nothingness” post-surgery: Maintain a daily blog, finalize the draft of my children’s book, research new recipes, learn a new language, listen to a queue of podcasts, send cards to friends, read The Fountainhead (after completing the Harry Potter series), and watch all the series that were continually being recommended to me, a non-TV watcher.

I packed an entertainment suitcase to take with me to my parents’ house where I would be living for the few weeks after surgery. It included my laptop, books, notebooks, postcards, and pens.

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Five days before surgery, two of my friends came over with a thoughtfully curated care package. One set of items was a coloring book and colored pencils. I smiled when I saw it. There is nothing like the thought of coloring to take you back to the comforts of childhood. I can’t imagine that I’ll actually use this, I thought. Still, it felt wrong not to pack it into my suitcase.

Minutes before my surgery, an anesthetics specialist came in to tell me what to expect.

“Essentially, we’re going to turn your brain off temporarily. We’ll do the surgery. And then we’ll turn your brain back on.”

I outwardly smiled at his nonchalance. Internally, I was freaking the f&#* out. Nothing productive in my life involves my brain shutting off.

The surgery went well.

After a good night’s rest, I woke up the next morning at 6 ready to start attacking my plan. I had the entire day, and several days following, to execute. Before I could make a decision as to where to start, excruciating pain started attacking my knee. I instinctively yelled out in pain. I couldn’t even intelligently process the pain, let alone anything else.

In letting out that scream, I let out something else: All my previous plans for productivity. Much like my anesthesiologist had turned off my brain, I needed to consciously do the same thing. What I hadn’t foreseen was that the most productive thing I could do was to recover.

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And so, that day, I alternated between drinking smoothies, taking pain medication, and napping. This was my general routine for the first week after surgery, though my waking hours slowly extended. In those moments I was not asleep, I colored. In the lines. Outside the lines. Mindlessly. With no plan. It enabled me to do nothing by doing something. It allowed my brain to pour all its energy into something far more productive, without my interfering. Today, twenty-four days after surgery, I no longer spend entire days coloring. Still mostly immobile, however, I take little breaks through my day to turn my brain off . These moments jumpstart my otherwise monotonous days.

I’m still healing, but now with the brainpower to reflect on those initial post-op days. In those moments, I redefined my understanding of productivity. Being productive doesn’t always need to stem from a conscious, deliberate behavior. Sometimes, productivity comes from trusting your body or the world around you to take its natural course. Allowing my brain to effectively turn off was the most productive thing I could have done for myself. It empowered every cell in my body to rush to the needs of my healing knee. It gave me permission to wholly provide for my body’s productivity.

This notion of “turning off” doesn’t need to be back pocketed for traumatic life events or calendared vacations. Find little moments in your day to empty out and restart your brain. When you do, you’ll find that you reenter your previous thoughts with new perspective. And don’t feel guilty about it. The art of doing nothing is, perhaps, the key to productivity.

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