2017, bias, friendship, learning, memory, museum

What A Cross-Country Flight Taught Me About Painting The World

I spent this past weekend with one of my best friends. We haven’t lived in the same city in eleven years, but we communicate in a multitude of ways and talk on the phone at least once a week.

Through our conversations, I’ve become intimately aware of her new routines, adventures, friends, and work. I’ve heard about her life in broad strokes and detailed marks. Knowing her, and using some general context, I painted a picture of her life in my mind, and applied each new story within its context. When I visited her this weekend, it was my first time visiting her in Philadelphia, where she has lived for the past two years.

Our time together was perfect — from a morning walk along the river to a spontaneous visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum to alone-together exercise time to a tour of her office, favorite grocery store, and go-to bars and restaurants — a testament to our compatibility despite any of our differences.

But this morning, as my friend drove me to the airport (at 4:30 AM!), I felt as if I was sitting next to two people: one who has stood by my side for twenty-six years and one that I had just met forty-eight hours prior. The second person made herself known not because my friend acted out of character, but because I had gotten a glimpse of her life from a perspective I’d never had before.

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Last week, I started watching Abtract: The Art of Design, a Netflix documentary series that spotlights eight people responsible for common objects in our designed world. Episodes highlight people like a New Yorker cover illustrator, the mastermind behind the Air Jordan, and a designer of IKEA furniture. The episodes aren’t just about their designs or how they came to be, but instead about how they approach the world. How and why they think the way they do.

The “behind the scenes” approach wasn’t necessarily new to me. It is much like two of my favorite podcasts: Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post for off-court basketball things and Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing for unique perspective into the minds of artists, policy makers, and performers.

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Of late, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in what’s invisible to the naked eye — the stories behind the spectacles. Perhaps because what is visible is sometimes so ludicrous that I am unable to take it at face value. This pursuit isn’t an easy one. Not because the information isn’t there, but because I have to travel the distance to find it.

This morning, what I recognized about my friend was only visible to me because I had given myself a new perspective. Much like her and my favorite Monets, the painting looked different up close than it did from afar.

If I am still adding to the story of this wonderful human who I have known since my brain started forming memories, I can only wonder what layers exist behind the rest of my vast world, in social spheres, in design, in entertainment, in government, in other countries—this, just a shortlist.

Hopefully, I am not alone in my wondering. Though it’s unlikely (impossible) for us to ever know it all, it is important now, maybe more than ever, that we approach what’s visible with the curiosity to learn and build rather than with the bias to judge and destruct.

And that we do so in the same loving way that we seek to learn more about a best friend.

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basketball, bias, creativity, Jeremy Lin, psychology, schemas

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” -Einstein

Of late, and like most of you out there I imagine, I’ve found myself deeply fascinated by the Jeremy Lin story. In reflecting on what makes his so universally appealing, I’m sure it’s because his is just so unexpected. A schema is a cognitive tool, often based off of past experiences or preconceived notions, that helps us categorize and interpret the world. Though today, people like Lin’s high school basketball coach are claiming they always knew he was capable of such a feat, I’m willing to put money on the fact that this is just a hindsight is 20/20-type situation. Until recently, “Asian-American Harvard graduate,” did not readily fit my schema for an NBA star basketball player. Whether or not they’ll admit it, this has got to be true for others as well.

On several occasions during my school days, teachers would tell me or my parents that I could be President (Teachers say that to everyone, don’t they? Don’t answer that). Today, I realize that the statement is a sort of metaphor for “You can do anything you want to do. You can be anyone you want to be.” Back then I took it quite literally. I remember the day I learned that a main eligibility requirement to be United States President is natural citizenship (US-born). I sat there thinking, Wow. My teachers are right. I could be President. That evening I went home and told my parents. Though they politely played along with my youthful dreaming, let’s just say they didn’t exactly take it upon themselves to groom me for presidency, as say, Bush Sr. probably did for George W. (Note: I am not blaming my parents for the fact that I will never be President of the United States).

It makes sense. We as humans are rather risk averse. We play to win, and we take the bets that are in our favor. If there were more Indian-American female US Presidents out there, maybe I would be more optimistic about such a life goal. This mindset is necessary, albeit disappointing. Disappointing because it may be hindering our creativity as a society. Recently, Scientific American reported research findings showing for the first time that much like unconscious biases against race, gender, sexual orientation, and mental diseases, we are also unconsciously biased against creativity. Yes, in a world of augmented reality and mobile wallets, we literally fear creativity and innovation. Not only that, we actually fail to see creativity when it slaps us in the face. All this in the name of a “sure-thing.”

I can’t help but wonder if there’s any way out for us. Cognitive biases are pretty strong — they’re unconscious, after all. Are we as a society inhibiting our own creative progress? I believe that with creativity, as with most widespread biases, change starts with the individual. Just as people may almost “overcompensate” to prove complete acceptance of topics traditionally victim to unconscious bias, it may be time to aggressively pursue creative (and risky) goals.

Today, in perusing my usual news sources, I came upon an admittedly questionable article claiming that predicting the future is all about trusting your feelings. In cases where we have some overall knowledge about a question at hand, going with our gut may be enough to make a (successful) prediction about the future. When it comes to ourselves, maybe we can be a bit creative with our goals and dreams, especially if we have some sort of gut feeling that success is possible. Though nerve-wrecking especially for those who are risk averse, the idea is pretty uplifting.

To conclude, I come back to basketball, and a basketball poster that hung in my gym locker room. The quote read, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” We owe it to our creative selves, the Asian-American-Harvard-graduate-NBA-star in each of us, the first African America US President in each of us, to go with our gut, reconstruct schemas and break barriers.

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bias, control, illusions, sorry

Let your hopes go and they’ll survive

Sorry just doesn’t cut it. This is probably the most painful thing anyone has ever told me. More painful, I would argue, than whatever I did that necessitated an apology in the first place. I hated that saying sorry was the only thing I could do. I hated that sorry was not good enough to change the situation. I wanted ultimate control and yet life and time had the reins on this one.

If there’s one thing in life that I fear the most, it’s helplessness. When it comes down to the reality that there is nothing I personally can do to improve a particular situation. That an outcome is completely outside of my control. As an extreme example: my grandfather’s battle with liver cancer. I still remember the day I was told that things were looking up. That he was going to be okay. I thought maybe if I wished hard enough. Prayed hard enough. When I received a call the very next day informing me that my grandfather had lost the battle, I couldn’t help but feel wronged.

At the gym this past Tuesday, a man came up to the treadmill next to me and instinctively pressed “Quick Start.” Nothing happened. I knew the treadmill was out of order but chose not to intervene immediately (that’s what psychologists do; they just observe). He then noticed that the treadmill was flashing “Key Down.” He immediately went into problem-solving mode (Step 1: Is it plugged in?) and turned his attention to a nearby power outlet. The treadmill was plugged in. Beside the outlet was a fallen placard. “Equipment out of order. Sorry for the inconvenience. -XOXO Gym Staff.” Minus the XOXO part. Okay. This is when he will give up I thought. Wrong. He proceeded with his diagnostics, but to no avail. He continually pressed his finger to the “Quick Start” button. Nothing. I did a quick survey of the other available treadmills, of which there were plenty. Why can’t he just move to the next one? I wondered. At the three-minute mark, the man surrendered and went to go lift weights.

For a person who works at a tech company, he probably took this as a huge sign of failure. After all, he had been incapable of fixing a “simple gadget.” All he had wanted to do was run. He hated that the treadmill’s functionality was out of his control. And somewhere in this slew of events, in order to reduce dissonance between desire and action, he convinced himself that he hadn’t wanted to run anyway. That he wanted to lift weights, and moved along.

An almost similar series of events took place on Thursday, albeit with a different employee (I know, our gym needs to speed up its repair process). This time, he enlisted a couple others to reassure him that the treadmill was indeed out of commission. That he wasn’t just “doing something wrong.”

The illusion of control, one of many cognitive biases by which we live our lives, explains our tendency to overestimate the control we have over life’s events where in reality, we demonstrably have no influence. And if you ask me, a little of this is probably a good thing. It’s this exact illusion that will keep us going in the face of adversity. But of course, it can become pretty detrimental pretty fast. Gambling, for example, is driven by the illusion of control.

Recently, a lady was showing me how she used her computer software to accomplish various tasks. She clicked on something and things ran amuck. It definitely was not what was supposed to happen, let alone what was expected to happen. Oh shoot, sorry. I don’t know what I did. She said, embarrassed. She cleaned up the mess and tried again. Same story. She apologized again. And again. I felt uncomfortable as she profusely apologized for a software bug over which she clearly had no control.

Because nobody ever tells children that their dreams are unrealistic, we, from a young age, believe we can do anything. That the world is at our fingertips. That we can stand on the moon and touch the stars. When things don’t go our way, we are encouraged to try harder and to never give up.

If you ask me, never give up is misguiding advice. Sometimes, we just have to accept that there’s nothing more we can do. That our control has its limits. It’ll make for a more healthy way of looking at ourselves — and at the world around us.

I’d say give it your all is a more ideal phrase to live by. Balance being optimistic with being realistic. In any situation, do whatever is in your power to guide the outcome. But don’t beat yourself up over anything past that. Realize that the Earth doesn’t need us to push it around the sun. And more importantly, realize that we’re not expected to do the pushing in the first place.

To end on a lighter note, here’s what Groucho Marx has to say on the matter: Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.

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bias, psychology, stereotypes, technology

Who Says

A few days ago, I received the following email from my grandpa:

I read a news item some months ago. Most Italian boys go to their parents’ house for dinner even after they are married because they are so attached to their Mom’s cooking. Italians call them Mammoni.

At face value, the email was as random to me as it might seem to you. But it still touched me. It made the 8700-mile distance that separates us feel like nothing. It made me realize that my grandpa, though older and much wiser, uses email the same way I do — to quickly share with people content that reminds me of them. A symbolic “Thinking of you.” Having spent most of his life crafting letters to be worthy enough of a postage stamp, my grandpa’s deep understanding and appreciation for the wonders of email is behavioral change at its best.

Yesterday evening, I was sitting across an elderly woman and her friend as I rode home on Caltrain. I inferred from their conversation that they had just watched West Side Story at the Orpheum Theater is San Francisco. The elderly woman was comparing her recent experience with that of 1957, when she attended the original production. Who played Bernardo in the original again? The elderly woman asked as she simultaneously pulled out her iPhone4. Within seconds she had found her answer and was continuing on with the conversation. She and her friend looked up pictures from the original showing. Oh! Can you pinch that one and zoom in?! The friend asked in excitement. The elderly woman was a step ahead of her. The iPhone was seamlessly integrated into their conversation.

When we reached the friend’s stop, the two women suddenly had a doubt as to the date of their next musical. Shoot. I gotta get off. We’ll talk, the friend offered as she ran off the train. Moments later, the elderly woman had searched her email and found the date. It’s on December 5! She called after her friend, knowing it was too late. The woman looked at me and smiled. It’s fine, I can just email her. In fact, I’ll do that right now! She got back to her phone.

I looked off in the distance, feeling a bit silly. When the woman had initially pulled her iPhone out of her purse, it was to call her husband and notify him of her arrival time. I was immediately certain that she didn’t know how to use her phone for anything other than calling. I didn’t expect anything more of her. As I played Fruit Ninja on my iPhone, I arrogantly assumed that the device is much more useful to me than to the woman sitting across from me. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the woman was using her phone more productively than I.

Over the course of the train ride, I realized that the woman held an admirable outlook on life. Every word she uttered was positive. Every conversation in which she engaged revolved around experiences and events to which she was looking forward — A luncheon on Tuesday; Her next musical on December 5th. Turns out, I could learn a thing or two from her. She held such positive expectations for the future, never once complaining about people or tasks she had to complete.

The danger in becoming too confident in ourselves and our abilities is that we forget how much we can learn from others. As we go through life, it becomes easier to think we are better than everyone else than to humble ourselves. We thrive on self-fulfilling biases, when instead we should be eating our preconceived notions for breakfast. A stereotype is just that. A stereotype.

None of us is perceived as a blank slate. Each of us can be stereotyped by the snap judgments provided by culture, past experiences, and the human psyche. This is out of our control. What we can control is our own actions. We have the power to destroy those stereotypes. To, as Colin Powell once said, “Fit no stereotypes.” In my opinion, the secret is to forget about exceeding expectations and to simply ignore them altogether. Don’t try to break a mold. Instead, make one from scratch.

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appearances, bias, impressions, psychology

You never get a second chance to make a first impression

Beauty is only skin deep, and yet, this thin superficial layer of beauty has the power to make or break your relationships with other individuals and your experiences in life in general. We try not to think about it and would never admit it, but we do rely on our first impressions and judgments of others. It is in those first seconds of meeting people that we judge their dispositions — personalities, beliefs, and general mindsets with which they face the world. We make crude generalizations and decisions about whether or not this is a person we would like to pursue. And once we’ve made up our biased decisions, we’re set. While there’s usually no going back, we can occasionally be convinced. Maybe I should have started out with something a little more concrete and a little less controversial.

Consumer products and services. We’ve all said it before: “The service was horrible. I’m never going there again.” We are so reluctant to give it a second chance. Be it under-toasted almonds or basil leaves passed off as spinach leaves, long lines or unfriendly cashiers, we’ve all been there. We’ve made the vow and spread the dirt. It’s those first split seconds that a nervous new customer is most vulnerable. Those first split seconds that make the impression. There’s a reason Cold Stone employees are required to greet every single customer that walks through the door with a cheerful hello. There’s a reason Starbucks customers are “always right.”

It’s all about the first impression. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Babies inherently prefer the more attractive face. Biological. First impression.

So yes, first impressions make it or break it. But first impressions aren’t necessarily always correct. If I had a nickel for every time that my first impression was wrong… The problem is that those impressions are just so overwhelmingly tyrannical. They say, “jump” and you say, “how high”? Even if your first impression is wrong, there are few times you’re going to be willing to go back and correct it.

It’s interesting to me that some of my closest friends and favorite products are those which did not exactly…dress to impress the first time around. I don’t exactly make a mean first impression myself. And yet, I sit here today advocating the importance of the first impression.

In a world of brand-name coffee, we can’t help but care about our appearances and the first impressions we make on people…and those that they make on us.

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