goals, healing, recovery, risk, soccer

What A Sports Injury Taught Me About Risk-Taking

I spotted him the second I turned around. He was a couple of yards in front of me. I had just sprinted fifty yards but the cheetah inside me wasn’t giving up now. His back was toward me. The ball was by his side and I assumed he would turn soon. I was the only obstacle between him and the goal. The turf glistened in the sun and a light breeze cooled the sweat running down my face. I kept a close watch on him, trying not to blink. Out of nowhere, he fumbled. Like a predator sensing weakness in its prey, I charged. It was a risky move, but there was a chance I could steal the ball and fly up the wings. I knew I was faster than him.

It happened quickly. I went in for the attack and he instinctively kicked his leg out under mine. Our legs intertwined. My knee hyperextended laterally.

Next I knew, I was face down on the turf, pounding the ground and yelling out in pain.

Time passed. Finally, I was carried off the field.

Icing my knee while watching the remainder of the game, I reflected on my performance. I didn’t regret it. With two assists, strategic plays, goal-to-goal sprints, it had been one of my better games. The injury was an unlucky side-effect. Every risk has a downside.

Anterior view of knee joint comparing normal vs. damaged cartilage; ortho_arthro-knee-diag_anat; AMuscsk_20140311_v1_001 SOURCE: ortho_arthro-knee-diag_anat.ai

The day after the game when I was hobbling around at work, a fellow soccer player asked me what happened. “I hope you didn’t tear your ACL. That’s my worst nightmare. That’s not the way I want to go,” she said. Later that day, I was stopped again. “Do you know if you tore your ACL? I just started playing soccer and man, I’m just not up for that risk.”

Having always been surrounded by teammates and opponents in full-length leg braces, I too, have forever feared this outcome. The injury requires surgery to fix and inhibits you from running for at least six months. Not to mention the fear of re-injury that will forever chase a person like me.

It turned out that I tore my ACL and my medial meniscus.

I started playing soccer when I was five. From the little league Red Foxes to the high school Varsity Team to the city rec league Cyborg Reptiles, I can’t imagine life off the field. I am not an excellent player, but my speed, strategy, and hunger to win supplement skill level.

Head In the GameSoccer isn’t like running or going to the gym where your own inertia is the only barrier. A pick-up game requires you to wrangle at least three people, locate flat terrain, obtain a ball, and identify goal posts—at minimum. Over the years, colleagues and friends have been subjected to my (polite, yet) incessant begging to come out and play. As an amateur, I’ve often been asked (and wondered myself) what keeps me playing. Until last week, I never had an answer.

Twelve days ago, I got surgery to reconstruct my ACL and repair my meniscus. Two days ago, I started taking literal baby steps toward my recovery. With half of my mind focused on bending my knee with each step, the other half was lost in a realization: I had survived my biggest soccer nightmare. I had faced the worst-case scenario of the risk I had taken. And well, I was dealing. Despite the excruciating pain, I’m optimistic about the personal challenge ahead. I don’t regret that animalistic instinct that landed me here.The Recovery Begins

I am proud of myself for having taken that risk on the field.

Off of the field, I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker. I belabor pros and cons; I slosh around in twin puddles of “you can’t go wrong.” I’m not the prototypical thrill-seeker who literally or figuratively just jumps. And this truth doesn’t upset me.

As I took took those deliberate first steps this weekend, I realized why I play soccer. I play to exercise my  risk-taking muscle. I gear up to get out there and do whatever I can to win. My animalistic hunger is caged between the goal posts.

And when I take risks on the soccer field, I learn things —about how to think and approach various situations, about leadership and friendship, about communicating with teams—that are directly applicable to every other aspect of my life.

Keeping Goal

I frequently hear and read the advice that taking “big risks” is the only way to meet your goals. Until now, I feared that my aversion to taking “common” life risks (i.e., quitting my stable job to “do my own thing” like travel or start a company or volunteer) would inhibit me from finding my success. But my recent soccer injury has made it painfully clear that this fear is unwarranted. Risk is relative. There is no objectively big or small risk. And no right or wrong place to take risks. What’s important is to find the parts of your life in which you are willing and wanting to take self-defined risks, and to take them. Then apply what you learn to the rest of your life.

Pre-surgery, I wondered whether I’d want to play soccer again. But I now know that I must. I must because the field is my self-identified risk playground. This is the place where my life goals come into focus.

adulthood, fans, friendship, goals, self-doubt, self-publishing, success, support, writing

In the Pursuit of Personal Goals, BYOF (Bring Your Own Fan)

In January 2012, I decided to write a book. Like a running-lover deciding to train for a marathon, I chose this project as a personal challenge to myself. To keep myself accountable, I declared my goal on Facebook. I’ve never been more nervous to click “Post” on Facebook. I still remember sitting on the couch in my living room, hovering my mouse over that tempting blue button. I expected responses telling me what I already knew:
  • What value can you, a green twenty-four year old, possibly bring to literature?
  • You’re nothing in comparison to an Allende/Tartt/Dickens/Fitzgerald/any legitimate author.
  • How do you know what sells?

Not to get all “Upworthy” on you, but I was shocked by “what happened next.” I received one then ten then over thirty Likes on this status about an ambiguous personal goal. Maybe they just like me. Or personal goals. Or Facebook statuses. Prior to the book, my most recent optional personal goal was a thesis in psycholinguistics and nobody was knocking on my door wanting to read that (surprisingly).

THE post

The book was my first unsolicited endeavor — no teacher, no parent, no boss, no friend asked me to do it — which meant that no one but I had a vested interest in the pursuit.

The insecurities I experienced on the quest to my first solo, adult goal, were unparalleled.

In the eighteen months between conceiving and launching the book (which ended up a novella), I questioned my capacity to succeed every single day. I wondered how many people thought I was a fool, always adding one to the number — because I myself thought I was a fool.

Self-doubt, above all else, is our biggest obstacle in life.

This is not an easy obstacle to clear and more importantly, clearing it does not result in better performance.

More statistics:

  • 9 people ripped the earliest draft apart then pieced it together better than the way they found it
  • 38 people together contributed $1,455 to my publishing efforts
  • 84 people signed up to proofread the entire book
  • 20 actually proofread the entire book
  • 234 people like the book’s page on Facebook
  • 365 Goodreads readers requested a copy
  • 137 Goodreaders have it on a shelf to read

Each of these bullets left me asking questions like Who are these people? and Are they bored? and Why does this person care so much about my success? or What’s in it for them?

It was only on the evening of my book launch, as I stood in front of a group of fifty local fans (as in, close friends and family), that I had two important realizations:

1. I succeeded despite myself.

2. People who care about you care about your “solo” success.

Everyone needs at least one person rooting for them on the sidelines. I am grateful (and continually shocked) to have so many.

While self-doubt causes us to question our competence (and results in handicaps like the impostor syndrome) having a fan helps us feel accountable. Telling others that I gave up would have been harder than accepting it for myself. Having fans made me care that much more about my performance.

And guess what? The combination of self-doubt and care about one’s performance leads to subjective overachievement. 

Everyone needs a fan.

As we speak, my new author friend is reaching the beginning of the end of her writing process. Her path is slightly different, but her experience largely the same. I am her fan. She has many others, but I am proud to be one of them. It helps that her writing is genuine and her story, authentic.

It probably goes without saying that I am a fan of many others in this world. They and their projects, more than my own, make my life rich. When they succeed, I succeed.

What I didn’t know before but I know now is that solo adult goals really aren’t very adult or very solo.

There is an insecure child inside each of us and the most adult thing we can do to pacify it is invite others to join our journey from personal challenge to achievement. These ever-positive others will take their roles seriously and actually propel us forward toward our success.

And by taking this adult approach, you and your accomplishments will always be a fan favorite.

academia, goals, grit, happiness, perseverance, real world, success

The Problem with Confusing Ambition and Happiness

It’s Saturday afternoon and you really want to be doing something relaxing. As you think about lazy activities, you are slowly reminded of all the loose ends you left at work on Friday evening. I really should just work you tell yourself as you open your laptop. And well, that’s the excuse you’d use if a friend called. But the crazy thing is you kind of do want to work because you like what you do. You’re pretty happy with it. It’s not what you tell your friends though. They’re so set on starting companies and moving mountains that it would just feel awkward to admit your current happiness.

Especially if you’re on your second or third post-college job, the above scenario may especially resonate. You’ve been on the project that you hated, you’ve been at the company that felt stepping-stoney, and now, you are where you are and you’re generally content. But is that allowed? Are you still the “rockstar” that you once were in your eager beaver days?

We’ll get there, but first some important anecdotes:

During my childhood, the drive home from any family outing – a birthday party, dinner at a friend’s house, a play date, a day trip, a sporting event – would be spent by listening to my brother, despite everything that we did get to do, complain about what we didn’t.

“It’s not fair. Why didn’t we go on that one ride?”

“Why did I have to leave earlier than Nathaniel?”

“I didn’t get my second turn on the Nintendo 64.”

My parents would listen silently while my brother whined, until finally, one would say in a disappointed sing-song, “You’re nev-er hap-py,” as if that made it all better. It kind of did, too, because it provided no conversation around the matter. Nothing on which my brother could linger.

As he left behind his childhood, my brother also left behind his annoying obsession with identifying the negatives in a generally positive situation.

What he didn’t lose, however, was his unbeatable threshold for personal satisfaction. He holds himself to the highest standard, only briefly celebrating his successes before turning more attention to the fine hairs that were out of place. He is smart, but more importantly, he is focused.

This likely explains how my brother continually achieved academic success at the concrete tasks he tackled. He wasn’t happy until he could achieve that “little bit more.” Tangible (albeit controversial) proof includes a near straight-A (or above) record from kindergarten through his graduation from Yale.

Nine months ago, I started tutoring a high school senior in English. She moved to America from China two years ago, and belongs to a family who is still disappointed by her gender (they wanted a boy) and repeatedly told her she would not get into college. They were also unwilling (one parent) and incapable (the other parent) to pay for it.

Over the course of our time together, I watched as my tutee wrote and rewrote tens of essays and researched college upon college not just for its prestige or programs, but also for its commitment to ESL students, women, scholarships, and post-graduate opportunities in pursuit of her goal to be the first female in her family to attend college. “I will be so happy if that happens,” she said to me once.

This fall, my tutee will not only be attending one of her top choice colleges, but also with a fully funded scholarship for her first year. With no more essays to write (Praise the Lord!), we now go for weekly walks practicing conversational English. Last week, I stopped us midway and turned to her.

“How happy do you feel? You got into your top choice school! And with full scholarship!” She looked back at me unmoved.

“It’s my second choice school.”

“Right, but still…”

In 2007, psychologists Duckworth and Peterson set out to understand personal indicators of professional success above and beyond intellect. In their research, they found that one specific non-cognitive factor called “grit,” defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, accounted for a significant 4% variance in attaining success. They concluded that in addition to talent, success relied on focused and sustained talent over long periods of time.

Grit helps us reach goals. Grit is what my brother has. My tutee has grit.

While part of me wonders if I am being the “I’ll be proud of you no matter what” parent/guardian type, the other part of me remembers that I too experienced similar disappointment to my tutee when, eight years ago, my dad wrote a check for my deposit to UPenn. Despite having achieved my general goal to attend college on the East Coast, I wasn’t completely happy about it. “But maybe I’ll come off the waitlist at Columbia,” I told him while thinking, “If only I had gotten into Yale.” (I know, I know.)
To anyone who is past the stage of pre-professional academia, the cases of my brother, my tutee, and me might be worrisome. Is it unhealthy that ambitious individuals are unable to be happy?

Considering the somewhat healthy outcomes of this reluctance to be completely happy with the status quo (self-motivation, hard work, personal goal-setting), I would argue that it actually isn’t a problem during the phase of formal education. Goals are so concrete, landmarks so predictable (the next exam or class project), external validation so clear-cut (a grade), and paths mostly linear (semester after semester). For example, a student might peg happiness on receiving a good grade on her AP US History final project. The ambition is concrete because getting some grade on the assignment is inevitable. Upon receiving a B+, she will likely be unhappy, but the unhappiness won’t linger long because the project itself will never show itself again, and there will be future final projects for which she can strive to perform even better.

The problem comes after school.

Every year around this time, tens of thousands of black-gown-clad college graduates hear some version of the advice to “follow your passions” to “find happiness.”

The advice reiterates what they have learned to be true for most of school: Ambition is conflated with happiness.

While mostly harmless during childhood, this conflation erupts in a post-academic world where paths are meandering or worse nonexistent: When is it okay to say you are happy? If you say you are happy, are you void of ambition? Can you only be perfectly happy once you attain your goals?

This brings us back to the weekend work scenario.

I know a lot of twenty-somethings with big goals. They want to start companies. They want to go to top business schools. They want to travel extensively and exotically. They want to be doctors. They want to get books published (I know this twenty-something particularly well). They want to find soul mates.

But achieving some of these goals is kind of far away. They aren’t like grades that can be earned and improved within weeks of one another. They aren’t really sure-things either. Long-term goals assume many unknowns and are not guaranteed to pan out the way we might anticipate.

If, like in school, we plant our happiness on some far off planet that houses our goals, we start to deny everyday joys and successes. A good streak at work is clouded by the fact that we are not yet working our dream job (how much do you love to hate “#ilovemyjob” instagrams?). A restorative road trip pales in comparison to the desired years-long escapade through Asia. A self-published book is nothing like a Times bestseller. Attending a top business school is yet another sign of being lost. A good boyfriend is “probably not” the one.

This is a problem because these everyday joys and successes are the ones that fill the majority of our lives.

As a follow-up to the Duckworth et al. findings on grit, Singh and Duggal Jha probed further to understand if and how grit is related to happiness. The study demonstrated a significant positive correlation (+26%) between happiness and grit.

Correlation does not prove causation, which in this case helps to prove my point. Grit does not cause happiness, but instead the two are intertwined and positive influence one another. Increased happiness suggests increased grit on the meandering path toward self-identified success.

Happiness cannot be the destination.

Rather than ignoring happiness or worse, convincing ourselves that we cannot be happy yet, we in the real world should be identifying what in our lives makes us happy today. Be okay with admitting it. Bring it with you wherever you go. Because you know what? Happiness is what’s going to get you wherever you need to go. It will motivate you to work harder and embrace what you have in the process.

Happiness is not the lack, but a driver of ambition.

band-aids, childhood, goals, haircuts, self-perception, thinking big

“A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” -CoCo Chanel

Until I was seven years old, I wore Band-Aids like accessories. The same way you would put on your light-up sneakers or snap-bracelet, I would put on a Band-Aid. Neon, block pattern, and sometimes even that boring plastic tan one. I remember one family dinner party in particular when two of the dads were sitting with me on the couch.

“So which ones of these are real injuries?” One dad asked. I looked at him with those wide eyes that said, “You’re not very smart for an adult.”

“They all are.” He did one of those “Kids these days” head-shakes then surrendered.

What he didn’t know, and what I was not eloquent enough to explain, was that technically, each of my Band-Aids did represent an injury. Whenever I was sad — just plain pouty — I put on a Band-Aid. Call my crazy, but it always helped. It was as if the vibrancy of the Band-Aid designs entered through my skin and permeated through my body.

Three Fridays ago, I, a young adult, had a pouty day. It started as the post-holiday slump, then transitioned into an empty feeling of days passing with nothing to look forward to, and finally spiraled into the kind-of-cliche-but-unavoidable questions about where I’m trying to go in life. If you’ve never had one of these, you should get yourself checked because you may not be human.

Whenever this happens to me (which, for the worried therapists out there, isn’t that often), I typically jot down a couple goals on paper, be it a career goal, a personal project, or a “life goal” (yeah, I don’t really know what that is either). Some people argue that when you write something down, your brain perceives completion, meaning that you may not actually act. In my case, the controversy is irrelevant. The things on my list were so grand that neither I, nor anyone else, can realistically achieve them any time soon.

Needless to say, on the particular Friday in question, my list was a waste of paper and ink. We were not even three weeks into the New Year, and I already needed a do-over. As the realization and implications began to set on my shoulders like heavy San Francisco fog, I snapped. It was an animalistic, youthful snap.

Within twenty-four hours, I was sitting in front of a hair-dresser.

“Cut a lot of it. Till my shoulders.” The tone was ruthless.

I have always had long hair. When I was younger, I let it fall in front of my face during piano recitals so I wouldn’t have to see my audience staring at me. When I was a bit older, a boy told me that he liked my long hair and that I should never cut it. When I was older still, the length made it convenient for me to crumple everything into a high bun and neglect it for the rest of the day (I know, that last part makes me sound like I’m eighty).

“I’m so into that style right now,” the stylist responded. “It’s going to be up here,” she said pressing my shoulder. My hair fell several inches below her finger.

“Yes. Let’s do it before I freak out,” I said taking off my glasses.

I couldn’t really see what was going on. Like a child relying on a parent to fix things, I left it all to the lady cutting my hair.

“All done.”Glasses on.

What do you think?”

Whoa. I look so…different.

I love it.”

Good different, I think?

“It really suits you.”

“You know what? Me too,” I finally responded.

It’s the “new me” that I needed!

Somewhere, buried in the pile of my hair on the ground, was my pout.

Since that day, in the last three weeks, I have met with small victories or joys in all aspects of my life — recreationally, artistically, socially, and professionally. In some ways, it has felt like an out-of-body experience where my drab long-haired self is watching this “new me” defeat what long-haired me was incapable of defeating.

My haircut was a band-aid fix.

It didn’t have any magical powers (I’m 95% sure). It was a superficial self-“improvement.” But somewhere in its primitive simplicity was its power to renew my energy and transform my outlook. While my list of grand plans only intimidated me into inaction, the easily-actionable decision to chop off my hair (and very visible proof of having taken action) empowered me.

In this world of notable feats everywhere — in science, in technology, in art — it can be debilitating for an ambitious individual to question his or her path. Small hurdles look like miserable failures. The pouty day is the end of the world. It can feel naive and childish not to counter the pout by immediately picking up a new hobby and Googling how to become a pro, stat. But that path is a hairy one. The one that, more often than not, leaves you behind your starting point. Know that there is nothing wrong with the metaphoric tantrum.

Forget the BHAG. Instead, treat your pout with something just as madly childish. Your frantic impulsiveness will remind you of the one childhood mentality we should never outgrow: When you believe in yourself, you can do anything.

blogs, books, breakfast, goals, Help, psychology, writing

How I made the decision to write a book

Breakfast is my absolute favorite meal of the day. Enjoying my first taste of the day while the sun’s rays, still warming up, stream in through the kitchen window, the aroma of fresh espresso swirls around me, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. For me, breakfast is a time for reflection, for planning, for learning more about the world around me, for reminding myself that today is a new day.

Unfortunately, my breakfasts aren’t nearly this romantic on a daily basis. During the workweek (especially as the week goes on), 3-minute breakfasts become the norm for me: Scrolling through my email for a preview of my day, flipping through my newsreader for headlines, scarfing down a piece of peanut butter toast simply because I need to eat something. Coffee? In a travel mug. I make up for this complete disrespect to breakfast with elaborate ones over the weekend. I’ll spend up to two hours eating an omelet, sipping coffee, reading all the articles that throughout the week I had saved to “read later,” and blogging. With little sense of urgency or stress, weekend mornings are my haven.

For a couple years now, a friend and I have passionately argued about how writing, journalism specifically, is changing in the age of Twitter and social media. Essentially, written news is moving towards the likes of television and radio news: headlines with the latest. My friend is in denial. I accept it, but realize that, just like my breakfasts, there is a time, place, and specific type of story that calls for a more involved piece with its flowery language.

Last week, I read a beautiful article in the LA Times expounding the importance of the “long sentence.” The author argues that the long sentence helps us to escape from “trite conclusions” and “reductionism.” He criticizes how “often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude.” He compares books, safe houses for the long sentence, to long conversations with friends. The longer the conversation, the less black and white things become. The more intimacy the more empathy. While of course, there will always be a place for the short-sentence, it can never replace the long one.

Over breakfast a few days ago, I came across The Business Case for Reading Novels (Of course, I only actually read it today since, pressed for time, I had saved it to read later). Experiment after experiment, the article shows psychological evidence for what your parents and teachers always told you when you were younger: that reading books is good for you. And not necessarily books about self-help or business or managing stress or biographies of successful people, but fictional ones. On vampires and girls with dragon tattoos. According to the data, “fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion.” Immersing ourselves in make-believe lands with make-believe situations actually improves our capabilities as social human beings in the real world.

I started reading The Help before the movie came out over a year ago. My intention was to finish the book then watch it in theaters. I finished the book last week, and the movie is already out on Blue Ray & DVD (just in time for MLK Day, at least). The novel follows the story of white 24-year-old woman who writes a book exposing the plight of the black help in 1960’s Mississippi. Setting aside the obvious themes of the story, there was an underlying message that spoke to me: that this 24-year-old woman, who had a passion for writing, went out and wrote a book.

I started this blog 4 years ago. This will be my 160th entry. Each post is a concise, bite-size, expose of some aspect of my life, my thoughts, or my values. Each article has some sort of ending. In fact, I spend quite a bit of time deciding how to conclude each piece. And the next article? A completely different thought (though my themes may be pretty consistent). So, for the sake of my growth as a writer and according to HBR, the empathetic growth of my readers, I’ve decided I want to write a book. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be about or how I’m going to get there, but the wheels have been set in motion to embark on an exploration of the “long sentence.” The first elaborate, weekend-breakfast of my writing career, if you will.

So to the run-on: Bring it. I have a pocket full of punctuation and I’m not afraid to use it.