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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2015, 2016, life lessons, math, meaningfulness, new year, psychology, resolutions, shared experiences, speech, stereotypes

Why We Need To Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Pushing Past The Comfort Zone

“Because I said so,” was a common explanation I heard growing up. As was, “As long as you live under this roof you’ll live under my rules.” Whether it was making my bed or going to a dinner party none of my friends were going to, there was no negotiating with my mom. I frequently had to do things I didn’t want to do. That’s just how it was.

Life looked something like taking a math class I didn’t want to take “because it’s a pre-requisite,” going to piano class “because it is Wednesday,” and going to a school dance “because socializing is good for you.”

But things are different now. One of the biggest privileges of being a young adult (with nobody to take care of but myself) is that I have the freedom to say and do whatever I want. While I do have obligations and responsibilities like paying my student loans and going to work, they are minimal, and most of them are ones that I have chosen for myself.

How many times in 2015 did you choose to do something that you didn’t want to do? Not something like going to the dentist or doing your laundry, but something more profound.

I won’t pry, but I’ll tell you that my answer is “not often.”

In the five years since I’ve joined the real world, I’ve aggressively curated my life to be one that I’m comfortable living. It’s worth mentioning that while these years have certainly come with my share disappointment and hardship, I’m referring here to the aspects of my life I’m able to control. I found a job that makes me happy; I’ve cultivated a community of people who I appreciate and who appreciate me; I eat what I like; I exercise at my desired frequency; I dedicate my free time to activities I enjoy; I spend and don’t spend my money the way I deem appropriate; I have the conversations I want to have; I am selectively social; and I rarely go out of my way to do things I don’t want to do. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. In fact, this way of life has allowed me to get to know myself and what I value. Perhaps I am lucky or perhaps I am just lucky enough to find the silver linings.

Given this hyper-conscious way of living, I was surprised to realize that in the last month, I’ve been in multiple situations that make me uncomfortable. Voluntarily.

For example, at the beginning of the month, I had to give a speech to my entire office and their external guests. When I volunteered for the gig a few months prior, I did so considering only the speech-writing aspect (something I’m very comfortable with) and overlooking the speech-giving aspect (something that scares me half to death). In the hours leading up to my speech, I couldn’t think or eat. My heart had descended into my stomach. Despite being armed with a strongly written speech, I feared that walking up to the podium would be coupled with a sudden onset of amnesia or paralysis. The blend of anxiety, fear, and excitement was one that I hadn’t felt since the days of childhood piano recitals.

For another example, just a week later, I was at a ceremony sitting next to someone I haven’t spoken to in years. Distracting myself with my phone (something I’m comfortable with), I happened upon a tweet to test your algebra skills. Though I detest mental math, and math in general, I clicked the link and leaned over to this neighbor. “Want to try doing these together?” I asked. He obliged, and we started reading the first word problem. As the pang of stereotype-threat entered my brain, I almost immediately regretted my invitation to jointly tackle a type of math problem I purposely haven’t attempted in fifteen years (something that makes me uncomfortable), with a person I haven’t spoken to in five (something that scares me half to death). But there was no turning back.

The hours leading up to the speech and the split-second in which I offered up math problems — the moments  I spent at the cusp of comfort and discomfort — are some of my biggest moments of growth in recent memory.

This makes me wonder, could the aforementioned “privilege” of curated comfort actually be doing me a disservice? Looking back, I have to admit that my mom’s “because I said so” policy was instrumental in making me the well-rounded individual I am today.

The speech was successfully delivered and the algebra problems were eventually solved. But more importantly, both experiences required me to use my brain in ways that I rarely choose to do. There was a thrill in processing something new and a delightful mystery in awaiting the outcome. Stretching past what was comfortable was a beautiful challenge, and once on the other side, I didn’t regret how it happened.

The nice thing about a comfort zone is that it doesn’t have to be fixed. It can expand as we find more opportunities to tiptoe past the bounds of our status quo. The hard part is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in the first place.

While those of us who consider ourselves comfortable should also consider ourselves lucky, there is something to be said about being too comfortable. After a point, comfort can be just as debilitating as a lack thereof. I wish for you to be as comfortable as you wish to be. But in this new year, find ways to make yourself just slightly uncomfortable.

They say that life starts at the end of your comfort zone. For me, 2016 will start there as well. Here’s to finding new joy, new challenges, and new experiences outside the realms of what we already know.

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2015, compliments, criticism, evolutionary psychology, feedback, new year, psychology

The Perfect Complement To A New Year? A Compliment.

“Before we start eating, I have say this meal looks and smells incredible. Wow. You’ve completely outdone yourself.”

“Before we start? I’ve started and it is delicious. I can’t stop eating this pudding!”

“Same and the polenta is just to die for. So good.”

So went the compliments to the chef (me) at my family’s annual Christmas brunch, this time with new additions in the form of extended family. Though I intended for my response to come across as gracious, it was instead peppered with the awkwardness of compounded humility, self-criticism, and impostor syndrome. Thanks, but perhaps the pudding is too sweet. And the polenta? Could definitely be warmer. This in turn achieved the undesired effect of additional, overcompensated praise. “No way, it’s all perfect!”

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Bank of America, finances, fitness, health, Mint.com, new year, resolutions, savings, socializing

Year after year, we’re doing resolutions all wrong.

I’m still working on these

For the entirety of 2013, I involuntarily paid a monthly twenty-five dollar fee to Bank Of America to “maintain” my account. Though the amount was automatically debited, it’s not like I didn’t know it was happening. My friends at Mint.com sent me a dramatic email each time and encouraged me to explore the many other fee-free banks out there. Each time this happened, my reaction was the same: Outrage to self-pity to complacency. I would hop off the emotional roller coaster deciding, “I should probably do something about this at some point.”

On the evening of January 2, I received my monthly “You were charged an Account Maintenance Fee!” email from Mint. I wouldn’t be surprised if the company has simply set this to be a recurring monthly email to me. Outraged, I deleted the email. I didn’t need it marring my #inboxzero.

It’s at this point that my outrage would typically turn to self-pity. But this time, feverish with that New Year resolve, I decided to take real action. I emailed Bank of America support explaining the situation. On January 3, I received the following response:

“If the account does not meet the requirement then the account will be charged with the fee of $25.00. We see that the account has met with the requirements, but the account was not linked to your savings account when the fee was charged. We truly apologize for the inconvenience caused to you. As the accounts were not linked we have provided the refund of $300.00.”

After months of procrastination, I spent thirty seconds typing an email which earned me $300 that I should never have spent in the first place. All because the new year makes me want to be a new and better me.

On the morning of my life-changing Mint.com email, I woke up extra early. Nervous about flocks of resolutioners exhausting limited machines, I was willing to do anything to reclaim my treadmill and morning routine at the gym. To my surprise, it was business as usual when I arrived. The regulars. People must be on vacation, I told myself. Or perhaps everyone in SF already exercised. Maybe there  won’t be any new ones. Still perplexed, I mentioned it to my coworker when I got into work. She chuckled and facetiously said, “Ha. Nobody does resolutions anymore. Those are so over.”

I knew she was kidding, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she was kind of right. I myself have written about why I don’t do resolutions. It’s depressing, after all, to fall victim to cognitive dissonance — to tell yourself that you’re going to do something, then to not do it — be it because you fell into the routine of “old you” or because the resolution was unrealistic to begin with.

That same year that I proclaimed to be anti-resolution, I didn’t drink alcohol for all of January. It was due to a medication I was taking at the time, but coming with the new year, it still felt resolution-esque. That month, I learned how much fun I could have at company happy hours or bars even when all my friends or coworkers were drinking, I felt detoxified and healthy, and I looked more fit than I had in years. The forced cold turkey approach enabled me to enjoy all the perks of a resolution-gone-right. It wasn’t that I drank a lot before, but the new restriction (which could very well have been a goal) encouraged me to find fun and healthy activities to do with friends outside of grabbing dinner and drinks — yoga, beach runs, bike rides (it helped that I was living in San Diego). I experienced the brilliant feeling of forcing yourself up and out of an otherwise okay status quo.

My coworker’s comment (and my reclaimed $300) got me thinking:

http://marrrrrffin.tumblr.com/post/35836839349

Maybe us anti-resolutioners are thinking about it all wrong. A new year resolution doesn’t need to be an arbitrary statement with a nice ring and no reason. It shouldn’t be a  goal over which we have no control. Instead, we can think of the new year resolution as an easy opportunity for us to challenge our individual status quo — not for a year but for a moment. To experiment on ourselves. To take action on the proverbial dust gathering in our lives (or bank accounts). To throw a whole bunch of self- and life-improving statements against the wall to see what sticks. Even if we don’t maintain them for the entire year, at least we’ll be consumed by a good-doing fervor for a few days or weeks. After all, perhaps there are resolutions that shouldn’t be kept. Perhaps there are resolutions that deserve to forever exist as aspirational goals in our lives.

Even if I’m not a stickler about my finances for the rest of the year, at least I took care of one financial  issue that would have otherwise plagued me for the rest of the year(s) to come.

Go on. Make a resolution. Not for the year, but just for today. See how it makes you feel. If it’s right, maybe it will resolve to stick with you.

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dreams, fear, mugging, new year, self-publishing, soccer, startups, strengths

To a New Year of Unknown Fears

I had my first bad dream when I was seven. I was alone in the house where I grew up and heard a knock on our door to the garage. Excited for company, I leaped at the doorknob. Swinging with the door, I was shocked to find not a human, but a giant evil Mickey Mouse. Squealing, I slammed the door, and still squealing, woke up. I glared at the dream catcher behind my bed the way my mom looked at me when I refused to practice piano. “You were supposed to trap that one!” I accused before shuffling under my comforter. I couldn’t fall back asleep, and was too scared to make the trek across the hallway to my parents’ room. A small part of me feared that my dream was reality and that the evil Mickey was roaming my home. Hiding under my sheets, I hoped that if I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me. Motionless, I spent the rest of the night waiting for the morning, heart beat that much more aggressive with each ambient sound.

For the next few days, I dreaded bedtime, for fear that my bad dream would repeat itself. Realizing at a basic level that my dreams came from inside me, I lamented the fact that I could not simply escape from this bad-dream factory.

About a week after the bad dream, I went to my mom’s room where she was organizing her jewelry.

Embarrassed,  I asked “Do you know any prayers I can say so that I don’t get bad dreams?” “Several,” she said unquestioningly. She is very religious and the way she relied on them, I imagined her prayers to be magical incantations. Learning my mom’s bad dream prayer was empowering; I couldn’t wait to go to sleep that night. The first time I recited it, I felt invincible. I was armed with a secret weapon!

A month or two later, my mom asked me how the prayer was helping. “I haven’t had a bad dream since!” I said with the wide-eyed awe reserved for children. Having conquered them, I couldn’t believe I had ever been scared of bad dreams. (Fun fact: A sleep psychologist would explain that my happy, calm thoughts before going to sleep helped to prevent my mind from going down a disturbing path in my sleep.)

Now in my mid-twenties, my former fear of bad dreams is laughable to me. But fear itself is not. This past year of my life was plagued with fear:

Fear of a challenging conversation

This year, in late March, I received and accepted an opportunity at a startup in San Francisco. While I was thrilled to take this next step in my career and begin a new adventure, I was terrified of quitting my then-current job. I had never quit a job (or anything, really) before this and didn’t know how to drive the conversation with my manager. I spent 48 hours preparing for our conversation, running through the ideal conversation (and everything that could go wrong) in my mind. At the lowest points, I told myself I was making a horrific mistake. Do you even really want to do this? Maybe you shouldn’t leave. Things are not bad. How do you know what things will be like at the new place? Is it worth it? When it finally happened, we were at outdoor picnic tables. My head was light, my heart was a hammer, and my mouth was on autopilot. Time may have stopped. The conversation ended with my manager telling me that “the door was always open” for me to come back, and my wondering why I was ever intimidated to have the conversation.

Fear of “bad (wo)men

The day after I started my new job, I was walking home after work when I was mugged in broad daylight. Though I was too shocked to be scared while it was actually happened, I spent the days, weeks, and months afterwards in debilitating fear — fear that it was a sign I shouldn’t have started this new job, fear that the blow to my head would do permanent damage, fear that my head would never stop hurting, fear that my mugger and her cronies would come after me again, fear that every stranger I saw was going to attack me, fear that I would need to go to therapy forever, fear that I was now eternally vulnerable. For months, I avoided leaving my apartment after dark and straying far from it in general. And for several months after the incident, I feared the implications — legal processes, lawyers, courthouses — that surrounded it. I often wondered how I could escape it all. Today, I know I can’t change what happened, but I feel stronger and resilient as a person for having dealt with it.

Fear of rejection

Two months after the mugging, the day I submitted my first book to Amazon for publishing, I couldn’t eat or drink anything. When I got home from work, I texted a friend. “I can’t eat or drink anything. Breathing also feels weird. I’m nervous about launching this book.” She FaceTimed me immediately. “What are you nervous about? Plenty of people have read this already — I’ve read it four times! It’s great. Get it out there.” “But I’m scared! What if people hate it? What if people hate me and my writing after reading it? What if the formatting is all off?” “This is just cold feet, press the button! I’m going to watch you do it,” my friend encouraged. I pressed the button. The book has been downloaded over a thousand times, and averages a 4.8-star rating.

Fear of illness

In early December, during my rec league’s soccer semifinals, a collision with an opponent sent sliding across the astrosturf field. When I stood up, both my knees were stripped of skin, one of which was rather deep. The wounds bled on the field, burned in the shower, and stung when I walked. They were two dark clouds over our league win. The two things I know about wounds are that you don’t want them to get infected and that they are slow-healing for diabetics (two of my grandparents have/had diabetes). For the next week, I feared white-puffiness or perceived high body temperatures and wondered what a “normal” wound-healing time was. Aaaaghhhh. You could have avoided this! Why do you play this stupid game? I yelled at myself in the shower on Day 3, as droplets that may well have been flames, crept under the gauze. Eighteen days later, the knees are close to new (with minor scarring) and I feel silly about my hypochondria.

In each of these distinct moments, the instinctual unexpected fear, that heart-in-stomach sensation that washes over us like a wave, was exactly the same. No matter the gravity of the situation. In those moments, I resented and sometimes considered eliminating the fear-inducing situations altogether, but I can now say that I don’t regret any of them. I am thankful to have plowed through the fear to quit a job and start a new wonderful one, to discipline a criminal, to publish a book, and to play my favorite sport. These conquered fears join my former fear of bad dreams in building my ever-growing self-confidence and inner-strength.

Entering 2014, I am not only poised to accept new fears in my path, but eager to encounter them, knowing that each one betters me as an individual. Soon, my fears will have nothing to fear but me. Now I’m just scared that if my fears find out how much I love them, they’ll stop coming after me.

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