childhood, escape, Harry Potter, JK Rowling, literature, reading, real world

Why Reading Harry Potter As An Adult Is More Magical Than You’d Think

As with most people in their late twenties who effectively “grew up” with Harry Potter (Happy kinda 27th, Harry!), I remember my first encounter with the famous wizard. I was in the fifth grade, and my teacher Mrs. Congdon read the first book to our class in one-hour increments each day after lunch.

Each day during for that one hour, I escaped the struggles of my world (among which were math, friendship, and piano) and entered the universe of galleons and Grims.

For the next several years, I would eagerly await each new book’s release, pre-ordering months before, dressing in costume and waiting in an endless Barnes & Noble line to grab my copy at midnight, and staying up all night to read the book. The series, in some sense, was my Time-Turner, enabling me to pause “real-life” and live, at least temporarily, in an alternate one. Perhaps because of my naiveté, or perhaps simply because of the fantastical nature of the plot, I saw every part of Harry Potter’s world as better than mine.

Books 1 to 7

Today, almost twenty years since I met Harry, I associate the series with escape. Which is why, last month, in search of escape — from the pain of personal injury, from the horror of domestic injustice and worldwide terrorism, from the disgust with political agendas — I reopened Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time since I was ten. (I planned to read the entire series, and I’m three-sevenths, or well, three-eighths, of the way there.)

This time around, however, the reading experience has been a little different. While the writing still has the magical ability to suck me in for hours on end, Harry’s world no longer seems more (or less) desirable than my own. The obvious parallels —Quidditch injuries and soccer ones, dark wizards and terrorists, Ministry of Magic and government goings-on — are endless. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because in opposition to those less desirable life truths, the Harry Potter series more abundantly emphasizes the beauties of life: Of continual self-improvement, of subsisting relationships, of unquestioning loyalty, of inspiring community. Forces that work to stamp out darkness in the magic world as well as in our muggle one.

I still experience the glee of getting buried under my covers and whizzing to Hogwarts each night. But what I realize now that I didn’t as a child is that some of the most magical aspects of Harry’s world can (and actually do) exist in my world as well.

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2016, change, childhood, experiencing, real world, strengths, success

How I Learned That It’s Okay To Ask For Help

In my childhood home, my dad’s office den was the most exciting forbidden room of the house. While it wasn’t hard for us to keep away from the expensive machines and important papers that filled a majority of that room, my brother and I found it impossible not to sneak in and play with his (yes, my dad’s) toy collection (he called them “desk props” and “paper weights”).

Among them included a small plastic crate with a small hole and square button. Through then hole shown an eye, representative of a creature trapped inside the crate. Pressing the button made the crate start shaking uncontrollably while the creature cried, multiple times, “Excuse me, excuse me! Will you let me outta here!!”

Don’t hurt yourself trying to imagine this:

 

My brother and I found endless pleasure in tip-toeing into my dad’s office, pressing the button, then scurrying out and giggling in the hallway while the audio track finished.

The crate wasn’t entertaining to me because it was meant to be or even because it was a forbidden pleasure. It was entertaining because it provided a darker, sadistic humor. The notion of confinement reminded me of my freedom. I had power that this trapped “creature” did not. I was strong, and it was weak.

You see, at age nine, my definition of “weakness” was “in need of help.”

Unlike my brother, I was the “hands-off” child. I voluntarily did my homework and laundry, I chose which books to read, and I came up with my own views on religion and culture (which boiled down to writing letters to God when I wanted intangible things and Santa when I wanted tangible ones). Over the years, my parents and teachers credited my independent actions and thoughts to my strengths as a student and my well-roundedness as a little human. Over the years, I conflated “independence” with “accomplished on my own.” For me, asking for help was a sign of weakness. Failure.

This is the perhaps the most foundational misconception that I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I will never forget my first ever meeting with corporate executives. It was my first product management role and I was to present the initiative I would be working on for the following six months. My slides were a trainwreck and my voiceover was the Titanic. I hadn’t requested that my manager review my work beforehand because I wanted to demonstrate how capable I was. How independent. After all, I had been making slideshows since the sixth grade. As we walked out of the room after the meeting, my manager told me to come see him later. “I’ll teach you how to make a slide presentation.” It is one of my most glamorous failures to date and success would have been no more difficult to attain than asking for help early on.

Last year, I started working at IDEO, the most collaborative place I’ve ever worked. I received a flurry of “new employee” advice from veteran designers when I first joined. All danced around a similar theme, and one way of phrasing it leapt out from the rest: “Never hesitate to ask for help. People here fail when they don’t ask for help.”

This was perhaps the first time in my personal or professional life that I had been encouraged to ask for help, and more importantly, that needing help was no indicator of capability, strength, or success. It was a life-changing revelation.

Since then, I’ve striven to identify opportunities to ask for help — whether it’s on a piece I’m writing, a business model I’m testing, or a meal I’m preparing — and associating them with moments of strength rather than signs of shortcoming.

We forget to tell kids that asking for help is a voluntary decision. Not asking for help whispers ignorance. When we choose not to ask for help, we choose to confine ourselves in a crate. “Help” screams independence. Asking for help is how we help ourselves.

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camping, hobbies, learning, mastery, reading, real world, running, self-improvement, slowing down, soccer

How To Keep Running When You Can Barely Walk

I have a lot of hobbies. Some that I dabble in (camping, letter-writing, crafting, cooking) and others that I pursue with rigor (running, writing, soccer, mentoring). I consider any of these activities equally productive uses of my time. I’m more advanced in some than others, but I’m not “world-class” in any.

A Dinner Menu

I often question whether my smorgasboard approach is a good one. If I want to be a notable writer, shouldn’t I spend every free moment drafting, submitting, or agent-finding? If I want to be a runner, shouldn’t I enter and train for marathons? Why am I voluntarily straying off the path of mastery? Shouldn’t I pick one thing and run with it (figuratively, except in the case of running)?

Recently, two things happened that provided me with clarity around my approach that seemingly lacks strategy.

Thing #1: I got injured

Please Describe What Happened

I’m currently recovering from bursitis in my right knee after a collision on the soccer field. The (hopefully) 3-week process involves lots of rest (no soccer, no running), ice and aspirin, and rehab exercises. After serious “It could have been worse,” recognition and gratitude, I was overcome with a mild depression — the injury affects my favorite part of my daily routine. I go for a run almost every morning. Some runs are longer than others, and some are faster than others, but they all count.

The first morning after my injury, I woke up when I usually do and simply skipped Morning Routine Step 1 (the run) and went straight to Morning Routine Step 2 (get ready and go to work). Arriving at the office at 7 AM, I realized that, despite having enough work to do, this wasn’t a healthy resolution.

That evening before going to bed, I denied myself the self-pity. Instead of wallowing in the fact that I wouldn’t be getting up the next morning to run, I reminded myself what running means to me: Above and beyond the obvious cardiovascular benefit, it is a mental stabilizer. It allows me to tune in to my physical and mental health — Am I in pain? Am I anxious? Am I content? Am I strong? — before starting the day.

I then took inventory of my other hobbies to identify one that could temporarily replace running. When it came to writing, I recognized that, though it is not currently part of my everyday routine and obviously lacks the physical jolt, it helps me achieve a similar mental balance whenever I do sit down and do it. Writing became my chosen substitute.

For the rest of that week (and for future weeks through my recovery), I spent each morning running words across a page before heading to work.

Thanks to the existence of my buffet of hobbies, I was able to find an alternative when two were taken away. If I had previously written any off, the injury would have left me in a darker hole.

Thing #2: I read a memoir

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing

I started reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running shortly before I got injured. After the injury, I considered putting his book aside until I was fully recovered. It’s painful to read a runner’s love notes to his sport when you are unable to participate. It’s tempting to hate him for writing passages like, “I’ve never had a time when my legs hurt so much I couldn’t run. I don’t really stretch much before running, but I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t been sick once. I’m no great runner, but I’m definitely a strong runner” (Murakami 40).

But I persisted. I persisted because in many ways, it’s not a book about running. It’s a book about lessons learned from running that have helped Murakami shape his writing and his life. He explains, “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? [. . .] I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different” (Murakami 82).

Skills honed as a runner, such as focus and determination, are ones that Murakami applies when writing as well.

As I read, it was clear to me that I too have hobbies that intersect. Writing and running, of course, in all the ways described by Murakami. But others as well, like soccer and mentoring.

Whenever I sub out of a soccer game, I have the ability to experience the game from an entirely new perspective. I immediately see opportunities that were previously invisible to me (i.e., routine plays by opponents or open space for passing). When I reenter the field, I’m a better teammate and player, making deliberate choices based on what I’m seeing as well as what I wouldn’t have seen before. A few years ago, when I was struggling with the realities of mentoring high school students in a bad school district, I came to the conclusion that, even as a mentor, I needed to think and act like a soccer player on the sidelines. While I can’t change the game first-hand, I can observe from afar, helping students and teachers identify opportunities for improvement that they might not see while in the thick of things.

From Murakami, I learned that having multiple hobbies means I can improve on one while practicing another.

***

Camp, Glamp. Potato, Potahto.

Camp, glamp. Potato, potahto.

From both the realistic perspective (a hobby being taken away from me) and the creative one (hobbies informing one another), there seems to be no reason to eliminate any from my life. It’s nice to dabble, and mastery needn’t always be the goal. Perhaps my perspective would be different if I were truly brilliant at one activity or had specific aspirations as such. But then again, maybe not, if you consider running-enthusiast Murakami to be a great writer.

From marathon writing sessions to realistic mentoring goals, I’m choosing the circuitous path to extra-curricular enlightenment. To be great at anything, after all, you have to go the extra mile.


Ref: Murakami, Haruki and Gabriel, Philip. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir. New York, NY: Vintage, 2009. Print.

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communication, friendship, language, life lessons, Lincoln, linguistics, real world, US Presidents, writing

What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Choosing (And Keeping) Our Words

There is an adorable elderly man with an ice cream parlor in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His eyes sparkle with authenticity; his smile glows with friendliness. He is the kind of the ice cream server you stop to see, even when your lactose intolerance says you shouldn’t. He is the kind of man who, when he meets your parents, will tell them that he enjoys your visits, but that you don’t visit too often.

No matter how my life changes, this man and his ice cream parlor have been my constant. His eyes and smile always the same. The flavors always the same (but always requiring pre-decision tastes).

Two weeks ago, as I was walked past the parlor on my way to dinner, some thoughtless impulse drove me to stop inside. There was no time, and it was not the time, for ice cream.

“Hello lovely lady. What will it be for you today?”

I immediately recognized the awkwardness of my having entered this sixteen-square-foot parlor with no plans to purchase ice cream.

“Oh, well, I’m just passing by on my way to dinner.” He was unsure how to respond, and looking for ways to fill the silence, I continued.

“What time do you close?”

“Today? Oh! I say, about, 9:30.”

“Okay, maybe I’ll come by after dinner,” I said reflexively.

Somewhat fatefully, I made it back to his parlor shortly before 9:30 PM. As he handed me a napkin, the old man looked me in the eye. “You are a good one, you know. Most people say they will come back but they never do. You stuck to your word.”

“I try,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt for the fact that my reason for returning was not necessarily because I said I would.

In the days after our encounter, I found myself thinking about the importance of words, and keeping our word, in today’s world.

From texts to email to pings to phone calls to in-person run-ins, most of us are inundated with messages requiring some response. While we may aspire to craft genuine responses back, at some point, for me at least, the queue becomes unmanageable and the ultimate goal becomes inbox zero.

Whether it’s the let’s get together sometime‘s or the miss you‘s I send and receive, I sometimes wonder if we place more value on giving and getting some response, rather than the content of the response itself — in both our digital and physical lives. Are we as deliberate in our word choice in social settings as we are in work email or professional meetings? Or do we just say whatever is simplest in the given moment? “I’ll come back later,” to the man at the ice cream parlor or worse, “We should do coffee sometime!” to that acquaintance on the sidewalk.

It is often said that San Franciscans are flaky. The man at the ice cream parlor has me thinking that perhaps we are not flaky. Perhaps we are just well-intentioned liars. It has come to a point where I, much like him, am somewhat pleasantly surprised when people keep their word.

Like ice cream taster spoons, words are so easy to give away, after all.

Abraham Lincoln on ReligionEarlier this weekend, I read this New Yorker article which describes how language has become a “central subject in Lincoln studies.” Over one hundred years after his death, the words used by and about Lincoln are being explicated and analyzed to help us better understand him as a person. The article’s author argues that “rhetoric and writing were as essential to [Lincoln’s] career as acts and orders and elections.” For example, in the hotly debated arena of his faith, we look to his utterances: “Yet, undeniably, as the war and his Presidency progressed, Lincoln spoke increasingly of God—inserted God, as it seems, into the Gettysburg Address—and evidently had some kind of complicated and rich sense of “necessity” and a supernatural presiding power.”

The article inspired me to think about the words I use in my modern-day exchanges.

When am I using words just to use them? How often am I “maybe after dinner”-ing people? (“I’ll try my best,” when really I won’t or “I’d love to do this again soon,” when really I don’t. “LOL when I’m not laughing at all.)

What do they say about me? Do they say what I intend for them to say? How do they come across to others? Are they authentically me?

This is not to say that I would ever err toward more “truthful” words that could harm another person. It is to say that by being more discerning in my word choice, I can effectively transform these otherwise overused phrases into rare, but meaningful ones (“I miss you like crazy,” when my heart truly aches, or “I would love to see you soon,” when I’m actively searching for a date and time to coordinate).

Though I am certainly not fool enough to believe that my words will still exist — let alone be explicated and debated — in the way that Lincoln’s are today, I am motivated to put more thought into the words I throw around today. To celebrate the words I choose, rather than the fact that I chose words in the first place.

And given the necessity of reciprocity in communication, I would love, it would be wonderful wouldn’t it be nice if I implore you to consider doing the same for yourself.

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childhood, math, money, psychology, questions, real world, San Francisco

How Asking Questions Can Make You Rich

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Last week, someone tried to steal my money. Before she could run off, I caught her in the act and fought her off. My weapon? A simple question.

Now before you imagine any grand scenes of my fighting crime on the streets of San Francisco, let me explain. I was on the phone with an agent, signing up for renter’s insurance. I had already completed an online interview and received a quote of $10.83 per month. The next and final step was for me to talk with an insurance representative who would “help me get the coverage I need.” So as we talked on the phone to make it all official, I naturally assumed that she was on my side—there for me like a good neighbor. Finally, it came time to pay.

“You’re total is one hundred and thirty dollars,” she said.

“What?” Not one for mental math, I felt like the number had come out of nowhere.

“Of course you can also pay monthly,” she said, leaving me to infer that the first number was annual.

“I think I’ll go monthly,” I said. I like to track my monthly purchases, and a recurring item on my credit card statement would be a good reminder.

“Okay. You’re total is $12.83.”

“Huh?” Neither mental math nor some taps on my calculator app could explain this one. I knew I would need to ask if I wanted an answer. “How are these amounts being determined?” 

“There is a two-dollar setup fee for the first month.”

“Great. So then next month it would be $10.83?”

“No it would be $11.83.”

“Wait what?!” A third number. This was too much. I was feeling less and less assured by the minute. “Can you help me understand this?” 

“Well, there is a one dollar service charge each month when you pay monthly.”

Aha! Caught you! Aha aha aha. Our conversation had been like a wrestling match and I had pinned her down. “But there are no additional fees if I pay annually?”

“That’s correct.” I chose the annual payment plan and hung up feeling like I had saved a million bucks (when really I had saved about twelve).

Asking that one simple question had invited the agent to unpack their payment structure (probably one that she is encouraged not to explain) and allowed me to make a more educated decision.

 

I haven’t always been a questions-asker. I know now that “there is no bad question” and that “chances are someone else has the same question,” but for most of my life, questions were a bad thing. I feared them.

Questions were those things that my mom asked when she didn’t believe what I was saying. They were the things you asked when I was being disobedient (“but why?”). Questions were what those dumb kids asked the teacher when they didn’t understand what she was saying (but everyone else did).

Over time, these cues taught me that questions were not constructive or collaborative. They were cavilling. 

The pinnacle of my question-fearing came senior year of college. I was preparing for my thesis presentation, which would consist of a one-hour session where I would share my findings then answer questions from the department. In addition to practicing my talk, I spent hours praying that nobody would ask any questions. What if I don’t know the answer? It’ll make my thesis look weak. What if I don’t have an answer? It’ll destroy my thesis.

If you’ve ever been in a presentation of research findings, you know that my prayers went completely unanswered. Oh were there questions. I didn’t know the answers to some (“I can certainly look into that,”) but for most, there were no answers to begin with (“These findings can’t answer that”).

When we debriefed my presentation a few days later, I started out by apologizing to my advisor. “I messed up in the Q&A,” I said. “I should have been more prepared.” My advisor looked at me sternly.

“What are you saying? People only asked questions because they were interested in what you were talking about. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have asked questions. I thought it was a good conversation. Based on the energy in the room, I’m thinking we should do a follow-up study.”

It was with this conversation that I first reconsidered my beliefs around questions-asking.

 

As I’ve transitioned into my professional life, I’ve come to rely on questions as a sort of currency: They demonstrate the extent to which people are invested in what you are saying. When leaders participate in meetings, the best ones—the ones that seem to care the most—ask questions. When the most effective speakers stand in front of an audience, they leave substantial time for questions.

Today, my life is full of questions, both that I ask and that I answer. I live and breathe questions without which my personal and professional work would be far less stimulating or meaningful.

If you ask me, there are two types of people in this world: Those who ask questions and those who pay an extra twelve dollars in renter’s insurance each year. It hasn’t always been the case, but today, there’s no question I’m the former. 

In every situation, push yourself to ask the hard questions. Invite the hard questions from others. Because it’s these questions, not their answers or the answers that you already have, that will make your life a whole lot richer.

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