birthdays, learning, life lessons, needs, self-awareness, self-improvement, wants, wants vs needs

Why 28 Is The Year I Need To Do What I Want

Each year on my birthday, I reflect on the year behind and the year ahead, the person I am and the person I aspire to be. I don’t need to write anything down, but I like to. I want to.

This year, I drove two hours north of San Francisco along the coast to spend my day outdoors. Long rides always remind me of how I learned to plan my pees as a child. I was (am) obsessively compulsive about restroom cleanliness, and refused to pee in public restrooms if they did not meet my quality standards. Before we got in the car, my mom would always tell me to go pee.

“But I don’t need to,” I’d say.

“It doesn’t matter. I want you to,” my mom would insist. (She never wanted a repeat of our tour-de-India-hotels in which no restroom could meet my needs.) “I want you to,” my mom would explain, “so you don’t need to later.”

Starting with the days of planned pees, I’ve always struggled with prioritizing wants and needs. As an obedient child (a young adult trapped in a child’s body, really), I was always preoccupied with what I needed to do in a given moment— homework, piano practice, being punctual, getting someone a birthday present—and there was always something. It was rare that I considered what I wanted to do, mostly because there was too much I needed to do, and also because I couldn’t explain wants with any logical rationale.

Things are much more confusing as an adult, because there is less I need to do all the time. Most of my time is characterized by wants. But it’s more nuanced than that. It’s not that needs don’t ever come up. They do, and when they do, they appear as dire needs and I am forced to act more impulsively than I would like.

I hate this feeling.

Most of the time, my needs stem from wants that I’ve previously ignored. This is the adult version of needing to pee in the middle of the countryside because I refused to pee before getting in the car. These days, I pee when I want, and am more preoccupied with philosophical needs and wants. Over the last year, I grappled with three in particular.

1. I want to care for myself when I don’t need to

A Ricky-Ish Bench, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

“Sit Awhile And Be Happy,” Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

As a part of a regimented fitness routine, the first nine months of this past year were characterized by my waking up at 5 AM to exercise. Barely even allowing myself to think, I would pop up with my first alarm, change, and literally run out the door. My runs weren’t all the same, however. Some days my body just couldn’t do it. But I forced it. You can rest later, I would insist, pushing myself. I was convinced that missing one day would permanently ruin my groove. Then, three months ago, I suffered the most severe physical injury of my life during a soccer game. Suddenly, running (let alone walking) wasn’t an option. Taking extra care of myself — sleeping in, asking for a seat on the MUNI, eating a feel-good snack, asking for help, slowing down —was a dire need. For the first time, I treated myself the way I would treat someone I love. And despite my physical pain, it was mental bliss. It made me wonder why I don’t more deliberately care for myself more often.

Even after I am fully recovered, I plan to go out of my way to treat myself whenever I want. Why should I reserve this for only the moments of critical need?

2. I want a partner before I need him

Relationship Goals

Grandparents at the Ferry Building, January 2016

I spent twenty percent of the year’s weekends at bachelorette parties or weddings, twenty percent of weeks seeing one partner, and eight percent weeks in dire need of a partner. From dissecting couples games to wedding speeches to conversations with single friends who needed to be married yesterday, I started to consider my views on partnership more profoundly than ever before. Am I single because I love being single or do I love being single because I am single? In those months when I wasn’t, I discovered that despite my abundant single life, I actually wanted to be in a relationship. Then, two months after it ended, when I had my soccer injury and couldn’t walk, I suddenly found myself in dire need of a partner — for basic things like helping me get into my apartment, laborious things like preparing food and running errands, and meaningful things like keeping me company. Of course, there are friends and family, and they were there for me, but there was no one person I could rely on all the time.

No, I am not the person who needs to be in a relationship right now. But I want to be in one with the right person, before the want turns into a dire need when the luxury of finding that person feels cramped. Of course, the impetus for this dire need is subjectively unforeseeable, but may be physical, emotional, intellectual, familial, financial, or medical.

3. I want to reach out when there’s no need

Antique Paper Show

Antique Paper Show, San Francisco 2016

Eighteen months ago, I spent the better part of a day with a close friend. Though we think of each other often, we don’t see each other frequently, nor are we in constant communication. In one another’s presence, it is obvious that our bond runs deeper than these particularities. That day, she and I acknowledged the truth about our friendship. I also told her about the handful of other people in my life that I think of fondly, and often. Reaching out to them was never one of my strengths. Whenever I wanted to, I couldn’t think of a reason I needed to. And so I would just wait until I needed to — like when I needed to tell them something or needed to coordinate a meetup. I spent this past New Year’s Eve with the same friend. That day, I gave her a handwritten letter because I wanted to, even though we’d be seeing each other and spending hours together anyway. Her eyes lit up when I handed it to her. She couldn’t wait to read it. In January, I started sending more “just because” notes to people. Some responded with surprise and delight, others with written responses, and others with silence. I continue to write and send monthly letters to various people in my life, whether they live down the street or across the world.

I never need to say anything in any of these letters. I just want to. It’s nice to feel wanted when you’re not needed.

It’s been a long ride since I learned how to plan my pees (with lots of stops along the way). I still have a long way to go. And so, as I start this journey through twenty-eight, I know one thing: This year needs to be about wants.


Read More

Recent birthday reflections

What Amy Winehouse Taught Me About Turning 27
4 Things I Couldn’t Admit To Myself Until Turning 25
Then Thoughts On Turning 25


The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap
Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person
Do Your Friends Actually Like You?
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Tiny Beautiful Things
The Single American Woman

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.

learning, piano, self-improvement, simplicity, teaching, tutoring

“Simple can be harder than complex.” -Steve Jobs

Last Tuesday, a friend and I watched pianist Yuja Wang in concert at the SF Symphony. “I thought we could relive our piano days,” my friend said when she invited me. She and I started learning piano at very early ages, and when we met in high school, we immediately bonded over the hours of practice and obscene amount of stress that accompanied piano recitals and formal evaluations.

If you’ve never performed in a recital, what you don’t know is that by preparing your music, you will only be half-prepared. Other integral parts of rehearsing include choosing the right shoes (some shoes are better suited for the pedal), the right hairstyle (there’s nothing worse that hair falling into your face when you’re looking for E-flat), and the right pre-recital sanctuary (you need a clear, stress-free mind). A perfect performance is as much in flawless play as in your command of the stage.

When Yuja entered the stage, she was wearing silver stilettos and a tight red dress. My friend and I looked at each other in shock. Yuja flipped her hair and waltzed to the piano. She swan-dived into a bow, sat down, and took command of the keys. She swayed to the music, as if she were foxtrotting with the Steinway. It was as if she wasn’t even trying.

Watching Yuja play wasn’t like reliving my piano days. If she had relived my piano days, she would have made a forgettable courtesy, her fingers would have trembled when she placed them on the keys, and she would have stopped mid-piece having forgotten how to start a coda or something. Her non-piano-playing parents would have been shifting in the audience, praying that she, they, and the audience would survive the next ten minutes. No, these were not my piano days.

Recently, I started tutoring a high school senior. She moved from China two years ago and is looking to improve her written and spoken English. We’re starting with her college application essays (talk about plunging into the deep end). Our first meeting was a struggle due to the language barrier and I found myself questioning whether our relationship could help her. Within hours of our first meeting, she sent me an email. It was the draft of her personal statement.

The essay describes her move from China to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, the dismal living conditions of her insect-infested California home, and her determination to learn English and go to college so that she can one day support herself and her family. I cried the first time I read it. It was a visceral reaction to words so powerful in their rawness. This is definitely going to work.

“This is so perfect,” I told her when we met a week later to discuss her essay. She looked at me blankly, not because she didn’t understand but because she thought I was lying. “The words are too simple.” “What do you mean?” “It’s not impressive. My teacher helped me edit it. I have another version.” She pulled it up and watched me read it. This version had been steamrolled by a thesaurus. It was a bumpy read and when I got to the end, I felt nothing but relief to be done reading. “So? Which version is better?” she asked when I looked up from the screen. “Definitely the earlier version,” I responded without pause. “Why?” “It just is.”

She was unhappy with my vagueness, and I was annoyed at my inability to explain why.

As I listened to Yuja play on Tuesday, it dawned on me why the first essay was so good. It was good because it took something so foreign to most of us, and made it relatable with carefully-chosen everyday words. The power was in its seeming simplicity, the same way that Yuja took pages of overlapping notes and turned them into sooting melodies. This audience, unlike the ill-fated ones at some of my more horrific performances, could have listened to her play forever (as demonstrated by four encores).

Frederic Chopin once said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” What may feel couterintuitive as we advance in our art, career, and lives, is that the true mark of proficiency is the ability to execute with seeming effortlessness. When you make something look difficult, it also becomes difficult for others to appreciate. Anyone who can read music can play a Chopin, but to play it as he would have, you have to think like him too.

criticism, framing effects, lessons, self-improvement

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” -Aristotle

A couple nights ago, I was a fly on the wall while a heated conversation echoed through the room. The show was not very good but all the performers claim to have received rave reviews. The saddest part is that they probably did. Nobody will ever give them honest criticism.

Criticism, even of the constructive sort, is like a pill. It’s hard to swallow even when we know it will help. As I sat there listening, I realized that the for this performance troupe, life was going to be one big vicious cycle. They’ll never see a need to change or improve, and so, they won’t.

My sixth grade public speaking course was as much about learning to speak publicly as it was about learning to critique others. Begin with the positives and connect the positive clauses to the negative ones using “and” not “but” our teacher explained. It was my first encounter with framing effects. “You were inaudible and stuttered quite a bit, but great posture!” seems far worse than “You had great posture and you could work on speaking louder and stuttering less.” It was also my first encounter with peer reviews. Until that point in my life, feedback came in the form of stickers and inked smiley faces.

A friend and I spent the summer after sixth grade choreographing a dance for a show. We were very enthusiastic about it…and very serious. Finally, at the end of the summer, we invited some friends (who had been very carefully selected to participate) to watch, learn, and perform the dance with us. It was our masterpiece. When the music ended, the moments we expected to be filled with applause and general excitement were instead filled with silence. One of the moms offered Oh…we will find a professional to teach you girls a dance. If you’ve never experienced it, that’s what rejection sounds like. As if on cue, my eyes welled up with hot, salty tears which, within moments, were streaming down my face.

Criticism is difficult to accept. Even when it is crafted well and comes from the right person, it can still seem malicious. It could be more powerful were the words uttered by my college counselor upon reading draft 1 of my college essay. There it was. Her five-word comment on my five-hundred-word piece. More than thought or time, I had put heart into that essay and despite knowing in my mind that she was just trying to help me, I still felt the essay was being attacked and under appreciated.

To be fair, criticism is also difficult to give. Peer editing was a major aspect of my English courses through the years, and still, most of my peer edits were hesitant, prefaced with words like “maybe.” Maybe you could try a different metaphor. The only person who has ever received my most honest and unplugged criticism on an essay is my brother (we both know that no matter what I say, he still has to be my brother).

My high school was especially entrenched in the performing arts and I once suggested a Performance Review column for our school paper. Sure you can write one our faculty adviser started. I knew a qualifier was to follow. But you have to be ready to write negative reviews as well…and this is a pretty small school. I had conveniently overlooked that aspect. I had my opinions but I knew I did not have the heart (or maybe the strength) to publicly decry the hard work of my peers if the need or situation arose.

My piano teacher was very honest. Brutally honest. No euphemisms. Your playing at the recital was no good. She told it how it was. I had no choice but to take it. And not just about piano, but other things too. I don’t like this dress. As time went on, maybe because I got used to it, maybe because I matured, I began not only to trust her more, but also to turn to her for her opinion. I appreciated her criticism because it came from a place that cared when she didn’t have to. It came from a place that was looking out for me. That wanted me to improve. She had no other motives.

To be the best possible, we have to accept that the criticism we provide and receive may not always be words we want to provide and receive. And as long as there are honorable intentions, you only stand to succeed. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”

change, self-improvement, Toy Story

We’re Next Month’s Garage Sale Fodder For Sure

Last weekend, I saw Toy Story 3. In an effort not to ruin it if you haven’t seen it yet (to clarify, it is a must-see), I will try to say as much as possible without giving anything away: It’s a story about growing up and moving on, but told from the perspective of those who are neither growing nor moving. It’s about revitalizing. It’s unbelievably touching. You wouldn’t think toys could pique emotions, but Disney-Pixar has a knack for achieving the impossible.

As Andy prepares to leave home for college, his mom insists he either junk his old toys or put them in the attic. Andy’s response is exactly what you would expect of your average apathetic adolescent. I’ve had many similar exchanges with my mom over the years. I thought back to various toys that have graced my life with their presence. Toys that I absolutely had to have at the time, that sooner or later, were victims of my mom’s spring cleaning. Some where donated, others trashed. It seems so wasteful, but that’s modern culture. To stick with the Pixar theme, consider WALL-E’s world.

Luxury consumer products have rather interesting life cycles. They are hyped up one minute and junk the next, partly due to our short attention spans and partly because there is always room for improvement. That’s why companies constantly renovate their products, right? If they don’t (and even if they do), another company will. We as consumers are always expecting novel features and creative capabilities. When we are not looking forward and counting down to new releases, we’re awaiting improvements.

This past Monday, Apple released, what in my humble opinion, is its most profound iPhone software update so far. I plugged my phone into my computer to receive over one hundred new features. It’s the exact same device, but it feels like a brand new phone to me. It was refreshing. The idea is very “human” if you think about it.

We have become so accustomed to junking both physical and intellectual property that we rarely appreciate the improvements that can be made to existing bodies. Our own bodies, for example. Just because you can’t swap it out doesn’t mean you can’t improve what exists. But how often do we sit down and think about how we want to improve? And not just superficially, but in the deeper sense too — our outlook, our goals, our beliefs. Maybe we don’t know what to change. Maybe we don’t know how.

A couple days ago, my dad and I were working at our local Peet’s Coffee (his work arguably more important than mine) when an old friend walked in. Not having seen or spoken to him in a while, we went through the usual formalities — work, family, health, in no particular order. “I lost six pounds in the last two weeks,” our friend volunteered, “Responding to death threats, that’s what I’ve been doing. They told me I would die in five years if I didn’t do something about it.” His resolve was inspiring. But resolve is his only choice.

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a friend. “Do you really think people can change?” she asked (she meant for the better). People can change. I truly do believe it. It just requires that same reserve and dedication we apply to toys, technology, policies, “our work” if you will. Unfortunately, most of our dedication to changing ourselves only accompanies literal and metaphoric “death threats.” We are eternally considering new technologies, even if things are running smoothly, but only consider a “new me” when the current one has faltered.

When it comes to consumer products, it’s not about needing to change, it’s about wanting to change. That should be the mindset when it comes to self-improvement. Apathy shouldn’t be an option. Our propensity to scrap and rebuild the world seems wasteful, but hopefully we will get something out of it. After all, as Chuck Palahniuk writes in Fight Club, “Maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.”