Uncovering the Dots

This was originally posted on my Medium page. While I’m quite loyal to WordPress, I’m testing out several different publishing platforms for a better understanding of each one’s pros and cons (particularly with respect to user experience and engagement). Apologies in advance for anyone who has already read this.

It’s impossible to connect the dots if they have yet to be discovered.

I’ve never been one for Netflix, but over the last few months, I’ve applied the art of binging to podcast listening. There are a plethora of great ones in the audial ether, but a recent episode of Exponent hit home with respect to Ben and James’s notion that maintaining optionality upfront allows the discovery of focus down the road. The reason? While having general direction can be a guiding force, becoming too prematurely focused on an exact plan can blind you from recognizing opportunity when it arises.

Like Ben, I spent the early months of my undergraduate career trying to meticulously plan every class and schedule for the next four years. I took the necessary courses to earn my degree in Cognitive Psychology and Math-Econ, but in the process, I took a slew of courses with no obvious reason that ended up being some of the most impactful. These were often unrelated to my majors and didn’t fulfill any prereqs, but I took them because I wanted exposure to interesting topics and people. In doing so, I experienced incredible discourse in classes like Christian Environmental Ethics, Politics of Whiteness, and James Joyce Literature that directly contributed to a formative and enriching education.

By forgoing micromanagement and focusing on taking engaging, intellectually stimulating courses, I explored new disciplines that allowed me to discover new interests. Takeaways on intersectionality in my political science classes became applicable to perspectives on economic behavior or on human factors. I learned what did and didn’t inspire me largely by stumbling upon a wide array of these topics, and it ultimately helped me make connections that previously were not readily evident.

My early career trajectory reflects the same exploratory strategy, and I’ve prioritized taking on roles that continue to expose me to great teams and new skills that may yield emergent growth opportunities. And over the years, I’ve begun to narrow the aperture. In particular, a recent deep dive into User Experience Design crystallized the niche I had been seeking but couldn’t define. My sales stint at a major retailer and my current role in financial technology had taught me the importance of having functional, usable, and beautiful products, but UX principles taught me how to apply those product attributes around solving user problems.

I’m not sure if I would have come across the concepts of UX Design/Product Thinking had I not been persistent about learning and pursuing my random interests. In which case, I wouldn’t have been able to put a name to what I now feel confident immersing myself into. There is still so much more to learn, but with healthy doses of gumption and curiosity by my side, I can’t wait.

Good Reads (So Far) of 2015

The vast majority of my time spent outside of work is dedicated to reading. Long-form blogs, interviews, conference transcripts, and of course, books. They dominate, and it’s a shame I don’t love e-books as much as hard-copy because my wallet and bookshelf space would definitely benefit from going digital.

Alas, I remain stubbornly loyal to reading my books in hard copy. The start of each month marks another series of good reads, some recommended to me; others revolving around my latest obsession or selected from some bestseller or book award short list.

Of the 25+ books I’ve read so far this year, below are my top 5. They range in genre and topic, but each sparked great conversations and enlightenment for something novel.

  1. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Recommended to me by a friend possessing a deep understanding and perspective on intersectionality, racism, and the human experience of being “other”, Americanah is brave and startlingly honest. Adichie uses the protagonist’s experiences as the vehicles by which she weaves some of the most intricate emotions, observations, and indictments of what it means to be a modern citizen in our highly globalized yet still segregated world. I found I could not put it down, and that I identified strongly with some of the protagonist’s experiences with immigration and being a minority. I can’t believe it took me nearly 2 years to discover this book, and for anyone unfamiliar with Adichie, she’s the feminist powerhouse featured in Queen Bey’s song “Flawless“.
  2. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande
    A new favourite author of mine, Gawande is an American surgeon who gained popularity with his first book Complications back in 2002. Better is the second of his three major publications, and in it, Gawande again infuses his deep medical knowledge with his knack for storytelling to ponder how physicians, and all us humans, can strive to be better. He attributes exceptional performance down to three components: diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, and manages to distill some of medicine’s most chaotic moments into meaningful narratives while preserving their complexity. In the same way a surgeon has a moral obligation to continuously strive for better provision of health care, I finished this book with a profound sense that all of us can and should indeed strive for betterment.
  3. How to Create the Mind, Ray Kurzweil
    I came across Ray Kurzweil while reading a Bloomberg profile on Bill Maris, the precocious head of Google Ventures, back in the spring. In the article, Maris speaks with calculated fervidness on the prospect of living to the age of 500. To do so, Maris and futurists like Kurzweil portend the “Technological Singularity”, a term coined to describe the moment when computers outpace human abilities, resulting in the capacity for humans to transcend biology using such new technologies. Kurzweil’s seminal work, The Singularity is Near (2005), can do better justice in outlining such predictions, but after slogging through the Singularity, I picked up How to Create the Mind in hopes that a better background in both human and artificial brain functions and limitations would help frame my understanding of all his futuristic ideas. And it did…sort of. Create the Mind is definitely more digestible, and gives you a peek into how our brains can inspire the future’s digital brains.
  4. Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston
    I’m weirdly obsessed with reading book reviews. I’m particularly fond of the ones in The New York Times, and I stumbled upon Johnston’s debut novel from reading Eleanor Henderson’s review on it. Reading the synopsis, it would be easy to dismiss Remember Me as another tale on child kidnapping or victimhood. However, the further I got along the book, the clearer it became that this is a story entirely focused on family and the unimaginable lengths we’ll go to protect and accept those we love.
  5. Zero to One, Peter Thiel
    I’d imagine that even if you are not plugged into the start-up or tech world, you know of or have heard of entrepreneur extraordinaire Peter Thiel. At the very least, you’ve heard of his company PayPal (and maybe even of Palantir). Zero to One is 2015’s Lean Startup – a must-read on any budding founders’ and creators’ short list. Truly revolutionary companies and products seeking to shape the future should aim for zero to one growth, and although I was a bit turned off by his disparaging tones on even the semblance of convention, Thiel’s broad concepts on building transformative businesses provided some interesting color on the reasons for their success.

Currently enjoying Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars, but I’d love to know: what have been your favourite books of 2015 so far?

A Year in Retrospective

This post has been a long time coming. I recently “celebrated” my first one-year work-versary, and with the completion of my first triathlon, I now actually have time to collect and organize my disparate thoughts.

A little over a year ago, I graduated university and started my first full-time job in New York. Despite having grown up near New York and being familiar with the city, it was thrilling to be a part of a new culture: the post-grad newly employed crowd where the days are long, the nights are longer, and we seem to share the mantra, “work hard, play harder.” The first six months were marked by the steep learning curve that accompanies a new job, outings with old and new friends, and a surprisingly successful hunt for a NYC apartment (thank you, Craigslist – I’m serious).

The latter eight months have not been dramatically different, yet further reflection suggests that I’ve undergone a tremendously different sort of learning curve – one that has contributed to my own self-discovery and development. I’m sure these aren’t profoundly new revelations, but they are the most significant takeaways that I have recognized and hope to build upon as I continue growing, both personally and professionally.

1. Time is the most valuable commodity – Prioritization is key

In a sense, time is the great equalizer. Everyone has the same number of hours in a day to accomplish whatever goals you have. I acquiesce that some of us are privileged with certain affordances that provide us some liberties with respect to time management, but ultimately, I do my best to avoid wasting mine. Whether that means waking up a few hours earlier or choosing one activity over another, certain trade offs are made in the prioritization process. And most of the time, they aren’t sacrifices so long as you can determine that such time is spent doing something meaningful and worthwhile for yourself.

2. Create the social capital you want to be around

We spend a lot of time at work, and then when we’re not at work, we’re trying to catch up with friends or meet new people. Fostering relationships and establishing a network are integral pieces to success so surround yourself with individuals who have aspirational qualities and from whom you’ll learn and be challenged. I am fortunate to be able to call some of the most interesting, intellectual, and engaging people my friends and co-workers. They expose me to new disciplines and hobbies, and we’re able to learn from each other.

In optimizing the social capital around me, I’ve found it also eliminates negativity. Maudlin conversations are rarely constructive or productive. With banalities set aside, we can explore each others’ interests more deeply and derive a greater conversational experience, which in turn, expands our own knowledge bases.

3. Learn to love your own company

It’s easy to get caught up in the constant movement that is New York. There are meetings to attend, people to meet; yet the revolving door of human interaction can be exhausting (or maybe that’s the introvert in me speaking). Similar to unplugging, taking time to be on your own to decompress and clear your head is highly therapeutic. It helps hone in on what you really need/want versus what you think you need/want. I recently took a week long solo trip to Italy and thoroughly enjoyed having the time to answer to no one but myself. There is a distinction between being alone and feeling lonely, and in extinguishing the external din, you’ll find being alone can be incredibly liberating. So don’t fear the occasional dinner alone or solo weekend getaway – you might just find some much needed clarity.

An Acute Precipice

It’s been over a week since my undergraduate career came to close, but the tears I expected have yet to find me. They were absent during Senior Week, Commencement, and even when I moved out of my house. Granted I’m not one prone to tears, but I thought the goodbye’s and see you later’s with friends would leave me with a lump in my throat and terrible disquiet.

Then I spent the week after commencement surrounded by friends, hanging out at the beach, and the idea of no longer being a college kid could not have felt more removed. Being in each others’ company, laughing at old memories and inside jokes, I never felt more alive and content. When I finally left for home, I was worried of crashing from this high and of being swallowed by the anxiety that nothing would ever be the same. Instead I’ve been home, and in lieu of any tears, I’m keenly aware of the state of limbo in which I find myself.

My diploma definitively tells me that I’ve completed one integral chapter of my life, but my mind and heart still crave the closeness and sense of home uniquely provided during my college career. I know I am prepared to take on the adult world with ferocity, but I have moments of crippling doubt that I am not ready. I know that the friends who matter will remain by our sides regardless of distance or time, but the fear that we will all drift apart come busy work schedules and real-world responsibilities exists. And I know that the best years of our lives are yet to come, but I dread that growing up means losing my youthful spontaneity and sense of adventure. The dichotomy between what I know to be true and my irrational future concerns leaves me on an acute precipice off which I am not ready to leap…not just yet at least.

With every end there is a new beginning, but no one ever talks about the brief moment in between; where you are supposed to and allowed to grieve for the finality of one stage before the next follows. Without a doubt I am incredibly excited for the future in all its novelty and uncertainty, but for the time being I remain in limbo. I don’t want to rush into the future headfirst without allowing myself the proper reflection for what has been and what is to come. I don’t want to be on this precipice for long but I will remain here long enough to find closure before stepping into uncharted waters. In doing so, I am finding comfort in celebrating the old and embracing the new at my own pace.

To the Class of 2014

It’s been a privilege to spend my four years with all of you stellar individuals. And given that we’ve all popped one too many bottles of champagne these past few days, we probably won’t remember the finer details of commencement and graduation weekend in the future.

However, what we undoubtedly will remember is this feeling; this feeling of unadulterated excitement and thrill that courses through each of us. Because graduation is a call for celebration and reflection upon the four years we spent here at Villanova.

During my first few months at school, nervous doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Villanova was so picture perfect, and I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the hordes of straight-A students and peers juggling roles in not one or two, but several student organizations.

My first Activities Fair is a blur – I remember walking into the Pavilion, paralyzed with the anxiety and uncertainty of how to and in what to get involved to sharing my email address with any organization in my path. Thankfully, I have been able to hone my interests throughout my undergraduate career, but that sense of disquiet has remained because our campus is brimming with peers that are pulled together so effortlessly and seem to have it all. In truth, I am consistently and extraordinarily humbled by the level of talent and success achieved by everyone around me.

And hopefully as nineties babies, you guys can relate; we grew up with a slew of fictional heroes. There is Tommy from Rugrats, Harry the wizard, Neo from the Matrix, or even the likes of Spiderman. These guys represented “chosen” ones who go off to save the world, which made it easy to see leadership as an inevitable fulfillment of a destiny.

So couple that with my perception of picture perfect Villanova, and it was easy to believe that going forward I would be expected to have a clear path to success. Frankly, it felt as if some kind of unique and special fate awaited our classmates that was eluding me. But if my experiences at Villanova have shown me anything, they have taught me to shatter such a passive notion of heroism and replace it with the understanding that we always have the choice to be leaders; to be heroes within our communities and in our own lives.

Whether it is through service, new experiences in foreign countries, or collaboration in the classroom, we find success because we eschew apathy. We explore our boundaries and test our parameters. We accomplish heroic efforts because we dismantle obstacles collectively. Think about it. Our campus is strewn with heroes.

Our scholars. Our tour guides. Our orientation counselors. Our musicians, athletes, actors, and activists. What we all have in common is our willingness to be a part of something greater than ourselves, uninvited and unasked. Because that is the most important characteristic of true leadership: the readiness to volunteer with others to make passions come alive.

My numerous hours spent on Buzzfeed suggest that we Millenials have no idea what we’re doing, but given the calibre of my peers, I politely have to disagree. When I came to Villanova, I wanted to be cool and to make a difference, but I had all these insecurities and fears of failure. But the truth is that all of us more or less want those same things. What ultimately distinguishes us from each other is when our desire to take initiative outweighs our fear of screwing up. We have all demonstrated leadership, and our education has taught us how to embrace challenges and pay attention to opportunities. We came to Villanova wide-eyed and ambitious, and I hope we leave it equally determined, albeit now with greater courage.

Just as the class that preceded ours and the class that will follow ours, we have already gotten a jumpstart to discovering success. Receiving our diplomas in it of themselves is a symbol of leadership; that, if four years of all nighters and dozens of Red bulls later are any indication, it does not happen on a whim and that it is not always glamorous. Yet four years later, we’re here, equipped with the capacity to question the status quo and make meaningful contributions to humanity.

And yes, having the audacity to follow our passions and to be brave in our future may lead to failure. However, I sincerely hope the prospect of defeat doesn’t discourage us. Because persevering through those risks will teach the greatest lessons, and following our curiosities will broaden our world views. So, remember that feeling I mentioned earlier? The electricity emanating from feeling invincible and ready to take on the world? Hold onto that emotion, and don’t forget it.  With every endeavor you make going forward, stay hungry for that sensation.

And while you’re satisfying your pursuits, do celebrate with your fellow dreamers, friends, and loved ones. Because while half the equation is about which visions you’ll fulfill, the other more important half is who you realize them with. So to my friends and peers, thanks for continually inspiring me and for making my time at Villanova more than just about obtaining a degree. We’re young and enlightened and on our way to a boundless adventure, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of the Class of 2014. Congratulations, Wildcats. We did it!

The Very Nature of Relationships

Every day, we are faced with an immeasurable number of choices. They range from the innocuous, “What should I eat for breakfast?” to the more significant ones that revolve around our hopes and fears. Amidst our daily grind, we engage in conversation and connect with others to form relationships. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to find someone with whom we feel comfortable enough to share those aforementioned hopes and fears. We’re able to form special bonds that allow us to share our hearts with another.

Some of these relationships help us understand the unique experience of falling in love. For the most part, discovering and being able to love is incredible. The problem arises when we begin to question love’s toll on our lives. We wonder if we will have the time and effort to make a relationship successful or we spend too much time worrying about the consequences of a relationship not working out. Worst of all, we simply wonder if it will be worthwhile – if it will be worth the potential heartache or if it is worth the energy to care for another before ourselves.

The thing is, relationships, by their very nature, are distractions. They’re often time-consuming, mentally taxing, and emotionally trying. However, relationships are distractions we choose to have. 

Yes, they can be emotionally, mentally, and even physically demanding, and to create and preserve relationships is not always the most ideal decision. Yet we choose to include such relationships in our lives because they provide opportunities to connect and value someone else’s happiness over our own. We make the executive choice in our lives to make those attachments because with them, we can enjoy the rare pleasure of discovering the world together, growing together, and experiencing life together.

The timing is never right and on occasion there are seemingly insurmountable odds against making that connection. But at the end of the day, it’s a matter of how much you value that relationship and how much you’re willing to sacrifice in order to ensure its success.

The Greatest Lesson My Dad Ever Taught Me

When I was around 12 years old, a friend of mine asked me why my dad wasn’t around much. She found it curious that he wasn’t ever home for dinner. At the time, I didn’t think too much about her query and honestly answered, “Oh, he’s just at work.” Looking back, I think she assumed my parents were divorced, or that, like many other Asian American immigrants, my father still worked abroad while our family immigrated to the States. Truth was that I was so accustomed to not seeing my dad at dinner that it didn’t occur to me that most of my friends came together with their families at the end of the day to eat. For me, the routine I associated with Dad was him coming to find me at the end of the day to dole out sage advice, only to be met with my impatience to return to homework and Disney shows.

As a small business owner from Seoul, my dad is the embodiment of the classic American dream. He moved our family to the States 15 years ago in hopes of greater success and a better education for my sister and me, and to say that my father has worked hard to secure such a future would be a gross understatement – the man gets up at 8am and leaves for work half an hour later and comes home roughly around 9 or 10pm. Every day (including weekends) is a twelve plus hour work day, yet for a majority of my life, I failed to recognize the significance of my father’s dedication to take time at the end of his long day to offer guidance or reiterate a new life lesson. I oftentimes dreaded our talks – they felt contrite and I couldn’t understand how his perspective would guide me through my teenage problems. To be honest, I underestimated his capacity to understand what it would be like to grow up as an ambiguous 1.5 Generation adolescent. And so I tuned him out and didn’t even try to hide my agitation when he knocked on my door or sat beside me in front of the Tv for another life lesson.

Thankfully, a semblance of maturity decided to finally find me these last few years, and I have noticed how all of Dad’s talks have indelibly served me well throughout my college career. He stressed the importance of curiosity because even when a formal education ends, learning is a lifelong process. He warned me to work hard but to work even smarter because time is the most precious commodity and there is no excuse in wasting it. He reminded me to be brave and generous with my heart because no one ever became less happy from connecting with another human being. My dad has provided me with a wealth of knowledge, but amidst all of them, the greatest lesson he taught me was not in words but in action. 

Frankly, my dad never stops working. In the last fifteen years, I can count on my fingers the number of times he took a day off. When the Great Recession hit, my dad was forced to scale back his company and experience a dramatic decrease in profits. The economic downturn was hard for all families, and we were no exception. Family vacations, carefree back-yard barbecues, and flashy holiday gifts became things of the past and were replaced with worried arguments between my mom and dad and envelopes in the mail stamped with scary labels like “overdue” or “final notice.” During my high school years, I saw my dad grow greyer, older, and more tired than his age would suggest, yet the man never failed to wish me the one word that sums up his greatest lesson: “hwaiting”.

You see, hwaiting is the Korean word for “fighting” and commonly used as a form of encouragement or cheer. Beyond everything that he is already, my dad is the true embodiment of resilience. He began a new life in a new country all on his own, faced soaring success and crushing setbacks, yet remained optimistic and continues to fight for prosperity, not for himself but for those he loves. He endures failure but doesn’t allow it to distract him from achieving happiness, and he serves as a pillar for our family and friends with no ulterior expectations. For all these reasons and more, I no longer roll my eyes or sigh with impudent impatience at the prospect of our talks. I listen to his every word with humble enthusiasm, in awe of the incredible man I am lucky to call Dad.

Shattering the Myth of the “Other Girl”

There is this myth about the “other girl” that both men and women use to assert a woman’s uniqueness and to establish herself as different than all the rest. It is the same myth that gives rise to scores of passive aggressive declarations like “I hate girls” by girls desperately trying to convince others that they are indeed unlike other girls. Girls who are just “one of the guys” use this myth to highlight their laid-back attitudes and low-maintenance lifestyles, because “other girls” are catty, vapid, and have lives filled with drama.

The myth of the “other girl” has roots in a long-standing misogynistic stereotype which describes women as superficial, bitchy, fickle people that gossip and relish drama. It is a stereotype that takes femininity and reduces it to characteristics connoted with negativity, thereby reinforcing traditional gender roles. When men profess, “You’re not like any other girl I’ve met before,” they essentially propagate the stereotype because his statement implies that other girls are inferior. 

It is the existence of this myth that makes the likes of Anne Hathaway or Taylor Swift so easy to hate while celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone remain loveable. They’re all beautiful women, but while Lawrence and Stone demonstrate a tomboy insouciance to their lifestyles, Hathaway and Swift are almost picture-perfect girly. Take Swift for example: tall, blonde, and thin, she likes sparkles and writes songs on boys, love, and heartbreak. She embodies traditional femininity from the way she dresses to the topic of her music. And maybe that’s why so many of us hate her; Swift and Hathaway are too “girly”, which must mean they’re frivolous, catty, and stuck-up. On the other hand, J.Law talks about wearing t-shirts and jeans while eating whatever she wants. She admits to being goofy and boisterous and to being all the other traditionally male traits. So we love to love her because we think, “she’s just like us – she’s not like other girls!”

The danger of the myth of the “other girl” is that it makes girls see other girls as the enemy. It makes femininity inferior and leads women down a self-destructive path. Not only does it perpetuate traditional gender roles, but this myth forces women to validate their own lifestyles and characteristics. Girls who are girly feel they need to apologize or justify their being that way, while girls who do display more masculine traits automatically feel superior. The “other girl” is a demeaning stereotype that belittles women empowerment and demonizes women overall. In order to shatter this myth, women everywhere have to get rid of the notion that being girly must mean you are shallow and spiteful. Whether a girl loves pink and heels or wouldn’t be caught dead in either, she should be entitled to expressing herself in whatever way she feels most comfortable without needing to defend herself from her own gender. The right step toward female empowerment is not to reject femininity but to stop discrediting our own gender and reaffirm the belief that we are all unique.

A Degree Does Not an Education Make

When I was growing up, going to college was never even a question. Working hard in high school to ensure admittance into a university that would foster my growth, intelligence, and ultimately raise my chances of acquiring a respectable post-graduate job wasn’t just an expectation, it was the norm. And statistics would show that this sentiment resonates with a lot of people since in Fall of 2013, a record 21.8 million students enrolled in colleges and universities across the U.S..

I’m thrilled that more students can partake in the unique experience we call our “college years.” But looking back on my undergraduate years, I also distinctly remember too many times where my professors and classes were not sufficiently challenging, mentally stimulating, or were truly educating me. I listened to lectures, took my notes, and simply regurgitated information, and as students, we were no better; we sought the “easy-A” courses, in hopes that we’d churn out good GPA’s for those elusive high-paying jobs. College today, feels more like a training ground for the ideal employee and not a place of true learning and intellectual challenge. What’s more, we rarely seem to question this status quo and collectively groan at the prospect of 8:30 classes or the notoriously demanding professors because who were we kidding, we were here to pick the “right” major and get a degree for that lucrative job – applying oneself and learning, optional.

Call it idyllic, but my idea of a college education is about more than getting 4.0’s, choosing the major with greatest job security, and then finding employment.  I see it as an opportunity for engagement, critical thought, and innovation, yet sometimes it feels as though our universities have forgotten how to provide that kind of creative environment while students  have become complacent in seeking one. There is so much more to an education than what can be taught out of a textbook. There needs to be dialogue and intrigue and even some adventure because amazing things come to fruition when individuals are inspired to communicate and share ideas. Undoubtedly, academia is important. There needs to be some standardized method to gauge how much effort a student has input to learn and retain the appropriate material. The application of the knowledge our degrees provide us is also important. However, I would love to see our universities and students try harder in upholding the integrity of a true education with the reminder that it’s not just about the degree.

Our college years are some of the most uninhibited and wondrously selfish years of our lives, yet many of us are so busy cramming for exams with our eyes glued to powerpoint lectures that we completely forget there exists is an entire world at our fingertips. There are books to be read, exotic foods to try, cities to explore, and interesting people to meet. Such experiences provide character, depth, compassion, and a wealth of cultural knowledge that exists outside our narrow bubbles of thought. A true education equips us with, not only facts and figures, but also the willingness to ask questions and seek answers that can’t be found on a multiple choice exam.

So with my remaining few months as an undergrad, I plan on maximizing my education. I’ll be honest, some days I do wish I could re-do it all. As much as I have no regrets, I would definitely do some things differently. I would have told myself to be more confident, more motivated, and more inquisitive than I have been the last three years. And here’s to hoping that when the time comes to put on my cap and gown and walk side by side with the friends that made college a home, I can truly say I had the best education possible.