Get out of your own way

I started writing on this site in undergrad, after years of online blogging across Xanga, Blogspot, Blogger, Tumblr, and finally deciding that I should invest in my own domain and make a home for all my musings on various intellectual pursuits, commentary on society’s relationship to technology, and my ongoing exploration of personal and professional identity. Occasionally when I sit to write, I’ll scroll through the scores of drafts I have from the last eight years of writing here. Some, more akin to journal entries than any objective writing, make me cringe. Others become helpful fodder for encouraging me to revisit a topic that I see with new perspectives.

Here is a quote from an old draft on vices from 2013: “What I know is that I am a people pleaser by nature, and that…has proven to be both a blessing and a vice. [It’s] inspired me to develop empathy and compassion…[but it can also drive me to fulfill a] sycophantic need to please others [at the expense] of my own happiness.” This got me thinking about how my relationship to others have evolved since then. More importantly, it highlighted how much I’ve evolved over the years.

One belief that radically helped me gain greater confidence personally and professionally was to internalize that no one is paying attention to me as much as I think. I was the type that would ruminate for hours after feeling like I interjected at the wrong time in a conversation or wished I had said something smarter, more clever, more memorable. Those scenes would loop over and over in my head, and the reality was that barely anyone would have noticed nor have perceived it as big of an issue as I did in my mind. Instead, I could and should have taken that self-imposed stress and channeled it toward a more productive activity.

As I grow in my personal and professional life, I will occasionally fall into the trap of (over) worrying about what others think of me. I want those I respect to think well of me, which isn’t an inherently bad desire. However, being able to balance it with stronger judgement on when to pursue my own independent beliefs, goals, ambitions is gratifying. It’s how I decided to no longer pursue playing the violin, despite having spent a decade of my life competing and dedicated to it, in the hopes of devoting that time to other academic interests. It also helped when I decided to leave New York, the city of my dreams and the place I still consider home, for San Francisco, despite many question marks from well intended friends and family members. I recall being worried that I would let people down because I wouldn’t be able to see them as often or just be there for them. It felt selfish at the time to pursue decisions that fulfilled what I wanted and no one else’s. But of course, in doing right by me, I also did right by those I care about and respect.

So if I could go back and reiterate something to my younger, people pleasing self, I’d remind her this: “Get out of your own way, and stop worrying about what others may or may not think. Frankly, no one is paying attention to you as much as you think. Embrace that freedom, and use the knowledge to pursue what you want and not what you believe others want of you. Your life will be richer for it.” I still remain a work-in-progress when it comes to getting out of my own way, but skimming an old draft written by past me was a sweet way to reflect and quietly celebrate my progress.

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.

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.