When I Decided to Stop Being Cynical

Several years ago I made the decision to stop being cynical.

It was a quiet decision which I made on my own, and I was dead set on implementing it successfully. I made no announcement about it. I didn’t post a Facebook status update about it, and I didn’t announce it on any blog. I knew that it would have seemed to my friends to be too uncharacteristic a goal, and I felt that I didn’t need their sympathy or encouragement anyway. This would be a secret project of mine. Writing about this here is the first time I have told anyone that I did this.

A few weeks after I made the decision to stop being cynical, I paid a sincere compliment to a co-worker. He laughed and said, “Oh Shelley, always so cynical and cracking jokes.” I remember feeling surprised by how hurt I was that he did not believe that I was being genuine. I stopped the urge to defend myself and saw that there was no way to protest this accusation without being bumbling and awkward, so I just smiled at him instead in the most non-cynical way the muscles in my face could manage. It was an unnatural expression for my face at the time, and my co-worker seemed startled by it.

I am a methodical person by nature, and I am a planner. I monitor everything, including even the fluctuations of my own body (which gives me hypochondriac tendencies) and I try to take in as much data points as I can to come up with solutions. I am fanatical about project plans. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to go with the flow more, but I will always prefer a well-thought out plan. When I made the decision to stop being cynical, however, it was very difficult to come up with a game plan. It seemed too broad a goal. How could I break it down into smaller components of a project plan? What sort of benchmarks could I use to check if I had reached my goal?

I decided to start with its most salient manifestation and begin with my sense of humor. At some point in middle school I had somehow developed a very biting, caustic style of humor. Irony was a weapon for me, and I wielded it freely and recklessly. I certainly wasn’t like that as a child – home videos show a bubbly child with a loud laugh and a huge smile. If anything, I had too much empathy: I was the girl who had to do her best to not cry in class if the teacher showed a sad movie. The change was probably a natural result of dealing with the new increasing pressures of middle school. I went from being a well-liked student in a small elementary school with students whom I had known my whole life to being bullied in a large middle school full of strangers. I was not the first teenaged girl who became cynical as a protective mechanism.

I spent a lot of time as a teenager writing humorous short stories that showcased my new cynical worldview. They usually starred protagonists who were in the lowest depths of their lives as they dealt with absurd situations. I peppered by sentences with excessive use of adjectives and overly elaborate descriptions of menial tasks. I fancied myself as a neophyte S.J. Perelman of sorts, except this incarnation of him was a smart, sassy, Asian-American girl with a love for alternative rock.

That prickly sense of humor followed me all the way into my 20’s. I carried it as a badge of honor and told myself that it cut through the BS and that I told the truth. When it alienated others, I told myself that they simply had thin skin and that they didn’t understand. I felt that it related to the other harder aspects of my personality which I valued: I didn’t tolerate BS and I got shit done, yo.

This all changed when I went through an event in my mid-twenties which was very traumatic for me. I visualize that time as a grenade going off inside of me, ricocheting around my insides and sterilizing everything in its blast. I found myself picking up the pieces and reevaluating what I believed. It led to a chain reaction of events that eventually caused me to leave my job in pursuit of a new career path, but the first baby step that led up to that moment was the decision to discard the cynicism. I wanted to wave the darkness away and replace it with light.

It’s been a few years since I made that decision, and while I can’t call my experiment a resounding success, I think that at the very least I am much less cynical than I was before. I still sometimes have a sharp sort of humor if I don’t catch myself. I still consciously need to bite my tongue sometimes from saying something dark. I still have the ability to diagnose someone’s greatest insecurity and wound that person very deeply with it – all in “good humor”, of course! It’s something with which I am still ashamed of and something with which I actively struggle. It’s natural, I suppose – how do you kick a habit that you’ve had for so long? Sometimes I fear that it is hard-coded within me and impossible to eradicate, but the optimistic part of me which believes in having a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset rejects this idea.

It’s funny, but it is only the past couple of weeks when it really clicked for me why I became cynical in the first place, though this is probably obvious to you by now. The prickliness and sarcasm and cynicism was a shield which served to protect me from being vulnerable. They were symptoms of a much larger problem: I was and still am deathly afraid of being exposed. I may have sunnier mannerisms, but I still am the same guarded person I always was. I am still the person who keeps her cards close, who uses politeness as a white-gloved gauntlet, who finds it difficult to get to know people very well, and who can’t bring herself to declare her feelings to the person she loves.

This has been a bombshell realization for me. So I’ve come up with a new project for myself: I want to be more vulnerable. I understand that there is a very broad goal, and just like my struggle with cynicism, there will be no sign announcing, “You’re here!” It will be a gradual process that will probably never end. For now though, I’ve assigned this as a goal to me for the next year. 

It looks as if the rest of 2015 and the rest of 2014 will be an interesting ride.

A Quick Update

Wow. It’s been a really long time since I’ve updated this blog!

Not totally surprising, to be honest. I do have a tendency to start and then neglect blogs. But that’s okay, since I am back once again :)

I have a lot of updates.

First of all, the main reason why I have been neglecting this blog is because I have been working at a new job for the past 10 months. (I suppose it’s not a new job anymore, but this information may be new to readers of this blog.) As I mentioned before in previous posts, I wanted to get into healthcare, and I found a job in a healthcare IT startup.

At first I found my new job difficult, since I had almost no experience in technology and zero experience in healthcare. For many months, even understanding the terminology and the words being thrown around was difficult. I felt as if I had to spend all of my extra time simply catching up on the basics, and things like this blog started to fall by the wayside. Overall though my new job has been a great experience, and I am happy and grateful to be in an environment where I’m able to learn so much.

Running continues to be a big part of my life, and I ran an official half-marathon race at the Nike Women’s Half Marathon DC in April. (I’ve completed that distance before, but this was my first time running in an official half marathon race.) My goal was to complete the race in 1:55, and I had a finishing time of 1:55:40. I’ll just take the extra 40 seconds and consider it a goal met.


Tired and sweaty, but happy in DC

The past couple of months, however, I’ve been struggling with an IT band injury and have had to go through physical therapy. The injury is not serious, and the fix for it is pretty straightforward, and the doctor tells me I should be okay in about a month and a half. Unfortunately this meant that I had to cut back a lot on running and had to stop playing soccer, but I’ve been trying to stay positive about it by lifting weights and becoming good friends with the elliptical trainer. It’s been a bit difficult being forced to cut back on something that is such an outlet for me, but I try to see it as a “vacation” when I get to do whatever I want fitness-wise without worrying about my running training being affected.

Overall, I am very happy. Life is pretty placid and good — there have not been many changes, but life is happy and good. I have a few friends whom I only get to see every two or three months, and I find it kinda funny how they usually have so many interesting news to tell, while I usually don’t have much to say: “Still the same job, still running, still playing soccer, still the same group of friends.”

Lately, though, I realized that even though there isn’t anything dramatic happening on the surface, I feel as though inwardly I am always changing, always thinking or wondering about different things. As if I “try on” different philosophies or worldviews for a bit, though no one else really can tell. I hope this doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong core values or that I am just a tabula rasa or that I am just influenced by other people. I flatter myself that I have pretty strong core values. Maybe it’s just a “still waters run deep” sorta thing.

Either way, I’ve been thinking that I need to write more to let it out. So I will.

Tips for Staying Positive During Your Job Search (Part 1 of 2)

At first I hesitated to write this post, since I understand that my situation was different from that of many other people. I left my job voluntarily and was lucky enough to find a restaurant job which brought me a regular source of income. I wasn’t fired or laid off, and the situation that I was in was entirely through my own choice. I was fortunate enough that I was not forced to leave a job I did not want to leave.

That being said, I do know the feeling of sometimes feeling disheartened during the job search. Sometimes, despite my efforts to stay positive, I found myself wondering if the state of limbo will never end, and I worried if I would become one of those people interviewed by newspapers whenever there is an article about unemployment: “I’ve submitted thousands of resumes, so why can’t I found a job?!” A voice in my head kept wondering, “What if I become one of those poor people?! What makes me think that I would be any different from them?”

For anyone who lost their job unwillingly, my heart really goes out to you, since I can only imagine that it is much more difficult. Whether you lose your job or leave of your own free will, however, it is important to maintain hope and positivity. Think about it: if an employer is interviewing two different people with exactly the same qualifications, wouldn’t he or she choose someone who smiles and is cheerful over someone who seems depressed and glum?

If you have not already done so, one book I highly recommend reading is What Color is Your Parachute? It was the book that convinced me to leave the job that kept me unhappy and to pursue a career in public health, and after I left, I referred to it time and time again to receive hope and advice from it. Every edition year to year is supposed to be very different, and I can only speak for the 2013 edition, but I found Richard Bolles’s writing to be inspiring and powerful. His exercises inside were especially helpful. I always knew that I wanted to do something service-oriented yet practical, and I knew I was interested in health and healthcare, but I didn’t make the connection that I would be a good candidate for a public health professional until I completed his famous “Flower Exercise”. (Amazing, huh? You would think I would have figured it out sooner. Looking back, I believe that my education and career thus far gave me tunnel vision and limited me to thinking that I should stick to international relations or international education.)

Here are a few tips for staying healthy and positive that have worked for me personally throughout my job search. Stayed tune for Part 2!

1) Be grateful for the extra time you have. Use this time to do the things you always wanted to do.

You probably heard it a billion times before, but it bears repeating: you can view the same situation in many different ways. How you interpret your job search and unemployment depends entirely on you. You can view it as a sad situation which you want to escape, or you can view it an opportunity to take a break, reassess your goals and priorities, and do the things you’ve always wanted to do.

For instance, this is a great time to be a self-starter and start a business venture you’ve always wanted to do. If you can’t find someone to give you work, why don’t you make work for yourself? I personally used the extra time I had to journal and think about my priorities in life and eventually started this blog. I figured that if I couldn’t get a job in public health right away, why not write about health topics on my own? I could also spend the extra time studying up on my own on healthcare and public health!

You can also use this time to work on yourself and your hobbies. Be grateful for the time you have now for self exploration. I personally was grateful of how much easier it was to fit in half-marathon training. I completed the second half of my training while I was job hunting, and I found it much easier to find the time to run at that time than it was when I was working my day job. I also used the extra time I had on reading, cooking and baking, which were relaxing hobbies I did not have as much time to invest in while I was employed at my last job.

2) Maintain a good support network.

This is a challenging phase of your life, and it’s important that you maintain a good support network. For me, it was a challenge to see my friends while sticking to a tight budget at the same time, but there are always free or inexpensive ways to be social. We did a lot of potluck dinners and would go to free yoga classes or would even just go to the gym or grocery shopping together. Your friends and family will understand if you need to spend time with them in more economical ways.

This is also a great time to strengthen your existing relationships. Remember the people who mean a lot to you in your life, and use some of the extra time and energy you have on them. When my friend in NYC was feeling down and depressed, I was able to buy a bus ticket to NYC to see her for only a day. Back when I was working my day job, I would have found it much more difficult to do something like that.

3) Exercise at least half an hour every day.

You knew I would say this, didn’t you? I really think that daily exercise is crucial for health and happiness. Humans are built to move. To deny otherwise is to deny who we are. Exercise also will help you deal with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, and it can help you stave off the weight gain that often accompanies unemployment. For me personally, exercise also gave me structure to my day to day routine, which was something I really missed from working in a full time day job.

4) Get enough sleep.

This is crucial. If you are not well-rested, you won’t be on your A game for interviews and networking events. If the stress and worry is keeping you up, try adding more exercise into your routine. Studies show that exercise helps with insomnia, but it takes about four months for the effects to take hold.

5) Stay away from processed foods.

This is something that is pretty important to me, since I have noticed that I am more sensitive and hyper-aware of my body than perhaps 90% of people. I think this trait might be common to people who run – we are always hyper-aware of injuries and are always on the lookout for twinges, aches, etc. that could potentially morph from minor annoyances into a full-blown injuries that would keep us off of feet for months.

So I always am paying attention to how I feel after I say, eat a healthy meal of fish and vegetables compared to when I eat a huge bowl of ice cream. There is no question in my mind that I do not function as well when I eat excess refined sugar, starches, or processed food, and I recommend that people try to keep these products out of their diets as much as possible. There’s no need to turn into a health food nut, but a simple, home-cooked meal is ALWAYS better than a processed meal full of additives, preservatives, and stabilizers.

That’s it for now, folks. Stay tuned for more later!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Today (and every day) I am incredibly grateful for my supportive friends and family who have stuck with me through thick and thin. I hope that I am able to do the same for other people. I am also just simply grateful for the roof over my head, the air in my lungs, and the opportunity to just be alive.

Thanksgiving always causes me to reflect on the past year. To tell the truth, 2013 has been a year of great challenges. I’ve been thrown a lot of curve balls and made a few moves that were not easy to make, but I am sincerely grateful for everything that has happened. With challenge, I was given an opportunity to grow and become stronger, and for almost every difficult experience that has occurred, I was able to connect a positive change in my life that ultimately occurred as a result. Knowing this makes me eager and excited to take on the (mis)adventures that life throws at me.

We had a decadent Thanksgiving meal at my older brother’s house in Cambridge tonight. We had juicy turkey which my younger brother made, and my older brother put together a lovely watercress and beet salad and marinated mushrooms. I contributed mashed sweet potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts and butternut squash, and cranberry sauce. My brother’s friend also gave us an AMAZING homemade cornbread stuffing. For dessert, we had pumpkin pie and pecan pie from High Rise bakery.


It was a pretty healthy meal overall! Here’s hoping that I don’t overdo it on the leftovers though!

Afterwards, we watched Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 which happened to be playing on FX. It’s funny how once you start thinking about something, you start to see echos of it in other things. I had seen Kung Fu Panda before, and while I thought it was cute, funny, and a surprisingly good homage to Chinese cinema,  I didn’t think too much on its philosophy. However, this line by Master Sifu really hit home for me:

“You are too concerned about what was and what will be. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the ‘present.’ “

It’s embarrassing to admit how much a silly kid’s movie affected me, but trying to live mindfully and in the present is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I have perfectionist tendencies and have a tendency to fret about things, but I realize that most of the time, the worrying comes from a fear of what could be rather than what really is happening at the present. I have to frequently tell myself to slow down, breathe, and just focus on what is happening at the moment. And honestly, if one is always thinking of the past or the future, one will miss what is happening at the very moment. And I for one do not want to die knowing that I missed out on what was in front of me just because I was distracted by the past or the future.

Hope and Peace Was in Myself All Along


Photo credit: Martin Gommel via photopin cc

I can enjoy almost every type of music, except for jazz. Try as I might, I have an intense and completely irrational dislike for jazz music, mainly due to memories I have of working as a teenager in a coffee shop I really disliked which happened to play a lot of jazz. I’ve realized that I am being unfair to a whole genre of music simply because of my experiences and have tried to correct this over the years, but thus far with no luck.

Despite my tolerance of most other types of music, however, I really only listen to two types of music on a regular basis: rock, alternative rock, and country music. Rap fuels a lot of my runs, but that time makes up a relatively small percentage of my total music listening time. Quite frankly, I think I listen to rap in order to trick myself into feeling like a bada** when I am working out, when deep down, I know that I am not. Country music, on the other hand, is something I indulge in when I am craving something simple, upbeat, happy, and kind of dumb, but that very simpleness which attracts me to it can make me tire quickly of it. Most of the time, I enjoy listening to alternative rock the most.

One of my favorite genres within alternative rock is post-rock music. I’ve always had a hard time explaining to my friends exactly what post-rock music is, but I can recognize it when I hear it. In lieu of trying to formulate my own explanation, I’ll go with Wikipedia’s definition on it:

“Post-rock is a subgenre of rock music characterized by the influence and use of instruments commonly associated with rock, but using rhythms and “guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures” not traditionally found in rock. Post-rock bands are often without vocals.”

Some examples of post-rock music:

Sometimes post-rock is quiet.

Sometimes it is loud.

And sometimes it gets even louder.

One reason I enjoy post-rock music so much is that it is often without vocals and often sounds more like a symphony or the soundtrack to a movie. I enjoy listening to the music and trying to figure out what “story” the music is trying to tell. Sometimes I am reminded of my childhood friend Eric when I do this. He lived next door to me during my first few years in Georgia and was my best friend at the time. Our friendship was almost solely based on digging out and collecting worms all day long. I still do not know why this gave me so much pleasure as a child, but we both genuinely enjoyed it. Occasionally we broke up the monotony of collecting worms by collecting acorns instead, which I stored in a different jar from the worms so as to not crush them.

Eric was actually a lot more fascinating that his outdoor hobbies would have you believe. He was able perform a cool little trick which I was never able to figure out. While we both played the piano, I only knew how to play from sheet music. Eric, on the other hand, could just look at a picture of something, such as a flower, and play from that image. I never could figure out if it was a certain musical technique, or if he just was so gifted that he was able to compose music on the spot through the thoughts and feelings he associated with the pictures.

In a sense I am doing the opposite when I listen to post-rock music– I create the image in my head through the music, not the other way around.

Sometimes the “story” seems obvious, at least at first. One of my favorite post-rock songs of all time is “Your Hand in Mine” by Explosions in the Sky, and by the name, you can tell that it is supposed to be a love song.

It starts off slowly and calmly, which always makes me think of someone walking along slowly through the path of life.Then the drums kick in and the music speeds up. The rhythm of the drums always make me feel as if someone’s heart is beating faster. Then the drums go away, and it is as if that person is settling back into a rhythm. Maybe the initial thrill of meeting someone new is gone, and the person has returned to the normal rhythm of his or her life. Then the music speeds up again until it heightens into a crescendo, and finally, there is a crash of swelling guitars before the song ends.

If you had asked me three years ago what the song meant, I would have told you that it was about falling in love with someone whom you had known for a while. The beginning is calm, as if you are sailing about on the sea of what the relationship currently is: safe and friendly. The crescendo builds as you realize that that sea has changed. Over time, that person has become more to you and is a lot more than just a friend. I would also have said, “Gee, it would be really nice to experience something like that.” I wanted it so much at that time. I longed for that feeling, and I thought that that feeling would bring me peace.

If you had asked me two years ago what the song meant, I would have said the exact same thing, and I would also have added that I was blessed enough to finally experience that feeling. I would have told you that I believed it brought me joy and peace to finally find what I was looking for.

If you had asked me one year ago what the song meant, I would have told you that the song ended too soon, and that you don’t hear of the despair one feels if the relationship is lost.

I haven’t listened to that song much recently, but as I was running by the Charles River the other day, it came on some time during that magical time somewhere between 6 and 10 miles. As Daniele Seiss put so eloquently in her essay about running’s effect on managing her depression:

“Now, if I am feeling down, I go for a run. I usually start feeling better almost as I head out the door — in part, I believe, because I am taking charge and doing something. But by mile four, I can actually feel my thinking beginning to change, from negative to positive, as if four miles, or about 30 minutes, is some kind of threshold.”

I know exactly what feeling she is speaking about, and it is that feeling that I am chasing when I lace up my sneakers every day to run. I am not capable of running 30 miles like she is, but I know exactly how it feels when your when your thinking crosses a certain threshold and starts to perceptibly change. For me, it is a gradual progression with several stages. The first mile or so is always a little sluggish as my body starts to wake up. The insecure, negative part of me thinks, “That is because you are not a real runner. You’re not fit enough to do this. How about we just turn around and go home instead?”, but I always shut that voice down and remind myself that my body is just slowly waking up from a state of inertia and that I could not have possibly lost condition so quickly.  By mile two or mile three, I start to feel cheerful. It is the wonderful point past mile five or mile six when suddenly feel as if I am flying and that I can conquer anything.

It was at that point that day that I realized that the song suddenly had a completely different meaning for me. It was no longer about the thrill and joy of finding happiness in someone else. All of a sudden, to me the song meant the thrill and joy of just being happy and at peace with oneself. At that moment, nothing seemed better than listening to the guitars and drums, feeling the rhythmic pounding of my legs, and feeling the wind blow from the Charles River as I wound my way around it. Even though I did not know what the next day would bring for myself or my career, I was happy and grateful for the fact that I had my health and that my body was strong enough to carry me through the long run. I was filled with gratitude to be able to breathe in air, hear the sound of the cars go by, and see the river and the trees with my own eyes.

The knowledge that I “interpreted” the song completely differently surprised me very much, and I think it is just one of the many little signs of proof that running and other changes I have made in my life have made some radical changes in my thinking.

To me, no longer is that wordless and joyful song about finding hope and happiness in someone else. It is about the realization that the hope and peace I was striving for was in myself all along.

Training for a Half Marathon and Self-Compassion


Photo credit: kaneda99 via photopin cc

As I mentioned before in my first post, this year I began training for a half-marathon. It all started earlier this summer when I wandered into the Lullelemon on Newbury Street with one of my friends.

Before you get the wrong idea, this was my very first time wandering into a Lulelemon in my life. I simply do not feel hip enough to wear their workout clothing and normally stick to sweat pants and an old windbreaker while running. I normally would have had no interest in going to such a place, but I had been wandering around that part of town with friends, and one of them insisted that we go to use the gift card she had received.

workout outfit

This is normally how shlumpy I am when I run…minus the bicycle helmet.

It turned out that it was a good thing that we had gone, because I ended up seeing an advertisement that interested me. It said:


Now, it had been about two years since I picked up running again at that point, but I never ran more than 4 miles at a time. I usually ran about 3-4 times a week and no more than 3-4 miles at a time. Part of me had always wondered if I would be capable of running longer distances, but there was always a part of me that intentionally resisted doing that.

First of all, I have a deep fear of injuring myself. Running for me is something that has brought me a lot of calm and peace, and as I said before, it helped me get through a difficult period in my life. Like a lot of people, I’ve always heard that running a lot “caused many injuries and ruined your knees”, so I purposely did not run too much too often. Then there was one time when I did injure myself running around September 2012, and the month I had to take off from running was very frustrating for me.

Second of all, I always had a belief that I could never be a “real runner”. “Real runners” to me were all tall and lithe, and I’m a somewhat stocky 5’5” person. At the most, I could be an okay sprinter. Growing up playing soccer, I did notice that I regularly beat my teammates when we raced each other around the 400 meter track after practice, but I thought that this meant at most that I could be speedy over short distances, not long ones. I thought that my big legs couldn’t carry me any further than that.

But I saw this ad at a pretty critical point in my life. I was at a point when I wanted to challenge myself more physically and mentally, and I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to do that. I gave the phone number listed a call.

The study turned out to be a joint running injury study between the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab and the Boston Children’s Hospital. For any of you who know about barefoot running, it was actually run by the famous Dr. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University, who is often cited by barefoot running advocates. The study was done on adult female recreational runners of all ages, not just their 20’s, but apparently they were short on women in their 20’s at the time and placed an ad to specifically recruit women in that age group. I found out later that most of the participants ended up being nurses employed by the Children’s Hospital, so it is not surprising that most of their initial pool of participants were older than that.

The commitment was as follows:

1)      I needed to go in for an initial physical assessment, a mid-study visit, and a final visit,

2)      I needed to follow the four month training plan and upload my training logs regularly,

3)      I needed to register for a half marathon and run it.

I actually found the training plan interesting from an exercise science point of view. Most half marathon training plans you find online are about 12 weeks in duration, but this one was 16 weeks long. The runs during the week ranged from 3-5 miles, with a long run on Sundays which increased every week until the middle of the schedule. At that point they decreased again and then peaked once more, with a final long run of 11 miles before tapering off the last two weeks before the half-marathon. This differed from a lot of the schedules I had seen before, which had long runs which consistently increased every week before the final taper before the race.

I went in for my initial physical assessment at the Boston Children’s Hospital and was approved for the study. I also found out a few unexpected things about my body: I was not only flat-footed, which is something I’ve known for years, but I am also knock-kneed as well! It amazes me that I am able to run at all! I guess I am a medical miracle. Surprisingly, they said that these two traits did not disqualify me for the study, and I was put into the control group and sent on my merry way to train. There were two other groups as well: one received minimalist running shoes and gait retraining, while another only received the gait retraining.

At first, I did not find training difficult. It was designed for runners who were already at the intermediate level, and the first week was four days of running three miles a day, which was something I was already accustomed to. However, as time went on, I ran into a few problems I didn’t expect:

1)      It was really difficult to adhere to the schedule while playing both softball and soccer at the same time.

I firmly believe that you almost never regret a workout, and try to remind myself of this whenever I find myself trying to skip one. However, I do distinctly remember regretting one long run I did after playing soccer. I really think that run did my body more harm than good, but despite my common sense screaming at me to delay that long run for another day, I did it anyway. Which underscores the fact that you should listen to your body if it is screaming at you to rest.

After that incident, I learned to be more flexible about adhering to the schedule. I was afraid at first that this would screw up the researchers’ data, but as they continually emphasized to us during our initial assessment, we could take the schedule slower or rearrange the schedule as needed according to what our body needed. For my own body, the demands of playing two sports and training for a half-marathon were sometimes difficult to juggle, and sometimes I had to take an extra day off as needed or completed workouts earlier than scheduled to fit it in with my other sports.

2)      I was hungry all the time.

I suppose that this one shouldn’t have really surprised me, since I eventually essentially increased my weekly mileage by 100% of what I was originally accustomed to. But I was surprised by how hungry I eventually became. Around the two month or so mark of training, when the training reached its peak, I sometimes found myself so hungry that I was unable to sleep at night! This also was around the time when I quit my day job in exchange for a job bartending and waiting tables. I went from sitting 60+ hours a week to a full time job of being on my feet all of the time, so even when I wasn’t running, I was burning more calories than usual.

3)      I GAINED weight while training.

About three pounds, to be exact. I really think that the point above was the reason for this, but my friends speculate that it could have been muscle gain. I think that they are just being nice.

Which actually brings me to my next point…

4)      In some ways, I felt more out of shape.

Before training, I was a moderate runner who ran 3-4 times a week and did some light yoga and strength training. By the time that I got to the middle part of the schedule, I was so tired from my new physically demanding job and the extra running, that I found plenty of excuses for neglecting strength training and yoga. As a result, by the time I finished, while I felt aerobically more fit, parts of my body (especially my core) felt weaker and softer.

5)      Willpower has limits.

Let me explain. I believe that willpower is like a muscle which you need to train. While it has a limit, you are able to increase this limit if you practice slowly strengthening and stretching it. However, willpower takes a lot out of people, which is why it is best to turn something you would like to do on a regular basis into a habit and not a task which must be battled with consciously. That’s why I like to describe myself as someone who is a “creature of habit” who thrives well within a structured environment – I’ve found that the less I have to consciously think about doing and the more I can rely on automation, the more productive I am.

What I found was that at first, increasing my weekly mileage every week while at the same time imposing a structured lifestyle without my day job took extra willpower. As a result, I found my willpower slipping in other aspects of my life. I found myself letting myself have an extra cookie or two when before I would have said no. Hence, the extra three pounds. This is probably part of the reason why I neglected other aspects of fitness, such as strength and flexibility.


One more cookie….

Photo credit: JanetandPhil via photopin cc

Overall, despite a few hurdles here and there, I found the training to be overwhelmingly positive and rewarding. I’ve always known that I am someone who thrives well on structure, and I found the structured nature of the program to work well for me. Despite the rearrangements with my softball and soccer schedule, I followed the training schedule pretty well for the most part and only missed about two workouts overall. I felt very strong and well-prepared for my race in Newton, MA on November 10, 2013, which I planned to run with some friends.

Then I found out something that left me feeling very stupid and disappointed with myself for a good half an hour.

It turned out that I never registered properly for my race. Looking back, I figured out what had happened: I had tried registering for it online, but the online payment system was having problems at the time, and my payment did not go through. I decided that I would try registering again another day instead, but I never did. By the time I discovered this, the race already full.

It turned out that there was no way I could enter the race I had spent four months preparing for. I am not going to lie. I felt very stupid and beat myself up about it for a little bit. I thought, “How could you be so stupid and irresponsible? You worked so hard for four months for this, only to never have the chance to finish. You’re an idiot!!!”

Then I reminded myself about a talk that my friend had sent me. One of my friends is studying to be a child psychologist, and she occasionally sends me interesting links about the topics she is studying. She sent me this video on self-compassion, and it really hit home a problem I realized I had: my self-talk with myself was always much more cruel and harsh than it would ever be with my friends. I would never call my friend “stupid and irresponsible” for making the same sort of mistake, since I know that 1) It would hurt his or her feelings, and 2) Because it would be counterproductive. Her talk mentions a good point that too many people who talk this way to themselves mistakenly believe that it is something that will drive them to improve, while in reality, people who talk this way to themselves are actually LESS successful than people who are compassionate to themselves.

I decided that while I did make a mistake and would learn to be more careful from then on (in the future, if something similar happened, I would make a note in my calendar to try registering again), but I would try to turn a negative experience into something positive. Why didn’t I just run the distance on my own and track it using one of the many GPS running apps out there? If Harvard didn’t accept my data, then so be it. At least I knew that I had done all the training properly and that I had completed my running goal. (And I was saving myself a little bit of money on the registration fee!)

So I decided to use the Nike+ Running App to run the distance on my own. I did a little slower than I hoped for, but perhaps it was because I wasn’t in a race setting. In any case, I am glad that I completed it, and the training left me hungry for more. Maybe this is the part of me who is always trying to do more and more, but 13.1 miles doesn’t seem like much anymore to me. I really enjoyed the structured nature of the training, and I loved pushing my body a little bit more every day.



And it even made me decide that I wanted to do a full marathon next year in Providence, RI! I plan to run the Providence Cox Marathon on May 4, 2014, and have started to plan ahead for my training. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the next month of lighter training and a focus on other types of fitness, such as strength training! Stay tuned for more on my marathon training!

Introduction to the Inner/Outer Fitness Project

Hi everyone!

As you can tell, this is a new blog, and I should give a little bit of an introduction with the purpose of it and what I started to achieve.

This actually isn’t the first blog on this domain. I started blogging on what eventually became http://www.shelleyyoung.com in 2008 when I first went to China to study. The name, I Love Bing, came out of a joke I made to my boyfriend that the real reason why I went to China was to eat as much Chinese flatbread (or bing) as possible. At the time, I was an undergraduate studying Chinese Language and Literature and working on my schoolwork occupied a lot of my time, so of course much of what I wrote about was about my experience in China and my experience studying Chinese. The blog was private for a long time and mainly served as an easy way for me to share news and photos with my friends and family back home. A few years after I returned from China, I made the blog public, but my updates were sporadic and haphazard at best.


I originally started writing to chronicle my adventures in China (eating Chinese food).

I worked hard in college, was a straight A student, graduated with the highest Latin honors, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. I graduated during the recession but was fortunate enough that I almost immediately found work at an international education consulting company after graduation. It turned out that all the time (and money) I spent studying and working abroad was useful in building a career in international education. Due to that hard work and my fluency in Chinese, I was able to work with the company’s overseas offices in China.

Before I go further into how The Inner/Outer Fitness Project started, I should provide some information for context about my personality for readers who do not know me:

1)      I have a tendency towards perfectionism.

2)      I can and will work very, very, hard.

3)      One of the things that scares me the most is being called a quitter.

4)      Challenge is something I value. Until recently, I would be willing to do work if I considered it an intellectual challenge, even if I did not believe in the “mission” or “purpose” of it.

5)      I am competitive by nature. This is closely related to trait #4 above. Even as a child I played sports with the boys during recess, because I thought that playing with the girls was boring since they were not competitive enough.   

Probably because of how grateful I was to find a job so easily after graduation with what I thought was a useless major and because of my own innate work ethic, I threw myself into my job. I loved the challenge of it and gave it my all. Over time, I was promoted and moved into new projects and my workload steadily grew. Before I knew it, I was regularly working 60 hour work weeks and on nights and weekends. Because of my work with overseas offices, I had weekly meetings at night with offices in China that would often last until 2AM in the morning. I still had to be in at work at 9:00AM to work with American colleagues and clients, however, and because of my long commute, I  had to be out of bed by 6:30AM every day.

The only way I knew how to manage this was to live a very regimented lifestyle. My workload often required me to be in the office until 7:00PM, and I made a habit of bringing my dinner with me every day. I usually would eat my dinner at work, make the 1.5 hour trek home,  decompress through a run or yoga class, then collapse exhausted by 11PM in order to be in shape enough to start all over again the next morning. That was an ideal schedule. More often than not, I was delayed for some reason; either I had to stay later than that, or public transportation took too long, or I was interrupted in the middle of the night by emergency phone calls and emails demanding an immediate response. I became a pro at fitting in my workouts at all hours of the day. I sometimes woke up even earlier to run if I knew that there was no way I could fit it in later that night, and it was not unusual for someone to catch me completing my run outside at 1AM or 2AM after one of my international meetings. (I do not recommend this for safety reasons. I never said I was very smart about the way I lived.)

Because my work meant so much to me, I made little time for my friends or any of my hobbies. Friends from college who would come into Boston to visit me told me that I was not the same quirky, curious, and creative person they knew from college. I had become a boring work drone. More than once, my older brother gently hinted that the life I was living was probably not what was right for me, but his advice went through one ear and out the other.

Needless to say, this obviously wasn’t very sustainable, and several years of this will take its toll on anyone. I was someone I did not want to be: stressed out, anxious and irritable.

It took a long time for this to become clear to me though. My perspective finally started to change in October of 2012 when I went through a very difficult breakup. The ending of that relationship left me very deeply affected and saddened. I felt shaken by the loss, as if a wire had snapped inside me, and it made me question all of the assumptions I had held thus far about life.

I can say with no amount of exaggeration that the most important tool that kept me moving forward was exercise.

I don’t mean to discount the help my friends and family extended to me. They were very kind and compassionate to me during that difficult time. But what ultimately saved me, however, was exercise.

I had known for some time about the connection between physical and mental health, but this time I took it upon myself to do as much research on the subject. I consumed books such as Spark and Healing through Exercise. And I threw myself into as much physical activity as I could.

I played soccer and softball and would go on any hiking, skiing, etc. adventure that anyone suggested. When I saw an ad for a half marathon running study done at Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital, I signed up from it. I followed the training schedule and went from running an average of 12 miles a week to an average of about twice that much every week. I created spreadsheets that tracked how much I adhered to the schedule I gave myself of running, strength training, cross training, and yoga. I also made sure to incorporate mindfulness exercises such as meditation into my daily routine.


I skiied for the first time in my life!

Tory Row

…And bonded with my brothers by running a race with them.

I even signed up for an initial assessment with a personal trainer (he was great, but I decided that I did not need it), and he asked me what my motivation was for considering personal training. I told him, “It’s because I believe that if my body becomes stronger, my mind will become stronger too.” He said, “Wow. That’s probably the most unique answer I’ve gotten so far. Most people just want to lose weight.”

It turned out that the loss of that relationship was a blessing in disguise, because it made clear to me the truth that I had been blind to all along.

For too long I thought that the only important thing in life was to be successful and responsible. That was why I worked so hard in school and why I worked so hard at my job. I grew up poor, and my mother was a widow; if I did not work hard and become successful (read: the recipient of some arbitrary status symbol with some measure of financial success) then I was irresponsible. Hobbies and having fun with friends didn’t matter; all that mattered was how well you did at your job. Until that point in October 2012, I didn’t stop to consider the fact that I was neglecting my health through my single-minded focus on my job and that it was making me exhausted and miserable. I thought to myself, “Do I want to look back later on and remember my twenties as a time when I was exhausted and unhappy, and all I had to show for that time was the success of my work projects?” And very importantly, despite enjoying the people I worked with and my work environment, I had no passion for the industry I was in. I only worked hard because I believed that it was the right and responsible thing to do.

I had kept going because deep down I was terrified of being called a quitter. Do you know those scenes in the Back to the Future movies when Marty McFly consistently gets himself into messes because someone called him a chicken? That was the way I felt about quitting. To be called a quitter was to me the pinnacle of failure.

But that personal loss made me reconsider all of my beliefs. Whenever I wasn’t working, I thought, and when I went on my long runs, I continued to think. Over time, I came to this conclusion:

I had to completely redefine my definition of success.

The whole time I had been completely wrong about what I thought was success, and my real, hidden, core values were utterly incompatible with the way I had been living my life. I also did not believe in the work that I was doing and was only doing it because it was a challenge and my responsibility. I was also doing it because I was deeply afraid of being a failure. My pride and selfishness had me working so hard on something that ultimately was not my real passion, and I was neglecting the things that were really important in my life, which were my family, friends, and my mental and physical health.

I was also so focused on this flawed idea of “success” that I did not consider how I wanted my character to be. I didn’t stop to think that what I really wanted of my character was to be a kind and compassionate person. Not only was it not a top priority for me consciously back then, but I neglected my physical health so much that it was impossible to be so, no matter how good my intentions.

I also thought about all the things that I threw myself into whenever I was not working. What was it that I really cared about? I cared a lot about health and learning about to help others become healthy. I enjoyed cooking healthy food and entertaining. I enjoyed taking long runs outside and going to the gym. I enjoyed reading about philosophy and spirituality and how to be a better person. I was fascinated with the connection between mind and body. Was there a way that I could incorporate these interests somehow into a career? I was not sure then, and I am still not sure today, but I knew one thing with absolute certainty: I could not stay in my job any longer.

It took about six more months of prep work before I could finally leave. I called up my old boss at the restaurant I had worked on and off through college and asked him if I could have a job there again. I told him that I was quitting my day job and that it would take some time before I could leave (remember, I am by nature a responsible person and as a project manager, I wanted to make sure that all my projects transitioned properly.) He agreed to take me back once I was done with my day job, and agreed to let me pick up shifts before then to make some extra money. I began working at night and on the weekends there to prepare for my transition. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to him for giving me the opportunity to go back. Without that, I would not have been able to leave as soon as I wanted to. He eventually offered me a few shifts bartending, which I had never done before (I had only waited tables and worked as a hostess before), and I found bartending unexpectedly fun and rewarding.

When I finally put in my resignation, I also agreed to a two and a half month transition period out. My friends and family all told me I was crazy, but I genuinely did feel that I owed the company a lot and wanted to make sure that the transition was smooth for them too. It was my first job out of college, and I had learned a lot from my experience there. I was also very ingrained in my projects and had to train new people to take over, and I wanted to make sure that they would be successful in their new roles.

It’s been three months since I quit my job, and I haven’t looked back. I am still figuring out the path towards getting towards where I would like to be, but there is no doubt in my mind that I am getting closer towards it.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I was able to make the decision that I made. During these shaky economic times, how many people are able to just get up and leave the comfortable, safe, and respectable white collar job they have? I was lucky enough that I had a very good support network. I had friends who have been with me through thick and thin and have been non-judgmental, tactful, and understanding about the fact that I now cannot go out as often as before. I’ve noticed that a lot of them have started inviting me over for dinners at their house instead of going out, since they do not want me to feel uncomfortable about turning down an invitation for dining out because of financial reasons. I have a supportive family that encouraged me to find happiness even if it meant sacrificing job stability. My older brother has been especially supportive and even offered to help me out financially if I needed it. (It hasn’t come to that yet, thank goodness, but it is nice to know that he loves me and is there for me.) My boss at the restaurant was supportive and flexible about taking me back, even though he knew that there would be a chance that I would leave in the near future.

This brings me back to the focus of this new blog. I’ve put a lot of thought over the past year into learning how to become a better person, inside and out, and this blog is meant to chronicle that progress. It is a never-ending process, which is why I call it a Project.  

While I still don’t have the answers for myself or anybody else, I hope that writing will help me figure this out and maybe perhaps I could inspire someone else along the way to choose happiness over stability or money or status symbols or whatevver other people call success. Another big component of what I would like to talk about is physical health. I passionately believe in the connection between physical and mental health and believe that if you get your body in shape, your mind will follow, and vice versa. I really believe that during one of the hardest periods of my life, running and playing sports saved me, and I believe that they can do they same for other people going through struggles. So while I am certainly not the poster child for health and have a long way to go, a large component of this blog will be about physical health, healthy living, and spiritual health because these topics are important to me, and I believe that they should be a priority for anyone seeking to leave a vibrant and fulfilled life.

I am sure that these goals will evolve over time, just as people evolve over time. It amazes me how much I have changed for the better in the span of only a year. It gives me hope that with some thought and hard work, I can continue to learn a better person little by little, day by day.