On Walking

I used to dread my commute at previous jobs. I live about 1.5 miles from the nearest subway, and during my time at my last job, in the mornings I regularly took the bus straight from my front door to the subway, which took me to downtown to Boston’s Financial District. The commute could take anywhere from 45 minutes on a good day to over an hour and half during the epic snowstorms last year, when the MBTA could not keep up with the constant onslaught of snow and regularly shut down. On the way home, I usually walked the 1.5 miles from the subway entrance to my home, but often times I did not and took the lazy route by hitching a ride onto the bus.

When I left my job at a healthcare IT startup in the heart of downtown Boston to take a position at a large healthcare IT company in the suburbs, I thought that I was making a considerable downgrade in location. I had worked in a beautiful glass skyscraper in the glamorous financial district with a gorgeous view of the Boston skyline and restaurants, bars, cafes, and theaters just a few steps away. Of course this seemed inconsequential compared to the prospect of a new position with room to learn and grow, but I still felt a twinge of regret saying goodbye my swanky office. A colleague once told me that there are only three factors that add to job satisfaction in a job: 1) your actual work, 2) the people you work with, and 3) the location, and at any given time you could only win on two out of three of those factors. In moving to the suburbs, I felt that I was definitely taking a hit in the last one.

The change has actually not been as bad as I expected and brought some unexpected benefits. Since the company is located just outside Boston and many of its employees are in the Boston metropolitan area just like myself, they operate several company-run shuttles that are very clean and reliable. Every day I now walk 1.8 miles (I looked up the distance on Google Maps so I know the distance exactly) to the company shuttle, and it is just a 10-15 minute straight shot to my office. At first I was a little petulant about having to walk every day, especially since I did so little walking for transportation before, and there were some logistical difficulties with commuting on foot. After some trial and error, I realized my fashionable purse for carrying my laptop in was not going to cut it and would probably make my shoulders lopsided with how heavy my laptop was, so I finally swapped it out for a dorky backpack. I don’t like how I look like a student as a result, and a lot of times my back gets sweaty, but it made a huge difference.

I now feel extremely lucky to have such a pleasant commute every day and for the forced excercise. It’s great getting the extra 3.6 miles of walking in every day, and I make it something to look forward to every morning with some iced coffee in my thermos and good podcasts on my phone to listen to. My current favorites are Freakanomics Radio and More Perfect, the Radiolab spinoff about the Supreme Court.

It’s also surprising how calming the walking has been. It makes me realize more than ever how beneficial something so simple has been for me. I always feel calmer and happier after work when I walk back home than I used to before riding in a metal tube every day underground, and I love the extra sunlight. And I no longer am ever late due to public transport shutting down or from buses not arriving on time. Short of getting hit by a car, it’s almost impossible to have my commute screwed up with now. We’ll see how I feel in a couple of months when the Boston winter hits again, but for now I am really enjoying the unexpected benefits to my mood. Sometimes I think the world would be a much better place if everyone just walked for an hour every day, even if just for how much more cheerful the world would be. And of course, people would be healthier as well — I never understood why Americans have such a dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy and such an all or nothing approach. Many people seem to think it is a choice between being a couch potato and Crossfit or marathon running, when really, just going for a walk would make people so much happier.

In other news, tomorrow is my big trip to Maine where I will be taking part in the Tough Mountain Challenge! My friends and I have a big weekend planned of hiking, obstacle racing, and lounging about in a pool in a cabin🙂 I cannot wait and hope to have a recap here soon.

 

 

Relaxing

It’s been a VERY long time since I posted! Over a year, in fact. To anyone who happens to be reading this who is not my family or my roommate (Hi, J!) here’s a very quick update on some things that have changed since I last posted:

  • I moved to a new apartment which I love and get to live with one of my best friends.
  • I moved from a small healthcare IT startup to a large healthcare IT company and am greatly enjoying the opportunity so far. I am learning a lot and believe that we are making a meaningful difference in healthcare.
  • I sprained my ankle very badly in my last race (with a suspected stress fracture as well) and was in a walking boot for about 3 months, which set me back considerably on my health and fitness goals.

What happened with the last one, you ask? Well, I posted before that I was running the 2015 Ragnar Trail New England with a bunch of friends. I trained carefully for the event by strength training twice a week and running three times a week, with my long runs on the weekends at the Middlesex Falls trails in Massachusetts. I loved the beauty of my runs every weekend, and come the day of the event, I felt confidant and had an amazing time. It was a great highlight of last year, and I made a lot of new friends and strengthened connections with existing ones.

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A beautiful day training in the Middlesex Fells for my race.

I had chosen some of the shortest combined mileages for myself since I wanted to take it easy and ran a total of ~15 miles during the race. The terrain turned out to be more rugged, dangerous, and steep than the trails I was accustomed to in the Middlesex Falls, and later I learned that about 1 in 5 people at the race had hurt themselves in some way. Running down the mountain in the middle of the night during my middle leg was the scariest part of all, but I got through it unscathed. During my very last leg, however, with only 1.5 more miles to go, I was running downhill down a very steep portion of the trail and crashed my ankle hard on a rock.

Now, I am a pretty clumsy person and have hit my head or other parts of my body pretty hard on stuff, but that was the first time that I hit myself on a part of my body which was not my head and saw stars. I immediately crumpled and had to sit for a few minutes to calm myself down through the pain. I managed to limp/run the remaining 1.5 miles of the race and celebrated the finish of our race with my teammates, albeit in pain.

Ragnar Trail NE

That fateful day when I accidentally hit my ankle on a rock. I had a blast with my teammates that weekend, but I was in pain when this photo was taken.

For the next two weeks or so, I continued icing my ankle and wrapping it up, but it never got better, so I finally had to see a doctor. The diagnosis: a very severe sprain and a suspected stress fracture. I was put in a boot for two months and told to stay completely off of my legs (not even short walks for exercise). Of course, I found that prescription very hard to follow and became a non-compliant patient who tried to go on long walks and sessions on the stationary bike, and that set me back an additional month. I finally resigned myself to the fact that I would need to be almost completely inactive for 3 months. All that was allowed of me was strength training for my arms, and I did deadbug exercises to get some core work in.

After I finally got out of the boot, it was a long and frustrating process getting my body fully back up to speed. Even now, after being out of the boot for 9 months, I still feel pain and stiffness in my ankle. I keep my mileage maximum to only 4.5 miles at a time at the moment, and only a few months ago have started lifting heavy weights again, though I am not as strong as I once was. I’m okay with that, however — I’m just happy to be able to be active and do the things that maintain good health, and I know that eventually with consistency and persistence I’ll be back to where I was before. I’ve learned over the years that slow, consistent progress is the way to go, and that overall health is the most important objective of all. Running longer distances or lifting very heavy weights may not be in my short-term cards — but good overall health definitely is.

Now that you’re all caught up, what am I doing today, you ask? What was so exciting today that it made me reappear out of the blue? Absolutely nothing, actually. Which brings me to the point of this post.

I’m by nature a chronic worrier, and this has brought endless pain for me. I worry so much that during the later half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 I fought a long and bitter battle with insomnia. I would often fall asleep around 10:30 and wake up around 2 and be up for until 6:00AM, when I would fell back asleep for only half and hour and then had to wake up for work. The next day would always be a hazy fog as I struggled to stay awake. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to defeat the insomnia. Exercise is said to help with insomnia, but I was consistently active. I thought that I might have been overtraining and tried to cut back for a bit, which seemed to help some, but it did not stop it. It became so bad that in May of 2015 I went to the doctor with a complaint of chronic fatigue and malaise, and blood tests showed showed that my white blood cells were almost completely wiped out. She gave me a diagnosis of a viral infection to show my work so that I could rest for one week, but told me that it was most likely due to the lack of sleep and inability to recover. I took a few days off from work to rest and felt better, but the insomnia persisted.

Finally, something the trainer I worked with at the time said made sense to me. I had hired a trainer to work with me short term to prepare for the trail Ragnar, and to my surprise, he wanted to focus on my breathing with me. It turned out that as a chronic worrier, I was not breathing properly and needed to learn to breathe the right way in through my nose and out through my mouth. He instructed me to focus on proper breathing technique during my runs and not on my speed. Being the clutz that I am, one of the first few days I tried this during a run, I was concentrating so hard on my breath that I did not notice a piece of sidewalk sticking out and tripped over it. I also tried to follow the breathing exercises he taught me to do (an example here) and tried to do mindfulness exercises and yoga.

It’s hard to say what out of everything did the trick, but my insomnia started getting better. It started happening only once or twice a week instead of almost every day, then dwindled down to once a week. Now it happens very rarely, though it is still not gone completely.

As a result of this experience, I’ve been trying overall to try to manage stress levels better. I saw a review of the Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers book (now on my to-read list), and one of the things that scared me the most was this takeaway:

Being a Type A person carries at least as much risk as smoking, or having high cholesterol levels.

If I don’t have Type A tendencies, I don’t know who does, which is why I am trying to relax more. My plan for today? Relax with some magazines and perhaps a book of fiction (not with a book of nonfiction so I can learn something? *gasp*!), and then go for a leisurely run (with proper breathing) in the afternoon. I will tidy the house a bit, but I am not going to do any of the “Should’s” that plague my mind. No going out with friends just because I think I “should”, or reading up on my industry because I “should”.

Today, I will just relax and just be.

Nothing is Free

“Stay immigrant, man. Stay immigrant.”

-My big brother

Someone the other day told me that I was a “secretly a birthday diva”, since I turned 29 in mid-January, yet I am still celebrating into February. My explanation is that I have different groups of people with whom I want to celebrate, and it is difficult to get them all together, so I end up having to do multiple celebrations.

At least, that is my excuse. Perhaps I really am a birthday diva inside😉

One of the celebrations I had was with my two brothers. I have an older brother and a younger brother, and they treated me for my birthday to F1 racing! I was supposed to go to an F1 racing event a couple of months ago, but I had to miss it due to a physical therapy appointment. I apparently kvetched a lot to my family about missing the trip, because my brothers surprised me by taking me there. I was very touched by how sweet and thoughtful that was!

Full disclosure: I am actually afraid of even regular driving due to driving very little since moving to Boston (there’s no need to have a car here), so even though I was excited to do it, F1 racing was pretty scary to me. As a result, during my first lap I was extra-cautious and took some pretty leisurely laps. Check out the results below:

Race Results2

As you can see, I placed dead last, and everyone else completed 15 laps, while I was only able to complete 10. I also finished more then four minutes behind the person in front of me, when most people had at most an 18 second difference, haha. At least I improved my second and third time and during the third race, finishing a somewhat respectable sixth out of eight.

After F1 racing, my brothers took me to Shojo, an Asian fusion place in Chinatown. The food there is excellent (though very bad for the waistline), and I highly recommend a visit. We caught up over a dinner of chicken and waffles, Chinese-style Bolognese noodles, and fried calamari. It was delicious, and as usual, my brothers provided some thought-provoking conversation.

My brothers are very smart and thoughtful people. They are both jokesters and always keep me laughing, but they are not the type of people with whom I only have light conversation – more often than not, they say things that really make me think. Since they are family, sometimes they say things that are hard to hear, but at least they are always things which cause me to take a good look at my life and beliefs.

I studied Chinese Language and Literature in college, and was led to this major in great part because of my ethnicity. I am Chinese-American, but both of my parents were born in Vietnam. They left during the war and came here to the United States under very difficult circumstances. For months they transferred between several refugee camps in Southeast Asia before making it to the United States, and after arriving, they moved around in different states on the West Coast before finally settling in Atlanta. My older brother was born in Vietnam (he is 12 years older than I am), and his upbringing was very different from mine. I sometimes joke about being an immigrant, but that’s not true – I am pretty apple pie American in a lot of ways. I am really just riding off of the immigrant experiences my parents and older brother had. Whatever difficulties I had growing as a working class Asian-American in a all-white suburb of Atlanta, I was always an American, not an immigrant, and I never encountered the sorts of transition difficulties my parents and brother did.

We talked a little about this when I updated my brothers on my career and where I hoped to go. I told them that while I was ambitious and eager to take my career to the next stage, I was still content with where I was at the moment. (Trying to strike a balance between contentment and ambition is always a struggle for me…that is a much longer post for another time.) I told them that I thought it was funny how I knew people who were in similar places in their careers who did not seem as content. To be fair, a lot of my contentedness has to do with the fact that I basically had to start over from the bottom of a new ladder. At least I know that I had chosen the right wall this time.

Ladder

My older brother pointed out that I should see things from their perspective – things were easier for us in some ways than it was for our friends. Since we had started at the very bottom as the children of struggling immigrants, everything we did was an easy win, as it was automatically an improvement on what the generation before us could accomplish. This is in stark contrast to our wealthy friends who were the children of successful doctors and lawyers – in contrast to their parents, everything they accomplished did not seem good enough in comparison.

Obviously, this gave us an enormous advantage in terms of being content with life. When you start from the bottom, you have nowhere to go but up. But it brings with it some challenges as well.

For instance, I was a huge brat when I was a kid. I’m not going to gloss over that fact. I think I continued to be a brat well into my early twenties, and I’m going to hedge on the fact that perhaps I still am one in a lot of ways. I believe that I can attribute part of this to my childhood economic situation. As a teen, I developed a kind of defensiveness that some people in difficult situations choose to develop, and I was envious of and slow to empathize with people who I believed had more than me. Whenever someone who I believed was privileged complained about something, I always brushed it off. I always thought, “You don’t have any idea of what suffering is. Try growing up as a poor Asian in the deep South.”

I’m glad to say that by the time I was an adult, I realized how deeply flawed this thinking was. Part of this was the natural result of growing up, but some of this was cemented even more firmly when I eventually found myself unexpectedly on the other side of the line. I remember the day in college when one of my friends told me, “You know, when we first met, I was always so envious of you. I thought you had everything.” I remember feeling incredulous when I heard this, and while I chose not to say anything to it, I thought, “All you see is the surface. You have no idea how much effort goes on behind the scenes.” A few years later after we had graduated from college, and I decided to leave my job, this same friend, who was struggling with employment issues of her own, angrily lashed out when I told her about my decision to quit and said, “It really makes me very angry to hear this. Here I am, struggling to get a job I want, and you just leave your comfortable job for no reason. Things always come so easy to you, and you take it for granted. It is so unfair.” I was stunned and then angry at her statement at the time, and wondered what I did to warrant such venom. But as someone who grew up thinking of herself as a “have-not”, I realized that I used to thoughtlessly assume exactly the same of other people whom I deemed the “have’s”. I assumed many things about these people, the same way my friend did that day with me. (On my part, I also should have been more sensitive to her mindset at the time, and probably should not have gone into too much detail with my career change at that time knowing how much she was struggling. Live and learn.)

I read a quote once that said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”, and this quote hit home and represents what I now know: you don’t know what everyone you meet has experienced or been through, so always give them the benefit of the doubt. You can’t assume anything about anyone. This applies both to people who seem to have it all and people who seem to be struggling. Whenever I see someone who at first elicits the “Why are you like that, why can’t you try harder” knee jerk reaction from me, I try to stop and remember this sentence. I can never know what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes and shouldn’t judge.

Eeryone you meet

The other challenge to being the children of immigrants is that we (and I generalize by we, I realize that my experiences cannot speak for all children of immigrants) constantly fear failure. We know what poverty feels like and know what it means to fight and struggle. There are benefits to this: this fear gives me a good work ethic. But the downside is that I chronically feel as if the bottom will drop out from under me at any moment. I’ve always disliked how my friends call me “very intense”, though I know very well that they mean well. I’ve tried to tame that part of myself over the years, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I feel as if I can’t relax, or I might lose traction. I WANT to relax and be less intense, yet I fear it, since I fear becoming complacent. My brother sees this grittiness as an asset: he used to have a saying that he would say to his friends: “Stay immigrant, man, stay immigrant.” What he meant was, “Don’t forget where you came from. Keep working and never take anything for granted. Nothing is ever free.” That’s part of what keeps me going – I can’t take anything for granted, and nothing is ever free.

This applies to everything in my life: just as I can’t assume anything of other people’s feelings or experiences, I can’t assume that anything will be handed to me. I can’t assume that anything is easy: my relationships, my health, my career, anything. Nothing is ever free.

When I lived in China, sometimes I would call my mom and complain about culture shock I experienced which baffled and annoyed me. My mom would listen and say, “There are a lot of good things about Chinese culture, just like there are a lot of good things about American culture. You should observe everything and take in the good and forget about the bad.” I try to do the same about the experiences I have growing up as the child of immigrants. Despite the challenges, there are a lot of good things that came as a result of it.

Never Stop Moving, Never Stop Failing, Never Stop Learning

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Flamenco dancers at Carnegie Hall!

“Move fast and break things.”

-Facebook’s old mantra for its developers

Last long weekend I went to New York City to celebrate my 29th birthday. It’s really hard to believe that I am entering the last year of my twenties! Time really does fly by. I am determined to make this last year a blast and hope to set the stage for kicking ass in my 30’s. Luckily, I had some awesome friends with whom to spend Day 1 and Day 2 of Year 29. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, ate delicious Korean BBQ in K-Town, and saw a show at Carnegie Hall.

Two of the friends I visited were friends from my study abroad days in Beijing. That time in Beijing was really a special time for me. The Americans I was lucky enough to study with in my program were some of the most interesting, kind, open-minded, and cerebral and wacky people I’ve ever met. It was a unique time when I was surrounded by the kind of people who were interested in the same sort of things I was. Special circumstances such as studying abroad as a young person in a foreign country tend to draw people who are in the same situation together, and it was no different for the people in my program. They were all there for each other as we struggled through some of culture shock we encountered living as Americans in China.

It makes me a little sad though to think back on those times, because this was before I changed my life philosophy, and I was then was so ambitious and success-driven that all I cared about was my studies and internship. I did not pay attention to the friendships I could have nurtured and fostered. Because of this, I’ve vowed since to never lose sight of the good people in front of me. I don’t want to look back at my current life and think, “If only I worked less and focused more on the good people in my life then.”

NYC Cafe

Hanging out in NYC! The elbow you see to the right belongs to one of the awesome people I met while studying in Beijing.

As they say, though, better late than never, and I’ve been lucky enough to grow closer to some of the people in my program after we returned to the United States, such as two of the people I visited in NYC. Both of these friends ran the half-marathon with me in DC last year, and they both decided to sign up with me as a team for the Ragnar Trail New England Race in June this year. It is an overnight relay trail race through Western Massachusetts, and I am very excited about it! This will be my first race since recovering from my IT band injury and also my first ever trail race. Right now I am focused on filling up my 8-person team and getting back to baseline fitness before I begin training specifically for this race in a couple of months. At the moment, I have worked my way up to running 4.5 miles three times a week and will keep that mileage more or less steady before attempting more. I also lift weights in a weight training class twice a week and continue to do the exercises my physical therapist prescribed me. The injury apparently came about because of some muscle imbalances in my leg, and lifting heavy weights should help with correcting it. Not to mention that I always feel my best when I am both running and doing weights, and not just one or the other. As my friend who is a personal trainer says, “Focusing on only one or the other makes you only half-fit.”

While walking around NYC, I had a very interesting conversation with one of my friends. She works in a startup-like division of a nonprofit, and I currently work in a startup and have worked in another startup previously as well. We both love startup culture and ideas and were discussing the things that draw us to it. Speaking for myself personally, I love the fact that generally almost every single person working in a startup is very hard working and driven. Quite frankly, I’m worried that I would have a hard time working at a larger and more established company, since I wouldn’t know what to do with people who were NOT hard working and simply clocked in and out.

We also discussed our fitness and nutrition regimens and how even though we are both adults in our mid to late twenties, there is never a shortage of things we are still trying to figure out. I mentioned before that I am trying to get back to basics after putting on weight while recovering from my injury, and I have been experimenting with what I usually thought of as my “healthy” diet. I was a vegetarian for many years, and even before and after being a vegetarian, I never was a huge meat eater. After reading a lot about nutrition through the Precision Nutrition website, I realized that I probably haven’t been getting enough protein, and I’ve been trying to add a little more protein to my diet through eating more poultry, fish, and lean dairy. Per Precision Nutrition’s recommendations, I have also cut back a little on carbs. It’s been surprising how much better such a small tweak makes me feel! It’s also humbling to realize how there is always room for improvement. I’ve been eating my whole life, yet I found that there were so many things I didn’t know about something so basic as what to put in my mouth.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this and what nutrition and fitness have to do with startup culture. Hang in there – I’ll explain. If you work in the startup world, you’ve probably heard of a book called The Lean Startup. (I confess that I actually have yet to read this book, but I’ve heard enough said about it that I think I have a good understanding of the basics.) The book states that you don’t know for sure what your customers want. Market research can only give you so much. All you have is a guess, so you should start with modest offerings in products and iterate on them based on market feedback. Agile software development takes this approach as well: rather than create a fully robust, final product based on a drawn up plan, you create minimal versions of a product and iterate on the product after feedback from the customer. This is essentially applying the scientific method to business: you come up with a hypothesis first and test it through experimentation. Only then can you know whether or not your hypothesis (and product or service) is valid and worthwhile.

I realized that I should apply this to my own life: I should always test out different hypotheses in my life in order to learn and improve. The extra protein thing was a small example of this – my whole life I assumed that I didn’t need a lot of protein, but after adding more protein to my diet, I feel a lot better and stronger. I feel that I should continue to be iterative in my life – who knows what could be changed or improved upon. It makes sense to take a scientific approach to this and only change one thing at a time, the same way a scientist would only change one variable at a time in his or her experiments.

I can be pretty hard on myself at times, especially when I make mistakes. It still makes me sad that during my study abroad days I did not focus more on my friendships, but I realized that I was essentially “trying out” a hypothesis that turned out to be incorrect, i.e., work and school matter more than everything else. I realized that I should TRY to make more mistakes. As long as I learn from them, then there is no reason to have regrets. That’s why I always liked Facebook’s old mantra, “Move fast and break things.” It’s only after trying stuff out, failing, and eliminating dead ends that you can figure out what works.

Nerd Confession and Mission Statement

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In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a huge nerd. A HUGE nerd. (And as evidenced by most photos taken of me, I’m a goof as well.)

Being the nerd that I am who over intellectualizes and overanalyzes everything, I never could figure out *how* exactly I was a nerd. It is obvious that I am one, sure, but why is that? Other than my lifelong love for Star Wars, I don’t have too many stereotypically nerdy interests. I hate video games (I work at a software company, and this unfortunately erases me of an easy opportunity to bond with my coworkers), am not particularly enthralled with math and science, and am indifferent to most kinds of scifi. I don’t get turned on by the latest Apple products or care about fancy gadgetry either — in fact, buying lots of shiny new gadgets is pretty antithetical to the environmentalist and minimalist in me.

Imperial Guard

Yes, that is really me in that costume. Yes, I really do like Star Wars that much. No, I don’t dress in Star Wars costumes anymore — it turns out that doing that isn’t so great for your dating life…

Then I saw this post from one of my favorite fitness blogs, Nerd Fitness: “What Kind of Nerd Are You?” The author, Steve Kamb, is a big nerd like myself, and despite his frequent use of video game analogies and love for the Paleo diet (I am still very skeptical about Paleo), I love reading his blog, since I’ve always felt that he and I have share very similar philosophies in life. He summed up his definition of a nerd in a way that made complete sense: “In my humble opinion, Nerds are Nerds because they take their knowledge about a subject, “nerdy” or not, beyond the surface and dig into the layers beneath.” He also linked to a video by a “nerdy” actor that gave his take on what it meant to be a nerd. “Being a Nerd is taking the time to really understand what goes on in the world instead of just riding the planet through space.”

That post really hit it home for me: being a nerd is about being passionate! Which is exactly how I am. I was never was one to just go on autopilot through life. I always needed a purpose, and whenever I loved something, I would devote myself to it with a religious fervor.

In fact, this Rain Man-like focus on things used to make my brothers joke that I had Asperger’s, though I have finally confirmed through this test that I do not. Take THAT, brothers. And anyways, I’ve been saying for years that my knack for finding myself in client-facing roles in companies proves that I am not autistic.

To give a few examples off the top of my head of what I mean:

  • My favorite band growing up was Nirvana, and I owned everything I could get my heads on about them. I through all of my allowance at every book about Kurt Cobain, every t-shirt, and every new album compilation I could get my hands upon.
  • When I first started trying to get stronger, I read at least four books on weight lifting. Since I still have a long ways to go, I still regularly read up on how to improve my squat and deadlift.
  • One of my first assignments as a completely non-technical person at a software company was to complete a data analysis project. My boss basically told me, “You’ll have to learn a query language called SQL. Learn it, take a stab at the project, and I’ll talk to you in two weeks.” Most people would have learned enough to get the job done. I spent the next four days doing nothing but going through three different books on SQL and playing around with writing queries in example databases online before I even wrote a single real query for the project. I didn’t just want to finish the project — I wanted to learn SQL for real.

I’m not really good at just BS’ing my way through something. When I do anything, I put my whole heart into it, and I want to learn as much as I can about it. I realize how distinctly odd this mindset is. I realize most people don’t think or feel this way, and my oddness has frequently led me to being labeled as “very intense” by many people over the years. I tried to downplay this trait for a long time, since I wanted desperately to just be more like other people.

But Steve Kamb’s post really made me think, and it made me relieved to realize that I’m not such an oddity after all. It turns out that I’m just a nerd. I cannot be happy just riding the planet through space.

Since I don’t just want to sleepwalk through life, I decided to write down my personal mission statement for my life to remind myself of where I always want to go. Companies and institutions have these, so why not individuals too?  I think that it would help me in making decisions in my life. Whenever I come to a crossroads, I can evaluate my choices based on how close they will bring me towards the goals of my mission statement.

So without further ado, here it is.

My Mission Statement

The following goals are top priority to me:

  • Being loving and loyal towards my friends and family
  • Doing some good in this world before I leave
  • Becoming an influential contributor in my profession
  • Being a positive influence on those around me
  • Taking care of my health and fitness

I can only expect that these goals will evolve, but this is a good starting point, methinks!

IT Band Update and Getting Back to Basics

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I mentioned before that I had an IT band injury, or more specifically, I had IT Band Syndrome, which is a pretty common overuse injury in runners. I have been going through physical therapy for the last two and a half months and was able to run very little during that time, but Monday was officially my last day of physical therapy. I’ve been okayed as healed! WOOHOO!

The physical therapist says that my IT band looks good now, and with his blessing, two weeks ago I began running again, starting with just 1 mile. I’ve been slowly increasing it and am currently at 2.5 miles per run. I plan to increase it to about 4 miles and hold that steady until I feel strong enough to run longer distances. I am deathly afraid of overdoing it, since about halfway through my physical therapy, I made the dumb mistake of doing a 5 miler and two soccer games, all in one weekend, and my leg paid dearly for that stupidity. So I don’t plan on making that mistake again.

Tonight I rode the subway home with a coworker, and he asked me how my physical therapy was going. It turned out that he once had a very serious rock climbing accident, and had to go through extensive physical therapy himself for six months. I told him that I was officially done with PT as of Monday, and he asked me an unexpected question: “Did you feel sad to say goodbye to your physical therapist?”My coworker said that he himself felt sad to say goodbye to his physical therapist, since that person was able to commiserate with him and serve as support during his recovery. I was glad that he asked that question, because I DID feel a little sad about biding my physical therapist farewell, and I was a little embarrassed at the feeling.

There was a point about a month ago when I suddenly felt very depressed about my injury. This is not the first time I’ve had a running-related injury, but this was the most serious and painful injury so far, and for some reason, I took it a lot harder than I expected. I did my best to put on a cheerful face and stay positive, but I felt weak and helpless and as if something precious was taken away from me. I went through the motions of therapy, but only half-heartedly did my exercises and barely cut back on mileage. I was in constant pain because of it, even when not running.

After my stupid two-soccer-games-in-a-row incident, my physical therapist finally banned me from running completely for several weeks. I nearly burst into tears upon hearing the order. He could tell how upset I was and said, “Look, I understand how you feel. But I’m telling you that you have to do something hard during the short term for your long term good. Believe me, I understand how hard it is. I’ve been training for a marathon and have not been able to run for a month due to injury too. But if you do the exercises I give you, you’ll come back stronger than before.” I thought, “Man, if my dinky 20 something mileage was hard to give up, it must have been terrible giving up 50+ miles a week! I really shouldn’t be whining about this.”

It was nice though to have someone understand how sad I felt, and of course, he understood the reality of my physical pain. It wasn’t really something I could voice to my family and friends, since most of them could not understand, even if I tried to explain. At best, the gym rats among them would just say, “Do something else then! Use the elliptical! Do Pilates!” And I’d just think, you don’t understand. It’s not the same. I feel like a loser. At worst, my friends who didn’t exercise at all would think I was just rubbing my exercise routine in their faces. If I complained about how horrible I felt about exercising less, they would see it as a judgment on them. And I didn’t want to be a complainer anyway. So the answer to my coworker’s question was, yes, I did feel sad saying goodbye to the one person who understood and helped me and listened without criticism. I guess it wasn’t such an unusual feeling after all.

But I took my physical therapist’s words to heart and decided to keep staying positive. After all, I essentially had a first world problem: I had so much extra leisure time on my hands, that I could just run around for fun. I didn’t even need to run around to feed my family or for transportation. I just did it because I enjoyed it. And I ran so much that I injured myself! How silly!

I also decided to use the break as a way to get back to basics. I’ve been putting on weight, partially because of not being able to run, but truth be told, mostly because I’ve been eating terribly. My office is filled with junk food everywhere you look, which was something I was unused to before, and I’ve been having trouble saying no to it. But I only have myself to blame — no one has been forcing me to eat it. So I’ve been focused on cleaning up my diet. I’ve also been channeling my energy into getting stronger. In particular, I’m working on improving my deadlift, and I am happy to say that I’ve made some strides in that regard. For conditioning, I’ve been diligently using the elliptical. To be sure, it’s super boring, but hey, I just repeat to myself: It’s a first world problem. It’s a first world problem.

I’m glad about my recovery and glad to be back. I plan to take it easy for now and focus on improving overall health rather than mileage, but boy, and I glad to be running again!

Vulnerability and Taking Risks

I once was acquainted with someone who had the perfect upbringing and history. This person grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Boston, graduated at the top of his high school class, went on to an Ivy League college, and was completing his PhD at another Ivy League institution. His resume boasted glowing recommendations and placements at some of Boston’s most prestigious tech firms. He was well-dressed, extremely polite, and had that genteel yet stoic sort of humor peculiar to many New Englanders. His jokes were always in good taste, and it was clear that he thought carefully through the consequences of each of his words before he spoke. He was as straight-laced as can be — even his nose seemed rigidly straight. If this were the 1820s and if eugenics were not passé, one would have described him as “well-bred”.

In short, he was typical of a lot of people you meet in Boston: well-educated, well-to-do, and well-mannered.

At the time I was self-conscious of how I seemed in contrast to him. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have never walked a very straight and smooth course.  I come from a working class background, and I worry that it shows in my manners. I gear switch between being awkwardly stoic and awkwardly earnest, sometimes blurt out things without thinking, and quite literally guffaw when I laugh. I may think of myself as scrappy, resourceful, and determined, but I believe that resiliency was developed as a result of shortcomings and failure after disappointing failure. After all, what sort of person is a “scrappy” person? It’s the the underdog — the underdeveloped weakling who resolutely puts up a good fight against a larger bully. A scrappy person is not someone who has always lived a charmed life.

That ember of self-consciousness burned inside me whenever I was with this acquaintance. I felt small and grubby next to him and almost felt as if I needed to check my nails every time I was around him, in case I had accidentally left some dirt underneath them. I told a good friend of mine about the inferiority complex which bubbled to the surface whenever I was around this person, and he said something which I will never forget: “People like that don’t take risks, which makes them fail profoundly in ways which are not visible.”

I laugh now when I think back on how insecure I felt then. I’m now much more concerned with how strong  someone’s character is than his or her resume, and I work in an industry (software) which has a culture that is at its core anti-elitist and anti-establishment. But there is a point to this anecdote: I’ve been thinking a lot about my vulnerability project, and I realized that an essential part of allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the willingness to take risks. You can play it safe and avoid risk, but you will fail profoundly in ways in which only you will know and regret.

For almost one year I’ve avoided any sort of risk at all costs. This is because I felt as if I had already fulfilled my risk quota for a long while at least…quitting my job without another job in place had taken a lot out of me! I’ve tried not to make waves, and I maintain several contingency plans in case one thing or another does not work out. But I’ve taken no real risks. Not disturbing the status quo has become my goal in life. The benefit to this is that while I haven’t really failed this year at anything, I don’t think I have accomplished as much as I had hoped, either.

To progress you need to walk on the adjacent uncomfortable. You can’t live in that zone, but you need to straddle the line and occasionally even dash across it. I’m not sure if I am ready just yet to run across that line, but my first experiment in my vulnerability project is to take little exercises in risk. No, I am not going to take up sky diving or playing chicken with trains, but I already have a few ideas in mind. Stay tuned!