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Month: July, 2012

What I have learnt in Vancouver

“You can only connect the dots backwards.”

That is one of my favourite Steve Jobs’ quote and I probably reference it so very often in my writing. I would like to think I am slowly developing the patience to simply wait it out when I experience setbacks, because I know that we can only connect the dots backwards and when I seriously think about it, only good things have happened after my most miserable times. There is not a single event that has happened which I felt that I would prefer for it not to happen. 

Vancouver is the same. It was a choice I willingly made, though back then I would have preferred not to make it, wishing that I could have been in SF instead. I felt like it was a detour out of practical reasons and it wouldn’t have been a period of my life which I would look back fondly upon.

I was wrong.

The first two months were the hardest, I have never been homesick so much. I had always thrived upon travelling and being alone. For the first time in my life, I was very tempted to just take the next plane back. 

It was probably a combination of the cold weather (which I was exposed to for the first time in my life), disappointment that I couldn’t be in SF, stressful periods, missing people, the realization I had nobody I could share my struggles with, guilt of leaving my family behind.

I think this is the first time in my life I have experienced true loneliness. There have many moments when I was really close to giving up.

I am glad I waited it out. 

Three months in I started to form a couple of meaningful connections with some people in Vancouver, the launch for simplehoney happened, my team flew in to see me, things got a lot better for me.

But what truly transformed me was the self-discovery process I had to go through. I was pushed into a corner, I almost couldn’t breathe, I wanted to give up but I remained defiant. Somehow, some way, I hung on. The act of hanging on made me see myself for who I really am. 

Due to a situation I cannot elaborate much on, I was pretty much coerced into pushing myself really, really hard. I don’t think I have ever pushed myself so hard before and I have never ever wanted to push myself so hard before. 

I felt really vulnerable, extremely uncomfortable, but slowly I began to find my own voice. I was proud of myself for making the choice to take the difficult path, I was aware that in truth there was no way I could be alive if I chose the easy way out. Because of the little pride that started forming in me, this is a little embarassing to admit but I began to develop some self-respect for myself.

I have always depended on other people to determine my worth. I was always wanting to prove myself. I was always very afraid to upset other people. I was fearful of ownership. 

I have been sort of blessed. Through some other people I have been very blessed to be acquainted with in my life, they gave me a little bit of foundation of my self that I can build upon. They encouraged me, gave me kindness even though I was not being kind to myself, recognized me for my strengths even though I self-determined that I was weak. 

But that was not enough. No matter what others have said and done for me, it was not enough because all that self-doubt would destroy everything. Through developing that bit of self-respect, through recognizing that I am already leading an extraordinary life, I started to find my own little voice.

The realization that whatever happens externally would not matter if I keep disbelieving in myself. Or if I keep relinquisihing my self-power to other people because I perceive them to be stronger than me. Or if I believe that others have the power to determine my life. Or that fear of losing everything because I do not have myself to depend on.

My fragile existence was built upon what other people can give me, good or bad. 

My loneliness allowed me tons of time to self-introspect. I could no longer hide behind distractions because there was not much to distract me in Vancouver.

I now understand why I had to be here. I needed that time and personal space to shed my old self, I guess. If I were to be in SF instead, I am convinced that till today I would still be hiding behind people. Trying to seek external validation. I am barely done with shedding my old self, but the first layer is always the hardest. To even be out of self-denial that I had to let go of my old self was incredibly hard. I thought being my old self was being authentic, but it was only because I did not want to admit I could be capable of much more.

There were quite a few life-defining moments for me in Vancouver. One of them was the decision to start getting some writing on design published publicly. I was actually (*ahem*) “strongly made” by someone to do so, I put up the greatest resistance but I couldn’t even convince myself if I did not even try. 

I never wanted to write on design because I had felt that there were so many better designers out there who can do so and I rather write what I am really good at – long emo blog posts like this which I demonstrate that I am proud to write about my emotions. Writing that first design article made me realize that as long as you put your heart into something, there will be people who will feel that effort through the writing. 

And I think it is important to be able to share your voice with other people no matter how shitty you think it is. There are very few people who start writing/designing/acting/whatever and instantly become a genius. I don’t think it is fair to compare ourselves to these people. We are all unique individuals capable of our own perspectives, coloured by all our different conditionings and acquired experience. Nobody can truly be a carbon copy of someone else.

Therefore whatever we do is valuable because it is unique only to us. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t do well, even if one other person finds it valuable it is a success, even if nobody finds it valuable but it is still a learning experience for yourself, that is enough.

My life has always been a work in progress but I think the past 5 months have been like some accelerated course I was on. I think this has been the most accelerated growth process I have been on so far. I have had @crazygrape visit me a month ago and he kept telling me how different I am now from the person he knew.

I used to be really nervous when I talk to new people I meet (in fact I only started meeting people 3 years ago), I stutter a lot and most of the time I wish the ground would swallow me up – that no longer happens too. In fact, now I think I talk too much. Lol. I am so excited to share my stories, if you ever meet me in real life and you think I talk to much, please do not hesitate to shut me up.

Time really flies, in a blink of an eye it has been almost half a year since I was here. I will be back in Singapore next week. What is going to happen next? I do not know. I am slowly learning to not expect any outcomes. Because of what has happened in Vancouver, I know whatever happens is really for a reason. Therefore even if good things do not happen, I know I will keep on learning from it. 

I really believe in destiny and the will, previously I was a fatalist, just bobbing along with life because I think things will just happen anyway. Now I am kind of a reformed fatalist, I still believe things will just happen anyway but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy the process. Or milk everything out of it. When things happen it is truly up to us whether we want to learn from it or live life feeling we are really ill-fated humans. 

I’ll admit it, there are still many times I end up feeling like why things always have to be so difficult for me, and I feel disappointed with myself for feeling this way after all that I have learnt, but slowly I am beginning to recognize, at the very least, my moments of joy have been increasing and I snap back into my optimistic self (at least there is
one now)much much faster than before. 

In fact, one of the things I have learnt while being here is to embrace all those moments when I feel like shit. The point is to stop the vicious cycle when you feel like shit and you feel the guilt and despair for feeling like shit, so it simply carries on. If I accept that life simply has its ups and downs, that I am unrealistic to expect it only has its ups, then I just fully embrace the downs and let it pass. I no longer feel that bad about feeling bad now, allowing myself to simply feel bad is ironically speeding up the recovery process.

What is life going to behold after I leave Vancouver? I cannot say I anticipate my future with excitement or things are only going to get better, but I honestly have this curiousity of how my life will be. If I cannot be fully enthusiastic (yet) about how my life will unfold, then for now I will take the curiousity. 



Overcoming setbacks

Having been through a rollercoaster ride for the past year, I have learnt to be grateful even for the downward spirals. Being in Vancouver alone was somewhat unexpected and it was really hard in the beginning – but even for this I have found tons to be grateful for. 

But one can only be so optimistic and positive, when setbacks occur again and again, your internal walls wear thin. At least mine was wearing thin. Even when I fell on my face in Hoi An last year I found the reason to smile – I smiled, because at least it was just a bruised face and I did not have any serious or even troublesome injuries. 

I’ve asked myself how many times do I have to pick myself up again and again. How many disappointments I have to endure. 

I looked above at the skies, I chose to take myself out of the comfort zone, I chose to fight for what I believe in, I don’t even ask for much except to be able to do what I love to do. I do not dream of buying fancy cars nor sprawling mansions. I own only one pair of shoes and one laptop bag which I carry around. 

So I really didn’t understand why things get so difficult sometimes. 

I even feel guilty for feeling down because I always tell myself, at least I am not starving in some war-torn country. If you’ve been somewhat in my shoes before, you’ll know that doesn’t work very well. 

People experience tunnel vision when they feel down. Everything is taken personally, everything seems bleak, everything seems to be going against you. If hurt was inflicted on you, the first instinct is to inflict it back. Thoughts of taking the easy way out become very tempting. I can assure you it is during these dark times when people cross the thin line between good and evil. 

I have found out a lot about myself. I learn that I am only human, that many times I would like to be zen-like about everything, but the reality is being in denial or dishonest about your feelings does not equate to being zen. Trying to sweep everything under the carpet isn’t being zen either. 

The only thing I could do for myself is to be really honest about how I feel. It is only human to feel anger when hurt is inflicted, when trust is being lost. Especially if it is from an unexpected source. 

However, it was interesting to put myself into observer mode and observe my own reactions. I guess that is part of being mindful. I allowed myself to feel the full spectrum of my emotions but I kept reminding myself who I want to be. 

More importantly, I have learnt that energy is precious and resentment takes a lot of energy. It is also not energy-efficient to let your thoughts churn repeatedly over the same issue. I had a thousand question marks in my head – why did it happen? When there are no answers, perhaps the only way to deal with it is to let – it – go.

They say time will heal and it is true. We just need to not dig deeper into our own wounds. Sometimes the best way to heal a wound is just to remove the bandaid and air the wound naturally. Don’t attempt to take pain killers, accept the pain and just let it be. Without paying too much attention to it, without noticing, one day you’ll realise the skin has healed. Perhaps it would leave a scar but it would have healed nonetheless. You can choose how you want to perceive the scar. As a badge of honour or as a source of pain. We get to choose.

The quicker way to heal is to pour salt over your wound. Or if you would like a gentler version, you can choose to swim in the sea. 

I was very tired but in acknowledging I was only human and I truly cannot be gandhi-like ironically allowed me to recover. At the core of this, I truly believe authenticity matters a lot in life, and being authentic means to be real even to yourself. 

Setback after setback, I still raise my eyebrows at the sky and I grouse a bit here and there. But you know in old kung-fu films the mentor will always be harsher with the best students. I believe it is the same in life, the challenges do not get easier, they become harder – because it means you have learnt whatever you needed to and hence you have to proceed to the next level of difficulty. 

Sure, I get thrown curveballs a lot. But it is a testament to my personal strength that I am still here writing this post with a twisted sense of humour. I can always take the easy way out, it was always available to me as a choice. I consistently choose to take the path less trodden because to me it is very simple – why would I choose to experience the same thing everyone else has experienced? There is no clear incentive for me. Here, I’ll admit it, I want to be special – I want to be myself and nobody else. 

I can look back at the past 30 years of my life and mourn about all the mistakes I’ve made, all the failures I’ve accumulated, all the hurt inflicted. Or I can look forward to tomorrow and wonder how I can make a difference. 

I can choose to write, I can choose to code, I can choose to push pixels, I can choose to send a simple tweet to make someone’s day, I can send emails to people I care about. The wonderful thing about the internet, once you send some bytes of data over, it sort of has a life of its own.

We live in a blessed era with the incredible power to create. I think those of us in tech, we take it for granted sometimes. We forget just years ago, how difficult it was to get published. How difficult it was to share, to be heard, to create. 

That is why I refuse, I really simply refuse to be discouraged. No matter how tough things get for me, I wield the power to be authentic, to be true to myself and to others, to be as kind as possible, to share as much enthusiasm as possible, to make those in despair believe – there can be hope for a better humanity. 

I am only human, I can’t be zen, but I can strive to be. All those scars I have, I wear them proudly as badges of honour. 

I am grateful.