What does it mean to “save the world”?

March 26th, 2014

Almost always, “save the world” initiatives are aimed somewhere far from the developed world. Whatever you want to call it: the third world, or some developing nation; we regard it as THE area that needs saving: warring factions in Syria, censorship in China, extortion in Mexico, hunger in Ghana, rape in India, and corruption in Russia. These are real and serious problems in the world and we’re right to seek ways to improve the greater good of people there.

But the developed world is full of many of its own problems, often orthogonal to those of the less developed world:

  • Diabetes and cancer are the diseases of developed world, and throw us into an inefficient healthcare system that’s incentivised to be expensive and bankrupt patients.
  • Our food system isn’t helping – the most convenient and least expensive food tends to very processed. Moreover, information on healthful eating is muddled by vested interests.
  • Many people find themselves in unnatural settings for daily work, where they spend most of their waking hours: long and stressful commutes, uninspiring work, hierarchical and restrictive work structures that cause the same angst and disorders as hierarchical regimes, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air, and movement. This “life” causes many physical and mental ailments including obesity and a widespread reduction in well being.
  • A consumerist mindset occupies our minds, ceaselessly telling us we need more to be happy, adding clutter to our lives and waste in our landfills.
  • We find ourselves endlessly busy and distant (physically and mentally) from things that bring true happiness: sleep, family, friends, love, community, and general relaxing and reflection.

The crux of this is that people in the developed world might not be very happy in their day to day lives. By some measures we might be less happy than those living in the developing world

These problems are nothing compared to warfare and hunger, but it’s critical that we make strides to address these issues. For one, most of world is becoming more developed. They crave to be more modern. They want to be more technologically advanced and be a part of the greater world economy. They want success and prosperity and growth. And they rightfully should. But as the developing world inherits our advancement, they inherit our problems. And these would be new problems for them – the next five billion – and big problems for the planet as a whole. So if we’re to “save the world”, let’s go after the problems in front of us, and not just the ones half a world away.



My background

Human social and societal behavior

  • A strong personal and professional research interest
  • I’ve worked with faculty at Stony Brook University in developing a theory of evolution of religion, which reached into in-group / out-group behavior and a theory of culture. While this work is yet to be published, it is referenced in the book “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future”.
  • I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate (classroom and online) course on Social Coercion Theory

Physical fitness

  • I’m a former practitioner of Kyokushin karate and served as an instructor for 5 years
  • I presently practice capoeira, an afro-brazilian martial art and have done so for the past 7 years
  • I’m an avid roller blader, as a daily commuter and as a safety marshall (5 years) for the inline skating community
  • I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing

Healthcare

  • I’ve volunteered at St. Francis and Bellevue Hospitals
  • I was trained and certified as a NYS EMT and briefly volunteered with the Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps
  • I was a pre-med student in a college and applied to medical schools, but decided against the career

Food

  • A strong personal interest and I do a lot of reading, research, and personal experimenting
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Making Magic Happen

February 3rd, 2013

I recently spent time in Miami for the wedding of a best friend, Ryan. I love to hang with Ryan and Thelma (his wife) because they’re full of energy, positivity, and see a deep potential in everyone. Spending time with them often brings out the best in one; and this magic happened yet again on their special day.

The wedding was appropriately held at the FIU Nature Preserve that Ryan manages. We, friends and relatives, spent the morning helping to set up the momentous event. Knowing Ryan, this meant hard work, heavy lifting, and of course a lot of fun! We carried many heavy tables, set up all the chairs and table arrangements, and even moved a few large logs for good measure. Some were surprised by the amount of “activity” involved, but it was standard operating procedure for Ryan, Thelma, Samir (a good friend), and I. The cleanup afterwards was much the same.

Ryan and Thelma incredibly but unsurprisingly decided to call off their honeymoon (it was to be a simple trip, but still). They both felt the time was better spent with folks that came down to see them, especially Ryan’s cousin, Jonny, and I.

After we all settled down a bit at Ryan and Thelma’s house, Ryan asked if anyone wanted to do a bike ride since there was still some light out (there really wasn’t much – Ryan just needed a reason for more activity). A bunch of us agreed, including Jonny, who in the thirty or so years of his life, had never learned to ride a bike; we offered to teach him. Out we went, Samir and Jonny on bikes, Ryan and I on skates since we were short on bikes. Ryan and Samir gave Jonny a crash course (literally) in the parking lot for about an hour. Then another hour on the campus nearby. Jonny was getting the hang of it. (Samir and Ryan, however, collided into each other head-on from not paying attention. They were laughing hard as they picked themselves up from the ground).

Back at the house, around 9:30pm, Ryan asked if we’d be interested in doing a hike in the Everglades. Someone suggested that we instead bike along the paved path that cuts across the marsh, doing as much of the 15 miles that we felt comfortable with. Jonny was game – probably amped by the nonchalant attitude that the rest of us shared about doing activity after activity. We picked up a couple more bikes. Five bikes loaded onto an old Honda Accord might be a spectacle to some people. Not us.

It was 11:30pm by the time we arrived at the trailhead. It was dark and even a bit chilly. We had some headlamps and flashlights but eventually turned them off to instead ride by moonlight. The stars were out; alligators were chilling just a few feet off the path. The ride was surreal – as if we were traveling through space and time, floating in the cosmos that some like to call the Everglades. Jonny was doing great and kept insisting that we go on, despite my subtle attempts to persuade him otherwise. We heard him crash a couple of times (but couldn’t see anything in the dark) but Jonny was a real trooper and got back on the bike every time. The ride back proved more surreal – moonlight was gone. Our brains, at full focus, barely made out the road in front. At the same time, we shared deep conversation with one another. Simply amazing!

We completed the full round – 15 miles. It was 3:30am by the time we got back to the house. We were all completely exhausted but in ecstasy. What an amazing day. Yes, this was the same day that Ryan and Thelma got married!

Jonny left for home the next morning. I’m sure something in him changed. To his credit, he threw himself into a circle of people that lived life a little differently; what some would consider extreme or without bounds. And that’s exactly where the magic happens. We don’t like to impose artificial limitations. People like Ryan, Thelma, and I see great potential in all people and in ourselves. Perhaps we come off a bit conceited, judgemental, or reckless with this attitude, but it’s a person’s loss to not strive for that potential. Jonny played it perfectly and it paid off. He learned to ride a bike in two hours time and then went off to do an incredible ride through the Florida Everglades. Maybe it’s not so much magic but just the right attitude and the right crowd to resonate that energy…


Note: Thelma deserves much credit. She was real cool about letting Ryan hang with his buddies for these adventures (she wanted to join us on but decided to take it easy given the recent stress of putting together a wedding, while being seven months pregnant). Amazingly (or rather fitting in my opinion), she and I went indoor rock climbing two days later. It was her idea and she insisted. Thelma totally rocked it!

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Saying ‘Yes’ and Unlocking New Worlds

November 18th, 2012

Washington DC, Montreal, the Catskills, Boston, Brazil, Killington, Boulder, the Adirondacks, Puerto Rico, and Moab. The past year has been filled with new experiences, travels, and adventure. But it was not by accident. It required stepping out of comfort zones and flipping upside-down the very way I approached life.

Brazil – this is where it starts. I made almost no plans for this trip. I’d be there with friends from my capoeira academy and would go along with whatever they did. I’d for long wanted to become comfortable with personal travel and experiencing things by just going with it. Until then, I’d been an intrepid planner and became easily unnerved when plans weren’t in detail or when they became unravelled. This trip was just what I needed. On the way there, I missed a connecting flight after landing in Sao Paulo and had rearrange my pickup (this required figuring out a complicated phone system by asking around for help in Portuguese). Upon meeting my friends in Bahia, they asked if I was interested in a capoeira workshop that night. Of course. They then said that its location was a little sketchy and that locals told them “don’t get shot” (it turned out fine). The rest of my time there required handling such uncertainties, especially given the nature of ‘Bahia time’, where things move at a relaxed pace.

Boston – my bus lands an hour or two late. I’d miss the first group roller blading event. A past me would have been upset at ruined plans. But hey, the weather was beautiful and there was a new city waiting to be explored on skates. I dropped off my bag with the event hotel concierge and made my own skating “event”. The ad-hoc planning was rather appropriate. I’d purchased my bus tickets just two days earlier (despite “planning” to attend this event well ahead of then) and would not figure out where I’d be sleeping until that night. There is a method to this madness – I call it just-in-time planning. There’s two parts: have a rough sense of options ahead of time and act on them at nearly the last possible moment. For example, I knew that I could reach Boston by train, bus, or car and didn’t really worry about which until the trip neared. Likewise, I figured I’d be able to stay with some skater friend (I’m fortunate to have many) who has extra space or a patch of floor, or at worst I’d just sleep outside. I asked around and it worked out. Better yet: the good skater friends I stayed with became great skater friends.

New York – this flexibility and spontaneity spreads into my typical weeks, making them not so typical. I used to be a real stickler about making my usual weekly events, like the groups skates or martial arts class. Doing so paid off handsomely with my skills flourishing but this limited new experiences. Another flip: I began to miss usual events to explore new activities, new places, new friendships, and often all of the above, and learned a great deal about life and myself. I still really hate to miss a capoeira class here and there, but I know it’s for opportunities of great personal growth in self and open mindedness.

Each experience lends to build future experiences. Saying yes to one thing that is out of one’s comfort zone makes it easier to say yes to other things. Knowing that you can splice together a plan at the last second removes worries about how things are turning out and lets you enjoy each moment at the moment. Flexibility leads to profound experiences as unexpected details fill themselves in.


P.S. I really missed writing these posts. I hope my absence in writing is understandable. It means a lot to me when friends tell me that they liked my last post or ask when they’ll see the next one. Life’s been full of surprises lately – I hope to have some more writings for you soon ;-)

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Healthy Competition

May 13th, 2012

It’s around 10pm on a Tuesday night and I’m out roller blading in northern Manhattan. I’m climbing up a hill and my friend is about 200 feet in front of me. Thinking to myself, “I can beat him to the top of the hill”, I pump my legs harder and accelerate up the hill. I reach to where my friend is and continue pushing it. But I’m unable to take up the lead – we remain side by side. Ten seconds pass and we both start laughing. He’s pushing his legs to maintain my pace. And I bet his legs are burning and aching as much as mine are. As we reach the top (I won’t say who got there first), our legs are on fire and we’re gasping for air. But we both have big smiles on our faces…

We live in a competitive world. In order to be successful or survive, we must be able to compete well against others. We’ve been told stuff like this our whole lives and it makes me hate the idea of competition. Yet I thoroughly enjoy being a a competitive person. Is this a paradox? I think not. Competition has the potential to bring out the best in us or the worst in us.

Is there something inherently good or bad about wanting to be better than everyone else? I believe it can go either way. Consider this parable: There is a line drawn on a piece on paper. How would you make it shorter? The obvious answer is to cut the line, to erase part of it. A more interesting answer is to draw another line next to it – one that is longer. So does your being better than another result from some loss to them? Or a gain in your part? Or both? I feel any instance where there is a loss represents the dark side of competition. Unfortunately, this common in many settings. For example, the only way to be promoted or keep your job at some workplaces is to break down others. It’s really a waste of human productivity yet a game some of us are forced to play.

There’s much to like when the game entails no loss. If one person is inspired to be better at something to pass the level of another person, that’s great. Even better is when that other person reciprocates. It can be a virtuous cycle of betterment. This is precisely the case in the skating story above. My friend and I are stronger skaters because we constantly push each other. I’ve experienced the same in indoor rock climbing, where my friends and I challenge each other to increasingly difficult climbs – by first doing it ourselves! The same healthy competition can do wonders in workplaces and allow people to do amazing work. Taken a few magnitudes larger, companies can “compete” to out-innovate each other. Everyone wins.

So let’s let competition inspire – it makes us all better. And not let competition conspire – it’s bad news for everyone, even the “winners”.

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What’s an idea worth?

May 8th, 2012

Here’s a situation I’ve experienced quite a few times:

  1. I come up with some cool idea or approach to solve a problem
  2. I tell someone about it
  3. That person tells me that I ought to patent it and/or make money off of it

It kills me when this happens.

First, this perspective directs the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic. I came up with the idea because I thought it would be cool if it existed. The mere fruition of the idea would make me very happy. It’s not about the money or the credit. It’s about solving some issue to make my or other people’s lives better.

Second, we put too much importance on “protecting” our ideas. Honestly, it’s unlikely that someone will steal your idea. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into turning an idea into reality.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

If someone does happen to do all the work of following through on your idea, then they probably deserve to reap the benefits.

Third, ideas don’t really belong to anyone. They simply arise in the process of creativity, which builds upon ideas that others have come up with.

Fourth, ideas become more useful when they’re allowed to mingle with other ideas, especially from different minds. Something idealistic might turn into something practical. Or perhaps an approach to one problem will solve another problem.

The bottom line:

  • Ideas are cheap
  • Execution is expensive
  • Ideas multiply in effectiveness when they’re shared
  • All of the above are required to get something valuable

As for my situation, it’s clear that I need to be even more open with my ideas. So that’s exactly what I’m doing. Check out my new project at http://ideas.sonicans.net where I’ll be sharing all sorts of ideas. Some will be ones I have or intend to follow through on. But this won’t be the case for most of them. So if you see something you like or find interesting, feel free to take the idea. To share and discuss it. To remix it. To bring it to life. I hope the world will be better off for it.

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Our education system – is it about learning?

April 22nd, 2012

Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.

Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.

When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.

A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.

There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.

There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.

For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.

A few examples of education being transformed:
Khan Academy
TED-Ed
Skill Share

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Avoid Illness by Making Your Body Resilient

December 18th, 2011

It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.

Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.

The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.

Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.

We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.

The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.

As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!

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Learning from ‘Bahia Time’

December 4th, 2011

Here in New York, the way we use our time is, in a word, busy. We constantly have events that we’re rushing to attend. Likewise, we’re expected to be accessible 24/7 for the last minute changes or updates. A week and a half ago, I was in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, one of the most laid back places on the planet. The way they saw time was the complete opposite. The rather slow and relaxed pace of like was something to experience first hand – it was a very good thing that I knew of it beforehand so that I could leave my NYC habits at home and enjoy the experience in Bahia.

What I found most interesting was how “Bahia time” infiltrated every aspect of what one would go through in a day. Here’s a handful of experiences that illustrate the phenomenon:

  • I usually woke up whenever, without any alarms. There’s no rush. I would have something to eat eventually and prepare to leave the apartment – again, eventually.
  • There would be some event I’d like to go to. It might start on time. Or it might not. Or it could be outright cancelled (I didn’t experience any cancellations myself, but I hear that it does happen and it’s not a big deal).
  • I wait for the buses somewhere between a few minutes and an hour. There wasn’t a schedule or even published maps of the bus routes.
  • After an event, my friends and I would go for dinner. In one instance, we had to hit up a second place to eat after we learned that the chef had gone home, after we placed our orders. At another dinner, we spent quite a bit of time talking, and many of the locals were laughing and singing together.
  • There was a store I wanted to check out, but it happened to be closed at the time I went – again, there’s no schedule.

These examples encompass the uncertainty aspects of a relaxed culture. From a busy New Yorker’s perspective, it sounds awfully terrible. How can anything get done? I myself like to make the most of my time, and most certainly would not want to live this way (though it was fine for the purpose of vacation and experimentation*).

Given all this, I still found a great value in Bahia time – no one there seemed to mind. That is, no one was ever in a rush. No one was stressed about waiting for something or someone. People really took their time doing things. For example, when I was late to an event, no one that was already there was upset, not even close. In fact, they were happy to see me. It was astounding to see this pervade the culture. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, a couple popular phrases were “relax” and “be happy, you’re in Bahia” (translated), said with a relaxed smile.

Now I’m not saying that we should just throw away our sense of time and be forever patient with everything and everyone. This might be a nice way to live if we were immortal, but many of us would prefer to get more done and do more things. Still, there’s much we can learn from this. We put ourselves under a great amount of stress in our always rushed, busy culture. “What if I’m late?” “Why isn’t she here yet?” “Don’t you know I have ten other things to do today?” This isn’t good for us. This isn’t good for anyone. There’s little happiness coming from this – and if you can’t be happy, what’s the point of living?

Although I’m not 100% sure, I believe there’s a happy medium between the get-it-done but stressful NYC time and the relaxed but uncertain Bahia time. Would it not be incredible to have certainty and accomplishment in one’s daily life while also doing so happily and with little unnecessary stress? I don’t have a precise answer yet, but I believe I’m onto something. Even before my trip to Bahia, I’d been deliberately making progress to become more relaxed and laid back over a few years (enough that coworkers were surprised to learn that I was a native New Yorker and not some hippie from California). The experience in Bahia has strengthened my resolved in being more relaxed and provided me insights to apply it more broadly.

Here’s a few thoughts to infuse the best of both worlds: We shouldn’t make a big deal over timing, especially lateness in ourselves and others – assuming that it’s not a common occurrence. We should attempt to be as timely as possible, leaving some buffers if necessary. Once in a while, stuff comes up or plans go awry. Assuming that this isn’t a frequent occurrence, neither side (the late person and the waiting person) should be stressed about the situation. We should also do our best to not blow up plans at the last minute. Ironically, planned events seemed to fare well in Bahia because it wasn’t feasible to change them – it seemed that not many folks had cell phones. Hence, people stuck to their word when they said that they’d be somewhere. While there was no guarantee of them being on time, we can do much better to hold up plans.

It’s helpful to have ways to make use of potential waiting time. I always keep a few articles, essays, or videos synced to my app phone in case I run into unexpected dead time. I’ll even keep a book with me if the waiting time is probable. There’s a great value in keeping around audiobooks. I use them while driving and listening to them while being stuck in traffic makes for a surprisingly relaxed situation – I almost forget that I’m trapped in a mess of cars.

I wish I could write up a more organized and flushed out post for these ideas, but there’s so much more to think about and experiment with. Still, between the extremes of how time is valued, between New York City and Bahia, there’s much good to pull from each. From the NYC side, it’s about filling those minutes with interesting things – taking into account for unplanned moments. From the Bahia side, it’s about not getting worked up when the unexpected happens.

* Note that this experience was not stressful for me because:

  • I was on vacation and let myself relax and not worry about things
  • a goal of the trip was to get me out of my comfort zone
  • I had a strong interest in experiencing first-hand how a culture lives its daily life in stark contrast to my own
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How I Came to Embrace Reading and Became a Smarter Person

November 13th, 2011

Note: I refer mostly to the reading of non-fiction books in this post

“I love to read!” These are some words that every school teacher and parent would be enthralled to hear from their kids. And our teachers and parents work so hard to get us to read, telling us that it is essential to our success. Yet, through multiple metrics, like the repeated statistics that kids aren’t meeting reading standards or that adults do very little reading in general, there’s a clear disconnect between the the desire and the reality. I’m not sure what the perfect solution is to get people more interested in reading, but as someone who has gone from non-reader to a voracious reader, I share some experiences that provide light on the matter.

For most of my life, I didn’t like reading because iit was something I did only in school or had forced upon me by authority figures. It felt like something that was work and it was neither fun nor something that I chose to do. In most cases, I found the literary works uninteresting. But for school, I was required to read it and then participate in class discussions (and by discussions, I mean the desperate teacher prodding us students to guess the bazillion hidden intents made by the author). I found the whole exercise pointless and didn’t see how it connected to real life matters. I’m sure many of my classmates shared this sentiment. And we marched on through our school lives, reading only when we had to, associating it as some necessary and boring activity that required a lot of effort yet yielded little legitimate value.

It wasn’t until my third year of college – near the end of my formal education – that I saw a tiny light indicating otherwise. At the time, I was looking into ways to improve my eating habits and my exploration fueled my desire to learn about the machinery behind our food system. I picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Despite the elegance of Pollan’s words, it took me about four months to finish the book. This wasn’t a surprise considering that this was probably the first non-fiction book I had ever read on my own accord. I wasn’t used to reading such a long work so it took an exorbitant amount of time and effort to get through it. However, the experience was very eye-opening – it revealed that reading such a work is enjoyable and a great way to learn.

Flash forward to now – four years later. I’ve probably polished off about seventy-five non-fiction books since. And my rate of reading has increased exponentially. That is, I read a handful of books when still in school, and even more after finishing school. And then it exploded – I feasted on books, reading one after another, or as more often the case, two or three in parallel. Despite that I began working full-time in 2011, I began to read even more, stuffing sessions into my commute and weekends. I’d become addicted.

So what happened? How did this transformation occur? The first and most significant factor was that reading allowed me to learn about the things I found interesting. And it became self-perpetuating – as I read more about things that interested me, I became interested in other things that the books discussed, and I ended up reading books on those topics. It was also self-fulfilling: because reading allowed me to delve into subjects I was passionate about (or became passionate about – the order is sometimes a blur), I became passionate about reading itself.

The second factor is that it became easier to read as I read more. The ability to read is much akin to training like an athlete or artist – it requires a lot of consistent practice and concentration – especially in the beginning when we’re prone to fumble around. The ease and grace comes after a lot of initial work. I sense that most people that don’t like to read, if not all, never get over this hurdle. They never get to a level where it’s easy to get into a reading groove and breeze through long or complex works with ease.

The third factor is that our school teachers and parents are correct – reading goes a long way to make us more intelligent, wise, and conscientious individuals – essential qualities to do well in our complex world. This is especially the case for non-fiction works. In my own experiences, I’ve found that I better understand the world and how it operates on a deep level because of all the explorations, research, and insights I’ve become exposed to from all the various perspectives of the authors. Likewise, this has bolstered my creative ability by providing more parts for my creative toolbox. Reading allows my experience in education to continue despite that I’m out of school. My formal studies involved the natural sciences and computer science, and I also had some informal study of the social sciences. But through reading, I’ve learned a great deal about psychology, economics, world problems, self improvement, social etiquette, business, history, media, and marketing. Here’s a handful of books that illustrate the breadth of knowledge out there:

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen –  an American student reveals the story of the Middle East youth through a blend of his firsthand experiences from exploring the Middle East and the history that has brought its cultures to the present state

The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo – the creator of the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment dives into details of his study and the analogous Abu Gharib tortures to show how human morality can be altered almost completely given the right environment

Food Politics by Marion Nestle – this nutrition, food studies, and public health professor exposes the relationship between the food industry and our political system and how it produces the our food system – one that is geared for the industry at the expense of our health

Linchpin by Seth Godin – this marketing genius shows how the way we do work has shifted away from an industrial model to one that allows us to become indispensable individuals that do meaningful work

Each of these works explores something that affects us profoundly – it’s difficult to argue that any of them don’t explore areas that are relevant to our daily lives. This is why I so strongly believe that reading books is so important for us as individuals and as a society. Likewise, this is why I find reading to be so interesting. I love to read. Why not say it too?

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How I Make the Most of My Hours and Live an Awesome Life

November 6th, 2011

Note: I understand that as a young adult with no major family responsibilities, I have quite a bit more time than others, so this post is geared more towards my peers. Still, for those looking to make the most of their hours and also juggle family responsibilities, check out 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

I like to think that I live an interesting life. My days are spent doing challenging work at my full time job. My nights are filled with physical activities that include roller blading, martial arts, and indoor rock climbing. Plus there’s the non-fiction books I finish every couple of weeks, the blog posts I write, and other less frequent adventures such as mountain biking. All without cutting back on necessities like sleep and seeing friends. When I tell new friends or coworkers about the life I lead, they often ask me how I have the time to do all this. The answer is: I make time. I fill every minute with stuff that matters and cut out the things that don’t.

Let’s start with a few things going for me:
I’m young and free of major family responsibilities – this is also the case for many of my peers
My job has a very flexible work schedule, and I eat 2 meals a day there
I live in the same house as my parents and have a mom that loves to cook

One major thing I don’t have going for me:
I have a very long commute – it would be close to 90 minutes to 2 hours by conventional means, but after 9 months of experimenting, I’ve got it down to about 75 minutes each way, which is still a lot.

Because I’m fortunate enough to have some very flexible work hours I typically wake up at around 8:30 or 9:00am. Now this “sleeping-in” might not sound like the most efficient start, but it’s necessary because I usually get home around midnight. I make sure to have breakfast – and then begins the commute.

In part one of my commute, I drive halfway across Queens, which is about 15-20 minutes each way (because I leave late enough, I don’t hit traffic and I can find parking without much trouble). Still I don’t let this time go to waste – I listen to audiobooks while driving. I’m presently listening to one on Portuguese survival phrases – I’m visiting Brazil soon. But previously, I was listening to a book about the balance between rules and wisdom in our institutions. I already have some podcasts lined up for future drives.

The second part of the commute is the subway ride, which is about 40 minutes each way. Here, I often read non-fiction books (the topics range from social science to business to self improvement). But I also keep my app phone synced with TED Talks and long articles or essays.

I arrive at work at around 11:00am but stick around until nearly 8:00pm to get stuff done (sometimes I don’t get as much done as I’d like and I’ll let it overflow to a weekend with spare time – it all evens out eventually).

Next comes the fun evening activity. Depending on the night of the week, it’s either roller blading (10-30 miles around the city), capoeira, indoor rock climbing, or karate. I get home somewhere between 11pm and 1am, which allows me just enough time to have something to eat and get a decent amount of sleep.

Weekends are for all the things I’m usually unable to cover during the week. This means seeing family and friends, doing cleanup and laundry, replying to personal emails (which includes looking through articles and videos sent by friends). Weekends also serve for more special activities, from going out on mountain biking trips to writing these blog posts (I typically draft several of these articles at a time when my mind is feeling the zen of writing). Oh, and there’s an awesome capoeira class every Saturday night. Weekends also serve as sort of an overflow buffer. Since I’m running on the margins during the weekdays, I’ll sometimes have a little bit of sleep to catch up on or maybe a project at work that I obsessed with finishing since it’s ready in my head.

It’s important to note that I’ve cut out some less than fully satisfying activities from my life. I don’t watch TV or play video games. For many years of my life, I was obsessed with both of these (in the case of the latter, it was practically my life). It’s not that I actively stopped either of these things. Rather, they just got pushed off the table as I became engaged in more and more interesting and fulfilling activities. Fortunately, it was a rather painless process. There are many timesinks in our media-centric culture – it’s essential to understand their pervasive opportunity cost.

Putting in the time to take care of oneself pays off in spades to avoid disasters and the resulting anguish and time loss. For example, I make sure to get plenty of sleep. The kinds of challenges I have at work are pretty mentally demanding so the day is a wash if my brain isn’t up to the task. Likewise, my body needs to recover to be ready to handle the next day’s physical activities – not getting enough sleep puts me at risk for injury. Likewise, by eating well, being physically active, and keeping social, I stave off illness (at the time of this writing, it’s been about 6 years since the last time I got properly sick).

It’s not my intention to gloat or show off with what I’ve said here (ok, maybe a little bit of the latter). I just want to point out that our daily or weekly lives can be full of all sorts of fun, productivity, healthfulness, and meaning. I grow disappointed when I hear someone say that they don’t have the time to read this book or try that new activity, or even worse, not take care of themselves. The true disappointment, however, is on the individual, because he or she will miss out on living an extraordinary life that spans into the everyday. Make the time, be awesome!

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