Nothing quite like an earthquake to literally shock you into remembering your own mortality.
I was in bed watching a movie when it happened at 3am. The initial jostle surprised me. Then it immediately dawned on me what was going on as the entire building shook. The truth is, I just sat there frozen in fear–in fear of dying. In fear of the quake getting stronger, in fear of the building collapsing, in fear of the landfill beneath me crumbling into the ocean.
It’s not so often in life that you experience a raw, in the moment, fear of dying. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to live in a city where air raiders are bombing throughout the night. At the end of it all, we’re just among the lucky ones.
This experience has definitely motivated me to prepare an earthquake kit. Before, you kind of just joke around with friends. You either think it won’t happen to you, or you casually push away the idea because subconsciously, confronting your own death is inconceivable and absolutely terrifying. I hope this situation has motivated other people, too.
It’s almost a new year. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, simply because the chapters of my own life never align so perfectly with what we arbitrarily call January 1st. However, I am one for setting goals, wanting to become a better self, and being aware of time.
My “2014” started about three months ago. I had set some of the biggest goals I’ve ever set in my life, and I was determined to not give truth to the saying that all new year’s resolutions were meant to be broken. That said, I was also aware my excitement was from starting something new, and excitement is never enough to last the effort that would ensue. My biggest doubt was in persevering through the mundanities of daily progress some few months down the line. There is no sense of external urgency. My daily tasks are too far removed from directly impacting the achievement of my goals. I questioned how I would fend off temptations to just bum out.
At that time, I had lunch with a friend who recommended a very appropriate book to me called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. The book could not have come at a more pivotal time. It teaches you the basic science behind self-control and how to fight common willpower challenges. You’ve probably faced problems of these variations before:
- procrastination: I have a week left and I need to start a semester-long project
- giving in to temptations: I smelled the popcorn when walking by and just had to buy it
- undoing your previous effort: I’ll eat an extra cupcake as a reward for working out
- screw the rest of it: I already screwed up my diet today so I’ll just eat whatever I want
For me, reading the book was like preemptively donning sword and shield against the very real possibility of productivity and motivation doldrums. While weapon and armor are necessary, so are practice and skill before the actual battle. I was glad I found the book before I found myself stuck in a slump.
I had certainly independently arrived at some of the tactics suggested in the book by fine-tuning from my past experiences. For example, when procrastination tempts me, I just tell myself to do the task for ten minutes with no pressure to complete it. Once I’m started, it’s often a lot easier to continue. Other times, it’s okay to just give in. I’m a person with limited energy. I need to pick my battles carefully.
Learning from past mistakes is great, but I certainly wish I were equipped with some of this knowledge during my college years. Procrastination was my biggest struggle. I would stay up late to watch movies instead of doing work. I didn’t understand why I kept procrastinating when it so obviously made everything worse. If only I had known that as humans, we’re wired to seek immediate relief from what is causing us distress. My problem was that I was stressed about being behind, and thus I coped by procrastinating more to avoid thinking about my problem of being behind.
It’s empowering to learn about self-control. I now understand it’s how my brain works, that it’s not just my personal shortcomings. I just have to set up my life such that I minimize opportunities for my primitive brain to reign over my self-control one. So do yourself a favor. Read The Willpower Instinct for your new year’s resolution. Let this be the resolution that enables all future resolutions.
Every time I hit a problem or hardship in life, I realize it all connects back to my computer science degree. The toolbox of problem-solving skills that I’ve accumulated can be applied to all aspects of life. I feel so empowered to tackle any problem.
The list of CS skills go on and on. I’d like to mention a couple that I’ve found incredibly applicable.
When I encounter a problem, I try a bottom up (details first) or top down (high-level first) approach.
Sometimes, pattern recognition is important when I want to understand my past actions. Why did I do something in particular? What is the motivation or driving force behind it?
A problem may seem complex, but it can often be abstracted or reduced into a simpler or similar problem that I’ve dealt with before. Once an issue in known territory, I know what to do.
A problem can have multiple parts, so it’s important to understand the whole system and how each component interacts with each other. Because the details can be too distracting, I sometimes need to group these details into black boxes, so I can simplify a hundred piece puzzle into one with only ten pieces. I can do this recursively and treat this ten piece puzzle as one piece, and see how it interacts with its peers.
I strive for simple and efficient solutions, as these are the most elegant. The world is already pretty complicated. I don’t need to try to keep my own life complicated.
I always think about the worst case scenario. Am I okay with it? Even if the worst case scenario happens, I’m already mentally prepared for it. I’m therefore able to keep calm and clearheaded in the case that I must face it.
I’m also not afraid to get my hands dirty and iterate. Sometimes, I need to just make a change just to make progress. I don’t know how effective the change will be, but if it doesn’t work, I scrap it and try something new. How often does any software engineer write one version of a code and expect it to work perfectly? Sometimes, you have to write ten thousand lines of code, delete half of it, and rewrite most of the rest to achieve the final revision.
And all those proofs that professors make students write? It helps to keep me thorough when I analyze.
When I have a goal, I craft something from nothing to get to it. Earning a computer science degree has really helped me practice that. And honestly, some of those problem sets in school are much harder than problems I face in life. At the very least, I can rest assured I’ve surfaced from those hardships.
I used to think my diploma from college was worth $200k. Now I think it’s pretty priceless.