Total Pageviews

Monday, April 25, 2016


I've recently started reading Feeling Good, a book by David Burns. The author's suggestions for improving mood and self esteem have been immensely helpful. I would like to highlight the ideas discussed in one chapter in particular because I felt especially connected with the issues that were covered. The particular section I would like to share is about work and how so many of us measure our worth through our professional achievements.

The idea is familiar to many of us:
"My worth as a human being is proportional to what I have achieved in my life." This attitude is at the core of Western culture and the Protestant work ethic. It sounds innocent enough. In fact, it is self-defeating, grossly inaccurate, and malignant... Essentially, your work ethic allows you to feel you've earned personal worth and the right to feel happy.
Like many others, I never thought to question such a basic principle that seems to be widely endorsed by society at large. I never thought twice about the danger of deriving a substantial part of my worth from professional achievements and attempting to attain meaningful work. Taken at face value, it certainly makes sense to base our worth and identity off such things because these kinds of priorities can potentially push us to be more competent professionals, advance faster in our careers, and seek to attain a job that gives us a sense of meaning.  However, there is a significant downside to basing our worth on such goals and principles:
In the absence of achievement, you'll feel worthless because you'll have no other basis for self-respect and fulfillment. Suppose as a result of illness, business reversal, retirement, or some other factor beyond your control, you find you are unable to produce at the same high level for a period of time.
What will happen to us if the above scenario comes true? By basing our worth on our professional achievements, we are placing ourselves in a position where our value as a human being is closely connected to external factors outside our control. The examples above (and many others) are largely outside our control and if any of them happen to us, there is a chance that we will experience depression symptoms and feel like our lives lack direction and meaning.

However, assuming troubles don't fall upon us, "[we] will still have one great disadvantage--the lack of true self-esteem." As long as our worth is conditional and based on factors outside our control, we will have immense difficulty valuing ourselves as people. Every time there is a chance of failure, we will run the risk of experiencing strong feelings of worthlessness.

Dr. Burns also attacks the concept of worth itself and shines a spotlight on it to look at it more critically:
You must acknowledge that human "worth" is just an abstraction; it doesn't exist. Hence, there is actually no such thing as human worth. Therefore, you cannot have it or fail to have it, and it cannot be measured. Worth is not a "thing," it is just a global concept. It is so generalized that it has no concrete meaning.
Instead of focusing on the abstract idea of worth, we should instead prioritize the present and attaining a sense of "satisfaction, pleasure, learning, mastery, personal growth and communication with others [because] the majority of life's satisfactions do not require great achievement at all."

Although the ideas discussed here are mostly in the context of work, these lessons can be applied in other settings as well. For instance, with how prevalent social media is, it can be very tempting to start basing our value on how many likes, retweets, and positive exposure we get. The sense of happiness and boost in self-esteem can feel great but it's ultimately an illusion because it's short-lived and it's once again based on factors that are outside our control. Once the positive approval fades, so does our sense of happiness and our self-esteem.  Additionally, the whole experience feels like we're running on a treadmill that never stops because we're continually seeking more and more approval. As stated before, this is not achieving "true self-esteem."

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with valuing professional achievements because accomplishments in such a setting can be very satisfying and bring us immense joy. However, the trouble starts once we start basing our happiness and value as human beings on these achievements. Once this happens, we start to lose control of our ability to experience genuine and consistent happiness.

Of Robots and Government Policies

I am currently reading Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov and I would like to share a quote from the book that provides social commentary in the context of social unrest.

The context is that more and more human jobs are being replaced by robots ever since the invention of the "positronic brain." As time goes on, increasingly advanced robots are being built. The scene is at a department store where the clerks have recently been replaced by robots. A female shopper starts complaining about not wanting to be served by robots and this complaint starts a chain of events that eventually leads to a mob forming outside the store that is on the verge of rioting and tearing apart the robots. The author covers the fact that most of humanity has an increasingly more severe fear of being replaced by robots and one of the ways this fear manifests itself is through riots throughout the city. He then continues to make an astute observation on the topic of social unrest:

... individual robots were not to blame. Individual robots could at least be struck at. One could not strike at something called 'governmental policy' or at a slogan like 'higher production with robot labor.'

This observation touches upon the fact that majority of people are not able to process complex or abstract ideas, especially when they are angry. They want something straightforward and concrete to attack so they can vent their frustrations. I imagine this might even be the case with most of Trump's supporters. They are angry at various government policies and other complex issues involving numerous stakeholders, thoroughly vested interests, and situations that have a long history. These individuals are frustrated and are looking for an outlet for venting their anger against something/someone that is easy to visualize and hate on. This could partially explain some of the racism and hatred present among Trump's supporters. They need a way to channel their anger and Trump is providing them with easy and simple targets that don't involve analysis or thinking of any sort. It's tempting and very human to take the path of least resistance when solving a problem. In this case, the "problem" is frustration that has no easy outlet.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Escaping the City

I haven't gone hiking for a long time and I recently had the opportunity to go again. Nature time is essential for feeling both physically and emotionally healthy. I've often felt much more at ease and generally more at peace after a hike. As it turns out, research shows that time spent in natural environments could be a key factor for maintaining mental health:
A new study finds quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression.
Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

With that said, here are some pictures from my latest outing in Angeles National Forest.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Life Lessons From Plants

These days, it seems that the start of any hobby is a few Google searches away and the willingness to consistently devote time to it. I’ve recently taken an interest in indoor plants and propagating outdoor succulents. For those who aren’t aware of succulent propagation, there are two main methods of spreading them.  One method is to simply collect leaves and place them on top of damp soil. You then place the soil near a window and wait between 6-8 weeks until the leaves start sprouting roots. The roots eventually form into new baby succulents and the “mother” leaves (that the roots originated from) shrivel up and fall away. At this point, the new tiny succulents can be planted and grow on their own.

The second propagation method involves cutting a small piece from a bigger succulent. The piece should ideally have a few healthy leaves. After the stem is cut from the original plant, it’s best to wait 2-3 days to give time for the incision wound to callous over and dry up. After it’s dry, the stem can be planted. The wait time before planting is required to ensure that the succulent doesn’t absorb too much water when it’s planted. Too much water is the most common way to kill a succulent.

With that said, please do your own research before deciding to propagate or care for a succulent. I am not a professional and these are just quick lessons from my own limited experience and research.

Propagating using leaves

Propagating using the stem

This experience of caring for succulents and attempting to propagate them has taught me a very hands-on lesson in patience. All of us intellectually understand that being patient is a desirable characteristic in professional, social, and personal settings. We understand, in theory, what are proper ways of leading our lives. For instance, we know that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions or make quick assumptions, we understand the importance to keeping our cool during emotionally charged situations, we realize that we should ideally make decisions with our future wellbeing in mind, and we conceptually grasp many other life lessons. Unfortunately, in practice, we often times do not accept these valuable lessons and change our behavior accordingly and live in a more responsible way. It’s unclear why this is the case. I have experienced this shortcoming in my own life and I have observed it numerous times in others as well. In my own experience, what allows me to accept an idea in practice, and not just intellectually, is going through a unique and powerful experience that forever changes my perspective from that point onward. For instance, if a particular individual is not fond of saving money and having an “emergency fund” to rely on, the experience of nearly getting evicted from their apartment can finally push them towards changing their behavior. This particular individual potentially understands the importance of saving money in theory and at an intellectual level. However, this life lesson will not truly sink in until he experiences the real stress and intense worry of nearly being evicted. If someone is not affected at a deep emotional level, they are unlikely to make any real changes in their life.

Plants have also taught me the importance of accepting and being comfortable with uncertainty. For instance, if a plant is doing poorly and it’s potentially going to wither away, there are certain steps that you can take to save it. You can water it more (or less if you have been overdoing it). You can fortify the soil with nutrients. You can try keeping the soil as dry as possible if there is a fungus growing on it. There are many potential solutions available depending on the nature of the problem. However, none of these interventions are a guarantee that the plant will survive and thrive once again. You have to accept the very real possibility that the plant is going to die no matter what. This was a difficult lesson for me to accept because I (and I assume many others) am used to identifying problems and implementing solutions that are very likely to work. This is the nature of many routine problems we will face throughout our lives. However, sooner or later, we come upon a problem that refuses to yield and it’s not clear what can actually be done to fix the issue. This is especially relevant for emotional and mental problems. There are steps you can take (such as seeing a therapist, practicing meditation, addressing stressful relationships, etc...) to address the issue but none of the solutions are guaranteed to make the problem go away. They simply have a chance of making you feel better and there are no certainties or guarantees. This final point, accepting the absence of certainty, is especially important for dealing with life’s most difficult and terrifying problems. As farfetched as it sounds, working with plants (or gardening) can help with accepting this crucial lesson.

A recent annoyance also taught me another important lesson. A few coworkers and I recently created a succulent garden in the outdoor patio of our 9th floor office. We tried to plan for every potential problem but we still failed to foresee one major dilemma: pigeons. We quickly realized that our young plants were being attacked and destroyed by pigeons. It has been difficult for me to cope with this disappointment since I had spent so much of my time and effort on this project. This had been a project that was close to my heart. I was emotionally invested in it. This latest problem is teaching me an important lesson in humility and unpredictability. No matter how extensively we plan ahead, there are going to be problems that arise and completely take us by surprise. Even after visiting multiple gardening stores and nurseries and seeking advice, no one had mentioned the possibility of birds destroying the plants. This experience is also teaching me to accept the potential loss of something I’ve worked very hard on. Even if we care immensely about a particular project and we work on it as properly as possible, this does not guarantee success; it simply increases the chances of success. The success chance will never reach 100% and become a guarantee. This is another difficult life lesson to understand and internalize.

Ultimately, you can find yourself agreeing with numerous ideas on how to lead a rich and meaningful life. However, most of the lessons we encounter will often times not truly sink in until we go through a powerful experience that hammers the point home and we can feel the change in our emotional cores. Once emotions are genuinely engaged, real behavioral change has a chance of sprouting.  

About Me