JULES OF ALL TRADES | A blog about learning.

New Year’s Resolutions: Why Bother?


Inspired by the turning of the calendar, I sat down the other day to review my 2018 resolutions - and found that I had failed miserably. Of the 11 goals I set, I only achieved one -- reading 12 books -- and only because I cheated. To get across the finish line, I threw in a few music history books I’d read for class prep, plus a book I technically finished on January 2 of this year.

I know I’m not alone in falling short of new year’s resolutions. In fact, today, January 12th, is even designated Quitter’s Day because studies show that this is when most people first fall off the bandwagon. Still, I was surprised at my outcome. It wasn’t a bad year; in fact a lot of great stuff happened. I finished my doctorate. I got a job. I played a lot of memorable performances. I had some good times with good people. But the resolutions were a total bust. I was curious: what went wrong?

My mistake WASN’T that I didn’t take it seriously enough. Being a self-improvement junkie, I pooh-poohed the idea of doing my own loosey-goosey process. No, sir. I wanted to learn the right way to do it, from the experts! So, in late 2017, I searched the internet and enrolled in a popular online course called “5 Days to your Best Year Ever.” With a promise like that, how could I resist?

The course, designed by leadership mentor and author Michael Hyatt, was pleasant and easy-to-follow. It provided short videos on each of five steps, after which you were assigned to work through the accompanying workbook. Certainly, part of the value of such a course is that paying actual money provides extra motivation to actually do the work...

The five steps of the course were:

  1. Believe the possibility. This step entailed identifying the “limiting beliefs” that are holding you back and replacing them with “liberating truths.”

  2. Complete the past. Here, you review the prior year and how your expectations were or were not met, and learn from the experiences.

  3. Design your future. This is where the goal-setting begins, using the SMARTER rubric (a slight extension of the SMART goal criteria you learn in high school).

  4. Find your why. After setting goals, this step entailed identifying key motivations for those goals to keep the momentum going.

  5. Make it happen. This is where the mechanics of goal-setting came into play, such as breaking down goals into smaller tasks with deadlines and reminders.

Makes total sense, right? I made my way through the workbook, confidently at first, trying to imagine my best year ever. However, when it came to actually setting goals in Step 3, I hit a wall. Designing my future turned out to be really, really hard. I should have known it would be for me; I’ve never been much of a dreamer. When it comes to my future, I’ve always had a big blind-spot where my aspirations should be (hence the multiple careers). Feeling more often than not that I’m in survival mode hasn’t helped either. So envisioning some grand version of my 2018 was awkwardly difficult. Embarrassed, I went to the course’s Facebook group to read what other people had written. “Just for guidance,” I told myself. In the end, I drafted a number of generic goals: drink more water, read more, learn a language, go to the gym.

As I reviewed last year’s workbook, I was appalled to realize just how much I had relied on external ideas. My goals could have been Jane Doe’s goals. And it wasn’t just the goals. In Step 1, when asked to name a limiting belief and turn it into a liberating truth, I wrote:

Limiting belief: the financial system is rigged towards those who already have money.

Liberating truth: it’s time to hack the system and find a replicable path for the little guys.

Reading them now, those statements don’t even sound like me. I definitely pilfered them. Is it any surprise that I didn’t meet any of the goals? They weren’t even mine in the first place.

I could have concluded at this point that resolutions are dumb and useless, and that we should just forget the whole silly tradition and just live our lives. But something still intrigued me about this ritual, and I wasn’t sure what.

So, this year, I tried again. I worked through the exact same steps and the exact same questions, this time looking back on 2018 and ahead to 2019.

This time around, a funny thing happened: it felt a lot easier. I was able to answer the questions with greater authenticity, less hemming and hawing, and no peeking at anyone else’s answers. As a result, I made some truly eye-popping realizations. In Step 2 for instance, in reviewing the year’s highs and lows and some recurring themes, I was able to come up with some major life lessons for myself going forward. Among them? When you know the next step, stop thinking and just do it. Don’t apologize; act like a badass and you will become one. Cut yourself some slack if something’s not perfect; get it next time.

These life lessons may sound universal, but this time they packed some punch because they were actually about me. They highlighted some of my greatest weaknesses: I can, at my my most doubting moments, be a risk-averse, overthinking perfectionist with low confidence who relies too much on the feedback of others. Harsh? No; honest, and liberating. By verbalizing these weaknesses, I can recognize them before they sabotage the actions that might move me forward. By knowing myself a little better, I can better craft goals for my ideal life. One of my resolutions this year is to write more, whether on this blog or elsewhere. The exercise of putting my thoughts out into the world without apologies or second-guessing will be a good challenge for me — and hopefully helpful to others too. This blog has been great for that, but I still draft 2-3 entries for every one I have the guts to publish, and I still sometimes ask the opinion of confidantes before I post these humble little musings. I’ll be working on posting with more confidence and less hand-wringing this year, for my own sake.

Like so many things, it’s not the outcome of my resolutions, but the journey of setting them that has spurred the most growth. And I’m getting better at making that journey my own. That last bit might actually be the secret of new year’s resolutions, and why I’ll keep doing them. The real measure of whether the year was a success might not be whether you lost 30 pounds, or traveled in a new country, or earned your first million dollars. Rather, it might be whether you now see yourself more clearly, and thus more hopefully, than you did before. If so, your best year yet is sure to follow.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, and wishing you all a happy 2019!

How to Stay Young, or, 5 Pillars of Dubal

At Dubal’s celebration, surrounded by his loyal following.

At Dubal’s celebration, surrounded by his loyal following.

It’s pretty simple, right? Don’t smoke, eat right, stay active, and listen to your elders.

Wait. That last one is dubious. We all know people who have been around for a long time but have never seemed to live a day in their lives. How about, then, listen to your elders, but only the wise ones?

Before I left New York city, I met up for lunch with David Dubal, the piano encyclopedia, eccentric oracle, and mentor extraordinaire. I told him how much I had enjoyed hearing about the 5 Pillars of Dubal, a set of tenets presented a few months earlier at a celebration in his honor. Peter, a talented pianist (just one of an embarrassing number of talented pianists present), told us how Dubal had bestowed the 5 Pillars upon the students in Dubal’s class at Juilliard, and how, years later, Peter still remembered all of them. They are, in order:

  1. I am alive!

  2. I am me.

  3. Expect nothing.

  4. Let nothing faze you.

  5. No one can save you.

Peter explained these enigmatic missives. First, when you wake up, you must take a moment to marvel at your body (here he raised his hands and examined them, front to back) and the fact that you are alive! It is no small thing. Second, you are YOU, and no one else. Peter is Peter and should not try to be anyone else. Third, you should expect nothing from the world. Entitlement is the root of much unhappiness, hatred, and worse in the world. Fourth, let nothing in life throw you off kilter (easier said than done, right? I’ll come back to this one shortly). Lastly, we all have a mortal fate, and recognizing that, alongside the first pillar, gives our lives balance.

As Peter explained the pillars, Dubal beamed with delight, as if these pillars were new to him too. Such is the nature of his wisdom - shot straight from the heart, rather than mannered and sterile from overthinking. Of course, you could reword his 5 Pillars in a million ways, as society has done: Life is Short, You do You, etc., but somehow, the Duballian version seemed to combine the best of both childlike and sagelike perspectives.

When I reminded Dubal of the pillars at our lunch, I expected him to smile with delight as he had that night and perhaps say something generally affirmative like, yes, yes, always remember those. Instead, he lurched forward over the table and looked intently at me for a moment. He raised a finger and said, “Yes, but there is one more - you must always remember this. Practice fearlessness. Always. Practice fearlessness.”

In the moment, I was surprised by the unexpected addendum to the 5 Pillars. However, in retrospect, it was the missing piece to their implementation. Pillars 1-3 and 5 are easily understood. But, let nothing faze you? It seems these days as if everything fazes everyone, as if my entire country is stuck inside an ever-inflating inner tube of anxiety. It seems that people are so fazed by things they read on the internet that they feel compelled to kill others. How I can I not be fazed?

The answer, is that you must pretend. You must, as we modern people say, fake it till you make it. Dubal and I talked about how being a concert pianist is the perfect embodiment of this practice. Every single time I go out on stage, I must seem fearless, whether I am or not, because I have a message to deliver. Over time, as with any other practice, fearlessness will become a ready companion, calling up its own attendant virtues: control over one’s emotions, clear-eyed responsiveness, and mindfulness of one’s values. Would not the news be less scary if, instead of portraying faces locked into contortions of rage, it showed visages of people strong enough to calmly engage with opposition? Would that a successful nominee for this country’s highest court could model this, but his failure is many of ours as well.

Yes, we need to practice fearlessness, because, as short as life is, there is plenty in it to scare all of us.

The last few months, I’ve been starting a new job. I’m certainly no stranger to starting over - I’ve had a lot of jobs, I’ve ventured into many rigorous fields of study, I’ve spent time living in foreign countries with my abysmal language skills. But. I am also no spring chicken, and I have to say starting over is not as easy as it used to be.

I’ve noticed that, as we get older, the chances for doing new things dwindles. We get used to things: our circle of people, our routines, our places. By contrast, in our first few decades, everything is wonderfully novel. My niece is 2, and she’ll soon go to school, learn to read, write in cursive (maybe?), and understand the time value of money. All with the cutest fervor.

But for those of us farther on in life? Starting new things gets harder. At least it has for me. I feel the effort. I have more to consider. I feel that failure is more costly now.

At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to settle into your comfy bear den, encountering nothing new, until it caves in around you. The trick to staying young, I believe, is constantly trying new things. Why? Because doing so connects us to our younger states of being and ensures continued personal growth.

How do we do that, given all the awareness we’ve accumulated? Practice fearlessness. In other words, be brave.

Dubal was careful to warn that this is not fake bluster, not the fluffed-up tail feathers, not the macho posturing intended to intimidate. No. Many of our leaders today think they show “fearlessness” when in fact they show their failure of the first 5 pillars: they expect everything for themselves and give nothing to others, and they are fazed at the slightest hint of opposition. We are not talking about this fake “fearlessness,” which of course comes from very deep-seated fears or insecurity (how dare you prevent me from becoming a justice! I deserve it! And yet I am terrified of not getting it). We are talking about the quiet inner strength, a kernel of which is inside each one of us, inside the child in each one of us. We must trust in that kernel and let it lead us forward, ever challenging and growing ourselves with grace and at no one’s expense. Would that our leaders could model this.

I’m glad I had that lunch with Dubal, because the 5 Pillars are great, but when I shy away from a challenge that I know is necessary -- having an honest conversation, leading with confidence, stepping outside of my comfort zone -- I think of that sixth pillar and how it will keep me sharp for a very long time.

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Crazy Midwest Asians

The movie Crazy, Rich Asians is killing it at the box office, and I know what I’m supposed to feel: joy that audiences have embraced it, gratitude for the people who made it happen, satisfaction that Asian faces are finally accepted in Hollywood, pride that a story so steeped in Asian culture is now mainstream. And I do feel all of those things.

But I am feeling lots of other things too. 

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5 hacks for blitzing your dissertation and getting back to practicing

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Ah, summer. The time when graduate students find a quiet spot, crack their knuckles, and resolve to finish their theses and dissertations. Freedom from the shackles of a terminal degree never felt so close! 

Then one teeny problem emerges: the nagging realization that a) this is going to be a lot of work, and b) there are many things WAY more germane to our careers, interests, and well-being. All of a sudden, the motivation train grinds to a halt, still astride the platform. Sigh.

I feel you; that was totally me last summer. Every hour spent on my dissertation was one less hour for other things and one more hour I was very, very annoyed. So I decided to blitz it. I finished writing my dissertation in a few weeks of full-time work. Life went on. I passed.  

You can too. To minimize the pain, I recommend these 5 easy steps.

1. Acknowledge that this is NOT your magnum opus. The most honest and experienced professors will tell you that a dissertation is a means to an end. As one told me more bluntly, "Everyone knows that dissertations are not usually very important." Someday, you may make it an article or book. Someday, you may take the time to dig deeper, becoming a world expert in that field. Today is not that day. Today you should finish the damn thing and get back to practicing. 

2. Pick the topic where you can see the farthest down the road. Let's say you already have a list of topics you're interested in. How to pick? I say, if you already know what research you’ll do and what you’ll say about it, that’s a potential winner. However, if for a certain topic, you can only see as far as “I’m gonna gather as many primary sources as I can find and see what they say!” you will not be practicing for a very long time.  

3. Make an outline with the requisite number of chapters and no more. Six is totally fine. If you need more chapters to finish your topic, reread steps #1 and #2 above. Now, most people make it to this point just fine, but stall big time before actually starting to write. Others dive headlong into research, digging up interesting source after interesting source, delaying writing because they “don’t know enough yet” (reread step #2). Stop researching. You cannot (unfortunately) turn in your brain full of knowledge. You have to turn in a pile of paper. Go on to the next step and start writing TODAY.

4. [LISTEN CLOSELY TO ME NOW] DICTATE YOUR PAPER. Set a timer for ten minutes and place the most delicious snack you can imagine just out of reach. Then pick a section of your outline, go into Google docs, turn on voice dictation (or use Dragon or other software if you like, but the free stuff is totally usable these days) and JUST TALK FOR TEN MINUTES. Pages and pages of content will magically appear in your document. Relax when the timer goes off. Luckily, cleaning up dictation errors is easily done as you enjoy your treat. Rinse and repeat. 

Dictation has been around forever, but the software is more widely available, cheaper, and more effective than ever before. When I worked as a law firm secretary in college, partners still dictated documents onto tiny little cassette tapes, which we played back on these specialized tape recorders with foot pedals to rewind and replay. What we used to do laboriously is now done invisibly and admirably by Siri and Alexa and Google Home. If you don't have your own secretary on call (oh how I wish), why not take advantage of the technology? 

At some point over the last few decades, I think we adopted the notion that writing is what happens when we sit in front of a computer screen. The truth is that writing has always been about what happens in your head. Dictation WORKS because it reflects the structure of your thinking. If your dictated text is messy, disorganized, and wandering, your typed-out writing would have been too. Clarity of mind is the fastest way through a paper. If you don’t yet have the clarity, go back to step #3 and flesh out your outline. You should be able to stare at your outline and just talk about it into your computer's mic.  

5. WRITE FIRST, SUPPORT LATER. As you're talking/writing, anytime you feel like a pesky reader will say, “What’s your support for this?” make a small note however you like (I type "[CITE]" so that I can Control+F the brackets later) and MOVE ON. This way, your paper only has the support it needs and mostly comprises YOUR ideas. Every time I’ve tried to start with the sources - bookmarking, taking notes, copying passages - I end up debilitated, drowning in quotes and diluting my own voice. By submerging yourself in sources first, you become a slave to them rather than the other way around. If you like living in a library, by all means, do it that way. But, be advised, you cannot practice in the library. Or eat. So. 

BONUS TIP: find an advisor or reader who is neurotic about your document’s potential weaknesses. These weaknesses could be a certain analytical angle, a writing or editing skill, or a body of knowledge. Pick someone who will be so bothered by your weakness that they will literally fix them for you, or at least flag whatever concerns may arise in your defense. One of my dear readers, a real nit-picker, basically formatted all of my citations for me. Thanks, reader! I hate formatting citations. Flashbacks to law review subciting, anyone?


Best of luck and best of snacks to you all. Just do it and be done. You’ll never look back. I promise. 

Why organized religion?

Do you ever wonder this? I do these days, especially while cringing at the public display of self-professed Evangelicals like Roy Moore or that pastor who got a standing ovation for admitting sexual assault or so-called Christians online who spew hatred against anyone who doesn’t look like them. It seems as if religion continues (as it always has) to be yet another platform for the worst instincts in humankind.  

Now, I acknowledge that these examples only reflect the public Christianity of a certain majority culture. Are there other "types"? Of course. Is there a Christianity of a more private, distinctly minority Christian experience? Yes, my own, in fact. Did I realize its impact on my life before this week? No, not really. 

Like many Chinese students who arrived here in the 1970's, my parents first experienced Christianity through the local families who took them in. These Americans welcomed students to their new country by inviting them into their homes, feeding them, hosting them for holidays, and introducing them to pastimes like apple-picking. This generosity ran so deep that the couple who took in Chinese students in Cincinnati even threw my parents' wedding! I don't know my real grandparents well, but Grandpa and Grandma Smith have been there my entire life. I spent my first Christmas at their house, clutching the little stocking they gave me. They read us books and told us stories. After Grandpa Smith passed away, Grandma Smith made the trip to cheer me on at my college graduation. For birthdays and holidays, she sent handwritten cards and homemade gifts and the tastiest cookies. At 93, she still keeps up with all of her grandchildren, real and adopted, like me. She is the very paragon of what a Christian should be - attuned to the needy, open and loving to all. 

With Grandpa Smith and one of the many epic meals together. 

With Grandpa Smith and one of the many epic meals together. 

It’s no wonder then, that many of these immigrants planted their new community in a church. Ours was Cincinnati Chinese Church, or CCC, as we called it, and for many in the area, it is a safe enclave in a foreign land, a place where newcomers are welcomed, a surefire place to seek help. The church grew quickly because the earlier arrivals were quick to pay forward the hospitality they had received. The more established immigrants became the ones driving church vans to Asian grocery stores, cooking hot meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, translating for people in courts and hospitals, visiting with the sick. Religion, for these, was nothing short of a lifeline from social isolation. As I grew up at CCC, I could see that, even if I didn’t feel it myself. 

I always assumed I didn’t need any of those benefits. Yes, it was great for newcomers, but for us ABC’s, it could be a burden. I called it “CCC(CC)” - CCC with two extra layers of conservatism from parents stuck in the Chinese cultural mores of the 70’s, plus a conservative brand of Christianity. I bristled when the adults got into my business, commenting on my dress, appearance, behavior, etc. (turns out, that’s just how Asian moms roll). Also, I questioned certain views propounded by our elders. When I traveled to South African schools to help build sex-ed programs to prevent HIV/AIDS, I got articles sent to me about the (purported) efficacy of abstinence-only education. As I struggled to make sense of the world and my role in it, CCC(CC) sometimes marked a division between what I was told and what I believed to be true. 

When I left home for college, I kept some aspects of organized religion. I like the ethic of service to others; I appreciate the perspective that I am just a small part of a bigger universe; and I love a good sermon. Not the gentle, feel-good sermon, full of saccharine anecdotes from Chicken Soup for the Soul and teaching me nothing new, but one that tackles a Bible verse swaying like a cobra and wrestles it to the ground. I sought out preachers who could convincingly lead you through a complex argument, artfully unpack an opaque text, or paint an image of some huge idea - like love, or heaven, or right and wrong - in a way that forever changed how you thought about it. I hate taking notes in class, but I whip out my notepad for a good sermon! As for the the rest of church? I found myself shying away from social expectations, conformity, weak debate, and the feeling that I fell short no matter what I did. So I took to listening to my favorite pastors on the radio -- all of the intellectual exercise without any of the human judgment. But with no one to keep me accountable, that wasn’t even worth it after a while.

Until this week, I assumed that I had mostly tolerated church. But this week, I was reminded that I had gained something of immense value: the fellowship of all of those kids who grew up there with me. On Sundays, we went to Sunday School. On Friday nights, we went to youth group (after which we all honed our free throw shots in the attached gym). During the week, we went to Bible studies at each others’ houses, where the kids went straight to the basement to play video games, emerging only when the parents were done and dessert was served. To this day, I can tell you the layout of everyone’s basement and what Super NES or Sega Genesis games they had. Oh, and what snacks their moms made best.

Game time at my childhood home. I think we had JUST gotten that game set.  

Game time at my childhood home. I think we had JUST gotten that game set.  

On top of these regular meetings, we went to summer retreats with other Chinese churches in the midwest. We sometimes even went on group vacations! Man. We spent A WHOLE LOT OF TIME TOGETHER. But during that time, as petty teens and internet trolls do, I focused on differences. I was a nerd, you were a jock, he was trying to be black, she was trying to be white, they were rich, they were poor, etc. And as we grew up, we mostly went our separate ways. 

Gatlinburg road trip. We would caravan down the highway, the kids tying up the CB radio bandwidths with pointless banter. "Is that your car on fire? Over."

Gatlinburg road trip. We would caravan down the highway, the kids tying up the CB radio bandwidths with pointless banter. "Is that your car on fire? Over."

Last week we lost one of our own, one of us “kids.” He was 33. The last time I saw him was five years ago, but his passing still hit close to home. It made me realize that, despite my angst, I had not just one but more like 20 brothers and sisters growing up. I remember that for some years after we left home, we would still gather at Christmas to catch up and hang out, and those moments of sharing were the most vulnerable we could be all year. People could drop the cool and confident facades they wore in front of classmates and coworkers and instead be real and break down about how hard medical school was, about how lonely it was after college, about how love and loss never seem to get any easier. You could be a bit of a mess because we’d all seen each other in braces and bad haircuts and tough times and all kinds of awkwardness for years. Turns out, church was an enclave for us too - filled with a form of love that’s hard for me to describe. 

As we got older, we often gathered NOT in the basement. 

As we got older, we often gathered NOT in the basement. 

As I keep up with people’s lives on Facebook, the overwhelming emotion I feel is pride. I am just so damn proud to be a part of this crew. I honestly marvel at how life has given us all a chance to find our way, to keep figuring out what it means to be good people. As the years fly by, I’ve realized that we have so much more in common than our differences. 

So. Despite my own contribution to the smallness and arrogance that can characterize organized religion, I’m grateful for all the giving and loving aspects of the church I had. Losing one of our own, far too soon, reminds me again to live out those aspects in my own life. After all, isn’t any belief only as compelling as the individual professing it? That’s on us, 100%.

RIP, Davy.