Education, Personal Improvement

My Mentors’ Best Advice

Personal Improvement, Uncategorized

The Curse of being a High Achiever

By some accounts, I may be counted as a high achiever. For starters, I graduated top of my class in elementary school. This was back in Singapore, where they had an inhumanely stressful Primary School Leaving Exam to classify students into secondary schools by ranking. I then graduated top of my high school in Canada. This was a school known for its academic rigour, as evidenced by their underperforming sports teams. I was involved in extracurriculars, had several leadership roles, and was considered well rounded by my peers. But despite all that, I was not happy.

If I were to introduce myself in a group setting and had to share one interesting fact, depending on the situation, I might either use the fact that my Chinese name is phonetically spelled the same way as “Viagra”, or that I’ve travelled a lot growing up. In fact, when I was 14, I left my parents for Canada, which was then my fourth country. Growing up in a strange place alone can really challenge a 14-year-old, but that was what I wanted when I asked my parents to send me in the first place.

That said, I felt out of place. I was heavily entrenched in Eastern culture, with its emphasis on community, duty and fidelity, and had a muddy awareness of the Westerner’s values about individuality and self-expression. To some of my friends, I was an “old” figure, a throwback to a time of outdated values and beliefs. To others, I was simply that kid with the strange accent. Amidst all this, I was searching for my own identity, my own uniqueness that can gain recognition, respect, and, yes, even love, in this strange new world.

Unromantically, I found those in grades. I did well in school, and people respected me for it. Slowly, I began forming an idealized image of myself that was brilliant, witty, and out-of-the-world intelligent. I fed it over the years and it grew and grew while I shrank and shrank. I kept people at a distance, and spared little time for romance, although in high school I did have a girlfriend. I delved into work, because in work I found surety and control. I did not want others to expose my insecurity, because I hated to think that after all these years of developing an ideal version of myself, I was just an ordinary guy, lonely and afraid.

I first considered going into medicine in freshman year. I remember speaking with someone at my volunteer place who had been diagnosed with cancer and, as I was busy that day, for the entire time she was sharing her story, I could not stop thinking about an assignment question I had been mulling over. I was disturbed by my lack of empathy. I knew that I had the capacity to empathize, but because I valued schoolwork – my definition of self worth – so much, I did not spare any attention to care.

How can I heal someone else when I could not even heal myself? I thought. My friends say I think too much, and that is probably true. But therein also lay my one salvaging quality: I was keenly aware of my own cognitive dissonance. I believed that learning was more important than grades, yet I could not dissociate my own sense of self worth from my transcript. I believed in the value of human connection, but my own insecurities prevented me from pursuing them. I was a walking contradiction. I knew it, and I wanted to change it.

Three years of soul searching later, I am still learning. I am still exploring who I am, what my values are, and where my self-esteem really comes from. All I can say is that I’ve now accepted the fact that it’s OK to be an ordinary guy, flawed, limited and still learning.

Personal Improvement

Why Practice Martial Arts?

Everything went blurry for a few seconds. I soon realized it wasn’t getting any better. I blinked hard. No improvement. I blinked again. The clock stopped, and my opponent came over to see if I was all right. It was then that I realized that my contact lenses had fallen out from a kick to the head. Thank goodness it wasn’t a concussion, I thought.

This was one of my few experiences sparring in a martial arts tournament. I’ve been practicing Seikido – a martial art based on Taekwondo and Aikido – for the past 3 years at Western. Here I’d like to share some of the benefits martial arts can bring. Full disclosure here: club’s week is coming up and I will be promoting Seikido club. Nevertheless, what I am about to write is genuine. It also applies to most martial arts, not just Seikido.

I consider myself somewhat academic. That means I like to think, and would do things to improve or prolong my ability to do so. According to research published in the journal Aggressive Behaviour, martial arts practitioners gain greater degrees of self-sufficiency and self-control than people who do so-called “power sports”, such as rugby. The research was conducted based on longitudinal data from judo practitioners, which controls for selection bias. In other words, martial arts don’t just appeal to cool-headed people. They help develop them.

This makes sense in practice. If you observe a class of Seikido, you will see how much our instructor emphasizes breathing. Practice for a few months, and you will appreciate the importance of coordinating movement with breathe. The process is meditative. Try thinking of anything else when you’re sparring and kicks are flying towards your face. Practicing martial arts is a process of subdued violence, the art of controlled chaos.

Of course, many people who practice martial arts are not there to spar. When I first started Seikido, I was captivated by the self-defence aspect. Take a couple of simple wrist movements, apply them to the right joints, add a few degrees of pronation, and you’ve got yourself a dangerous masterpiece.

The multifarious aspects of Seikido mean there are plenty of diverse practitioners. I’ve met a neurosurgeon who claimed that picking up Seikido was one of the best decisions he’s ever made (it’s starting to sound cultish, I know). There’s also a beer-drinking, poutine-loving philosophy professor who is now in Vancouver. Some black belts have been part of the army or police force. University students come from science, kinesiology, business, art, history, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The central figure holding all of us together is our instructor Grandmaster Petkovic, whom we affectionately call by his first name, Master Zeke. Master Zeke’s idea is that martial artists – including ones practicing other arts besides Seikido – form a global community, bound by similar philosophies of life. The creed behind any martial art always includes elements such as humility, openness, and harmony, qualities that, according to Master Zeke, are desperately needed in our individualistic society. Enter any dojo in the world, he would say, tell them what you’ve been trained in, and there you will find friends.

At the end of the day, practicing martial arts comes back to intrapersonal development. Certainly, other people help you along the way. Kicks to the face can knock a few degrees out of an overblown ego, while a word of encouragement from a fellow practitioner bolsters confidence. That said, martial arts is ultimately a competition against yourself. The best practitioners are not necessarily the ones who kick the fastest, or punch the hardest, but the ones who persevere to the end.

Shameless plug time: If you would like to check out Seikido, follow our Facebook page, and visit our booth at the rec centre next week.

Personal Improvement

What I Wish I Knew in First Year

Summer has extended this year, but sadly summer break has not. I’d spent most of my four months doing research at Western, so to me summer and school had melded together. But after returning from a trip to Bruce Peninsula a week ago, it hit me: I am heading into my last year as an undergraduate. Over the past four years, I’ve experienced all the excitement, the stresses, the gratification, the heartbreak that university has to offer, and emerged more or less whole. Here are some things I’ve learned in the process. They may come to you as unsolicited advice, as timely words of encouragement, or as marks of camaraderie that tells you that you, too, have been on this unforgettable journey. I make no claims on any special wisdom or intelligence; I simply observe and learn.

On making friends

If you feel lonely, you are not alone. Those of us who act like the most confident, seem the most beautiful, athletic or intelligent may also be the most insecure. Do not let loneliness push you to do things against your values. Do not let it make you bitter and proud. Make friends that you look up to. I am constantly surrounded by passionate people whom I admire, and whom I feel honoured to be friends with. I hope you’ll feel that way too.

On partying

I was never a huge party-er, but I recommend that you check them out. They will challenge you, and offer practical lessons on human behaviour. Pay particular attention (you probably naturally will) to how girls and guys interact. Food and sex are basic human desires, and the means by which people attain the latter provide insight on how they establish value, motivate desire, compete and cooperate. As for food, parties are a great place for those too.

On your parents

University might be the first time you’re living away from your parents. More importantly, this might be when you discover your own values apart from them. You will find that, like it or not, your parents have left indelible marks on your identity. Try not to resent that. I know my parents have made many personal sacrifices so that I could explore, feel lost and make mistakes. It’s my luck to do so.

On dating

Relationships can be boiled down to a few types: mutualism (in which case you hold on tight), commensalism (which ultimately becomes one of the other types), parasitism (hold on if you’re the parasite), and competition (which is more common than you think). That’s the extent of my experience in this matter.

On taking a few risks

University is the perfect time to do things simply because you believe in them, enjoy them, or for no reason at all. I joined the comedy club for a few weeks in first year; it was the most uncomfortable experience in my life. When I started the science case competition (shameless plug here), I did it because I believed in it. If I were a working adult, I’d have to consider things like money and family. But I was an undergraduate who had neither. So are you.

On learning

Don’t let grades get in the way of your learning. I once spent an entire semester without looking at my marks. It was my most stress free semester, even though I was overloading on courses and heavily involved in extracurriculars. I aced that semester.

A good professor can trump course material. Philosophy never interested me until I took Dr. Thorpe’s philosophy course.

Choosing between an interesting course and a bird course is an art. Tough courses can really build you up in the long run. I took a Discrete Mathematics course in second year without even knowing what a proof and a truth table are. I couldn’t understand anything in class, so I learned the material by myself, and did well. Now I no longer fear proofs.

On people

The biggest lesson I’ve come to appreciate is that there is no stupid idea. An idea may be wrong, it may be unwarranted or it may not be conducive to the circumstance, but to call it stupid is a value judgement. Ideas are held by people, and people should be intrinsically valued, regardless of their beliefs. I hope you’ll appreciate this after four years.

On the future

If you look around you, many of your peers may seem to know exactly what they are going to do. Don’t let that worry you. The further you go, the more aware you become of your own uncertainty. So far your school life has been a linear process, but real life is not.

I hope I do not sound too preachy, but these are some things I wish I’d heard when I first entered university. I wish you will make the most of your four years, to challenge yourself personally and professionally, and to grow as a human being. This will be one of the most unforgettable experiences in your life. Grasp on. Make it count. It’s over sooner than you think.

Have an awesome year.


Personal Improvement

Trick your brain out of procrastination

There was once a grasshopper who loved to play the fiddle. One day, he spotted a group of ants hard at work.
“What are you doing?” asked the grasshopper.
“Don’t you know?” replied the ants. “We are preparing food for the winter! You should do it too, if you don’t want to starve.”
“Preparing food! That doesn’t sound like fun at all,” scoffed the grasshopper. “I’m just going to sit on my rock and play my fiddle.”
Aesop’s fable ends with the grasshopper starving to death when winter arrived. “Idleness brings want”, the story concludes.

Procrastination is no stranger to even the best of us. “Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the

The Grasshopper and the Ant

bill,” said Christopher Parker. (There’s also a less mellow version of this quote.) Parker’s analogy to personal finances is more apt than he probably thought; the Gail Kasper Consulting Group found that 40% of Americans overpay on taxes because of procrastination, resulting in a total of $473 million in overpayments. One can only imagine its effect on students.

David Laibson, an economics professor at Harvard, explains procrastination as follows: we put off work today because our perceived cost of doing that work is halved when we imagine doing it tomorrow. In other words, when faced with a difficult task, you think to yourself: if I do it tomorrow, it’ll only take half the effort. Yet studies suggest the opposite; procrastination makes people feel more stressed, less in control, and less effective overall.

So here are a couple of tried and true strategies to conquer procrastination. They work because they utilize the same psychological mechanisms behind procrastination itself. As they say, if you can’t beat them, exploit them.

1. Break it down: the power of pre-crastination

The participant (bottom) must carry either the left or right bucket (half-filled circle) to the end of the hallway (grey circle)

The participant (bottom) must carry either the left or right bucket (half-filled circle) to the end of the hallway (grey circle)

In a recent study conducted by David Rosenbaum from Penn State University, 257 college students were asked to carry either one of two buckets to the end of a hallway. One bucket was closer to the wall (hence farther from the subject) than the other, and the subjects were asked to pick the easier task. The experimenters expected students to pick the bucket closer to the wall, since this would minimize the distance they would have to carry it. What they found was the opposite; most subjects actually picked the bucket that increased their carrying distance. The researchers called this effect “pre-crastination”, the tendency to get simple tasks done and over with.

This seems counter-intuitive at first glance, but makes sense. The detrimental effects of chronic stress is well documented, and leaving a simple task undone – taking out the trash, for instance – creates micro-levels of stress. In the case of simple tasks, removing the stress is easier than avoiding the task, and so you are more inclined to get it done (unless your trash warrants its own real estate).

Practically, this reinforces the adage to break complex projects into simple sub-problems. For instance, when you have an assignment consisting of four questions, you can set individual target dates for each one. The larger the project, the smaller the tasks you break it into. For a term project, for example, you can have tasks as simple as “Read first page of assignment”, or “Write name”.

But what if you can’t even bring yourself to begin the break-down process? Here’s where the second strategy comes in:

2. Time warp: the 20 second rule

I first read about this strategy in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Achor, a psychologist at Harvard, recounted a time when he tried to teach himself guitar. He was determined to practice for half an hour every day, but only managed to keep this up for a week. “The guitar was sitting in the closet, a mere 20 seconds away,” he writes. “But I couldn’t make myself take it out and play it. What had gone wrong?”

The solution, he found, was to make his good habits more accessible. He simply took the guitar out of his closet and set it up on a guitar stand, thus reducing the amount of time taken to access it by 20 seconds. That was all it took.

Similarly, to get a task done, simply make it more accessible. For example, if you plan to study organic chemistry tomorrow morning, you can lay out your notes today evening. The next morning, you’d be too lazy to tidy up your table in order to do anything else, and so begins the grunt work.

The same strategy can be used to cut bad habits. For instance, when I want to ignore distractors on my phone – Facebook, email, and such – I turn on airplane mode and shut it in the living room. Although I could easily access my phone, the act of opening my door, walking to my living room (all 23 steps!), finding my phone, and swiping right is simply too much work for my poor brain to handle.

Together, breaking it down and the 20-second rule make a formidable duo. I have personally tested several methods for time management, and none have been as effective as these. Whether you are starting a project, learning a new skill, or simply storing food for the winter, try these simple strategies. You’ll be surprised by what you see.