School DOES prepare us for the real world….sort of….

I hear a lot of critics say that school doesn’t prepare the young ones for the real world. We learn so much about the arts, English, linguistics, calculus, physics…so many things that are important in the academics, but seem so useless in a corporate office setting. Take physics for example – most of what I learned in the lecture halls were difficult and downright painful, and after putting in so much effort into studying how to calculate relative voltage, I don’t remember any of the formulas nor do I need to use it. Or what about calculus? Derivative after derivative, integral after integral, one variable after another…seriously, I’m just manipulating equations with X, Y, and Z on a piece of paper. What relevance is there in terms of my own life?

Many of these concerns are quite valid, but only when it comes to certain perspective. I think sometimes we are too premature in bashing something without a bit of context as to why we are bashing it. I’ve been working for a number of years now, and through experience, one thing that naturally happens is recalling what I learned in the past due to some recent experience I just had. And usually the recollection comes in a way that I would not have expected. Take the physics example that I mentioned earlier. The professor told us that voltage is relative. You can’t measure voltage at a single point, it has to be measured relative to another point in order for it to be possible, and also have any sort of significant scientific meaning. The key word here is relative. Things in our life having depth and meaning, but its relative. For example, owning a home is sometimes seen as achieving success and a certain level of maturity. But that’s relative to the audience and perception of what it means to own a home.  Relative to an opposite perspective, it can be considered a horrible move. By owning a home, you have committed yourself to paying back a loan with lots of interest (unless you paid all cash), property taxes, insurance, landscaping, and you also got to fix everything yourself. You don’t worry about this when renting, so why even go that route? If I have confused you, re-read what I wrote again. The connection is meant to be very subtle.

Since having many of these moments, it became clear to me that while it can be fair to say that school doesn’t prepare us for the real world, you can’t really blame the school system. There is one piece missing that schools can’t easily provide: real world context via personal experience. Some classes do try to accomplish this. Take math for example, a typical Algebra course. You spend so much time solving for X, Y, and Z, then usually a few word problems come at end, where now the same problem is given to you but in the context of apples and oranges because that’s what we eat. But it still doesn’t work. We don’t care about apples and oranges, and the only reason we make any effort to solve the problem is because we want to pass a class. And passing the class is dependent on the grade we get. The grade we get is dependent on how well we solve these math problems. So for the student, the context of X, Y, and Z is really around passing a class and getting the verbal or written acknowledgment from our teacher. It has nothing to do with a desire of actually solving for X, Y, and Z.

The question is not whether or not a class is relevant for life, the real question to ask is, how do I find a way to connect the material in this class to something in my life? Some courses are much more obvious from the get go and can easily prove it’s usefulness. Take auto-mechanics for example. It’s typical for teenagers to be driving a car at the age of 16, which is also a typical age for when a student might take this class. When driving a car, you now have the responsibility of maintaining it. Even after learning how to fix a car in class, you still may not fix your own car. But that’s OK, because through your experience from fixing cars in class, you are now likely more aware of when you come across a good or bad mechanic. Regardless of how you use the skills from a auto-mechanics class, it’s useful regardless because it has immediate contextual meaning in your life.

But what about writing a paper? I remember in a typical writing course, you had to write a paper by first stating a point, then providing useful and relevant facts to support your point, i.e. an argumentative essay. In class, the range of topics were usually selected, so you had no choice but to pick something from that irrelevant list (relative to your life) and then find some facts to prove why you chose such a position. The problem is the position you chose doesn’t have any real contextual meaning for you. You picked something for the sake of picking it. If you didn’t, you would guarantee yourself  repeating the course. The teacher usually would try to justify this essay by saying sometime in the future you’ll need to write a letter or proposal to convince someone of a point you want to make. That’s all fine and dandy for the future, but I’m living in the present, not in the future. Plus, I have no idea what I would be asked to do in the future when it comes to this type of work, so that means I don’t have any clue as to how to apply what I’m learning right now. I will be writing this kind of essay for a few more years into high school and then many more years in college before it has any contextual meaning in my life, outside of making the grades and passing the classes. So in class, students more or less go through the motions of the essay for the sake of a grade, not so much that it actually has any significant personal meaning for them.

Also, the relevance of  class, in terms of real context, for a person will depend on each individual. For example, solving for X, when you know Y and Z, has real significant meaning in my life in terms of real estate. Solving for X when Y and Z are given – one way to look at this is you have control over some things, and not over other things. Y and Z are here to stay, and ultimately it affects what X will be, but the part you have control over is how to get to X. Here’s another extended way to look at this to take it a bit further: if I desire X to be a certain value, can I manipulate Y and Z in any way to obtain the value of X that I desire? In other words, lets flip it around. Now you know X, so how can I solve for Y and Z? Working backwards is just as important as working forward, if not more important. For example, my calculations for real estate is nothing more than an algebraic equation to solve. I desire a particular ROI, which is nothing more than a variable with a fixed number or a range or numbers. And there other factors that control the ROI: interest rates, rent values, fair market value of homes, property tax rates, vacancy rates, and insurance. Think of each of these as a separate distinct variable – A, B, C, or X, Y, Z. I am trying to solve for other variables when I am certain of what I want one variable to be. When I buy an investment property, I know what the ROI needs to be. The ROI is influenced by other the other variables I mentioned above. So to satisfy my ROI, I have to find homes with variable values that satisfy my ROI requirement. Do you follow me so far? If you do, then you can understand how algebra influences my decisions. If not, read it again, it’s not hard.

At work, when trying to convince a client, whether in a meeting, email, or in some kind of written proposal, I have a clever solution that I want to present and I need to back it up with reasons as to why. This is the thought process of an argumentative essay. The difference now is I have a personal vested interest in the essay. This time I chose the topic to defend, not a teacher. It now has real context meaning for me. And that has been my point throughout this post. The things we learn in school have use in the real world, the problem ultimately lies in getting students to make that connection to their own personal lives. Unfortunately, it’s not the school’s fault. They can only go so far when trying to give students the experience of real world problems. I am not saying it’s impossible, but I do think it’s hard. In order to help students draw that connection, a teacher would need to pay attention to the individual context of each student’s life. Given all the responsibility they have, it’s nearly impossible to do this for every student.

I could go on and on with many more examples. Such as, linguistics plays a bigger role in life than many may actually believe. But my major point is, lets not blame the school system. The fact is that they are giving us the tools to help us in life, but without the real life connections to those tools, it’s very hard to make it work. Its easy to bash the school system when we can’t find any immediate use for what is taught in the class room.  Let’s make a concentrated effort to look at this in a different light.

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Measuring the wrong way

The years between 2008 and 2012 has been interesting times. It was a point in my life where I started planting the roots of my financial future, but only to have it sprout and lean towards the wrong way.

In the middle of 2008 I headed over to Singapore. I stay at a hostel in Chinatown that was managed by one of the co-owners. He was more than willing to have a heart to heart chat about my financial situation at the time, as well as some of the online business mistakes I had recently encountered. Luckily, he wasn’t condescending in any way, nor did he take any cheap shots at me. He knew I simply needed candid feedback about what went wrong. It helped, and I am forever grateful for the time he spent with me having those talks.

At the end of 2008, I visited and stayed with an acquaintance in New Zealand. She was the motivated entrepreneur that was on the rise and just a few years younger than me. On the surface, for where she was at her mid 20’s, it was impressive. She owned multiple rental properties and ran her own property management company. I spent several days with her talking and discussing real estate, business, and the mindsets that exist behind people that have this kind of motivation. As of today, she appears to have grown dramatically since the last time we met.

After New Zealand, I took a flight to Melbourne so that I could meet up with a good friend for a few days. Like the girl from New Zealand, she also ran her own business – a retail store for fashion accessories. She’s the same age as me. For business, its different for her in that she more or less kind of just fell into her situation when working with her family. From her, it became clear why sometimes business didn’t make sense. And that ultimately came down to the true desires of the individual. I had a chance to sit out in her balcony, have a few drinks, and thoroughly listen to her thoughts. While not in a bad situation, she pictured herself differently than where she is now. As of today, I don’t know what’s she doing for her career but she’s engaged.

Shortly after, I spent a few days in Sydney with a close friend. He is married, but at the time he didn’t have any children. His story is interesting in that it almost mirrors the earlier life of a typical business success story. He never completed college. When he had turned 18, he preferred to study stocks instead of studying during the night before a final exam. He bought his first property at the age of 18. Subsequently he kept picking up more and more year after year, as long as it financially made sense. He spent years saving as if his life depended on it. He always knew he wanted to be a wolf and not a sheep. One thing he knew for sure is that school wasn’t going to take him there – he simply didn’t fit the school system. I spent one day observing how he ran his retail store in the mall. Some of my other friends in Sydney were perplexed by this, given that they perceived vacation more as a time of partying and site seeing. I don’t disagree, but I also want to gain perspective and insight. Besides I wasn’t much of a sightseer. But more importantly, we had spent many nights and car rides together over the course of 10 days talking and sharing ideas about life, purpose, business, money, and anything else that we felt passionate about.

In between these trips, I spent many nights at Starbucks and bookstores, reading up on the latest financial and entrepreneur business books. Some were a bust, but a few gems did stand out. Needless to say, I gained some insight from reading a few key books – including the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series. As a piece of advice, I don’t recommend this book if you’re looking for a cook book recipe.

By the beginning of 2009, I felt a sense of “reboot” inside me. I felt fresh and ready to tackle challenges again. After gaining some perspective on my past mistakes, I embraced 2009, 2010, and 2011 as moments to take charge once again. I decided one of my strengths was real estate. Not that I am a professional or anything, I just knew for a fact that I had a better understanding about it relative to the average Joe. What followed later was many nights and weekends at Starbucks with reading and more research. I also spent time visiting many different cities and talking to the locals. What made these cities tick? Why would anyone want to live there? Even if lots of people were renting from an area, what was it that made it happen? Was that reason sustainable? These are just a few of many aspects I thought about.

It was fun and new. I went into things without knowing much, other than a belief in myself that things will work out. I wrote my first full blown business plan. It had reasons as to what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and how I was going to sustain it. I wrote it in such a way that it could be given to someone as a proposal to have them trust their money with me. Looking back, I never followed the plan step by step. In fact, it acted as a means to exercise and train my mind. The fact of the matter is, plans usually don’t go as planned. It’s our ability to adjust to the current climate that ensures our success. But the business plan gave me some confidence in knowing that I had the ability to think these things through. But more importantly, I knew why I was doing it. Personally, it wasn’t money just for the sake of money. I needed money to fulfill a bigger purpose to the ones I care about. To this day, I still continue the mission even if I have periods of down time.

At the end of 2009, I started building the team. First I needed a property management company. Next I needed a trusted Realtor that could give me the real deal on what was going on in the rental market. Luckily those two people became one. The ball started rolling. I couldn’t stop when 2010 rolled around. Offers were made left and right, and I was excited to look at even the most ugly fixer uppers. Long story short, success reared it’s head. I later built my team by adding a good CPA to make sure my taxes were done right. Then 2011 and and half of 2012 became more or less the same. I kept running and building. It was like crack – I loved the feeling. To top it off, I had a supportive group of friends that cheered for me. In return, I was more than willing to share my experiences with them, hoping that they could chase their dreams too (it didn’t need to be in real estate).

But then suddenly things went the other way. I remember as a teenager, a time when I really adored and thought highly of the friends I spent time with, my parents warned me: things are cherry now, but it will change as you grow older when money is involved. At the time, I thought it was nonsense, but regardless those words remained inside me as the years went on. Eventually word spread, and now I am 30 years old. Within the same college, unless you failed out, no one was really better than the other. Everyone, for the most part, felt like they were on the same level as others. After graduating, if you found a job, then you felt like you were on equal footing as other graduates. But then 10 years later, it sinks in. It becomes common for many people to measure themselves by their salaries, job titles, and materials they own (i.e., cars, big homes, investments, etc.). And it’s an ugly thing.

I met one guy recently, through another friend (her boyfriend), that was cool in the beginning. He owned a house, and I owned my house. We had some good conversations about real estate. But later, my friend told him about my other investments. Then things changed. It started with, “oh, you have more than one house?” He continued to ask how many homes I had, in which I did tell him. That night, nothing happened, and it all seemed great.

But then, subsequent visits became awkward and tense:

  1. He would ask me how much I paid for property management, only to tell me how I was over paying. Yet, he’s never hired or worked with a property manager before.
  2. He would ask me what my interest rates were, only to tell me my mortgage broker didn’t work hard enough. At the time, he had only bought one house, and probably refinanced just once.
  3. He would ask if I was paying any HOA dues, only to tell me I messed up because HOAs messed up my purchasing power. Yes, he also pays HOA dues on his house.
  4. Subsequently, anytime I visited again, he’d always ask item #1 again and respond to me in the same manner.
  5. Any conversations we had about real estate resulted in him interrupting and pushing his point across without listening to what I had to say. Of course, he was talking and promoting ideas about RE stuff he hadn’t done yet.

Part of the problem, in addition to his already over-inflated ego, was that my friend used me as a measuring stick. I had done a lot more, and done it a lot earlier than him. Before he made a decision, she’d routinely tell him to check with me first. I’m sure that infuriated him. All of a sudden the visits became unpleasant because of him, so I simply avoided them unless it had been some time since we talked (usually 6+ months). I wouldn’t go as far as saying this guy wanted to get back at me personally – this is simply who he is. While observing him interact with his friends, he uses every opportunity possible to give unsolicited advice.

I had to stop visiting because I was starting to become him. I gradually started measuring myself the wrong way, not just with him, but with others, out of habit because of my interactions with him. Any time I sensed someone wanted to challenge my worth or status, automatically a check list fumbled through my head. It became such a bad habit and for a period of time, it consumed my thinking pattern:

  1. Job title
  2. Job salary
  3. # of investments
  4. Other assets
  5. My age

I’d scan through each of these items and compare it with the other person. If I was “better” with at least 3 or more of these items, I suddenly felt confident and secure. But, this is for all the wrong reasons.

I suddenly became the person I worked so hard to not be. I didn’t want to be “Keeping up with the Joneses,” but unfortunately I unintentionally started to, and it eventually became a normal reaction to any stimulus that challenged my worth as a human being. When I had first started my path to wealth, it wasn’t to compare myself to others. During my travelings years, when I had nothing, I was seeking others more for inspiration, an exchange of ideas, and their own personal stories in this journey. I was never using them as a measuring stick. And I had fun on this journey more so for the sake of doing the work, and not because I wanted to be better than someone else. It is fun seeing my estimated ROI become a reality, not that my ROI is better than “the Joneses” next door.

Now it’s clear, so damn clear. I had become the jerk I never wanted to be. Obviously things are different now. I’ve come to this realization and have made the adjustments. The first thing was to continue avoiding conversation with people like this. Second, I keep my investment conversations strictly with only those that thrive in the exchange of ideas, not ones that thrive in a battling of egos.

This is one of the most honest posts I have ever written, one that is truly an open book that puts my mistakes out there and my realization of how silly I was. I managed to turn something that was once fun and fulfilling, into a pointless race that drags on forever with no end in sight.

Melt Down?

I wonder if a meltdown is what I’ve been feeling the last year, or possibly even longer.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve built myself into a particular niche of technology. During college, I studied Electrical Engineering, with a bit of computer science blended into it. I went through several years of circuit boards, programming logic, differential equations, and hundreds of ways to count. To add some extra padding to that, I interned at Fortune 500 companies as a software engineer, all of which allowed me to do meaningful work (meaning I didn’t get coffee for the boss). When it was all said and done, 5 job offers were on the table for me – and this was 5 months before I had been scheduled to graduate. I admit, it was a good feeling. I felt accomplished because all the restless nights had finally paid off. It gave both my parents a solid sense of relief because there was nothing to be worried about. As it appeared, I was set for life.

Flash forward 10 years later to the present (I’m 30 right now). I’ve been in the same field for more or less the last 10 years, but not always in the same capacity. I’ve also managed to attain a handful of cash flowing assets, more than what most people my age could achieve. But in regards to my job, when I started full time work 7 years ago, I stopped writing code. I spent more time as an analyst understanding the needs of the business and putting together specifications that would be handed off to software developers for creation. I actually liked it, because it put a bit more emphasis on my creative side, instead of just “cranking out code” like a machine. I also enjoyed the intimate interactions with my clients (most of them happen to be female, so maybe that had something to do with it). Because of this ability to work directly with clients, opportunities led me to 3 months in Europe, where I helped implement a new system to transform business automation at many countries in Europe. On paper, it just kept looking better and better.

At the end of 2010, I took time off for ankle surgery; to fix an accident that happened some time back. After the surgery, I didn’t do a whole lot of work for about 6 months. It took about 6 weeks before I could walk again, plus another few months for rehab. Right after, I took another month off to Taipei to test out the resilience of my repaired ankle.

After coming back, it seemed as if the foundation started cracking. My job didn’t bring the same excitement as it once did. The meetings seemed to drag more than usual. I couldn’t get myself to put together any sort of useful documentation. Reviewing documentation was even worse – the hired contractor had horrible grammar and rarely understood the requirements we gave her. My client and I started dreading the project we were assigned. I thought maybe my job lacked variety, so I decided to “look to the past” and revive my programming skills by taking a free online course for Python programming. However, that didn’t go well. The motivation just wasn’t there. I was feeling depressed and needed a way to cope with it.

I even tried pumping up my physical health. A few friends and I decided to start the Insanity workout. I thought this would help alleviate the depression. For a little while, it worked. I was continuously obsessed with perfecting the routine and getting the most out of the workout. We started a chat room to check in each day and discuss our progress. By the end of it, we all lost significant fat. But shortly after, I was hitting a new low. In fact, I was coping with my problem, but I never actually dealt with it.

Then I tried something completely different – I decided to take 10 days off to participate in a meditation retreat (I’ve blogged about this extensively before). It was very daring and very different. This choice was greeted with mixed reactions. Some were positive and encouraging. But most reacted with, “what the heck?” As if, something was terribly wrong with me.  Those with this reaction did have a perception of me, and most would call it positive: my resume was padded with academic and professional accolades. I graduated with a highly respected degree from a top tier public university. I had spent significant time as a student at highly praised companies, and landed a job at the world’s largest biotech company after graduation. I also seemingly had a great personal life, which included traveling to multiple countries for extended periods of time, to reflect on my past as well as prepare for what was to come. I acquired more assets than usual compared to peers my age. I spent time in Europe, traveling business class, to implement systems as part of a multi-million dollar project. On paper, things just looked so good. Nothing appeared to be dead end. At this point, it didn’t matter what others thought – this is my life, not theirs.

Meditation ended up being one of the best decisions I made, and I continue to practice it today. It didn’t solve my problems. Being centered, through meditation, gave my brain the ability to see the problem more clearly. It was still my choice as to how to attack the problem.

As of today, my conclusion is that I am melting down and something else is trying to grow out of me. I don’t know what it is yet. As of now, it’s a feeling that won’t go away. If I try to ignore it, it only gets worse, resulting in more depression. I’ve done my best to embrace it. One thing I’m accepting is that what I’ve done in the last 10 years is slowly being put to rest, and a new “me” is starting to emerge. I don’t expect many people to understand. Anything that I’ve done in the last 10 years that is perceived as success, is a kind of success. I’ve done things that our current society ranks as good success. Find a good job, build your assets, move up in the career ladder, and perhaps soon start a loving family (I haven’t done the latter yet). If you’ve noticed, I’ve been mostly using monetary wealth as a measurement of success throughout this post. There’s a voice inside of me that’s saying this isn’t my direction in life. It’s saying I cannot follow society’s blueprint of what it means to be successful. It doesn’t mean I won’t be wealthy, but it does mean that the current path isn’t the right journey. Its time to start clearing out the rocks and let new light shine – because a new journey is awaiting me on the other side.

So far I’ve been making incremental changes, hoping that the path will be clearer as I move along. When I switched jobs a few months ago, I thought that would solve the problem. I realized it was only one of many things I needed to do, because when I switched I started noticing the bigger picture. Now I am in the process of moving out of my home, in which I am living with tenants, to rent someone else’s room. I will be hiring a management company to manage the property on my behalf. I noticed that with each move I make, I’ve allowed my mind to worry about one less thing, thus opening up the hole to let more light shine in, and hopefully soon enough the hole will be big enough to light the new path.

Yes, I think it’s a meltdown. I’m melting down because something new has to be constructed. I just wish it wasn’t so painful. The learning and growth never ended in college…it was just the beginning.

Exercising The Mind

meditation

Almost six years ago I took the initiative to learn Mandarin by signing up for online one-on-one video conference courses. For about $120/month, Each week I had anywhere between four to five sessions of class, each lasting one hour. At the time I didn’t know if what I was doing had any practical application. My Mandarin was only improving enough to speak as a foreigner. It would take a long time to learn enough to use it in business or at work, but even then I wasn’t making any plans to change my career. I started learning Mandarin out of pure interest and enjoyment.

An ex-girlfriend of mine, one that was fluent in Mandarin, bluntly said to me if I didn’t have a practical use for learning Mandarin, such as for work, I was wasting my time. She also said it in a condescending tone. I didn’t really care, but her reaction was typical of most. It’s common to only take action and learn certain things because we have a clear use for it in the future. We learn math because it’s a life long needed skill. We learn our local language so that we can communicate effectively with others and enter the work force. We learn about history so that we don’t make mistakes from the past. We learn science so that we understand why our environment is the way it is. But sometimes, it’s just because we need to pass this class to move onto another class. Either way, there is usually a clear reason as to why we learn something, regardless of whether we agree with it or not.

I continued studying Mandarin after work despite the comments, positive or negative from my peers, for about another two years. Flash forward six years later, as I am driving back to my parents, this past memory surfaced again (hence I am writing this blog post) – and it hit me. It’s clear and simple: mental exercise. Irregardless of surface reasons, the reason for any kind of learning, is to exercise our mind so that it doesn’t become stagnant and dull. A stagnant and dull mind leads to one dreadful result: complacency.

Our mind works just like our body. Getting started with physical exercise is the challenge. Many of us have trouble starting. When you get home, it’s much easier to turn on the TV, open a bag of potato chips, and vegetate on the sofa for several hours before taking a shower and getting ready for bed. But when you do get started, i.e., arrive at the gym or suit up and go outside, its not so difficult to continue and finish the workout. Likewise, our mind works the same way. Thinking about doing homework, or learning something brand new, seems like such a mountain to climb. Wouldn’t it just be easier to turn on the high definition TV and PlayStation 3?  Opening up a book to learn about financial derivatives seems like such a daunting task.

But here lies the problem. Just like exercising, the longer we put off learning (the equivalent of exercising the mind), the harder it is later to start, and the easier it is to use the same or similar excuse to justify why it’s OK to start next next time. When we stop physical exercise, our body starts to slow down. Our heart beat changes. Our legs get tired faster. We start preferring the elevator instead of the stairs. We end up wanting to drive instead of walk even though the destination is only a few blocks away. When we stop learning, we start thinking slower. We prefer old methods out of habit instead of doing things better. Reading becomes harder to comprehend. Our conversations are no longer as sharp. Our writing starts lacking real depth. And for older folks, our skills become outdated and we are less relevant in the work force.

What we learn is not as important as the process of learning. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying learn something that you find intolerable. What I am saying is, fundamentally speaking, the action of learning is what keeps our mind sharp. Physical exercise works in a similar manner. We don’t have to do the same exercise as our friends, just as long as you do exercise. Some prefer jogging instead of biking and vice versa. Either way, both will help you burn calories. So with learning, learn what you want to learn, but always remember that the process of learning is the key idea. What you choose to learn is entirely up to you.

This hit me hard, because during all of 2011 and more than half of 2012, I had essentially stopped learning in my job. I even stopped enriching my investment skills – I was only re-using methodologies I learned in previous years that worked, but given the current economic situation, my methods could be outdated. I noticed I wasn’t as effective in planning for projects. I couldn’t analyze problems as quickly as I used to. My solutions were not nearly as clever as they once were. My decisions started to lack real conviction.

But I had quit my job last year, found a new one, and realized how far behind at I had fell. However, because the new job pushed me to work smarter, now I realize how quickly I am picking myself up again. I worked and worked to get myself up to speed. That’s when this memory of Mandarin crept up in my mind. During the years in which I was learning Mandarin, I had done many other things. Some were unexpected, and some were planned. But I recall that when I was exercising my mind the most, that was when my life felt very fulfilling and confident. I wasn’t scared. I was brave in doing new things even if I risked falling flat on my face. In other words, I felt invincible and saw failure as only a small bump on the road.

So my major resolution for this year is to keep learning. That means reading books. Writing more blogs and carefully proofreading each one. Change my routine tasks by finding new ways to do the same thing. Fix things around the house myself instead of hiring someone (when reasonable). Continue practicing Vipassana. Plus much more. You get the idea 🙂