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 🙂

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Confidence in Our Selves

My new job has been difficult to say the least, but in the way I had looked and anticipated for. I’m back in an industry that I have not worked in for 12 years (oil and gas), along with that I have to adopt to new personalities from our clients. I’m spending weekends trying to catch up, and I’m writing this blog to take a break. For the last few weeks, I’ve been constantly on my toes at work, juggling multiple projects and worried that I will drop the ball on one.  But I would say that the biggest fear is not having a good grasp on this industry. My line of work as a Business Analyst is nothing new to me, but my strength in this line of work is proportional to my understanding of how this industry operates.

I’ve spent my weekends reading books, training guides, and catching up on specific work deliverables. It’s been a eye opener since I left my last job of 6 years and 4 months. I took a risk and left a job where I was a clear subject matter expert. Why I left is not the main purpose of this post, but just know that if you were in my shoes, you’d do the same.

I am also coming into this new job as an experienced analyst, whereas last time I started as an entry level recent college graduate. There are expectations that I will learn things faster and do things better than I did 6 years ago. The pressure is mounting up and I’m doing my best to meet the challenges. I do miss the times when I could analyze and think of solutions with a short time span. And during that time span, I never felt stressed because I knew a solution would come sooner or later. However, it took years to get to that point. My first 2 years were probably some of the toughest I had to deal with.

Despite starting a new company with green hands, I do have the advantage of drawing extensive experience from the past. In the past few days it’s become more clearer than ever that our career performance depends mainly on our state of mind, and not on our skill sets. But don’t get me wrong, our skill set plays a huge role in our state of mind, but knowing how to do something is not the same as having confidence in doing something. Confidence comes from within us, and it isn’t something we can just learn from a text book – we have to embrace life’s challenges to find confidence in our selves. From a day to day perspective, my definition of confidence is our mental capacity to handle the unexpected challenges and events that happen outside the bounds of our control on a daily basis. This alone does control a significant part of the quality of life we live on a daily basis. It’s not about solving a problem per say, but more so of how to deal with something when it happens, and not let it get the best of us, no matter how difficult it may appear to be. We need to be confident in our selves to think things through and make best of a situation based on the information we know and the factors that we have control over.

I sincerely believe this applies to everything we do and we can live a much more appreciative life if we constantly work towards this.

Good stuff as of 07-OCT-2012

I have noticed that lately I’ve focused more on the things that don’t go well in my life, and almost always ignore the things that do go well. So tonight I’ve made a commitment to call out the good things that happen. So from now on, I will do my best to find time to write about the good things two to three times a week, whether it be about work, family, friends, relationships, or anything that makes me feel proud.

Yesterday I had the honor of attending a friend and old coworker’s baby shower. He and his wife recently bought a house sitting on a 1 acre plot of land. Tons of family and friends attended their event to celebrate the start of a new family. I couldn’t be more happy for him. He’s a good guy that works hard for his money and also spends wisely. I’m not jealous at all – I am so happy and encouraged to see that he found a way to buy a great piece of property to start off his family on the right track. As a gift, I bought a him a Target gift card – I’ve known him long enough to know that he’s too practical. Money works better because he has more control. We were fed lots of food which included Indian and Vietnamese cuisines. Needless to say, I was enjoying myself with the food and great company. Sharing in someone’s happiness is a one of the best joys in life.

Until next time!

Good Luck My Friend!

Last night a well respected friend left the states to return back to his hometown in China. Several of his classmates/friends and me, his former landlord, went to see him off at the airport. Tenant departures in the past have never been so dramatic, as generally I choose not to have a close relationship to those that I do business with, no matter how much money is involved, and likewise vice versa.

But inevitably it was difficult to do. During the 1.5 years that he lived with me, he never gave me any reason to keep a distance. Before I knew it, we had meaningful conversations at night – ones that truly reflect the way we live and view the importance of our lives. We spoke of relationships, business, jobs, friendships, romantic relationships (including introducing me to one), and whatever relevant topic made sense at the time. His background gave me a different perspective on how the wealthy perceived living life, yet he never lived a life that looked wealthy (from a materialistic point of view).

At first, I actually didn’t want to go to the airport. I knew that seeing his departure would make it difficult for me, but once he made his way through airport security, I was glad I went. Buddhist meditation teaches students not to cling on hard to anything, as it would create a craving which will bring us misery if it is not fulfilled. Avoiding it is not the solution – the solution is to embrace it knowing that it will come and go. During the time span between when it comes and goes, no matter how long, we are taught to live in the moment, enjoy what we are experiencing, and be grateful that it happened. Life is too short and precious to constantly cling onto the past, and worry too much about the future. Life is the here and now.

My thoughts from Vipassana

I been meaning to write some time ago since returning home from my 10 day meditation retreat. But things happened so fast. I needed a week to catch up with my life, and then I started working on my resume to find a new job – long story short, 3 weeks later I had an offer on the table and I am soon to start a new and exciting job!

Many that know me asked: Why? Where? How? What do you expect to get out of it?

Knowing why is OK. Where is simply logistical. How was still to be determined. But I realized, thinking about what to expect is not the way to do it. Meditation focuses on the depths of your own mind. Going in with expectations would prevent your mind from letting it naturally heal and grow during the meditation process. This explains why the teacher didn’t allow us to speak to anyone for 10 days. He wanted us to understand and absorb meditation as our own mind would understand.

So what happened with me? For 10 days, I became calm and managed to better disconnect my mind from emotions. During the meditation sessions, nothing “great” happened because I was only focused on mastering the technique. It was during those moments of breaks and personal silence outside of meditation that thoughts surfaced up.  My emotions were in check – I was purely in a state of mind that was emotionally disconnected, which allowed me to analyze and ponder in a very practical manner. Things that bothered me no longer seemed as bad. Problems all of a sudden became trivial But most importantly, I came out with the courage to make a change in my life.

If you are reading this and want to try this technique of meditation, don’t go into it thinking about what I wrote here. Go into it with a blank state of mind and let your mind wander by itself while it is being exercised with this technique. Use it as time to understand yourself.

If any readers have questions, feel free to leave comments and I’ll respond when I get a chance!

Stories and thoughts from the past

Being 30 is the new 20. Who the hell came up with that? I don’t know. What the hell does it mean? It can mean different things, but there’s no right answer and finding that single right answer isn’t the way to go about it. The way to do it is to know what this means to you.

Yes, I am turning 30 this year. As my birthday approaches, I’ve been spending a lot of time evaluating what I’ve done the last 10 years, starting from my last years in college, to the career path I have chosen, the relationships I have formed, the places I’ve traveled, and the stories I have heard and remember today.

One particular thing I am especially grateful for is the opportunity I had to travel around the world in my early twenties. I traveled a bit for school, a lot for fun, and some more for work.

My travels allowed me to hear stories from people of different backgrounds and experiences outside of America. Lately, I have been trying to figure out some difficult decisions I need to make in my life around my career. Throughout this process, a story I remember hearing from the past sprouted up. The actual details are simplified, but the essence of the story is still here.

My friend told me of a story about his uncle when he lived in Vietnam. The uncle was poor and had very little cash to try and start any kind of reasonable business. His lack of capital made it hard to improve his family’s economic situation. One day, he found a rice factory that sold bags of rice on consignment for 30 days. Each bag sold for $30, but in the retail market the rice could only sell for $25 max because of stiff competition (the consignment option may have had something to do with this), but nonetheless it is easy to sell because rice is a common staple among the Vietnamese. He decides to pick up 100 bags, which gives him a debt of $3000.

As expected, he sold all 100 bags in one week at $25 a bag. He now has $2500 in cash but $3000 in debt. However, he decides to buy dry fish that sells for $10 a piece from the distributor, but can retail for $15. This distributor does not offer a consignment option. Dry fish is a popular item to eat with rice as well as for a snack. He takes all $2500 and buys fish at $10/piece. Within two weeks he sells all the fish for $15/piece. Now he has  $3750 in cash, and still one week to spare before he has to pay back the debt on the rice he bought at the beginning of the consignment period. He pays back the $3000 and now has $750 in cash, debt-free. He now takes that $750 to buy other wholesale items that he knows will retail for more on the market.

This story is simple, but yet very powerful. There are many themes to take from this story. The beauty of it is that this story has many key elements that serve as good lessons in life. Some elements that stood out to me are:

  1. The power of knowledge
  2. The power of time
  3. The power of cash flow management

Now, for me, the elements most useful are #2 and #3 (although all three work together hand in hand). These two elements are helping me solve a problem that I am currently struggling with in my life. But as I took these elements into careful consideration, the answer started to jump out at me. The reason is because this story made me change the way I think. I remember school taught me to stay conservative and not take big risks like the uncle did in this story. But what one must think of is, what does a person stand to lose if he or she doesn’t take the same kind of action that this uncle did with the rice?

It’s something to think about and really spend time pondering. Remember, these types of stories don’t need to make sense now – in some shape or form it will make much more sense in the future.

Being 30 is the 20 – to me, this means that life is still and always will be an adventure. It doesn’t end when we finish college and start our career. Life can still have much meaning and satisfaction if we make decisions that gravitate towards that.

Unstable Emotions

The title of this post describes what I have been feeling over the past few months. Despite more things going well than not around me, I’ve been experiencing a constant shift in my emotions throughout each day.

I could wake up one morning, pumped and ready to go to work, but halfway through the day some mild level of depression would creep up on me. Following that, past memories of events that made me sad or angry creep back up. And I could feel the emotions as if it was happening now. What’s worse is that my mind automatically started speculating what would happen if that event had continued or started worsening, then the corresponding emotions would come as well. Likewise, any present form of uncomfortable confrontation or abrasiveness towards me easily sets off my unstable emotions. When it happens, I have this feeling of just wanting to curl up inside a blanket and not look outside.

Simply put, I haven’t been emotionally healthy. It feels as if there is some kind of unexplained event happening, as if something or someone is telling me I need to take a break from all the activity that has gone on in the past few years.

I still can’t pinpoint what is causing this. Sometimes I think it’s a job that is no longer bringing personal satisfaction, but a part of me thinks it’s something much deeper than that.  But I do acknowledge that I am suffering from this. I don’t want to think of it as a kind of disease, I know it can be fixed and I will fix it. So as I write this blog post, it’s really for me to let off some steam, and not a cry for help (but any comments or messages would be gratefully received). I’ve actually put forth a plan to get better at a meditation retreat. It’s something I have never done before, but my gut feeling tells me only good can come from it.