Price of freedom

Before I arrived in the US, I planned to learn to drive and get a car within the first 6 months or one year at the latest. Fast forward to now, I met the target two years behind the original plan.

To a person who hadn’t driven before and lives alone in the US, learning to drive is challenging and expensive. I paid $350 to take classroom lessons and 6 hours of training to drive in order to get the permit. Once I got the permit, I needed a car to practice and get a license. But I was in no financial position to afford a car and all the expenses that come with it such as training, parking, insurance, gas, registration and maintenance.

So I aborted the plan to drive and arranged myself so that I wouldn’t have to drive to either school or work. The arrangement saved me money, but incurred a great deal of inconvenience as I relied on the infamously terrible public transit in Omaha.

Finally, when I got my driving license and bought a vehicle, I felt liberated. No more waiting for the buses in the cold. No more rushing to make it to the bus stop in time. No more inconvenience when the destinations are out of the buses’ reach. No more asking for favor from friends. I gained much needed freedom, freedom that comes with expenses and constant risks. It doesn’t matter how well you can drive, there is always a risk of accidents. Since I purchased the car, my expenses have gone up significantly every month.

That’s the price of freedom. As true as sun rises in the East and sets in the West, freedom is hard and expensive to come by. We have to work and pay for it. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s too sweet. Too precious.

Only 3% of this decade left

We are a few hours away from saying goodbye to August and welcoming September. If we split a year into three parts and look at the second decade of this century as a whole, around 97% of it is already gone.

It was like yesterday that I hit the beginning of my 20s. Now I am almost heading towards the magical 30. The last decade has seen me study abroad in Finland, Canada and now the US, and go back & work in Vietnam. I used to be a hot-headed rash dude with a severe lack of patience and a poisonous ego. Though I believe I got better, I am still a work in process and there is indeed a lot to be done.

I used to place a lot of value on titles and income. Now, being healthy and free to choose matters a whole lot more.

I used to love going to parties and getting drunk with friends. Now, a quiet uneventful night to work and think means a lot more.

I’d like to believe that I became wiser than when I was 20. Wiser, not still wise yet. Wisdom comes from experience which comes from decisions and usually painful regrets. The older I am, the more I believe that you come to appreciate certain lessons only at a certain phase in your life. If you had told me to focus more on inner peace and happiness instead of flashy materialistic things when I was fresh out of college, I wouldn’t have listened as much as I do now. Nor would I have appreciated the value of patience as much. It’s like you come to understand a book better only when you are older.

Ideally, I would prefer the same amount of gained wisdom with fewer painful regrets. Sometimes, it’s hard to get over some moments when I ponder “what ifs”. Still, if I have to measure the progress I made as a human-being over the last decade, a positive number is still better than a negative one or a zero. At least, there is that.

Summer is crawling to a close. A pity since I enjoy the energy, warmth and light. I am ready for what awaits in the remaining months of this decade and for the next. I hope it will be good. I am not sure I can say I am ready for Midwestern winter.

Reforestation

I came across a cool and quite encouraging video on reforestation in Ethiopia. As the climate change concern grows louder every day, it’s great to see such an effort from the African country

Reforestation doesn’t happen only in Ethiopia. According to Human Progress, 31% of the Earth is covered in forest. Moreover, rich areas such as UK, North Korea and Europe possess more forests than they did decades ago.

The article also said that developing countries such as China, India, Vietnam, Russia and Bangladesh have hit a critical mark of $4,500 GDP Per Capita (forest transition) and achieved net afforestation. Though I do doubt that my country has $4,500 GDP Per Capita or net afforestation, it’s a positive observation.

The news from Ethiopia is probably the first positive event since the horrific weekend. It brought smile to my face. Good things are done everywhere in the world and we need them more than ever.

Struggling to find the right balance

These days, I often find myself in the middle of these dilemmas:

Work on the weekends or enjoy the summer

Some recommend that to get ahead of others, you work on the weekends or when others are not. The logic makes sense. If you work properly, the more hours are put in, the better you should become. Yet, there is another side of me that wants to enjoy this beautiful summer. Midwest winter is hard. It’s unpredictable, it’s cold, it’s winter and it’s lengthy. Summer days are long in demand, but shorter in supply. I constantly struggle to choose which path I should follow in this regard

Set ambitious goals or stay relaxed and spontaneous

I used to be a goal-setting & future-oriented kind of a guy, yet I have worked to be more spontaneous and scale back my obsession with goal setting. It was good till I reflected upon what has been achieved for the first 6 months of the year and what lies ahead in the other 6. I found myself lacking. I found myself becoming a bit complacent. The urge to stay spontaneous and in the moment is still there, but perhaps I should mix it with some ambitious goals to give myself a push. The question is: what constitutes the right balance?

Sleep more or do more

Besides my day job, I commit myself to regular reading, working out, exploring the city, meeting new people and side projects such as this blog. Sometimes, travel sneaks into the to-do list like a thief as well. What I want to do keeps growing and growing while time doesn’t. As a fan of the Why We Sleep book, I understand the importance of sufficient sleep. I do want to sleep at least 8 hours a day, but I also want to do as much as possible when youth is still on my side. If I want an easy life later on, I need to work hard now. But as Matthew Walker, the author of Why We Sleep, said: once you lose sleep time, there is no way to get it back.

These questions and dilemmas need answering and solving quickly. The longer I have them unsolved and unanswered, the more time will be lost. Yet it’s not easy. Not easy to make a decision without full information. Or not easy to live with the consequences. Either way, I need to find a balance soon.

Passport, Signal of Trust and Credibility

A new ranking by a Singapore-based consulting firm saw Vietnamese passport climb up a few positions compared to last year, even though it still belongs to the bottom tier. As of this year, Vietnamese citizens can travel to 61 countries where there is no visa requirement or visas can be issued upon arrival.

What does a passport signal actually?

It signals to the destination countries how trustworthy, credible and civil the passport holder is likely going to be. For instance, a US passport holder can travel to more than 100 countries without visa restrictions since being a US citizen signals that he or she comes with the credibility of the US as a nation. Meanwhile, since Vietnam is a poor country with less credibility, the citizens can only travel to 61 countries visa-free.

That’s on a macro level.

However, I have lived in 3 Western countries and traveled to more than 10 different nations without any blemish on my civil profile, not even a parking ticket. My personal track record should be sufficient for other countries to trust me. Instead, a Nebraskan who never boards a plane before can go to Canada tomorrow without a visa while I will have to apply for one and next-day trips are, hence, out of question.

The asymmetry of information and the lack of credibility of a nation that cascades down to its citizens create a lot of problems and inconvenience for some individuals.

I wish there would be a blockchain-based system in which past records are impossible to alter unless perpetrators like to waste a huge amount of computing power, information is secure and everybody can access. That way, credibility can be assessed on an individual level, not a national one.

By the way, if you are fortunate enough to be born with a powerful passport, do travel. Don’t take it for granted. Explore the world and have some compassion towards less fortunate others. Just like me, many wish to travel freely, but can’t.

Why I blog

One of my goals in 2019 is to write often and specifically, have at least 200 published blog posts when the year closes its curtains. So far I have been on track to meet the target. As I look back at the last 8 months of consistent blogging, this endeavor has brought to me so much more than I anticipated.

Last August, I started this blog as a medium to practice what I learned, share my opinion in my own way to give back, create a healthy habit and build up my self-confidence. Fast forward to now:

  1. I have learned a lot more along the way. To really write about something, first I need to know what I am going to write about. I read more quarterly/annual reports, earning call transcripts, industry reports, long blog posts, you know, the boring stuff to many of my peers. I listen to more podcasts, interviews. I read more books. I analyze reported numbers by companies more. And it leads to a lot learning; which fits the name of this blog.
  2. I enjoy the process. Writing is such a pleasant experience to me nowadays that I often really look forward to it as a highlight of my day, especially when I have a long day at work. Anne Lamott said it best: “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
  3. I feel much more confident about blogging now than when I first started. Not because I am an expert now. I still have a long way to go. But I believe it is because of the practice. Blogging often helps me reduce my self-doubt and shyness bit by bit and gives my confidence a little boost. Even though the progress is nothing earth-shattering, as long as I don’t stand still, I am happy.
  4. I came to realization that this blog gradually is becoming a collection of my notes, a bookmarking tool, a mind-refresher. Sometimes, I come back to remind myself of some highlights in a book I read, of some code I wrote and of something that I jogged down. Instead of carrying an actual notebook which would be challenging to categorize and search, I know where to find what I need with just a few key strokes.

I came across a post by M.G. Siegler that really hit home to me:

Imagine the humiliation of putting yourself out there and zero people caring because zero people saw it. I know a lot of people feel this way when they start doing something with regard to content on the internet — I applied it to blogging, but I imagine it’s the exact same story with recording videos for YouTube, starting a podcast, etc. Just keep at it.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It takes time to do anything, no matter the type of content you’re focused on. The good news is that even if the audience doesn’t show up at first, the work pays off in other ways. Namely, you’ll get better at what you’re doing.

I look back at some of my early blog posts and cringe. They were awful. I was foolish. But I kept going and the posts got less awful and less foolish (this statement is subject to review in another decade). I honestly think the worst thing that could have happened was getting a large audience from day one. I wouldn’t have been ready for it (even if I thought I was).

And so again, the advice is simply to keep at it. Even if the next post gets zero readers too. And the next one. Eventually, zero turns to one and then one to two and then you’re off to the races.

M.G. Siegler

I know the feeling of having zero people view what you wrote all too well. Part of it is I don’t advertise it. I put a link to my blog on my Instagram profile, LinkedIn profile and in my resume. That’s it. I don’t actively post on Facebook or tweet about it whenever I publish. I am doing this for me first and foremost, not to be validated by others. Plus, I know I am not ready. Even though this blog has gained traction in the last few months , I am still on my way from zero to one. Good news is that I am willing to keep at it.

Don’t judge a person for his/her broken English

I had lunch with a friend whom I met in college today. It has been a while since we met and the meet was pleasant. In addition to catching up with what the other was doing, we touched upon what would seem to be quite a deep topic for lunch, but you could tell that we were close enough to open up on it.

Long story short, I told him the last time we met that I somehow felt looked down up on by Americans because I am Asian, because I don’t look big enough and because I don’t speak English like a native speaker. I have been trying hard since I was 16 and I wish I could, but the fact is that even though I speak the language well enough to get me a job and two Master’s degrees, I don’t talk like a native speaker.

The friend brought it back today. He talked about his encounter with a French engineer who uprooted his life back home to come to America to have a better career and life. The French guy doesn’t speak English well, said my friend, but my friend admired the courage taken to go to a foreign country alone, as he once told me. My friend said that the biggest lesson he had in the last few years was to learn that it wasn’t easy for others to come to the US and that no matter how good or bad someone’s English is, the effort to speak the language is already admirable and it shouldn’t be the basis on which judgement is passed.

As an immigrant, of course, I understand the sentiment, yet it is great to hear it from my friend. But if I have to be honest, I don’t use my inability to speak English natively as an excuse. To me, if I succeed, good. I did put in the work, but I was lucky as well. If I fail, well I was just not good enough. Coming here to study and work is a game. I chose to participate in that game and it just doesn’t make sense to say that my failure is justified because the rules are not in my favor. Nonetheless, I am happy to hear that from my friend and proud to have him as a friend.

For the compassion and humility, I have learned a great deal myself from learning technical topics such as coding and IT. I am always a believer in the notion that we all should try to find answers on our own first before asking questions or for help from others. It matters more to me that a person actually tried on his or her own first than whether he or she succeeded in finding the answer. But admittedly, I easily got irritated. I was arrogant. I got annoyed whenever I thought people asked too easy questions.

Since learning how to code, I have realized that I was…well, an asshole. Code is very binary. It either works or it doesn’t. There is nothing in between. When trying to find answers to my coding problems, I encountered numerous times guys who were better than me, but gave replies that asked more questions than answers. Some guys on StackOverflow or at school answered, but in a way that you couldn’t fathom unless a significant amount of time is spent on that or the person elaborated more.

When I was still an intern at an IT company, all the technical details and jargon floating around the office were initially another language to me. I had to, if I am honest, disturb some engineers in the office to help me understand even the basic concepts in their mind. I told them: “please speak English to me. I am dumb. Dumb it down for me”. I am glad that they did because it helped me tremendously then, now and in the future I believe.

Since then, I have learned the value of humility and compassion more. I have consciously made an effort to be very specific with words and visuals when helping others. I have consciously tried to be patient and understanding that the person processes information differently than I do and that I used to or still am in that position.