Nintey Nine Swings

200 grams of knife, please 

One of the most fun parts of my first few days here has been attempting to converse in a new language. As a singer, my Italian diction far surpasses my actual knowledge of the language, which can lead to some interesting inconsistencies. Case in point: two experiences during the last 24 hours.

Story 1—success. Last night, I went to dinner in Piazza Santo Spirito—a nice public square about two blocks from my apartment—and was able to complete the full meal speaking 98% Italian. This included some curveballs, like receiving a menu that was missing two pages. I was even able to translate a bit of an argument that had broken out in the square, wherein a vegetable vendor and her disgruntled buyer were in a bit of a shouting match regarding onions.

Story 2—failure. On my way home from our Stanford in Florence kick-off retreat today (a wonderful trip out to Castello di Verrazzano for lunch, a winery tour, and tasting of their Chianti Classico) I stopped by a small shop to pick up some deli meat and bread for the apartment. Confident in my language skills after last night’s success and one day of Italian 2, I strutted up to the counter and ordered “due etti di coltello, per favore.” Now, 5/6 words is pretty good, a solid B grade! But unfortunately language is not so simple, and I’m sure the shopkeeper was a bit befuddled by my request for “two hectograms of knife, please.” After repeating myself with similarly poor returns, I admitted defeat, switched to English (a luxury I was grateful for, in this instance), completed the order, and returned home, ham in hand.

I had a blog post... 

I had a blog post all ready to go, and it disappeared! It explained everything: what I’ve been doing since I last blogged 3 years ago (finishing my Ph.D.), what I’m doing now (living in Florence for 12 weeks), and why I’m writing (I miss it—research papers just aren’t the same). But, since I just recapped it all in a single sentence, we probably didn’t miss much.

So, on to the fun stuff. I’m in Florence! For almost 3 months I’ll be here as a teaching assistant with Stanford’s overseas program. I plan to use my time here for the following:

  • Exploring and experiencing Florence. This is a rare chance for me not just to visit, but to truly live in another city, and I’m thrilled! I’ve even lucked onto a quaint little street near Palazzo Pitti whose “mayor” sits out front of the shops just below my apartment, greets passers by, and graciously helps new visitors (such as yours truly) with the subtleties of the apartment locks. Before coming here, many people advised me to see as much of Europe as I could, traveling every weekend—and I listened! I have at least two excursions in mind. But I don’t think I’ll add many more; sure, they’d be cheaper now, but I can be a 2-day tourist any time—the chance to become something like a “local” is unique! And I hope to share some of it with anyone reading.
  • Italian. A benefit of working as a TA for Stanford—auditing a language class! Two months of Duolingo have me prepared well enough to request a table for five or have a fractured conversations with the locals. In the city center, with its high tourist concentration, most folks speak passable English, and are quick to switch when they realize it’s more convenient. While I appreciate the courtesy and accommodation, thankfully, the conversation down on the street below my apartment is all Italian, all the time—just the challenge I was hoping for.
  • Teaching & singing. The course I’m assisting with, “The Engineering of Opera”, aims to explore the history of opera (it began right here in Florence) and how engineering has been an essential part of its development. It should be great fun—I’ve been at work on lecture material on human vocal production and opera hall acoustics, and our course features four visits to local opera performances, plus in-class demonstrations by the teaching team!
  • Creative projects. Boy, is this one exciting! Nothing helps make space for new efforts like a complete change in life situation. Often the need to adjust to said situation wins out in terms of available effort, but I’m doing my best not to let that happen. Today I started a brief auto-biography, something I hope will lead to increased self-awareness of the important themes and values in my life. Other things I’d like to pursue while here: creative writing, musical composition, reading (although presidential biographies have so far proved difficult to find), photography around the area, and focused time for personal writing on contemporary political issues. Please, please feel free to ridicule me at the end when I’ve had to cut out most of these (probably over-ambitious) plans!
  • Journaling. After 18 months of hand-written journaling every night, I’m moving to a system I read recommended—electronic journaling at night and hand-writing in the morning. So far, I like it, as I often found myself too tired at the end of the day to write more than a superficial recollection by hand, and lacking focus and clarity in the mornings. Taking the time to solidify goals for the day is great, even if they’re tiny! My first full day here, after jet-lag-induced slip-ups with appliance voltage ratings, credit card travel notifications, and so on, I realized my only real goal for the day was to get my phone up and running on a local SIM card. Once I knocked that out before noon, the rest of the day was gravy! Now, I realize this isn’t a sustainable level of goals per day. However, I’ve found that sometimes a “lazy” day, while necessary and useful, can become stressful because of lack of feeling of accomplishment. After two days of the new approach, I’ve found that journaling and clarifying a lack of expectations for the day can be just as useful as clarifying a big to-do list!

So, that’s all for now! It’s been 3 of 83 days, so far, and I’m on cloud nine looking forward to the rest of my visit. I’ll plan to post photos via Instagram, with longer-form blog posts going here!

Reflecting on a quarter century 

Today was my 25th birthday. It was also a day in which I made a point of not being self-critical about “making the most of the day” or anything to that effect. Don’t take this the wrong way. Trying to reach your potential by living a single day to its fullest is–in addition to being somewhat of a cliché–a noble goal. But much as I’d like to be a perfect version of myself each day, today I benefitted from the comfort of not judging myself against that standard. At day’s end, I find myself reflecting on a valuable but not always comfortable past 18 months to understand why.

About a year and a half ago, near the end of my first year at Stanford, I sustained a concussion after flipping over the handlebars of my bicycle. What followed was a frustrating and confusing few weeks. At the time, I thought I was experiencing prolonged concussion symptoms. In reality, the stress of dealing with a health issue away from home had sent my anxiety levels soaring to a level at which they affected my ability to function normally. Despite being cleared by a neurologist, I couldn’t dispel the thought that I wasn’t taking care of myself properly. I developed severe insomnia–every time I came close to falling asleep, I would snap back awake, checking myself for new symptoms. It took a trip to the comforts of home and the help of family, friends, and therapy to finally overcome the initial hurdle and get back to a functioning level.

I had no idea that prolonged anxiety itself could lead to physical symptoms as well as emotional ones, and it took weeks of time and many helpful hints from others to realize what I was really dealing with. It’s a mark of the era in which I grew up that a Harry Potter quote comes to mind: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” So it is with anxiety, and that’s precisely why it (along with other mental illnesses) is so difficult to identify and work through. An infection provides a clear and tangible “enemy” against which to rally in the fight to regain health. A tougher task is convincing yourself that many of your own, self-generated thoughts are lacking in value; it can be immensely hard to truly buy the notion that a thought has no rational basis in reality, especially when it triggers the same reaction as seeing an oncoming car swerve toward you. But much, much tougher than that is something I still haven’t fully mastered: recognizing and dealing with problematic thoughts without passing self-judgment for having them.

Despite today’s goal of self-acceptance, I still expect a lot from myself in most areas of life. I don’t think it’s fair to expect anything less. I don’t think it’s intrinsically a problem, either. The problems arise when I’ve let expectations, and feelings of not meeting them, damage how much I believe in and value myself. It’s easy to see how quickly that can feed back in a vicious cycle, one that I hope a day like today might help avoid. The next 25 years of my life will be just as imperfect as the first, perhaps more. I’ll have many anxious thoughts along the way, and some of them will still affect me to an uncomfortable level. But that won’t determine my worth, and if you’re reading this, I hope my story can help convince you that the moments when you’re struggling won’t determine your worth either. We’re stronger for our struggle, even when it feels like it leaves no strength for anything else. 

Ninety Nine Swings 

The phrase “Ninety Nine Swings” hasn’t always meant as much to me as it does today. In fact, since hearing the full saying the first time, I really hadn’t ever needed to consciously follow the advice it contains. Here’s how the saying goes.

It wasn’t the hundredth swing of the hammer that broke the rock. It was the ninety nine swings that came before.

It’s a simple but powerful picture, first painted to me by Illinois’ brand new (and often quotable) men’s basketball coach, John Groce. It’s easy to imagine the frustration that could arise from trying to break a rock over and over and over again without seeing more than a scratch on the surface. The “story of ninety-nine swings” tells us that while it’s easy to fixate on the last swing as the singular action to make a difference, in reality the sum total of the other swings had a far greater impact.

Following the ninety-nine swings mantra is powerful, but the situations in which it applies are also the situations in which it’s hardest to truly believe. About two months ago I thought I had the 99 swings life down pat. This was particularly true when it came to achievements in school, which has been my primary occupation for over a decade. But succeeding in school isn’t quite like breaking a rock. Progress, or lack of progress, is measurable and shared openly with students. If I crush an assignment, I get that nugget of reward; if I fail to notice that an exam sheet has questions on the back, I learn not to make that mistake ever again. But when it comes to breaking rocks, I have to suspect that a great swing and a poor swing feel much the same.

This doesn’t mean that the story of ninety-nine swings isn’t applicable to my life. Instead, it means the story applies most in the times when it’s hardest to remember. When I heard it first, Coach Groce meant it as advice to a group working on a months-long project to benefit the basketball program and UIUC community. At the time, and even while first writing this, I assumed his advice was aimed only at our project. But reflecting on it, I realize that the coach meant something much larger - we were taking a few swings towards the goal of building something over several years. In the context of our project alone, our group saw several milestones reached along the way that diminished the need for a ninety-nine swings mantra. In the context of building a championship-level basketball program, that mantra has to be there to realize the progress being made even in a season where the team failed to make the NCAA tournament.

On a more personal level, ninety-nine swings has applied to my life much more in recent weeks. About two months ago I had a bicycle accident on my way to campus that resulted in a few stitches on my face and a slight concussion. Thankfully, despite my not wearing a helmet, the injuries were much less severe than they might have been. However, living on my own and dealing with the recovery process and, worse, the associated anxiety, was something I was not prepared for. Dealing with the anxiety, in particular, was a situation that demanded a ninety-nine swings approach. If you’ve ever dealt with anxiety problems or panic attacks, you know that these conditions manifest in physically alarming ways. Dealing with those symptoms, especially the first few times, is a process that involves perseverance in the absence of clear feedback and instant gratification.

In our lives, we don’t grow magically–we grow through hardship. I sincerely hope this brief reflection might help someone else grow more when faced with their own difficulties in the future. I hope this post can make a difference because, despite the unpleasantness of recent experiences, I’ve grown more in the last two months than in any other part of my time at Stanford. And as tempting as it is to believe that my personal growth is only happening now, that the days of constant worry were just something to bear until relief arrived, that’s just not true. Those days were the ninety-nine swings that broke this particular rock.

Interest vs. Intent 

I’ve read, watched, or listened to hundreds of articles, videos, and other items posted by friends on Facebook over the last few years. And I’ve shared plenty myself, always some satisfaction out of sharing something interesting that I know a few other people will find interesting too. Whether reading or sharing, It feels like it’s making a difference… but is it?

Let’s take a quick look through my browser history. I did some Facebook surfing today, and the only thing I can remember now at the end of the day is a very addictive puzzle game. Other things I found:

- A guy who walked 3000 miles through China
- “The Janitor” was the nickname for basketball player Brian Cardinal
- A large number of college basketball articles (it’s definitely March)

These are pretty trivial things that didn’t take up a lot of my time. But there was a bigger one, too, in a NY Times article about “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”. It was a 10-minute read that I found extremely interesting, shared myself on Facebook… and then apparently forgot. If you had asked me five minutes ago if I read anything interesting today, I give it maybe a 50/50 shot that I would have remembered the article. And now, even as I’ve brought it to the forefront of my thoughts, the details are all but gone, and the main points are murky. After some thought, I realized that this is a pretty common feature of many of my days. I’ll see something that looks interesting, read it, and then, at least as far as my conscious knowledge goes, I’ll forget it within a matter of hours.

I really do appreciate all of the wonderful knowledge that’s shared by people I know, but it’s my responsibility to let you know that for me on a personal level it’s not doing much good, at least not right now. I’ve read dozens of articles on politics, social issues, technology, humanity, yet I feel no more well-qualified to carry on a discussion about these topics than I did a year or two ago. And the closest I can come to explaining why is to describe the difference between lack of interest as and lack of intent.

Let’s start with the first one, lack of interest. If I share something with you (online or otherwise) that you find disinteresting, you ignore it. No harm, no foul - whatever the topic is, it doesn’t occupy your thoughts more than to dismiss it and move on. Perhaps more importantly, you don’t carry any notion that you were productive in the sense of learning something about the topic. Your sense of how much you learned is aligned well with how much you actually did learn (in this case, hardly anything).

So stop and think. Are you really interested in what I’m talking about? Are you going to retain it? If not, are you still going to finish reading the post thinking you learned or grew in a meaningful way?

If you’re like me, the lack of interest case usually doesn’t apply, and the answer to the first question is an easy yes. The other questions are harder to answer honestly, but the truthful answers (no, yes) highlight an inconsistency; the two factors mentioned before, sense of learning vs. actual learning, are now misaligned. I know this to be true personally, but I can only speak for myself. I’ll leave it to you to add another data point if you feel the same way.

Either way, there’s one more important question: why are you reading? The answer in the kind of situation I’m talking about almost always includes interest, but often doesn’t include intent, and therein lies the source of a problem. Although I find Silicon Valley startup culture an interesting and personally relevant topic, and despite reading an informative and interesting article on the subject, at no point today did I really intend to expand my knowledge on that particular issue. That was true yesterday, and it’ll probably be true tomorrow, too.

Consider a young student who, having a budding interest in music, attends three musical performances in three days. In the first, he sees a virtuoso violinist. Awestruck by the grace and dexterity of the performance, he immerses himself in reading about the violin and visits a music shop to try one out for several hours. The next day he hears a vocal ensemble and devotes the remainder of the day attempting to match the power of the soloist’s voice. The final day, he attends an orchestral performance. Enraptured by the conductor’s command of his ensemble, the student watches numerous videos of famous maestros to observe their technique.

By the fourth day, it’s clear that the student has found in music an area of intense interest for himself. That is, of course, something positive and powerful. But as he goes forward, we know his interest alone will not be enough - to become a great musician, the student must also have the intent to do so. Without it, he lets outside events like the concert schedule continue to determine what he learns, to the point that despite his interest, he fails to achieve long-term growth. With intent, however, he hones his skills as an instrumentalist, vocalist, or conductor, ultimately approaching the level of mastery of those who inspired him in the first place.

And so it can be when reading things that others share with us via social media. Without intent, all of this fascinating, novel, and potentially impactful information shared by so many risks going to waste. In terms of my gain from what others have shared, at least, I know much of it has gone to waste. And perhaps that’s unavoidable, as the sum of all things my friends are dedicated to is far greater than the number of things I have the capacity to pursue. But can we at least do any better than just reading what’s interesting and moving on? I believe so. I believe I can do better at choosing what I intend to learn. I believe I can be more aware of whether I’m reading with interest alone, or with the intent to learn as well. I believe that when I’m reading with both interest and intent, I can do so thoughtfully and reflectively to gain more than just a passing knowledge of the content. And I believe that in doing these things I can better achieve personal growth while also aligning my sense of that growth with the reality.

In a broader sense, my gut tells me I’m not alone here. And aside from the thoughts above, I have more questions than answers. For all the good we think we do in promoting a social cause through something that goes viral, what is the real impact? Would we be make more of an impact by having a personal interaction with one person than by sharing something that 100 people read and soon forget? Or are we so overwhelmed by information on a daily basis that taking in more than we can really use is inevitable, regardless of how we take it in?

I have one more question, but this time I expect an answer. Did you intend to learn from this post? Now that you’ve read it, you can still make that choice. I hope that if you feel a connection to what I’ve said, it’s a helpful one. If so, join me in an exercise. Think of something you care about, and form the intent to learn in a meaningful way about that topic in the next ten minutes. Next, seek out information that’s relevant to that topic and study it thoughtfully. While you’re doing that, ask yourself how the information fits with what you already know, and  how it expands into what you don’t. Maybe you already do this by following particular blogs and news sources - if so, that’s great. Otherwise, if you’re like me and find yourself reading the first “interesting story” shared by a friend, I think both of us might benefit from a little added intent.

The edge of the world 

(It’s been a long time since I wrote anything, but I promised myself I would tonight)

Since I moved to Stanford, few parts of life have seemed interesting enough in a general sense to merit a blog post. Most of my time is spent on coursework or research. Both are pretty technical, and that’s just the parts that I actually comprehend as a first year graduate student. Once things progress a bit more, I may be able to figure out how to talk about that stuff in a generally readable kind of way, but for now suffice it to say that the research in particular is fascinating and rewarding work so far.

At any rate, I’m up late to talk about something else, the thing that I find myself most aware of on a daily basis. I’ve taken to calling it the “edge of the world” quality of living on the west coast. If you’re reading this from anywhere east of the great plains, consider that by the time I wake up and go to class, you’re probably already thinking about lunch. By the time I’m home from a normal afternoon working on research, you’re eating dinner, and by the time I’m finished eating dinner, you’re probably enjoying a last TV show or other night activity before bed.

Part of that is just the lag in a student’s schedule versus the working world, but part of it seems somehow built in to life in the last major area to see the sun set. By the time 10 PM rolls around, I feel like I’m a kid whose parents (call them the Timezones, Mr. E. Stern and Mrs. Centrelle) have finally accepted that he’s going to stay up late every night, so they might as well just go to bed when they want to without bothering him about it. Sure, there are some distant relatives with weird schedules who are awake too (Europe and Asia), but there’s not much of a connection there. I’m living a normal part of my day (and occasionally even being productive) when 90% of all the people I knew 6 months ago have already gone to sleep.

I’m not writing this to complain about living on the edge of the world. I could do that, though: I’m not a huge fan of the horrible church service/NFL overlap, weekday college basketball games starting at 4 PM, or having to learn how to stay in touch with friends and family living on a noticeably different schedule. But being off-schedule at the edge of the world has benefits, too.

I only pulled one all-nighter in my undergraduate career, and when I did, I distinctly remember realizing (at some late hour) that the only things actively relevant to me were my own thoughts and the work I was conducting, and a peaceful clarity of mind settling in around that realization. That’s the closest memory to what I feel while working on an experiment in the late afternoon when before I would have been enjoying a snack and basketball game, while working on a problem set when before I would have been asleep. 

It’s a quiet inclination towards disciplined focus that seems to permeate everything, bordering on lonely, yet powerful in a not unpleasant way if the task–like writing for the first time in far too long–is a meaningful one. It’s my “edge the world” effect.

Reflecting Meaningfully in Fall 2013 

I’m trying something new this fall (not the book idea, we’ll see about that after school starts for real this week). For the past year or so, I kept things that were important to me written on a whiteboard in my apartment. These were 5-6 general areas like schoolwork, music, or entrepreneurship that I feel are important to me and things I should focus on every week. I’ve heard multiple people advise that in a world where there are far more things TO do than one CAN do, it’s helpful to have a clear vision in your head of what kinds of things are important. And, in general, I’ve found this to be true, although in many cases it’s simply a subconscious assessment of which of several things is the one deserving of my own time.

However, writing these areas on a white board wasn’t very effective as they simply languished in my office, which is a place I spend almost no time. I do homework or other work in front of the TV, for the most part. I know it sounds crazy, but it works for me to have background noise and company when I’m working on something; only on very rare occasions do I need a quiet, locked-down place to focus. I think often times letting my mind wander gives me the time I need to organize my thoughts into useful forms for whatever it is that I’m doing.

At any rate, that’s an aside - this quarter, rather than simply writing these “areas of focus” somewhere and forgetting them, I’m making it a Sunday night activity every week to go over the week before and assess that area of focus, how much I put into it this week, and any changes, additions, or removals to the areas. I’m hoping that this will help me be more aware of what I’m focused on. On the surface, it seems this might be troublesome in that it could make me into a robot that only cares about a rigid set of things. But I’ve heard successful people give advice to the contrary even just this week; knowing what’s most important in one’s life allows a person to be fully present while enjoying other activities without the fuzzy, worrisome feeling that something important (which may be nothing at all) is being left undone.

By the way, I brushed my teeth in the middle of that last sentence, and I bet you can’t guess where. Sometimes a 2-minute mental break is just the ticket to finishing off that last bit of work for the day.

For now, the areas I’m keeping track of are:

Basic School things (coursework, administrative)
Graduate Research
Involvement as Illinois alumnus
Physical Wellness
Mental Wellness (the reading project would go here)
Social Wellness
Financial Wellness

Why all the wellnesses? As someone living out of his hometown for the first time this fall, personal wellness falls much more squarely on my own efforts than it ever has, and remain this way for the rest of my life. While I had “wellness” as one single area before tonight, I truly believe that any one of these aspects of wellness alone is just as important as earning a graduate degree: what good is an education without a mind, body, and resources to support it moving forward?

So that’s me in a nutshell. It’s probably more than you’re interested in knowing, but my hope in sharing it in full is that it might help someone else on their own journey towards realizing their potential.

Panoramas and other photos from Stanford’s campus - first... 

Panoramas and other photos from Stanford’s campus - first 4 photos from the top of Hoover Tower (including 2 panoramas of campus and one photo of Stanford Stadium), 5th photo a walkway around Stanford’s main quad, photos 6-7 of Rodin’s incredible The Gates of Hell sculpture, and the 8th photo a panorama inside Stanford’s Memorial Church.