On Confidence

“Strange about learning; the farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. A short while ago I foolishly thought I could learn everything – all the knowledge in the world. Now I hope only to be able to know of its existence, and to understand one grain of it. Is there time?” — Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I have always been unsure of myself and the world around me. I’m even unsure of my unsureness. I don’t understand how any non-delusional person can truly be confident in anything — we know so little, and everything has some degree of uncertainty.

We should be humbled by the expanse of knowledge we don’t know and will never know, and learn to be content with what we have while wanting more. Our obsession with confidence must end because it is simply a method to look like we know what we’re doing, causing us to equate confidence with truth. Sure, presentation does matter, but content matters just as much.

At the same time, having the right level of confidence is important — too much, and your ego will explode; too little, and it’ll be hard to reach your full potential. But instead of trying to just “be confident,” we should strive for self-acceptance, compassion, and awareness. Confidence is just a byproduct of these qualities.

Skepticism cultivates curiosity, and questioning the status quo is the only way to improve. Confidence is settling. And I don’t ever want to settle.

On Leadership

True leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a good leader. I used to think that a good leader was just someone who could complete a task without being excessively cruel or arrogant — someone who was respected through their actions.

This past couple of years, I’ve learned that leading a team through a task is a lot more complicated than doing the task itself. The task must be broken down, each piece delegated to a specific person or group of people, and then integrated together. For larger projects, this process must be repeated until the final task is completed. Most importantly, I learned that leadership is about understanding people.

Leadership isn’t just managing or leading by example, and it’s more than competence in completing tasks. It’s not doing things on your own — the whole point of leadership is to get people inspired and to help them become significant in determining the outcome of the project. It’s having a vision and knowing how to execute it. It’s being both reactive and proactive, and being one or more steps ahead of others in order to guide them in the right direction. It’s listening to and respecting all voices, but having the courage to make the final decision. A good leader is someone who doesn’t lead for the sake of leading, but with the passion for serving the team and cause.

This year, I want to focus on learning how to become the best leader of my ability. I want to lead with more charisma, assertiveness, and awareness. These qualities don’t come naturally, but I know I can do it.

Reflection on School

* This will be part of a series of posts on education (since I have a ton of thoughts about this topic, having spent a lot of time in school). This post will mainly focus on my own experiences in the education system while a future post will be a more general critique of the educational system in the US. There will probably be some overlap and a lot of ranting.

I have no doubt learned a lot from school, and I’m deeply grateful to learn from teachers who genuinely care about their students and love what they’re teaching. As a student from one of the top public high schools in America, I really should have no reason to complain. I know many people would do anything to receive the quality of education that I get, and I am incredibly lucky to have all the opportunities I have. Despite this, there are a ton of flaws I see in my own experience with the educational system.

Back in the elementary school days, I loved school. I went to an amazing elementary school with compassionate teachers and kind peers. I got to do projects on dogs, learn about the Gold Rush, make a paper maché of California, do book reports, and more. I definitely didn’t feel like I was at my intellectual potential, but I did learn a lot about being a good person. However, when middle school rolled around, I found myself being extremely bored. God, did middle school have a ton of busy work. If I learned anything from doing the busy work in middle school, it was how to spend the least amount of time and effort completing assignments. There were a few years when I felt unfulfilled in math class, when history class consisted of answering worksheets and not really learning history, when my understanding of science stagnated. Although I still loved learning, I lost sight of the larger picture and what the point of education was. In hindsight, I wish I were homeschooled in middle school or at least took advantage of online courses in math.

Last year, I took a really fun math class (taught by an amazing teacher). We learned about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, group theory, types of infinities, probability using matrices, and more cool stuff. Many days, I would walk out of the class with my mind blown. That was when I realized that high school wasn’t just something I had to complete in order to get to the fun in college. I realized that I wanted high school to be a place where I would get my mind blown every day. I wanted a place that could challenge my beliefs, to teach me that everything I knew before was false. I wanted a place that excited me. The saddest part was, I realized a lot of my time in school was not spent that way — not getting my mind blown, not being excited. And it’s not the teacher’s fault if people don’t feel challenged — after all, it’s a lot of work to teach thirty kids with different learning styles and paces at once. The information itself was interesting, no doubt — it just wasn’t individualized enough.

Doing well in school has been something I expected from myself, but I don’t necessarily see that as a good thing. I’ve learned how to follow rules, almost to a fault. I became an excellent sheep, as William Deresiewicz would say. I cared about my grades too much, to the point of stressing out whenever I got an A-minus. And to what end? Does learning how to follow rules actually help in the “real world”? Not particularly. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the main character, Gene, said that he did better in school than his friend because his friend cared too much about learning. This offhand remark has stuck with me ever since and has made me more conscious about the purpose of school. I realized that I wasn’t courageous enough to disregard busy work and fail in things I didn’t particularly find useful. The irony — who thought doing well in school meant compromising one’s passion for learning? Now, I’m learning to balance: following the rules enough to do well, but not enough to compromise my excitement for school.

Most of the people who attend my school care a lot about what college they attend. While I’m glad that we see the importance in college, it can also get unhealthy. We’re caught in a push and pull, with everyone saying different things. There’s the school administration (or perhaps it was just that one administrator), who tried to convince us at every assembly that “college doesn’t really matter in the end, because I went to a not-so-good college, but look at how successful I am now!”. Then there are Asian moms who think that college is the only thing that matters (not trying to perpetuate stereotypes on Asian moms, but it’s probably true). The truth is in the middle. What a lot of people don’t understand is that college is merely a means to an end, not an end to a means. College is just a stepping stone: an important one at that, and one that will change you forever, but just a stepping stone.

You know all of those people who say that high school “doesn’t matter,” that you don’t start living until you graduate? They’re dead wrong. I think the most empowering thing I learned in high school is that you don’t have to wait to do what you love and become the best version of yourself. I’m still working on internalizing that, but I feel like a lot of high schoolers get deluded into thinking that they can only be their true selves after they graduate high school — that life starts after high school. But our lives started when we were born, and won’t stop until we die (what a revelation, right?). So do what you want to do, because this is your life. (Listen to No Such Thing by John Mayer, which touches on this subject!)

No one really tells you what the point of education is. We’re expected to go through it, without ever questioning why we’re spending most of our lives sitting in desks and listening to our teachers, taking tests every week. But I think the only way to truly learn and appreciate school is to question and critique the system. In the end, grades, test scores, etc., are just motivation to build character and aren’t what truly matters. What matters most is the character you build and the wisdom you acquire.

On Worrying

One of the hardest yet most rewarding lessons I’ve learned is to only invest energy into things I can or have the potential to change.

When I was small, my family called me the “little grandma” because I loved to worry. Worrying and processing the world around me gave me a sense of control — if I had more knowledge of the world around me, I felt safer in moving towards my goals. For most of my life, my tendency to tread lightly has served me well and it’s become a large part of who I am.

But this past couple of years, there have been moments when my thoughts would consume me. I would think about something and not be able to let it go, playing it over and over in my head until it became a part of my existence. Worrying was a way to cope with external changes, but I realized that this constant churning was too draining. What used to give me a sense of control started to control me.

On another, external note: there are a lot messed up things in this world. People and animals get tortured and die every second. There’s so much pain in this world, but worrying about them doesn’t change a thing. It’s okay and even necessary to feel deeply about these injustices once in a while, but we also have to remember that there’s a delicate balance between being selfish and protecting our own mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes being “selfish” and apathetic in the short-term gives us more power to fix things in the future.

I can’t change other people. I can’t move mountains by thinking. But I can take action. I can embrace uncertainty, find comfort in not knowing, and trust in those around me. Life is long enough that these worries will be insignificant in the context of my existence, but it’s also short enough that I need to seize and make the best use of every minute.